Amarna town

Amarna: How the city was laid out


How was the city of Armarna laid out?  The most obvious feature was the Palace, or rather palaces, for there are several buildings which can claim to be sort of palatial. The main Palace was on the riverside of the Royal Road, and has been partly washed away and partially destroyed by modern agriculture, so it is difficult to make sense of it.

The city centre at Amarna: to the top is the Great Temple, to the left (west) is the Great Palace; where a bridge runs over the Royal Road to the King’s house. To the north of the King’s house is the kitchen area, to the right (east) is a Record Office and beyond that are the Barracks.

The Palace was joined to the main town by a bridge which is extremely unusual because bridges are not part of the Egyptian architecture – they had not invented the arch and it is difficult to build a bridge without an arch.  But on the right hand (eastern) side of the bridge is an area which in the classical world would have been called the forum – it was the town centre and in considering what it contained we can get an idea of the difference between what I call barbarism and civilisation,  between a pre-market economy and a market economy.

The first building on the other side of the bridge is the building known as the King’s house which Barry Kemp argues was probably the house of the vizier or Prime Minister. This would have been the essential filter, deciding both who would have access to the Pharaoh and what information should be sent to the Pharaoh.  The vizier was always the crucial man in the Egyptian set-up.

One of the Amarna tablets (E161) written in Akkadian cuneiform from Aziru the leader of the Amurru. (This inspired Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform”?).

Directly behind the King’s House was the mass of small rooms that formed the offices at the heart of the civil service. One of these rooms has become particularly important as reveals the purpose of all the others. This is the room in which the famous ‘Amarna Letters’ were discovered. These were letters written on clay tablets in cuneiform writing – indeed specifically in Akkadian (Babylonian) cuneiform, and consisted of letters written by the various Kings in the Near East – Babylonians, Assyrians, The Mitanni, the Hittites, even the Canaanites, peoples from Cyrus and the Habiru – who may, or may not, be the Hebrews.   Some were addressed to Akhenaten’s predecessor and father, Amenhotep III, and it is clear that when the capital was moved to Amarna, the documents came too. But whereas Egyptian documents were kept mainly in papyrus and have thus perished, the Mesopotamian documents, being written on clay tablets have survived and these form a fascinating and valuable insight into relationships between the two great powers. There are some 300 in all, and they form the basis for much of our history of this period, not only for Egypt but also for the Near East as a whole.

We can assume that the whole block would have been given over to the clerical heart of the Egyptian Empire; to the South there is a block of houses that are surely the houses where the clerks lived. Behind were what appeared to be barracks. The police in Amarna were supplied by the Medjay,  who are the people of the desert to the East, and we know the name of their commander, Mahu.  Behind the barracks were the stables: were there just for the police or did they provide horses for the Pharaoh as well?

The bread production on a massive scale: note the little blue triangles in the kitchen area marked in grey at the top.These mark the position of the querns, the grinding stones for cereals. Just above the main concentration are the rows of ovens, while to the right is the dump of the disused bread moulds.

But most interesting of all was the area to the north of this centralised block, an area given over to cooking.  This was the kitchen area of the central commissariat: to the north were rows of ovens producing bread on an industrial scale: the whole area adjacent is littered with querns where corn must be ground by hand – again on an industrial scale. Querns are found to a lesser extent throughout the area – every small clerk’s house even if only one room would have had a quern for grinding its bread. There were also numerous meat jar labels, while to the rear was a cattle holding pen and dumps of bread moulds. Here we see a crucial insight into the working of Egyptian royal society: the production of bread and meat for feasting and for distributing to the people lay at the heart of how the Egyptian society worked.

This central area is very different from the Roman forum or the Greek agora. In the classical world the centre of the town was an open space filled on market days with buyers and sellers, but at other times places for meeting and assembly.  There was none of this in the Egyptian world – no buying and selling, but instead the preparation and distribution of food.  It is not of course that Egyptians did not assemble, indeed one rather gathers that processions were frequent and lengthy when people assembled to cheer on the pharaoh, the rulers, or the priests.    But there was no equivalent to the Roman forum or indeed to the Roman theatre or amphitheatre. Egypt was a redistribution economy and food distribution and feasting was the great ceremony in Egyptian life.

The layout of the towns was also very different.  Pompeii started as a chaotic agglomeration of activities around the old market place where the chaotic layout can still be seen.  However when the town expanded it did so more-or-less on a regular grid and the Via del’Abondanza, which is in effect the high street, runs more-or-less in a straight line from the forum to the amphitheatre at the other end of the town.

General map of Amarna. Note the ‘Royal Road’ running through it as originally laid out, though the main development to the south ignores the line in favour instead of meandering past (click photo to enlarge).

In Amarna the situation was reversed.  When the town was originally laid out a straight road was constructed as its spine, which the archaeologists have named the ‘Royal’ road.  This runs through the town centre and stretches to the north, the northern palace on its alignment.  To the south however the original line can still be made out because a building, a small temple perhaps, known as the Kom el-Nana, or the sun temple for Nekhatiti lies on this initial line.  However the river curves away from it and the settlements, as they grew up higgeldy-piggeldy, curved with the river. Four main agglomerations can be made out – the north suburb, then to the south of the central city were two main agglomerations – the main city north and the main city south and then the south suburb.  A main road meanders through the main city north and south which no doubt provided the main thoroughfare, but there is little regularity to the structure. One gets the impression that Akhenaten decreed that a new city should be constructed: workmen were brought in, their families accompanied them, they were set to work to build the central palaces of the central city, but then were left to their own devices to find out where to live – and they did not always choose to live close to the centre.  It was perhaps better to live at a slight remove from the central area and its control, and that an extra ten minutes-walk to work every day was well worth paying for that little extra distance from the centre and its control.

Pahnesy’s house. The entrance is in the bottom left hand corner. Walk up to the chapel, then turn right and the entrance to the house is in the top left corner of the central block.But note the ‘village’ to the right.This is drawn to the same scale which shows the immense difference between the luxurious houses of the rich and the minute accommodation of the ordinary people.

The structure of the town was also very different.  The main feature was the existence of a number of fairly grand houses each set within a walled enclosure.  Often there was a grand entrance pathway leading to a small temple, after which the path turned at right-angles to go into the house itself with a number of grand rooms with columns down the centre.

However each of these grand houses was accompanied by a dense village of retainers – one assumes they are retainers, servants perhaps, even slaves but definitely dependent on whomever was living in the grand house.  Often we know who lived in the grand house for they put their names over their doorpost – Panehsy had a grand house in the northern suburb with a large village attached, as well as another large house adjacent to the great Aten temple, but then he was the chief priest and he no doubt had one house for ceremonial purposes adjacent to the temple and another house where he actually lived in the northern suburb.

This bust of Nefertiti, Amenhotep’s queen, is one of the most famous works of art from the ancient world. It was found in the workshops of the sculptor Thutmose.


Another grand house belonged to the sculptor Thutmose.  He is particularly well-known because in his house was found a famous bust of the Queen Nefertiti, which was taken by the German excavators to Berlin where it has become perhaps the best known of all Egyptian statues, and the epitome of Egyptian beauty.

Tuthmose’s house is top right. But note the village in which his assistants lived. – and also the house of the general Rhamose.



But attached to his house was a “village” of sculptors with whom he was mass producing sculptures, and a dozen more busts were also found in his workshop.  In the same block in the main city (north) was the house of the General Ramose, again with its enclosure, its chapel, and well adjacent, and a garden with trees inside it.

Even grander than the houses of the officials were the palaces.  The main palace lay opposite the city centre and was approached by a bridge over the Royal road.  Much of it is inaccessible under modern architecture or has been washed away by the river, but it was clear that there were large open courtyards filled with statues of the pharaoh.  The most important feature of all these palaces was the so-called ‘Window of Appearance’ at which the pharaoh would appear to greet the most important visitors, and to hand out gifts.  As far as I can make out the pharaoh never received tribute at the Window of Appearance, it was always the case that it was the pharaoh who was distributing the gifts.  The pharaoh was always to be seen as the benevolent distributor of wealth.  The fact that he was also the grasping extractor of wealth was always somewhat discretely concealed.   The Window of Appearance marks the peak of the gift exchange economy.

Plan of the North Palace. Entrance is from the top, then through two courtyards to the royal apartments at the bottom with the very small Throne room to the centre. Note the stables occupying much of the right wing: were the animals kept there for eating or sacrifice or for riding?

The best preserved palace was the North palace situated a mile to the north of the main palace, and on the eastern side of the Royal road.  Inscriptions show that it belonged to Meryetaten, Akhenaten’s oldest daughter who became responsible for running Akhenaten’s household before becoming the Queen.  It was centred round two large courtyards with the palace quarter at the far end.  At the extreme far end is what appears to be a throne room, but it is remarkably small and there would scarcely have been room for more than a small number of visitors to see the Queen enthroned.  More likely at the front of the royal apartments there would have been a window of appearance where the Queen would have appeared before a rather larger, though still numerically relatively small number of people, to some of whom she would have given out gifts.  Interestingly there were animal houses along the eastern side and kitchens to the west, and one wonders whether these gifts did not sometimes consist of a fat ox, as well as being the gold collars and necklaces which are more often mentioned.

The pharaoh himself may actually have lived in the complex known as the Northern Riverside Palace, of which only a small slither remains between the cliff and the river, which has worn it away.  As such it would have been at the extreme northern end of the city and it would appear that here the pharaoh could have lived with a certain degree of privacy. From here he could have travelled to the Grand Palace either by river in the royal barge, or indeed by chariot.

A famous bas-relief in the tomb of Mahu, the Chief of Police, shows Akenhaten with his queen Nefatiti travelling by chariot with Mahu running ahead with the bodyguard – Mahu being clearly labelled by hieroglyphs. He was clearly proud of his prowess to be able to accompany his master in this way.

A mile to the east of the city were the tombs all set in the rock escarpment that formed the  eastern boundary of the Nile plain and thus the city. At the centre was a ravine in which the Royal tomb was situated though it was never used.  Michael Mallinson, the architect to the Egyptian Exploration Society, has argued that the Royal tomb forms the focus on which the temples were laid out. However there were two other major groups of tombs – the north tombs and the south tombs, which are of exceptional importance because they contain the tombs of the leading citizens of Amarna – of Mahu the Chief of Police, and the tomb of Meryre, the high-priest, where the paintings and bas-reliefs are relatively well preserved. And these provide some of our best information on how life was actually lived in an ancient Egyptian city.

The Royal Barge arriving at the Main Palace: photo of Barry Kemp’s model.

Barry Kemp in his magisterial account of Amarna compares it with Medieval towns as described in a classic account of the The Preindustrial City written by the sociologist Gideon Sjoberg.  He points out that in the Medieval city guilds are strong and the different industries tend to be concentrated into particular quarters of the city, indeed often in particular streets. In Amarna however he has plotted the distribution of spindle whorls and other evidence for weaving and finds that it is fairly evenly distributed throughout the city, as is indeed the making of faience beads.

He never compares Amarna to classical cities as I tend to do, but it is clear that Classical cities, and Medieval cities, and Egyptian cities are all distinctively different.  The difference between the Egyptian city and the Classical city, is I would argue, the absense of a market place or forum – my definition of barbarism and civilisation.  But the fascination of the Medieval period is that it indeed forms a ‘Middle’ Age when some of the ideas of the market economy still survive, but co-exist with the social structure of a pre-market economy.  That is why the medieval period is so fascinating, though unfortunately it is beyond the reach of this enquiry.


On to the Ramesseum