Neferkheperure Waenre Akhenaten

A biography by Megaera Lorenz

A portrait of Akhenaten by Megaera Lorenz

Drawing by Megaera Lorenz

Some Historical Context:


    The second son of Amenhotep III and Tiye, Amenhotep IV was not likely to have been the first choice of the pharaoh and his wife to become the next pharaoh of Egypt. This responsibility would no doubt have fallen to his older brother, Thutmose V, had the child not died under unknown circumstances at an early age (Aldred, 1988).
    Amenhotep IV's story begins at a time when the brave new dynasty of warrior pharaohs which had reined in the end of the second intermediate period (a period of foreign rule) was likely beginning to become stagnant and troubled. The reconquering of Egypt and the forging of a new empire, started off by the pharaoh Ahmose and the beginning of the 18th dynasty, had raised the god Amun to a position of unprecedented power. The pharaohs of the dynasty felt that it was to Amun that they owed their big, flashy, and ultimately expensive and troublesome new empire. According to Dr. Donald B. Redford,
 

The single most striking feature in Egyptian religion under the early 18th dynasty is the prominence of Amun. The kings of the period never tired of piling the booty from foreign campaigns at the feet of Amun, since they ascribed the success of their military ventures to him alone. The god's coffers bulged with wealth in quantities never experienced before in Egypt. In the leveling atmosphere bred by the war of liberation, the king could not safely lay claim to it, nor was it advisable to disperse it among members of one class of the population... (1984)


    To further complicate things, with the ascent of king Ahmose to the throne, a new tradition was established -- that of always taking on the High Priestess of Amun (who bore the title of "God's Wife") as the chief queen. Theoretically, every queen of the 18th dynasty was a descendant of the first queen of that dynasty, Ahmose-Nefertari, and also inherited her post as a priestess of Amun (Aldred, 1988). These things helped to reinforce Amun's power and influence.
    The first pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, determined to keep the rest of the world firmly under Egypt's thumb in order to prevent another several centuries' worth of barbarian rule, expended considerable effort in forging out a huge, far-reaching empire (Aldred, 1988; Redford, 1984). Several generations of warrior pharaohs went out and marked out their new, hugely expanded territory through conquest and (although they did not find it necessary to brag about this quite so much) diplomacy. They then left the management of this monster to their successors.
    Thutmose IV was the great diplomat of the dynasty, and left to his young son an empire that was secure and stable. His son, Amenhotep III, probably a young child at the time of his ascension to the throne, turned his attention to domestic affairs upon attaining pharaoh-hood. Amenhotep III, a prolific builder, probably engaged in more infrastructure projects than any other pharaoh, also taking on the project of rebuilding various dilapidated structures built by his predecessors (Aldred, 1988). In the meantime, we begin to see the gradual decline of Egypt's foreign relations as money-hungry vassals nagged at the pharaoh and demanded the gold which he probably could not give as freely as he might have liked them to think. Into this peculiar situation, prince Amenhotep IV was born.
 

Childhood and Early Life:

    Almost nothing is known of the early life of Prince Amenhotep IV. His father's reign is largely void of references to the prince. Some, however, have argued that Amenhotep IV actually appears quite prominently during his father's reign -- as a co-ruler (Aldred, 1988). This is a matter of great dispute, however. If the two pharaohs were indeed co-rulers, then they must have operated largely independently from one another. Seldom are both of them mentioned in the same text or depicted together in artwork.
    Amenhotep IV's age upon becoming pharaoh is largely a matter of guesswork. His age is never specified in ancient texts. An Egyptian boy went through the rites of passage into adulthood at about the age of 14. Whether adulthood was considered a prerequisite for being pharaoh is not known with certainty. A pharaoh would sometimes name his son as heir while the child was still fairly young (at least, that is what said heir would say after becoming pharaoh), but this is not necessarily the same as taking the son on as a co-ruler (Aldred, 1988). In any case, Prince Amenhotep must have been of an age to be able to sire children upon attaining kingship, since he had at least one daughter by the first year of his reign. This could place him at as young as eleven or twelve.
    It is likely that, after his older brother Thutmose V died, Amenhotep IV would have taken over the posts held by Thutmose, i.e., High Priest of Ptah and Governor of Memphis. Interestingly, one of the duties of the High Priest of Ptah was to oversee the design of official artwork, designating the priest "Greatest of Craftsmen" (Aldred, 1988). This training in the arts may have foreshadowed Amenhotep IV's later artistic innovations.
 

Early Reign -- The Karnak Years:

    Amenhotep IV kicked off his reign with a large sandstone quarrying project, following in his father's footsteps as an infrastructuralist. The stela documenting this event, found at Gebel Silsila, depicts the god Amun speaking to the young pharaoh: "... I have given you life, stability and dominion" (Murnane, 1995). However, another god is also mentioned. The pharaoh had by now apparently taken on another title, "First Prophet of Hor-Aten" (Murnane, 1995).
    He also took on the job of decorating the pylons that his father had erected in the great Karnak temple complex. The decoration of these pylons gives us the first glimpse of things to come. Amenhotep IV appears in fairly traditional scenes of foreigner-smiting and offering presentations to anthropomorphic gods, and, at first, is represented according to the stylistic conventions of Egyptian art. However, we see the beginnings of the drastic changes that the pharaoh would soon impose on official artwork starting to emerge. (Redford, 1984).
    Fragments of a speech from Amenhotep IV's first building at Karnak provide a fascinating insight into what was going on in the mind of the king at in the earliest years of his reign. What remains of the speech is as follows, according to the translation of the text offered by William Murnane:
 
 . . . Horus (?) . . . , . . . [their temples (?)] fallen to ruin, [their] bodies (?) shall not . . . : . . . [since the time of] the ancestors (?). It is the ones who are knowledgeable. . . . Look, I am speaking that I might inform [you concerning] the forms of the gods, I know [their (?)] temples [and I am versed in] the writings, (namely) the inventories of their primeval bodies [and] I have beheld them as they cease, one after the other, (whether) consisting of any sort of precious stone . . ., [except for the god who begat] himself by himself, no one knowing the mysteries . . . : he goes where he pleases and they know not [his] going . . . toward him at night. Further, [I] approach. . . . [As for the . . . ]s which he has made, how distinguished they are: . . . their [ . . . ]s are as the stars. Hail to you, in [your . . . ] rays. . . . What would he be like, another one of your sort? It is you [who . . .] to them, in your name of . . . (Translation from Murnane, 1995)


It is highly unfortunate that the text has been so badly damaged. However, we can surmise from what exists of it that the king was claiming that the gods in the traditional Egyptian pantheon were nothing but material representations which could be destroyed, no how precious the material of their construction. However, the god that he promoted (indubitably the Aten, or sun-disc) was unique, untouchable, undeniable and indestructible.
    Another document of interest tells of a tax imposed by Amenhotep IV on a number of temples. The revenues brought in by this tax were "dedicated to . . . Hor-Aten as the tax of each year to the House of Aten in Southern Heliopolis." The king had, by this time, changed his name to Akhenaten, translated most commonly as "One Who is Useful to Aten." (Murnane, 1995)
    In the third or fourth year of Amenhotep's reign, close to the time of his decision to change his name to Akhenaten, the king decided to have a royal jubilee, known as a Sed-festival. Such festivals were normally celebrated on the 30th anniversary of a pharaoh's coronation, and thus a jubilee so early in Akhenaten's reign would have been quite an unusual event. The Sed-festival's purpose was to essentially renew a pharaoh's contract; to reinforce his divine powers of kingship.
    The festival marked a major turning point in Akhenaten's reign. Official art developed into the full-fledged "early Amarna" style, which so exaggerated the somewhat unusual features of the king that it has led some scholars to believe that Akhenaten may have suffered from some sort of disorder. It also set off a large-scale building program, which made use of an unusual and distinctive form of building block, one of the earmarks of the period, which is now known as "talatat." (Redford, 1984)
    The four major buildings constructed by Akhenaten during his Karnak years include the Gm-t-pa-itn, the Hwt-bnbn, the Rwd-mnw-n-itn-r-nhh, and the Tni-mnw-n-itn-r-nhh, the names of which are translated by Dr. Redford as, respectively, "the Sun-disc is found," "the Mansion of the benben-stone," "Sturdy are the monuments of the Sun-disc forever," and "Exalted are the monuments of the Sun-disc forever" (1984).
    The talatat, disjointed and scattered when Akhenaten's successors brought down his buildings in an attempt to erase his existence, bear many fruitful scenes and inscriptions. The Akhenaten Temple Project, directed by Dr. Donald Redford, undertook a major project to piece the talatat back together using computer technology. On the talatat, aside from scenes of the Sed-festival, of military personnel, and of the pharaoh worshipping the sun in various incarnations, we get many glimpses of the royal family: Akhenaten's chief wife Nefertiti and the couple's eldest daughter, Meritaten. The entire Hwt-bnbn was apparently devoted to Nefertiti. A second daughter, Meketaten, appears somewhat later. (Redford, 1984)
 

The Akhetaten Years:

Portrait of Akhenaten by Megaera LorenzIn the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten undertook another major project. In perhaps his most dramatic effort of all, he abandoned the old capital city of Thebes and set out to create a new one in central Egypt in a previously uninhabited spot. He called his new city Akhetaten, or "The Horizon of the Sun-disc."
    The site of Akhetaten, now called Amarna, is a barren place surrounded by cliffs. According to Cyril Aldred, from the Nile the eastern cliffs look like the giant hieroglyph for "akhet" or "horizon" (1988). That the place so resembles the symbolic horizon, and that it is located very much in the center of Egypt may have been significant in Akhenaten's choice of this particular spot.
    Akhenaten made it quite clear that he wanted that place, specifically, and would not be talked into putting the new city elsewhere. He laid out his plans for the city in great detail on a series of boundary markers built in the exact places that he had designated as the borders of the city. Each of these boundary stelae bears an inscription which tells of Akhenaten journeying to Akhetaten, in which place he claimed to have been instructed by Aten to build a new city. He emphasized that his decision had not been, and would not be influenced by anyone else, and that the city had never previously been inhabited:
Now it is the Aten, my father, who advised me concerning it, so that it could be made for him as Akhet-Aten. Behold, I did not find it provided with shrines or plastered with tombs or porticoes (?) . . . or covered with . . . (or) with the remnant of anything which had happened to it, so that it was not [. . . ing] me . . . Akhetaten for the Aten, my father. Behold it is pharaoh who found it, when it did not belong to a god, nor to a goddess; when it did not belong to a male ruler, nor to a female ruler; when it did not belong to any people to do their business with it. [Its . . .] is not known, (but) I found it widowed. . . . It is the Aten, my [father], who advised me concerning it, (saying) "Behold, [fill] Akhet-Aten with provisions -- a storehouse for everything!" while my father, Hor-Aten, proclaimed to me, "It is to belong to my Person, to be Akhet-Aten continually forever." (Translation from Murnane, 1995)
Akhenaten went on to say that nobody, including Nefertiti, would be able to convince him that any better place existed in which to build the new city. He gave his plans for the major buildings in the city:
 
At Akhet-Aten in this place shall I make the House of Aten for the Aten, my father.
At Akhet-Aten in this place shall I make the Mansion of Aten for the Aten, my father.
At Akhet-Aten in in this place shall I make the sunshade of the [King's Chief} Wife [Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti] for the Aten, my father.
In the "Island of Aten, whose jubilees are distinguished" at Akhet-Aten, in this place shall I make the "House of Rejoicing in [Akhet]-Aten" for the Aten, my father.
At Akhet-Aten in this place shall I make all revenues that [are] in [the entire land] to belong to the Aten, my father.
At Akhet-Aten in this place shall I make oblations overflowing for the Aten, my father.
(And) at Akhet-Aten in this place shall I make for myself the residence of Pharaoh, (and) I shall make the residence for the King's Chief Wife. (Translation from Murnane, 1995)
He further broke from tradition by declaring that he and his wife and children would be buried in the eastern cliffs of Akhetaten.
    Akhenaten later added another inscription to these stelae, renewing his oath and further clarifying the boundaries of the city.
    Akhenaten was so anxious to move into the new city that during its construction he and his family and court resided there in a gigantic tent (Redford, 1984). In order for the construction of the city to go quickly, Akhenaten employed rather shoddy building stone in the form of small, poorly cut sandstone blocks somewhat smaller than the Karnak talatat (Redford, 1984). He built a number of open-roofed temples, and several large palaces. According to Redford, many of the Theban officials did not come to Akhetaten and were replaced by others (1984).
    In these years we see the appearance of several more daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Neferneferuaten-Tasharit (tasharit means "junior"), Neferneferure and Sotepenre joined Meritaten, Meketaten and Ankhesenpaaten. Redford believes that all of these daughters were born by year 10 of Akhenaten's reign (1984).

    Akhetaten also provides us with a view of Akhenaten's correspondance with the rest of the ancient world. A large cache of clay tablets, now known as the Amarna letters, was found in the city. Aldred is of the opinion that these tablets represent refuse; that the letters would be transported in the form of clay tablets and then transcribed onto papyrus in hieroglyphics for official records, and that the tablets would be thrown away. In any case, they depict a very confused situation. These tablets span the later part of Amenhotep III's reign, Akhenaten's reign, and a portion of that of Akhenaten's eventual successor, Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamun).
    In these letters, we see the disintegration of the massive Egyptian empire taking place. The vassals and kings of the various domains of the empire begged for gold and complained of being snubbed and cheated by Akhenaten, Amenhotep III, and their other colleagues. Men on opposing sides of a battle each begged Akhenaten for help against the other one. A band of rebels referred to as the Apiru wreaked havoc in the empire. Early on in his reign, Akhenaten had a falling out with the king of Mitanni, and, against said king's advice, signed a treaty with the Hittites. The Hittites, then feeling that an alliance with Egypt gave them the right to do anything they wanted, unleashed their fury on Mitanni and attempted to forge out their own empire. A group of Egypt's other allies attempted to rebel against the factions that were taking over, were captured, and begged Akhenaten for troops. Apparently, Akhenaten did not respond to their pleas. A plague broke loose and spread across the ancient Near East (Moran, 1992; Redford, 1984).

    Meanwhile, Akhenaten continued to build his city, and further suppressed the traditional array of Egyptian gods. He at some point began a campaign to erase the name of Amun from as many texts and monuments as possible, and replaced the word "netjeru" (gods) with the singular "netjer" wherever it appeared. He even changed aspects of the written language, in one example altering the spelling of the word "mut" (mother) so that it no longer made reference to the goddess of the same name. Akhenaten changed the Egyptian language in other ways as well, attempting to put into effect the more popular version of the written language as the official text rather than the archaic middle kingdom text known mostly by scribes and priests (Redford, 1999).

    In year twelve of his reign, Akhenaten had a large durbar, a festival in which foreign dignitaries from all across the Egyptian empire visited him in Akhetaten and presented large quantities of tribute. It is the opinion of Cyril Aldred that this festival, depicted in great detail in the tomb of the official Meryre II, represented Akhenaten's ascent to kingship as the sole ruler of Egypt (1988). Such festivals, says Aldred, often took place when an old pharaoh died and a new one took his place. The idea that Akhenaten co-ruled with his father has, however, been questioned by many, most notably Dr. Redford (Redford, 1967, cited in Aldred, 1988). Whatever the case may be, this durbar marked the beginning of the end of the reign of the "heretic king." In the years following the event, the situation at Akhetaten rapidly disintegrated.
    This spiral into tragedy started with the death of Akhenaten's second daughter, Meketaten, whose funeral is movingly depicted in the royal tomb at Akhetaten. Aldred dates the child's death to approximately year 13 of Akhenaten's reign. This date is based in part on her disappearance from the scene in official portraits and on monuments shortly after the year 12 durbar (Aldred, 1988). However, another aspect of this mourning scene has confused and disturbed scholars for many years: the depiction of a royal baby in the arms of a nurse standing on the edge of the scene, attended by a fan-bearer. Aldred and others interpret this to mean that Meketaten had died in childbirth at the age of twelve or thirteen, and that the baby was hers, possibly by Akhenaten (Aldred, 1988). It is possible, however, that the baby, whose identification has now been excised from the scene, was none other than the young Tutankhaten.
    Akhenaten's mother, Tiye, who paid a visit to Akhetaten around Akhenaten's 12th reignal year, disappeared from the scene at about the same time as Meketaten. Dr. Redford stated that Tiye and the princess had probably both fallen victim to the plague that had by now spread into Egypt (1984). Akhenaten's other wife, Kiya, probably a princess from Mitanni, also died at about this time. Nefertiti faded quietly into the background (what exactly happened to her is not known), and princess Meritaten was soon elevated to the position of Chief Queen and married to a mysterious figure called Smenkhkare or Ankhkheperure-Neferneferuaten, who apparently co-ruled with Akhenaten for a few years. (Redford, 1984; Aldred, 1988)
    The last reference to Akhenaten appears on a wine jar docket dated "Year 17." The date had at some point been partially erased and replaced with "Year 1" (Murnane, 1995). What happened to Akhenaten at the end of his reign is unknown. He presumably died in Akhetaten of natural causes. Upon its rediscovery and exploration in the 19th century, Akhenaten's tomb lay empty save for some debris and the smashed remnants of the king's red granite sarcophagus, and the city of Akhetaten was abandoned and in ruins. Akhenaten's brief experiment apparently ended as abruptly as it began. After a brief occupation of the city by Pharaoh Tutankhaten, the successors of Akhenaten left the city and attempted to destroy all traces of this most mysterious and dramatic interlude in Egyptian history.
 

Works Cited:

Aldred, Cyril (1988). Akhenaten: King of Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc.
Moran, William L. (1992). The Amarna Letters. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press
Murnane, William J. (1995). Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt. Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature
Redford, Donald B. (1984). Akhenaten: The Heretic King. New Jersey: Princeton University Press
Redford, Donald B. (1999). Personal communication


Return to The Amarna Royal Family.
Return to Akhenaten of Amarna.
Proceed to The Mystery of Akhenaten: Genetics or Aesthetics?
Proceed to The Art of the Amarna Period.
Proceed to Webpage-en-Aten.
Proceed to An Analysis of Akhenaten's Familial Relationships.


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