|Akhenaten and his family worshipping the Aten|
This new art was more realistic and more focused on the natural world. For the first time the Pharaoh was not recorded in the conventional way, but was shown with a saggy belly, skinny arms and legs, and long face. The royal family were shown with strangely elongated skulls, and were displayed in intimate scenes of family life, even kissing and showing affection. Once again, it was the royal women were afforded the greatest prominence. Akhenaten followed his father’s example and married a beautiful girl called Nefertiti whose origins are obscure and they had six daughters who were frequently shown with the royal couple. Above all these scenes of royal life, the Aten disk is shown with rays of sun ending in little hands, sometimes holding the ankh of life, reaching down to bless the family’s activities.
|Amarna Princess - Wikimedia Commons|
Eventually Akhenaten felt compelled to move his capital city and the centre of Aten worship away from the contaminating presence of the cult and priests of Amen in Thebes. He searched the country until he came upon a virgin site in Middle Egypt that had never been inhabited or built on before. It was an arid, desert plain on the east bank of the Nile encircled by cliffs. He named his new city Akhetaten or ‘Horizon of the Aten’ and carved a number of huge boundary stela in the cliffs proclaiming his new city and that these were its boundaries.
The new city, called el Amarna in modern times, was meticulously planned and laid out with huge temples open to the sun, royal palaces, streets, houses, shops and workplaces. He started digging tombs for himself and other members of his family in the eastern cliffs, which was another departure from tradition as the dead had always previously been laid to rest on the west bank of the river Nile. The court, army, craftsmen and many others followed their king to this new life, and workmen were sent out across the country to erase the names of the traditional gods from temples, tombs and monuments.
But Akhenaten’s glorious new dream was not destined to last for very long. The building took time and many of the temples and public buildings were not completed until around year 8 of his reign. The pinnacle of the city of Akhetaten’s glory and power was probably the grand jubilee celebrations of year 12, where foreign rulers and dignitaries came to the city to pay homage to the Pharaoh and bring him rich and costly gifts. After this time the effects of Akhenaten’s disinterest in international relations, maintaining order in the Empire and dealing with domestic affairs became more and more apparent. Rulers of vassal states wrote desperately for help as they were put under pressure from Egypt’s enemies, but their pleas for aid went unanswered.
Akhenaten’s secondary wife Kiya also seems to have disappeared around this time. The last years of the city are ones of decline and confusion. Archaeological evidence is scarce, so the exact details and dates of Akhenaten’s death, the reign of the shadowy Pharaoh Smenkhare who followed him and the accession of the boy king Tutankhamen can only be guessed at. The city was stripped and allowed to fall into ruin, and the Pharaoh’s that followed turned Egypt back to its traditional gods and tried to erase every trace of what they regarded as a shameful, heretical blot on their glorious history.
Akhenaten has attracted many supporters and an equal amount of detractors in modern times. Some regard him as the first person to worship a single god and adopt a monotheistic religion and he has even been identified with the biblical Moses. Others view him as a heretical dreamer who allowed his country and Empire to go to rack and ruin as he pursued his new ideas and religious mania. Although the sun disk Aten was promoted as the most important deity by Akhenaten, other solar deities were tolerated.
It was the other gods and goddesses who were persecuted with their temples being defaced and priests being turned out. It is also important to recognise that the Aten was not a god for the ordinary people. The beneficial, power giving rays of the sun were only ever extended towards Akhenaten and his family and it was the king who formed the link between the god and the people. Therefore, the people worshipped the Pharaoh as a means of communicating with the divine, so Akhenaten wanted to be honoured as a god himself rather than be the founding father of monotheistic religion in the world.
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Akhenaten image Szczebrzeszynski Wikimedia Commons Attribution Share Alike 1.0 Generic