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Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten. , .
Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Akhenaten, known as Amenhotep IV at the start of his reign, was a Pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. He is thought to have been born to Amenhotep III and his Chief Queen Tiy in the year 26 of their reign (1379 BC or 1362 BC). Amenhotep IV succeeded his father after Amenhotep III's death at the end of his 38-year reign, possibly after a co-regency between the two of up to 12 years. Suggested dates for Akhenaten's reign (subject to the debates surrounding Egyptian chronology) are from 1367 BC to 1350 BC or from 1350 BC/1349 BC to 1334 BC/ 1333 BC. Akhenaten's chief wife was Nefertiti, who has been made famous by her bust in the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin.

other names:

  • Amenhotep (IV.), (Personal name)
  • Amenophis (Greek variant of personal name)
  • Nefer-cheperu-Rę (Throne name)
  • Naphu(`)rureya (Variant of throne name found in the Amarna letters)
  • Alternative spellings of Akhenaten - Akhnaten, Akhenaton, Akhnaton, Ankhenaten, Ankhenaton, Ikhnaton (Name taken on conversion to Atenism)

Atenist revolution

Main article: Atenism

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten
Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

A religious revolutionary, Amenhotep IV introduced Atenism in Year 4 of his reign, raising the previously obscure sun god Aten to the status of supreme god. This religious reformation appears to have begun with his decision to proclaim a Sed-festival -- a highly unsual step, since a Sed-festival, a sort of royal jubilee intended to reinforce the Pharoah's divine powers of kingship, was traditionally held in the thirtieth year of the Pharoah's reign.

Year 4 is also believed to mark the beginning of his construction of a new capital, Akhetaten ('Horizon of the Aten'), at the site known today as Amarna. In Year 5 of his reign Amenhotep IV officially changed his name to Akhenaten ('Glorious Spirit of the Aten') as evidence of his new worship. The date given for the event has been estimated to fall around January 2 of that year. In Year 7 of his reign the capital was moved from Thebes to Akhetaten (near modern Amarna) in the western desert, though construction of the city seems to have continued for two more years. In honor of Aten he also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt, including one at Karnak and one at Thebes, close to the old temple of Amun. In these new temples the Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight, rather than in dark temple enclosures, as the old gods had been. Akhenaten is also believed to have composed the Great Hymn to the Aten.

Initially Akhenaten presented Aten as a variant of the familiar supreme deity Amun-Ra (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun becoming merged with the sun god Ra), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar Egyptian religious context. However in Year 9 of his reign Akhenaten declared a more radical version of his new religion by declaring Aten not merely the supreme god, but the only god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between the Aten and his people. He even staged the ritual regicide of Amun and ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt. This was a frontal attack on the priesthood of Amun, that had held a great political and economical power.

Aten's name is also written differently after Year 9, to emphasise the radicalism of the new regime, which included a ban on idols and other images of the Aten, with the exception of a rayed solar disc, in which the rays (commonly depicted ending in hands) appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten, who by then was evidently considered not merely a sun god, but rather a universal deity.

The early stage of Atenism appears a kind of henotheism familiar in Egyptian religion, but the later form suggests a proto-monotheism. The idea of Akhenaten as the pioneer of monotheistic religion was promoted by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) in his book Moses and Monotheism and thereby entered popular consciousness.

Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art, bearing a variety of affectations, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, exaggerated ugliness and the beauty of Nefertiti. Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner, and they are clearly shown displaying affection for each other. Nefertiti also appears besides the king in actions usually reserved for the Pharaoh, suggesting that she reached an unusual power for a queen. Artistic representations of Akhenaten give him a strikingly feminine appearance, with slender limbs, a protruding belly and wide hips, giving rise to controversial theories such that he may have actually been a woman masquerading as a man, which had been known to happen in Egyptian politics once or twice, or that he was a hermaphrodite or had some other intersex condition. It is also suggested by Bob Brier, in his book "The Murder of Tutankhamen", that the family suffered from Marfan's syndrome, which is known to cause elongated features, and that this may explain Akhenaten's appearance. However some sources suggest that private representations of Akhenaten, as opposed to official art, show him as quite normal; moreover other leading figures of the Amarna period, both royal and otherwise, are shown with some of these features, suggesting a possible religious connotation.

Crucial evidence about the latter stages of Akhenaten's reign was furnished by discovery of the so-called "Amarna Letters". Believed to have been thrown away by scribes after being transferred to papyrus, the letters comprise a priceless cache of incoming clay message tablets sent from imperial outposts and foreign allies. The letters suggest that Akhenaten was obsessed with his new religion, and that his neglect of matters of state was causing disorder across the massive Egyptian empire. The governors and kings of subject domains wrote to beg for gold, and also complained of being snubbed and cheated. Early on in his reign, Akhenaten fell out with the king of Mitanni, and, against that king's advice, signed a treaty with the Hittites, who then attacked Mitanni and attempted to carve out their own empire. A group of Egypt's other allies who attempted to rebel against the Hittites were captured, and wrote begging Akhenaten for troops; he evidently did not respond to their pleas.


The dates of Amenhotep IV's marriage to Nefertiti are uncertain. However the couple had six known daughters. This is a list with suggested years of birth:

  • Meritaten – year 2.
  • Meketaten – year 3.
  • Ankhesenpaaten, later Queen of Tutankhamun – year 4.
  • Neferneferuaten Tasherit – year 6.
  • Neferneferure – year 9.
  • Setepenre – year 11.

Of his known or suggested lovers the most memorable are:

  • Tiy, his mother. Twelve years after the death of Amenhotep III she is still mentioned in inscriptions as Queen and beloved of the King. It has been suggested that Akhenaten and his mother acted as consorts to each other till her death. This would be considered incest at the time. Supporters of this theory consider Akhenaten to be the historical model of legendary King Oedipus of Thebes, Greece and Tiy the model for his mother/wife Jocasta.
  • Nefertiti, his Chief Queen.
  • Kiya, his second queen.
  • Ankhesenpaaten, his third daughter and last known wife at during the last year of his life. Akhenaten is thought to have fathered a daughter through her, Ankhesenpaaten-te-sherit. After his death, Ankhesenpaaten married Akhenaten's successor Tutankhamun.
  • Smenkhkare, his successor and/or co-ruler for the last years of his reign. He is thought to have been a half-brother or a son to Akhenaten. Some have suggested that Smenkhkare was actually an alias of Nefertiti or Kiya, and therefore one of Akhenaten's wives.


There is some debate around whether Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, Amenhotep III, or whether there was a co-regency (of as much as 11 or 12 years according to some Egyptologists).

Similarly, although it is accepted that both Smenkhkare and Akhenaten himself died in year 17 of Akhenaten's reign, the question of whether Smenkhare became co-regent perhaps 2 or 3 years earlier is still unclear, as is whether Smenkhare survived Akhenaten. If Smenkhare outlived Akhenaten, becoming sole Pharaoh, it was for less than a year.

The next successor was certainly Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), at the age of 8, with the country being run by the chief vizier (and next Pharaoh), Ay. Tutankhamun is believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of either Amenhotep III or Akhenaten.

With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded almost immediately fell out of favor. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in year 3 of his reign (1348 BC or 1331 BC) and abandoned Akhetaten, the city falling into ruin. Temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, were disassembled by his successors Ay and Horemheb, reused as a source of easily available building materials and decorations for their own temples, and inscriptions to Aten defaced.

Finally, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay were excised from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. This is thought to be part of an attempt by Horemheb to delete all trace of Atenism and the pharaohs associated with it from the historical record. Akhenaten's name never appeared on any of the king lists compiled by later Pharaohs and it was not until the late 1800s that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeolologists.

Akhenaten in the Arts

Further reading

  • Donald B. Redford: Akhenaten : The Heretic King (Princeton University Press, 1984)
  • Cyril Aldred: Akhenaten: King of Egypt (Thames & Hudson, 1988)
  • Rita E. Freed, Yvonne J. Markowitz, Sue H. D'Auria, Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten - Nefertiti - Tutankhamen (Museum of Fine Arts, 1999)
  • Graham Phillips, Act of God: Moses, Tutankhamun and the Myth of Atlantis, (Pan, 1998)
  • Dominic Montserrat, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, (Routledge, 2000)
  • Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet, (Thames and Hudson, 2001)
  • Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, (Anchor, trans. 1998)

External links

Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:43:26
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