Egypt, 1300 BCE. Laborers toil under the hot desert sun, dismantling a once-grand temple, the stone slabs are torn away without regard for their ornate carvings, destined for an inglorious fate as construction fill. Nearby, men break open a pharaoh s burial chamber, and these men are no mere grave robbers but rather priests, and viziers, their mission to scratch out all mentions of a certain name. Akhenaton, once Pharaoh of all Egypt, and the voice of a god, But what crime what blasphemy had he committed that would make his own subjects try to erase him from history?
As a boy, his name was Amenhotep IV, son of the 9th Pharaoh of Egypt s 18th dynasty He was the 2nd son, and never expected to rule, only after his brother died. Suddenly, did he become heir.
Amenhotep’s father was an effective and popular pharaoh whose diplomatic prowess had led Egypt into an era of prosperity and international influence. However, when Amenhotep himself came to the throne, he wasn’t overly interested in the duties of leadership, preferring to devote his time to worship a new god called Aten. that was a problem, most of Egypt saw Amun, the patron god of Thebes, as their central deity, not to mention it was the rulers of Thebes, who had expelled the foreign kings that had governed Egypt for centuries, It was the rulers of Thebes who had founded the dynasty to which Amenhotep belonged, and it was the rulers of Thebes who had established what we now call Egypt s New Kingdom, And they did all of that under the patronage and banner of the god Amun Savior of Egypt.
Aten on the other hand initially started as an aspect of Ra, the Sun God, Rather than a physical form like most Egyptian gods Aten, took the aspect of a solar disk, and while his cult was worshipped he did not hold the same reverence as Amun did, But for whatever reason Amenhotep gave his devotion to Aten above all others, and this young pharaoh took no time in displaying that devotion In his early reign, he preoccupied himself with raising temples to Aten, First at Thebes, then at Karnak. Even though those sites had previously been dedicated to Amun, but then in the 5th year of his reign, things started to change, Amenhotep officially changed his name to Akhenaten, and a month later proclaimed his intentions to build a new capital city named Amarna, dedicated to Aten.
Four years of furious, construction later, Akhenaten moved his family and court into his still incomplete city, This move wasn’t just motivated by religious zeal. However, Egypt was a large country with multiple power centers; Thebes in the south was the seat of religious power, and Memphis in the north was the cultural center. Akhenaten wanted to consolidate all of that creative and religious power into his new city, not to mention there was another pressing justification for the move, In the stela marking the boundaries of Amarna, there is mention of something that led Akhenaten to fear organized opposition to his rule.
Atenism hadn’t really caught on in the society at large, and the priesthood of Amun, had not taken kindly to the encroachment of Akhenaten s monuments to Aten, And the fear of these groups spurred his desire to have an Atenist utopia under his complete control. Secure in his new capital, Akhenaten became increasingly despotic, while initially, he was lenient towards other gods. Eventually, he went so far as to declare Aten was not just the Supreme God, but the ONLY God He ordered all mentions of Amun to be scratched out, and references to God’s plural changed to God singular.
Even mentions of his original name, Amenhotep were all struck out, and eventually, Akhenaten forbade the worship of Amun entirely, closed all of the god’s temples, and diverted their coffers to building his grand capital.
During his reign, soldiers patrolled the streets citizens took to scratching out the names of rival deities on their possessions, and in his capital, Akhenaten s obsession and hubris only grew, He composed a grand hymn to his patron positioning Aten as the sole deity and himself as the only intermediary who could speak to the god. He wanted the world to know that Akhenaten alone could channel Aten s divine will.
Along with this religious oppression, came a bizarre new style of art. Traditionally, the Pharaoh had always been shown in a compact rigid style, But statues of Akhenaten, however, show highly exaggerated features His head, and neck are elongated with a prominent chin, and sloping nose and forehead, His body is depicted with wider hips a more pronounced chest and a noticeable paunch.
Alongside these personal reliefs were also domestic scenes, with his wife Queen Nefertiti, and their six daughters, These depict the Pharaoh, and his family in quaint scenes often showing motion, and activity whereas Egyptian art up to that point had mostly consisted of motionless characters in strict poses. And of course, the Sun disk of Aten was also prominently featured in this new style, Now the reasons for this radical artistic change remain unknown, but this shift seems to have been commissioned by Akhenaten himself, Perhaps this style reflected his attempt to wrest political control from the priesthood, or portray his view of himself, as different from other people, Maybe he wanted to show the human body as imperfect in comparison to the glory of Aten, Or perhaps the relatable scenes of his family were meant to rally public support, But whatever the reason it didn’t matter much because over time Akhenaten s obsession with religious policies damaged the country He neglected matters of the state losing some foreign territory all while his building programs drained the economy
In addition, his plans for consolidating religious, political, and cultural power backfired Closing the temples to Amun cut off the steady stream of revenue those temples generated for the state, and centralizing power gave his courtiers vast control over Egypt s wealth, leading to unprecedented levels of corruption in his court, And when it was all said and done, Akhenaten died only 17 years after coming to the throne, ruling for less than half of the time of his prosperous father.
With Akhenaten s death the installation of Atenism instantly collapsed, You see even though people obeyed his decrees mainly out of fear nobody really gave up the old gods, Ancient Egypt was a civilization characterized by stasis and reluctant change, and while a string of short-lived successors followed with Akhenaten gone, none of them were really keen to prop up his revolution. So, in the end, Atenism was entombed along with the dead Pharaoh, and for the last nail in the proverbial coffin once on the throne Akhenaten s own son, Tutankhamun, restored Amun, as the supreme deity
Continuing the ever-present trend of historical figures sticking it to their pops, But it was the military commander Horemheb, who became the last Pharaoh of the dynasty, after a messy power struggle that fully unraveled Akhenaten s dream.
Horemheb ordered temples to Aten demolished, and their stone repurposed, and he also divided legal power back between Thebes, and Memphis as they had resided before.
Finally, he wiped Akhenaten from history erasing the Pharaoh, and his successors from the official list of kings, All references to Akhenaten were destroyed much as he himself attempted to do to the old gods decades earlier, His great city of Amarna was abandoned, never to be occupied again, and neither Akhenaten Nefertiti or any of his children would be laid to rest in the city s unfinished tombs.
So if Horemheb s erasure was a complete success, you’re probably thinking How did we even make an episode about this guy, to tell you, Akhenaten remained lost from history until almost the 20th century, when by chance a local woman digging in the desert, found a cache of over cuneiform tablets detailing the royal correspondence of the lost king, and this discovery led archaeologists to recognize the significance of the ruins at what they now realized was Akhenaten s capital. So, was Akhenaten a dictator, or a revolutionary dreamer Perhaps he was just a false prophet whose obsession led to his own ruin being labeled as a tyrant by his own subjects. No one can know for sure, But what we do know is that he was one of the first, if not the first, Pharaoh to ever break away from ancient Egypt s rigid traditions, and for this millennia later the historian James Henry Breasted decided to give him a new title one that granted perhaps ignores his faults as a leader but none the less fits him well due to his effort to bring about change to Ancient Egypt s static culture.
Akhenaten, the first individual in history.