Akhenaten (/ˌækəˈnɑːtən/;[1] also spelled Echnaton,[6] Akhenaton,[7] Ikhnaton,[8] and Khuenaten;[9][10] meaning "Effective for Aten"), known before the fifth year of his reign as Amenhotep IV (sometimes given its Greek form, Amenophis IV, and meaning "Amun Is Satisfied"), was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who ruled for 17 years and died perhaps in 1336 BC or 1334 BC. He is noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship centered on the Aten, which is sometimes described as monolatristic, henotheistic, or even quasi-monotheistic. An early inscription likens the Aten to the sun as compared to stars, and later official language avoids calling the Aten a god, giving the solar deity a status above mere gods.

Akhenaten tried to shift his culture from Egypt's traditional religion, but the shifts were not widely accepted. After his death, his monuments were dismantled and hidden, his statues were destroyed, and his name excluded from the king lists.[11] Traditional religious practice was gradually restored, and when some dozen years later rulers without clear rights of succession from the 18th Dynasty founded a new dynasty, they discredited Akhenaten and his immediate successors, referring to Akhenaten himself as "the enemy" or "that criminal" in archival records.[12]

He was all but lost from history until the discovery during the 19th century of the site of Akhetaten, the city he built and designed for the worship of Aten, at Amarna.[13] Early excavations at Amarna by Flinders Petrie sparked interest in the enigmatic pharaoh, and a mummy found in the tomb KV55, which was unearthed in 1907 in a dig led by Edward R. Ayrton, is likely that of Akhenaten. DNA analysis has determined that the man buried in KV55 is the father of King Tutankhamun,[14] but its identification as Akhenaten has been questioned.[5][15][16][17][18]

Modern interest in Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti comes partly from his connection with Tutankhamun (even though Tutankhamun's mother was not Nefertiti, but a woman named by archaeologists The Younger Lady), partly from the unique style and high quality of the pictorial arts he patronized, and partly from ongoing interest in the religion he attempted to establish.

Early reign as Amenhotep IV

The future Akhenaten was a younger son of Amenhotep III and Chief Queen Tiye. The eldest son Crown Prince Thutmose was recognized as the heir of Amenhotep III but he died relatively young and the next in line for the throne was a prince named Amenhotep.[19]

There is much controversy around whether Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne on the death of his father Amenhotep III or whether there was a coregency (lasting as long as 12 years according to some Egyptologists). Current literature by Eric Cline, Nicholas Reeves, Peter Dorman and other scholars comes out strongly against the establishment of a long coregency between the two rulers and in favour of either no coregency or a brief one lasting one to two years at the most.[20] Other literature by Donald Redford, William Murnane, Alan Gardiner and more recently by Lawrence Berman in 1998 contests the view of any coregency whatsoever between Akhenaten and his father.[21]

In February 2014, the Egyptian Ministry for Antiquities announced what it called conclusive evidence that Akhenaten shared power with his father for at least 8 years. The evidence came from the inscriptions found in the Luxor tomb of Vizier Amenhotep-Huy.[22][23] A team of Spanish archeologists has been working at this tomb.

Amenhotep IV was crowned in Thebes and there he started a building program. He decorated the southern entrance to the precincts of the temple of Amun-Re with scenes of his worshiping Re-Harakhti. He soon decreed the construction of a temple dedicated to the Aten in Eastern Karnak. This Temple of Amenhotep IV was called the Gempaaten ("The Aten is found in the estate of the Aten"). The Gempaaten consisted of a series of buildings, including a palace and a structure called the Hwt Benben (named after the Benben stone) which was dedicated to Queen Nefertiti. Other Aten temples constructed at Karnak during this time include the Rud-menu and the Teni-menu, which may have been constructed near the Ninth Pylon. During this time he did not repress the worship of Amun, and the High Priest of Amun was still active in the fourth year of his reign.[19] The king appears as Amenhotep IV in the tombs of some of the nobles in Thebes: Kheruef (TT192), Ramose (TT55) and the tomb of Parennefer (TT188).[24]

In the tomb of Ramose, Amenhotep IV appears on the west wall in the traditional style, seated on a throne with Ramose appearing before the king. On the other side of the doorway, Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti are shown in the window of appearance, with the Aten depicted as the sun disc. In the Theban tomb of Parennefer, Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti are seated on a throne with the sun disk depicted over the king and queen.[24]

Among the latter-known documents referring to Amenhotep IV are two copies of a letter from the Steward Of Memphis Apy (or Ipy) to the pharaoh. The documents were found in Gurob and are dated to regnal year 5, third month of the Growing Season, day 19.[25]

Name change

On day 13, Month 8, in the fifth year of his reign, the king arrived at the site of the new city Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). A month before that Amenhotep IV had officially changed his name to Akhenaten.[19] Amenhotep IV changed most of his 5 fold titulary in year 5 of his reign. The only name he kept was his prenomen or throne name of Neferkheperure.[26]

Amenhotep IV Akhenaten
Horus name


"Strong Bull of the Double Plumes"


"Beloved of Aten"

Nebty name


"Great of Kingship in Karnak"


"Great of Kingship in Akhet-Aten"

Golden Horus name


"Crowned in Heliopolis of the South" (Thebes)


"Exalter of the Name of Aten"


"Beautiful are the Forms of Re, the Unique one of Re"

Amenhotep Netjer-Heqa-Waset

"Amenhotep god-ruler of Thebes"


"Effective for the Aten"

Religious policies

Akhenaten placed much emphasis on the worship of the Egyptian sun which can be seen from many artistic depictions of a connection between the Pharaoh and his family.[27] Some debate has focused on the extent to which Akhenaten forced his religious reforms on his people.[28] Certainly, as time drew on, he revised the names of the Aten, and other religious language, to increasingly exclude references to other gods; at some point, also, he embarked on the wide-scale erasure of traditional gods' names, especially those of Amun.[29] Some of his court changed their names to remove them from the patronage of other gods and place them under that of Aten (or Ra, with whom Akhenaten equated the Aten). Yet, even at Amarna itself, some courtiers kept such names as Ahmose ("child of the moon god", the owner of tomb 3), and the sculptor's workshop where the famous Nefertiti bust and other works of royal portraiture were found is associated with an artist known to have been called Thutmose ("child of Thoth"). An overwhelmingly large number of faience amulets at Amarna also show that talismans of the household-and-childbirth gods Bes and Taweret, the eye of Horus, and amulets of other traditional deities, were openly worn by its citizens. Indeed, a cache of royal jewelry found buried near the Amarna royal tombs (now in the National Museum of Scotland) includes a finger ring referring to Mut, the wife of Amun. Such evidence suggests that though Akhenaten shifted funding away from traditional temples, his policies were fairly tolerant until some point, perhaps a particular event as yet unknown, toward the end of the reign.

Following Akhenaten's death, change was gradual at first. Within a decade a comprehensive political, religious and artistic reformation began promoting a return of Egyptian life to the norms it had followed during his father's reign. Much of the art and building infrastructure created during Akhenaten's reign was defaced or destroyed in the period following his death, particularly during the reigns of Horemheb and the early 19th Dynasty kings. Stone building blocks from Akhenaten's construction projects were later used as foundation stones for subsequent rulers' temples and tombs.

Pharaoh and family depictions

Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art. In some cases, representations are more naturalistic, especially in depictions of animals and plants, of commoners, and in a sense of action and movement for both non-royal and royal people. However, depictions of members of the court, especially members of the royal family, are extremely stylized, with elongated heads, protruding stomachs, heavy hips, thin arms and legs, and exaggerated facial features.[30] Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family are shown taking part in decidedly naturalistic activities, showing affection for each other, and being caught in mid-action (in traditional art, a pharaoh's divine nature was expressed by repose, even immobility). The depictions of action may correspond to the emphasis on the active, creative nurturing of the Aten emphasized in the "Great Hymn to the Aten" and elsewhere.

Nefertiti also appears, both beside the king and alone (or with her daughters), in actions usually reserved for a pharaoh, suggesting that she enjoyed unusual status for a queen. Early artistic representations of her tend to be indistinguishable from her husband's except by her regalia, but soon after the move to the new capital, Nefertiti begins to be depicted with features specific to her. Questions remain whether the beauty of Nefertiti is portraiture or idealism.

Why representations of Akhenaten depict him in a bizarre, strikingly androgynous way, remains a vigorously debated question. Religious reasons have been suggested, such as to emulate the creative nature of the Aten, who is called in Amarna tomb texts "mother and father" of all that is. Or, it has been suggested, Akhenaten's (and his family's) portraiture exaggerates his distinctive physical traits. Until Akhenaten's mummy is positively identified, such theories remain speculative. Some scholars do identify Mummy 61074, found in KV55, an unfinished tomb in the Valley of the Kings, as Akhenaten's.[31] If so, or if the KV 55 mummy is that of his close relative, Smenkhkare, its measurements tend to support the theory that Akhenaten's depictions exaggerate his actual appearance. Though the mummy consists only of disarticulated bones, the skull is long and has a prominent chin, and the limbs are light and long. In 2007, Zahi Hawass and a team of researchers made CT Scan images of Mummy 61074. They have concluded that the elongated skull, cheek bones, cleft palate, and impacted wisdom tooth suggest that the mummy is the father of Tutankhamun, and thus is Akhenaten.

Family and relations

As Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten was married to Nefertiti at the very beginning of his reign, and six daughters were identified from inscriptions. Recent DNA analysis has revealed that with one of his biological sisters, the "Younger Lady" mummy, Akhenaten fathered Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamen).[32] The parentage of Smenkhkare, his successor, is unknown, and Akhenaten and an unknown wife have been proposed to be his parents.

A secondary wife of Akhenaten named Kiya is known from inscriptions. Some have theorized that she gained her importance as the mother of Tutankhamen, Smenkhkare, or both.

This is a list of Akhenaten's children (known and theoretical) with suggested years of birth:

His known consorts were:

It has been proposed that Akhenaten may have taken some of his daughters as sexual consorts, to attempt to father a male heir by them, but this is very debatable. It does seem certain that like his father, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten named at least one daughter as Great Royal Wife, but this does not necessarily indicate she was his sexual consort as the position was also an important ceremonial position.[36]

  • Meritaten is recorded as Great Royal Wife to Smenkhkare in the tomb of Meryre II in Akhet-Aten. She is also listed alongside King Akhenaten and King Neferneferuaten as Great Royal Wife on a box from the tomb of Tutankhamen. Letters written to Akhenaten from foreign rulers make reference to Meritaten as 'mistress of the house'.
  • Meketaten, Akhenaten's second daughter. Meketaten's death, at perhaps the age of 10 to 12, is recorded in the royal tombs of Amarna about the year 13 or 14. Her death was attributed to possibly from childbirth, because of a depiction of an infant with her. Because no husband is known for Meketaten, the assumption has been that Akhenaten was the father. The inscription giving the filiation of the child is damaged, thereby preventing resolution of the issue; alternate explanations proposed have been that Meketaten died of plague, or that the child is a portrayal of Meketaten's ka (soul).
  • Various monuments, originally for Kiya, were reinscribed for Akhenaten's daughters Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten; the revised inscriptions list a Meritaten-tasherit ("junior") and an Ankhesenpaaten-tasherit. Some view this to indicate that Akhenaten fathered his own grandchildren. Others hold that, since these grandchildren are not attested to elsewhere, they are fictions invented to fill the space originally filled by Kiya's child.[37]

Two other lovers have been suggested, but are not widely accepted:

  • Smenkhkare, Akhenaten's successor and/or co-ruler for the last years of his reign. Rather than a lover, however, Smenkhkare is likely to have been a half-brother or a son to Akhenaten. Some have even suggested that Smenkhkare was actually an alias of Nefertiti or Kiya, and therefore one of Akhenaten's wives (see below).
  • Tiye, his mother. Twelve years after the death of Amenhotep III, she is still mentioned in inscriptions as queen and beloved of the king, but kings' mothers often were. The few supporters of this theory (notably Immanuel Velikovsky) consider Akhenaten to be the historical model of legendary King Oedipus of Thebes, Greece and Tiye the model for his mother/wife Jocasta.

International relations

The Amarna Letters, a cache of diplomatic correspondence discovered in modern times at el-Amarna (the modern designation of the site of Akhetaten), have provided important evidence about Akhenaten's reign and foreign policy. This correspondence comprises a priceless collection of incoming messages on clay tablets sent to Akhetaten from various subject rulers through Egyptian military outposts and from the foreign rulers (recognized as "Great Kings") of the kingdom of Mitanni, of Babylon, of Assyria, and of Hatti. The governors and kings of Egypt's subject domains also wrote frequently to plead for gold from the pharaoh, and also complained that he had snubbed and cheated them.

Early in his reign, Akhenaten had conflicts with Tushratta, the king of Mitanni, who had courted favor with his father against the Hittites. Tushratta complains in numerous letters that Akhenaten had sent him gold-plated statues rather than statues made of solid gold; the statues formed part of the bride-price which Tushratta received for letting his daughter Tadukhepa marry Amenhotep III and then later marry Akhenaten. Amarna letter EA 27 preserves a complaint by Tushratta to Akhenaten about the situation:

"I...asked your father Mimmureya for statues of solid cast gold, one of myself and a second statue, a statue of Tadu-Heba [Tadukhepa], my daughter, and your father said, 'Don't talk of giving statues just of solid cast gold. I will give you ones made also of lapis lazuli. I will give you too, along with the statues, much additional gold and [other] goods beyond measure.' Every one of my messengers that were staying in Egypt saw the gold for the statues with their own eyes. Your father himself recast the statues [i]n the presence of my messengers, and he made them entirely of pure gold...He showed much additional gold, which was beyond measure and which he was sending to me. He said to my messengers, 'See with your own eyes, here the statues, there much gold and goods beyond measure, which I am sending to my brother.' And my messengers did see with their own eyes! But my brother [i.e., Akhenaten] has not sent the solid [gold] statues that your father was going to send. You have sent plated ones of wood. Nor have you sent me the goods that your father was going to send me, but you have reduced [them] greatly. Yet there is nothing I know of in which I have failed my brother. Any day that I hear the greetings of my brother, that day I make a festive occasion... May my brother send me much gold. [At] the kim[ru fe]ast...[...with] many goods [may my] brother honor me. In my brother's country gold is as plentiful as dust. May my brother cause me no distress. May he send me much gold in order that my brother [with the gold and m]any [good]s may honor me." (EA 27)[38]

While Akhenaten was certainly not a close friend of Tushratta, he was evidently concerned at the expanding power of the Hittite Empire under its powerful ruler Suppiluliuma I. A successful Hittite attack on Mitanni and its ruler Tushratta would have disrupted the entire international balance of power in the Ancient Middle East at a time when Egypt had made peace with Mitanni; this would cause some of Egypt's vassals to switch their allegiances to the Hittites, as time would prove. A group of Egypt's allies who attempted to rebel against the Hittites were captured, and wrote letters begging Akhenaten for troops, but he did not respond to most of their pleas. Evidence suggests that the troubles on the northern frontier led to difficulties in Canaan, particularly in a struggle for power between Labaya of Shechem and Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem, which required the pharaoh to intervene in the area by dispatching Medjay troops northwards. Akhenaten pointedly refused to save his vassal Rib-Hadda of Byblos – whose kingdom was being besieged by the expanding state of Amurru under Abdi-Ashirta and later Aziru, son of Abdi-Ashirta – despite Rib-Hadda's numerous pleas for help from the pharaoh. Rib-Hadda wrote a total of 60 letters to Akhenaten pleading for aid from the pharaoh. Akhenaten wearied of Rib-Hadda's constant correspondences and once told Rib-Hadda: "You are the one that writes to me more than all the (other) mayors" or Egyptian vassals in EA 124.[39] What Rib-Hadda did not comprehend was that the Egyptian king would not organize and dispatch an entire army north just to preserve the political status quo of several minor city states on the fringes of Egypt's Asiatic Empire.[40] Rib-Hadda would pay the ultimate price; his exile from Byblos due to a coup led by his brother Ilirabih is mentioned in one letter. When Rib-Hadda appealed in vain for aid from Akhenaten and then turned to Aziru, his sworn enemy, to place him back on the throne of his city, Aziru promptly had him dispatched to the king of Sidon, where Rib-Hadda was almost certainly executed.[41]

William L. Moran[42] notes that the Amarna corpus of 380+ letters counters the conventional view that Akhenaten neglected Egypt's foreign territories in favour of his internal reforms. Several letters from Egyptian vassals notify the pharaoh that they have followed his instructions:

To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, the Sun from the sky: Message of Yapahu, the ruler of Gazru, your servant, the dirt at your feet. I indeed prostrate myself at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun...7 times and 7 times, on the stomach and on the back. I am indeed guarding the place of the king, my lord, the Sun of the sky, where I am, and all the things the king, my lord, has written me, I am indeed carrying out – everything! Who am I, a dog, and what is my house... and what is anything I have, that the orders of the king, my lord, the Sun from the sky, should not obey constantly? (EA 378)[43]

When the loyal but unfortunate Rib-Hadda was killed at the instigation of Aziru,[41] Akhenaten sent an angry letter to Aziru containing a barely veiled accusation of outright treachery on the latter's part.[44] Akhenaten wrote:

Say to Aziru, ruler of Amurru: Thus the king, your lord [Akhenaten], saying: The ruler of Gubla [Byblos], whose brother had cast him away at the gate, said to you, "Take me and get me into the city. There is much silver, and I will give it to you. Indeed there is an abundance of everything, but not with me [here]." Thus did the ruler [Rib-Hadda] speak to you. Did you not write to the king, my lord saying, "I am your servant like all the previous mayors [i.e., vassals] in his city"? Yet you acted delinquently by taking the mayor whose brother had cast him away at the gate, from his city.

He [Rib-Hadda] was residing in Sidon and, following your own judgment, you gave him to [some] mayors. Were you ignorant of the treacherousness of the men? If you really are the king's servant, why did you not denounce him before the king, your lord, saying, "This mayor has written to me saying, 'Take me to yourself and get me into my city'"? And if you did act loyally, still all the things you wrote were not true. In fact, the king has reflected on them as follows, "Everything you have said is not friendly."

Now the king has heard as follows, "You are at peace with the ruler of Qidsa. (Kadesh) The two of you take food and strong drink together." And it is true. Why do you act so? Why are you at peace with a ruler whom the king is fighting? And even if you did act loyally, you considered your own judgment, and his judgment did not count. You have paid no attention to the things that you did earlier. What happened to you among them that you are not on the side of the king, your lord? Consider the people that are training you for their own advantage. They want to throw you into the fire...If for any reason whatsoever you prefer to do evil, and if you plot evil, treacherous things, then you, together with your entire family, shall die by the axe of the king. So perform your service for the king, your lord, and you will live. You yourself know that the king does not fail when he rages against all of Canaan. And when you wrote saying, 'May the king, my Lord, give me leave this year, and then I will go next year to the king, my Lord [i.e., to Egypt]. If this is impossible, I will send my son in my place' – the king, your lord, let you off this year in accordance with what you said. Come yourself, or send your son [now], and you will see the king at whose sight all lands live. (EA 162)[45]

This letter shows that Akhenaten paid close attention to the affairs of his vassals in Canaan and Syria. Akhenaten commanded Aziru to come to Egypt and proceeded to detain him there for at least one year. In the end, Akhenaten was forced to release Aziru back to his homeland when the Hittites advanced southwards into Amki, thereby threatening Egypt's series of Asiatic vassal states, including Amurru.[46] Sometime after his return to Amurru, Aziru defected to the Hittite side with his kingdom.[47] While it is known from an Amarna letter by Rib-Hadda that the Hittites "seized all the countries that were vassals of the king of Mitanni" (EA 75)[48] Akhenaten managed to preserve Egypt's control over the core of her Near Eastern Empire (which consisted of present-day Israel as well as the Phoenician coast) while avoiding conflict with the increasingly powerful Hittite Empire of Suppiluliuma I. Only the Egyptian border province of Amurru in Syria around the Orontes river was permanently lost to the Hittites when its ruler Aziru defected to the Hittites. Finally, contrary to the conventional view of a ruler who neglected Egypt's international relations, Akhenaten is known to have initiated at least one campaign into Nubia in his regnal Year 12, where his campaign is mentioned in Amada stela CG 41806 and on a separate companion stela at Buhen.[49]

Death, burial and succession

The last dated appearance of Akhenaten and the Amarna family is in the tomb of Meryra II, and dates from second month, year 12 of his reign.[50] After this the historical record is unclear, and only with the succession of Tutankhamun is somewhat clarified.

In December 2012, it was announced that a Year 16 III Akhet day 15 inscription dated explicitly to Akhenaten's reign which mentions, in the same breath, the presence of a living Queen Nefertiti, was found in a limestone quarry at Deir el-Bersha just north of Amarna.[51][52][53] The text refers to a building project in Amarna, and establishes that Akhenaten and Nefertiti were still a royal couple just a year before Akhenaten's death.

His body was removed after the court returned to Thebes, and recent genetic tests have confirmed that the body found buried in tomb KV55 was the father of Tutankhamun, and is therefore "most probably" Akhenaten.[54] The tomb contained numerous Amarna era objects, including a royal coffin, the face of which had been deliberately destroyed. His sarcophagus in the Royal Tomb at Amarna was destroyed but has been reconstructed and now sits outside in the Cairo Museum.

Similarly, although it is accepted that Akhenaten himself died in Year 17 of his reign, whether Smenkhkare became co-regent perhaps two or three years earlier or enjoyed a brief independent reign is unclear.[55] If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten, and became sole pharaoh, he likely ruled Egypt for less than a year. The next successor was Neferneferuaten, a female pharaoh who reigned in Egypt for two years and one month.[56] She was, in turn, probably succeeded by Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), with the country being administered by the chief vizier, and future pharaoh, Ay. Tutankhamun was believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of Akhenaten, and possibly Kiya although one scholar has suggested that Tutankhamun may have been a son of Smenkhkare instead. DNA tests in 2010 indicated Tutankhamun was indeed the son of Akhenaten.[57] It has been suggested that after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti reigned with the name of Neferneferuaten[58] but other scholars believe this female ruler was rather Meritaten. The so-called Coregency Stela, found in a tomb in Amarna possibly shows his queen Nefertiti as his coregent, ruling alongside him, but this is not certain as the names have been removed and recarved to show Ankhesenpaaten and Neferneferuaten.[59]

With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded fell out of favor: at first gradually, and then with decisive finality. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in Year 2 of his reign (1332 BCE) and abandoned the city of Akhetaten, which eventually fell into ruin. His successors Ay and Horemheb disassembled temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, using them as a source of easily available building materials and decorations for their own temples.

Finally, Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten, 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.[60] Akhenaten's name does not appear on any of the king lists compiled by later pharaohs and it was not until the late 19th century that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.

The Inscription of Mes document which dates to Ramesside times refers to Akhenaten himself as "the enemy of Akhetaton" as Egyptians had fully rejected his revolution by this time and the crisis which it sparked.[61]

Implementation of Atenism and later collapse

In the early years of his reign, Amenhotep IV lived at Thebes with Nefertiti and his six daughters. Initially, he permitted worship of Egypt's traditional deities to continue but near the Temple of Karnak (Amun-Ra's great cult center), he erected several massive buildings including temples to the Aten. Aten was usually depicted as a sun disk with rays extending with long arms and tiny human hands at each end.[62] These buildings at Thebes were later dismantled by his successors and used as infill for new constructions in the Temple of Karnak; when they were later dismantled by archaeologists, some 36,000 decorated blocks from the original Aton building here were revealed which preserve many elements of the original relief scenes and inscriptions.[63]

In Year 5 of his reign, Amenhotep IV took decisive steps to establish the Aten as the sole god of Egypt: the pharaoh "disbanded the priesthoods of all the other gods...and diverted the income from these [other] cults to support the Aten". To emphasize his complete allegiance to the Aten, the king officially changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten or 'Living Spirit of Aten.'[63] Akhenaten's fifth year also marked the beginning of construction on his new capital, Akhetaten or 'Horizon of Aten', at the site known today as Amarna. Very soon afterwards, he centralized Egyptian religious practices in Akhetaten, though construction of the city seems to have continued for several more years. In honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt. In these new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight rather than in dark temple enclosures as had been the previous custom. 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-Re (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun's becoming merged with the sun god Ra), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar Egyptian religious context. However, by Year 9 of his reign, Akhenaten declared that Aten was not merely the supreme god, but the only worshipable god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt and, in a number of instances, inscriptions of the plural 'gods' were also removed.

Aten's name also is written differently after Year 9 to emphasize the radicalism of the new regime, which included a ban on images, 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. Representations of the Aten were always accompanied with a sort of hieroglyphic footnote, stating that the representation of the sun as all-encompassing creator was to be taken as just that: a representation of something that, by its very nature as something transcending creation, cannot be fully or adequately represented by any one part of that creation.

Archaeological discoveries at Akhetaten show that many ordinary residents of this city chose to gouge or chisel out all references to the god Amun on even minor personal items that they owned, such as commemorative scarabs or make-up pots, perhaps for fear of being accused of having Amunist sympathies. References to Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's father, were partly erased since they contained the traditional Amun form of his name: Nebmaatre Amunhotep.[64]

As the Egytologist Nicholas Reeves writes:

Such displays of frightening self-censorship and toadying loyalty are ominous indicators of the paranoia which was beginning to grip the country. Not only were the streets [of Akhetaten] filled with the pharaoh's soldiers; it seems the population now had to contend with the danger of malicious informers.[64]

In the end, Akhenaten's revolution collapsed from within after his death since the massive costs of founding a new capital city at El-Amarna and the closing of the Amun temples choked off the growth of the Egyptian economy. A notable result of Akhenaten's centralisation tendencies was the appearance of large-scale corruption among the king's state officials who held unprecedented control over all the wealth and produce of Egypt. This was a tendency that the last 18th Dynasty pharaoh Horemheb was compelled to deal with by threatening to cut off the nose of any officials who were found to be involved in state corruption or abuses in a major stela erected near the 10th pylon of Karnak.[65] Nicolas Grimal states that Akhenaten's closure or limitations on the activities of non-Aten temples and his confiscation of priestly goods for the benefit of the state directly led:

to an increase in centralization of both the administration and its executive arm, the army. The neglect of local government increased the problems of maintaining an effective administration and introduced a whole new [state] system characterized by corruption and arbitrariness... The construction of the new capital [at Akhetaten] and new temples was to the detriment of the economy in general and the temple-based economy in particular: the system of divine estates was, from a centralizing viewpoint, harmful, but its abandonment in the Amarna period led to the ruination of a whole [economic] system of production and distribution without providing any new structure to replace it.[66]

Speculative theories

Akhenaten's status as a religious revolutionary has led to much speculation, ranging from scholarly hypotheses to non-academic fringe theories. Although some believe the religion he introduced was mostly monotheistic, many others see Akhenaten as a practitioner of an Aten monolatry,[67] as he did not actively deny the existence of other gods; he simply refrained from worshiping any but the Aten while expecting the people to worship not Aten but him.

Akhenaten and monotheism in Abrahamic religions

The idea that Akhenaten was the pioneer of a monotheistic religion that later became Judaism has been considered by various scholars.[68][69][70][71][72][73] One of the first to mention this was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in his book Moses and Monotheism.[74] Basing his arguments on his belief that the Exodus story was historical, Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest who was forced to leave Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten's death. Freud argued that Akhenaten was striving to promote monotheism, something which the biblical Moses was able to achieve.[68] Following the publication of his book, the concept entered popular consciousness and serious research.[75]

Freud commented on the connection between Adonai, the Egyptian Aten and the Syrian divine name of Adonis as the primeval unity of languages between the factions;[68] in this he was following the argument of Egyptologist Arthur Weigall. Jan Assmann's opinion is that 'Aten' and 'Adonai' are not linguistically related.[76]

It is widely accepted that there are strong stylistic similarities between Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Aten and the Biblical Psalm 104, though this form of writing was widespread in ancient Near Eastern hymnology both before and after the period.

Others have likened some aspects of Akhenaten's relationship with the Aten to the relationship, in Christian tradition, between Jesus Christ and God, particularly interpretations that emphasize a more monotheistic interpretation of Atenism than a henotheistic one. Donald B. Redford has noted that some have viewed Akhenaten as a harbinger of Jesus. "After all, Akhenaten did call himself the son of the sole god: 'Thine only son that came forth from thy body'."[77] James Henry Breasted likened him to Jesus,[78] Arthur Weigall saw him as a failed precursor of Christ and Thomas Mann saw him "as right on the way and yet not the right one for the way".[79]

Redford argued that while Akhenaten called himself the son of the Sun-Disc and acted as the chief mediator between god and creation, kings had claimed the same relationship and priestly role for thousands of years before Akhenaten's time. However Akhenaten's case may be different through the emphasis which he placed on the heavenly father and son relationship. Akhenaten described himself as being "thy son who came forth from thy limbs", "thy child", "the eternal son that came forth from the Sun-Disc", and "thine only son that came forth from thy body". The close relationship between father and son is such that only the king truly knows the heart of "his father", and in return his father listens to his son's prayers. He is his father's image on earth, and as Akhenaten is king on earth, his father is king in heaven. As high priest, prophet, king and divine he claimed the central position in the new religious system. Because only he knew his father's mind and will, Akhenaten alone could interpret that will for all mankind with true teaching coming only from him.[77]

Redford concluded:

Before much of the archaeological evidence from Thebes and from Tell el-Amarna became available, wishful thinking sometimes turned Akhenaten into a humane teacher of the true God, a mentor of Moses, a christlike figure, a philosopher before his time. But these imaginary creatures are now fading away as the historical reality gradually emerges. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible. The monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament had its own separate development – one that began more than half a millennium after the pharaoh's death.[80]

Possible illness

The rather strange and eccentric portrayals of Akhenaten, with a sagging stomach, thick thighs, large breasts, and long, thin face – so different from the athletic norm in the portrayal of pharaohs – have led certain Egyptologists to suppose that Akhenaten suffered some kind of genetic abnormality. Various illnesses have been put forward. On the basis of his long jaw and his feminine appearance, Cyril Aldred,[81] following up earlier arguments of Grafton Elliot Smith[82] and James Strachey,[83] suggested he may have suffered from Froelich's Syndrome. However, this is unlikely because this disorder results in sterility and Akhenaten is known to have fathered numerous children. These children are repeatedly portrayed through years of archaeological and iconographic evidence – at least six daughters by Queen Nefertiti, well known as the King and Queen's six princesses of Amarna, as well as his successor Tutankhamun by a minor wife.

Another suggestion by Burridge[84] is that Akhenaten may have suffered from Marfan's Syndrome. Marfan's syndrome, unlike Froelich's, does not result in any lack of intelligence or sterility. It is associated with a sunken chest, long curved spider-like fingers (arachnodactyly), occasional congenital heart difficulties, a high curved or slightly cleft palate, and a highly curved cornea or dislocated lens of the eye, with the requirement for bright light to see well. Marfan's sufferers tend towards being taller than average, with a long, thin face, and elongated skull, overgrown ribs, a funnel or pigeon chest, and larger pelvis, with enlarged thighs and spindly calves.[85] Marfan's syndrome is a dominant characteristic, and sufferers have a 50% chance of passing it on to their children.[86] All of these symptoms arguably sometimes appear in depictions of Akhenaten and of his children. Recent CT scans of Tutankhamun report a cleft palate and a fairly long head, as well as an abnormal curvature of the spine and fusion of the upper vertebrae, a condition associated with scoliosis, all conditions associated with Marfan's syndrome. However, DNA tests on Tutankhamun, in 2010, proved negative for Marfan Syndrome.[87][88] More recently, Homocystinuria was suggested as a possible diagnosis.[89] Patients suffering from homocystinuria have Marfan habitus. However, as an autosomal recessive disease, it seems to fit better into Akhenaten's family tree – Akhenaten's parents, Amenhotep III and Tiye, were probably healthy, and Marfan Syndrome was ruled out following DNA tests on Tutankhamun in 2010.[87]

However, Dominic Montserrat in Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt states that "there is now a broad consensus among Egyptologists that the exaggerated forms of Akhenaten's physical portrayal... are not to be read literally".[72] Montserrat and others[90] argue that the body-shape relates to some form of religious symbolism. Because the god Aten was referred to as "the mother and father of all humankind" it has been suggested that Akhenaten was made to look androgynous in artwork as a symbol of the androgyny of the god. This required "a symbolic gathering of all the attributes of the creator god into the physical body of the king himself", which will "display on earth the Aten's multiple life-giving functions".[72] Akhenaten did refer to himself as "The Unique One of Re", and he may have used his control of artistic expression to distance himself from the common people, though such a radical departure from the idealized traditional representation of the image of the pharaoh would be truly extraordinary.

Another unfounded claim was made by Immanuel Velikovsky, who hypothesized an incestuous relationship with his mother, Tiye. Velikovsky also posited that Akhenaten had swollen legs. Based on this, he identified Akhenaten as the history behind the Oedipus myth, Oedipus being Greek for "swollen feet", and moved the setting from the Greek Thebes to the Egyptian Thebes. As part of his argument, Velikovsky uses the fact that Akhenaten viciously carried out a campaign to erase the name of his father, which he argues could have developed into Oedipus killing his father.[91]

In 2012, Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, published research into the early death of Akhenaten and the premature deaths of other 18th Dynasty pharaohs (including Tutankhamun and Thutmose IV). He identifies that their early deaths were probably a result of a Familial Temporal Epilepsy. This would account for the untimely death of Akhenaten, his abnormal endocrine body shape on sculptures and can also explain Akhenaten's religious conviction due to this type of epilepsy's association with intense spiritual visions and religiosity.[92] However, because there is currently no definitive genetic test for epilepsy, the theory remains impossible to prove.[93]


Various uninscribed and damaged stelae depict Akhenaten with what appears to be a coregent wearing a king's crown in familiar if not intimate settings (even naked). In the 1970s, John Harris identified the figure pictured alongside Akhenaten as Nefertiti, arguing that she may have actually been elevated to coregent and perhaps even succeeded temporarily as an independent ruler, changing her name to Smenkhkare.[72]

Nicholas Reeves and other Egyptologists contend that Smenkhkare was the same person as Neferneferuaten, who ruled together with Akhenaten as coregent for the final one or two years of Akhenaten's reign. On several monuments, the two are shown seated side by side.[94] More recent research by James Allen[95] and Marc Gabolde[96] has led to "a fair degree of consensus"[97] that Neferneferuaten was a female ruler apart from Smenkhkare.

In the arts


  • Agatha Christie (1973 [1937]). Akhnaton. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company (1937)ISBN 0-396-06822-7; London: Collins (1973) ISBN 0-00-211038-5)
  • Prokopiou, Angelos (1961). Pharaoh Akhenaton Theatr. Athens. ISBN 960-7327-66-7



External video
House Altar with Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Three Daughters (Amarna Period) (5:03), Smarthistory[98]
The Lost Pharaoh: The Search for Akhenaten (56:35), National Film Board of Canada[99]


Video games

  • Akhenaten features as an enemy in the Assassin's Creed Origins "The Curse of the Pharaohs" DLC who must be defeated to remove his curse on Thebes.[102] His afterlife takes the form of 'Aten', a location which draws heavily on the architecture of the city of Amarna.
  • A version of Akhenaten (incorporating elements of H.P. Lovecraft's Black Pharaoh) is the driving antagonist behind the Egypt chapters of The Secret World, where the player must stop a modern-day incarnation of the Atenist cult from unleashing the now-undead pharaoh and the influence of Aten (which is portrayed as a real and extremely powerful malevolent supernatural entity with the ability to strip followers of their free will) upon the world. He is explicitly stated to be the Pharaoh who opposed Moses in the Book of Exodus, diverging from the traditional Exodus narrative in that he retaliates against Moses's 10 Plagues with 10 plagues of his own before being sealed away by the combined forces of both Moses and Ptahmose, the High Priest of Amun. He is also shown to have been an anachronistic alliance with the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, who are strongly implied to be worshiping Aten under a different name.



See also

Notes and references


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Further reading

  • Aldred, Cyril (1991) [1988]. Akhenaten: King of Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
  • Aldred, Cyril (1973). Akhenaten and Nefertiti. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Aldred, Cyril (1984). The Egyptians. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Bilolo, Mubabinge (2004) [1988]. "Sect. I, vol. 2". Le Créateur et la Création dans la pensée memphite et amarnienne. Approche synoptique du Document Philosophique de Memphis et du Grand Hymne Théologique d'Echnaton (in French) (new ed.). Munich-Paris: Academy of African Thought.
  • El Mahdy, Christine (1999). Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of a Boy King. Headline.
  • Rita E. Freed, Yvonne J. Markowitz, and Sue H. D'Auria (ed.) (1999). Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten – Nefertiti – Tutankhamen. Bulfinch Press.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  • Gestoso Singer, Graciela (2008). El Intercambio de Bienes entre Egipto y Asia Anterior. Desde el reinado de Tuthmosis III hasta el de Akhenaton Free Access (in Spanish) Ancient Near East Monographs, Volume 2. Buenos Aires, Society of Biblical Literature – CEHAO.
  • Hoffmeier, James K. (2015). Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. pp. xvi, 293. ISBN 9780199792085.
  • Holland, Tom (1998). The Sleeper in the Sands (novel), Abacus – a fictionalised adventure story based closely on the mysteries of Akhenaten's reign
  • Hornung, Erik (1999). Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, translated by David Lorton. Cornell University Press.
  • Najovits, Simson. Egypt, Trunk of the Tree, Volume I, The Contexts, Volume II, The Consequences, Algora Publishing, New York, 2003 and 2004. On Akhenaten: Vol. II, Chapter 11, pp. 117–73 and Chapter 12, pp. 205–13
  • Redford, Donald B. (1984). Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton University Press
  • Reeves, Nicholas (2001). Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet. Thames and Hudson.
  • Stevens, Anna (2012). Akhenaten's workers : the Amarna Stone village survey, 2005–2009. Volume I, The survey, excavations and architecture. Egypt Exploration Society.
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