My Thoughts

Egypt’s Heretic Pharaoh

Question: What was the world’s first monotheistic nation?

Answer: Ancient Egypt.

It’s true.

Outside of egyptologists and egyptohiles such as myself, few people know the name of Akhenaten. But everybody knows his family. His chief wife and queen was the legendary beauty Nefertiti; his son-in-law (and probable son by a lesser wife) was Tutankhamen. This family was at the forefront of a revolution that shook the foundations of the Egyptian empire and Akhenaten was the instigator.

Tutankhamen

Akhenaten worshipped a different kind of god. His god, known as Aten, was symbolized by the visible disc of the sun, in contrast to the more familiar anthropomorphic gods of the Egyptian pantheon. The Aten wasn’t a new invention of Akhenaten’s (in fact his own mother, queen Tiye, owned a boat called The Aten Gleams), but had always been a very minor god. Upon taking power, Akhenaten first raised the Aten to the status of supreme god and then took the radical step of declaring him the only god. Akhenaten eventually went so far as to not only ban the worship of any other god, but also to chisel their names out of inscriptions all over Egypt.

The Aten

Nineteenth century archaeologists who first uncovered evidence of this unique pharaoh painted a picture of a religious mystic who was perhaps inept as a politician, but was nevertheless motivated by true spiritual belief and a desire to bring enlightenment to his people. He was simply too far ahead of his time to be successful, especially in Egypt, the most conservative society on earth. Ever. But is this view correct?

Akhenaten ignored requests for both tribute from allies and military assistance from vassal states. The resultant decline in Egypt’s empire and international status does suggest a dreamer more suited to the priesthood than to politics. But there was another side to Akhenaten’s revolution.

Previous pharaohs, while holding absolute power in theory, were beholden to the priests of Amun. Akhenaten eliminated this problem by declaring himself Aten’s sole intermediary on earth and by reclaiming all temple lands, and therefore income, for himself. Traditional statues of the gods were replaced by statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Instead of scenes of the gods, temples displayed scenes of the royal family. Every day, the pharaoh and his queen paraded down the grand avenue of their capital city in golden chariots, to the adoration of the population. Combine this with laws designed to oppress any opposition, and Akhenaten begins to look more like Stalin than Buddha.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their daughters

Within decades of his death, Akhenaten’s revolution was completely overturned and order restored to Egypt. The gods, and their priests, regained their former position. The names of Akhenaten and his family and immediate successors (including Tutankhamen) were systematically chiselled out of monuments and inscriptions and their names erased from history. Akhenaten’s capital city was abandoned and partially dismantled. Today we are left with his uncertain legacy: religious visionary or the ultimate egomaniac?

2 Comments

  • Dale Long

    1

    Now, we look at the systematic removal of all traces of a previous belief set, by way of chiselling, a horrific loss of history. Back then, it was just graffiti to them. Love this history moment! Thanks Lisa.

    • Lisa

      2

      Good point, Dale. There are many people today who would consider the deliberate effacing of history to be a greater sacrilege than the overturning of religion. I would be one of them.