Akhenaten: Heretic and Pharaoh of New Kingdom Egypt

Bas-relief portraying Amenhotep IV (Pharaoh Akhenaten, circa 1360-1342) and Nefertiti
Bas-relief portraying Amenhotep IV (Pharaoh Akhenaten, circa 1360-1342) and Nefertiti.

DEA Picture Library / Getty Images

Akhenaten (ca. 1379–1336 BCE) was one of the last pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom Egypt, who is known for briefly establishing monotheism in the country. Akhenaten drastically revised the religious and political structure of Egypt, developed new art and architectural styles, and generally caused great chaos during the Middle Bronze Age. 

Fast Facts: Akhenaten

  • Known For: Egyptian pharaoh who briefly established monotheism
  • Also Called: Amenhotep IV, Amenophis IV, Ikhnaten, Osiris Neferkheprure-waenre, Napkhureya
  • Born: ca. 1379 BCE
  • Parents: Amenhotep (Amenophis in Greek) III and Tiye (Tiy, Tiyi) 
  • Died: ca. 1336 BCE
  • Ruled: ca. 1353–1337 BCE, Middle Bronze Age,18th Dynasty New Kingdom
  • Education: Several tutors, including Parennefer
  • Monuments: Akhetaten (the capital city of Amarna), KV-55, where he was buried
  • Spouses: Nefertiti (1550–1295 BCE), Kiya "Monkey," the Younger Lady, two of his daughters
  • Children: Six daughters by Nefertiti, including Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten; perhaps three sons by the "Younger Lady," including Tutankhamun

Early Life 

Akhenaten was born as Amenhotep IV (in Greek Amenophis IV) in the 7th or 8th year of his father's reign (ca. 1379 BCE). He was the second son to Amenhotep III (ruled ca. 1386 to 1350 BCE) and his primary wife Tiy. Little is known about his life as a crown prince. Brought up in the palace, he would likely have been assigned retainers to educate him. Tutors may have included the Egyptian high priest Parennefer (Wennefer); his uncle, the Heliopolitan priest Aanen; and the builder and architect known as Amenhotep son of Hapu. He was raised at the palace complex at Malqata, where he had his own apartments.

Amenhotep III's heir was to be his eldest son, Thutmosis, but when he died unexpectedly, Amenhotep IV was made heir and at one point co-regent to his father for perhaps the last two or three years of his reign. 

Early Regnal Years 

Amenhotep IV likely ascended to the throne of Egypt as a teenager. There is some evidence that he took the legendary beauty Nefertiti as a consort while he was co-king, although she is not acknowledged as queen until after Amenhotep IV began his transformation. They had six daughters but no sons; the oldest, Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten, were to become wives of their father. 

During his first regnal year, Amenhotep IV ruled from Thebes, the traditional seat of power in Egypt, and remained there for five years, calling it the "southern Heliopolis, the first great seat of Re." His father had built his authority on the basis of being a divine representative of Re, the Egyptian sun god. Amenhotep IV continued that practice, but his attention was focused primarily on his connection to Re-Horakhty (Horus of the two horizons or God of the East), an aspect of Re. 

Akhenaten and Family Distributing Gifts
The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (18th dynasty) and his family on the balcony of his palace. The pharaoh submits gifts from the sun to the priest Ai and his wife. Wood engraving, published in 1879. ZU_09 / Getty Images

Changes to Come: The First Jubilee 

Beginning with the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom, pharaohs held "sed festivals," over-the-top parties of eating, drinking, and dancing that were jubilees of kingly renewal. Neighboring kings in the Mediterranean were invited, as were nobles and the general populace. Normally, but by no means always, kings held their first jubilee after they had ruled 30 years. Amenhotep III celebrated three, beginning with his 30th year as pharaoh. Amenhotep IV broke with tradition and held his first sed festival in his second or third year as pharaoh. 

To prepare for the jubilee, Amenhotep IV began building a huge number of temples, including several near the ancient temple of Karnak. There were so many temples required that Amenhotep IV's architects invented a new building style to speed things up, using smaller blocks (talatats). The largest temple Amenhotep IV built at Karnak was "Gemetpaaten" (the "Aten is Found"), built perhaps as early as the second year of his reign. It had several royal greater-than-lifesized statues made in a new art style, located north of the temple of Amun, and near a mudbrick palace for the king.

Amenhotep's jubilee didn't celebrate Amun, Ptah, Thoth, or Osiris; there was only one god represented: Re, the sun god. Further, Re's representation—a falcon-headed god—disappeared to be replaced by a new form called Aten, a solar disc extending rays of light ending in curved hands bearing gifts to the king and queen. 

Art and Imagery

Akhenaten and Nefertiti at Amarna
Akhenaten and Nefertiti worship the Aten, Tall al-Amarnah (Amarna, Tell el-Amarna), necropolis, detail of stele, relief. G Sioen / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The first changes in the artistic representation of the king and Nefertiti began early in his reign. At first, the figures are modeled true to life in a way never seen in Egyptian art before. Later, the faces of both he and Nefertiti are drawn down, their limbs thin and elongated and their bodies bloated. 

Scholars have debated the reasons for this peculiar almost other-worldly representations, but perhaps the figures represent Akhenaten's notions of the infusion of light brought from the solar disk into the bodies of the king and queen. Certainly the 35-year-old skeleton found in Akhenaten's tomb KV-55 does not have the physical deformities illustrated in Akhenaten's depictions.  

True Revolution 

The fourth temple built at Karnak in the 4th year of his reign, called Hutbenben "the Temple of the benben stone," is the earliest example of the revolutionary style of the new pharaoh. On its walls were pictured the transformation of Amenophis III to the godly sphere, and the renaming of his son from Amenophis ("the god Amun is content") to Akhenaten ("he who is effective on the Aten's behalf." 

Akhnaten soon relocated with 20,000 people to a new capital city, named Akhetaten (and known to archaeologists as Amarna), while it was still under construction. The new city would be dedicated to Aten and built far from the capitals of Thebes and Memphis. 

Ruins of Pharaoh Akhenaton's capital Tell el-Amarna (Akhetaten). New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty
Ruins of Pharaoh Akhenaton's capital Tell el-Amarna (Akhetaten). New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty. G. Sioen / Getty Images

The temples there had gateways to keep out the masses, hundreds of altars open to the air and no roofs over the sanctuary—visiting dignitaries complained about having to stand in the sun for a long time. In one of the surrounding walls was cut the "Window of Appearances," where Akhenaten and Nefertiti could be seen by his people. 

The religious beliefs espoused by Akhenaten are not described anywhere, except that the god is far away, radiant, untouchable. Aten created and fashioned the cosmos, authorized life, created people and languages and light and dark. Akhenaten attempted to abolish most of the complex mythology of the solar cycle—no longer was it a nightly struggle against the forces of evil, nor were there explanations for the existence of sorrow and evil in the world. 

As a replacement for a 2,000-year-old tradition, Akhenaten's religion lacked some important underpinnings, in particular, an afterlife. Instead of having a detailed pathway for people to follow, shepherded by Osiris, people could only hope to be reawakened in the morning, to bask in the sun's rays.

Extremism on the Nile

Akhenaten's revolution became ugly as time progressed. He demanded more and more temples to be built as rapidly as possible—the South Cemetery at Amarna contains the remains of children whose bones show evidence of hard physical labor. He demoted the Theban gods (Amun, Mut, and Khonsu), had their temples dismantled, and killed or sent away the priests.

By the 12th year of his reign, Nefertiti disappeared—some scholars believe she became the new co-king, Ankhheperure Neferneferuaten. The next year, two of their daughters died, and his mother Queen Tiy died in the 14th year. Egypt suffered a devastating military loss, losing its territories in Syria. And the same year, Akhenaten became a true fanatic. 

Ignoring the foreign political losses, Akhenaten instead sent out his agents bearing chisels and orders to destroy all carved references to Amun and Mut, even if they were carved on granite stele many stories above the ground, even if they were small hand-held personal items, even if they were used to spell Amenhotep III's name. A total eclipse occurred on May 14, 1338 BCE, and it lasted for over six minutes, which must have seemed an omen of displeasure from the king's chosen parent.

Death and Legacy

After a brutal reign of 17 years, Akhenaten died and his successor—who may have been Nefertiti—immediately but slowly began dismantling the physical elements of Akhenaten's religion. His son Tutankhamun (ruled ca. 1334–1325, a child of the consort known as the "Younger Wife") and the earliest 19th dynasty pharaohs led by Horemheb (ruled ca. 1392–1292 BCE) continued to tear down the temples, chisel out Akhenaten's name, and bring back the old traditional forms of belief.

Although there is no recorded dissension or push back from the people while the king lived, once he was gone, everything was disassembled.

Sources and Further Reading

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Akhenaten: Heretic and Pharaoh of New Kingdom Egypt." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/akhenaten-4769554. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 28). Akhenaten: Heretic and Pharaoh of New Kingdom Egypt. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/akhenaten-4769554 Hirst, K. Kris. "Akhenaten: Heretic and Pharaoh of New Kingdom Egypt." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/akhenaten-4769554 (accessed June 5, 2023).