Revolutionizing Awareness

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THE REVOLUTIONARY REIGN OF AKHENATEN

Posted by Admin on January 30, 2011

Small statue of Ahkenaten wearing the blue crown

Akhenaten wearing a Blue Crown

Introduction: This paper is a full-scale exploration of the reign of Akhenaten, Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

Outline: This paper starts off with an account of Akhenaten’s early life, in which some attention is given to his personal life, an outstanding feature of which was his unusually effeminate physical appearance. In later sections, this paper details the way in which his reign was unique and revolutionary in the context of the time in which he lived. The major portion in these sections is devoted to his conception of the sun God Aten, and the efforts he made to usher in the idea of monotheism. In the concluding section, an evaluation is made of the dramatic nature of change he introduced into Egyptian life and society, and the short -term and long-term legacy of these changes.

Discussion: Few pharaohs or emperors have made as dramatic or far-reaching changes to the way an entire civilization thought and behaved, as Akhenaten. More than for conquests and invasions usually associated with a pharaoh of his time, Akhenaten devoted a considerable segment of his regime to the establishment of a revolutionary religious system, monotheism. It was not only for the first time that people in ancient Egypt were given a taste of this practice, it was something that was inconceivable for its boldness, happening as it did in an era and society in which worship of many Gods was the backbone of the civilization’s psyche.

Lineage and physical characteristics: It is believed that Akhenaten was born in either 1379 or 1362 BCE, as the 10th ruler in the 18th dynasty of Egypt. Born Amenhotep IV, (David, and David 175) he was of mixed blood, combining perhaps the Mitanni Aryan lineage of his father Amenhotep III and his intelligent and energetic mother, Tii, who was believed to be a product of the Beja or Abebdeh tribe, which roamed the wild deserts. Unlike most princes of his period, he was brought up under deeply feminine influences, whose profound impact he would carry with him later in life. His mother wielded immense influence over his personal and professional life. (Hall 298, 299) Whatever the reasons for it, Akhenaten was also known to be physically extremely sissified, and was believed to have been an ugly man with heavy epicene features. He is portrayed as being a pigeon-chested man, with narrow shoulders, a protruded, drooping chin, wide hips, a bulging stomach and very slender, weak calves. In other words, in appearance, he was anything but masculine and virile. Yet, the same pharaoh who looked like a weakling also had a fierce determination, which was to influence the history of the region for a while. (Gardiner 214)

Religious beliefs and administration: It is believed that he cultivated an obsession with the sun God, Aten almost from the time he took office. As can be expected, since temples were the lifeblood of this ancient civilization’s culture, Akhenaten wasted no time in getting down constructing one. This was to reflect the establishment of the new faith he ordained for his people. When his father was building one of the most famous temples of that part of the world, the Luxor Temple, Akhenaten was just a child. It is not clear what influence this monument must have had on the young prince’s mind, but the fact that he ceased to worship at that temple, which was one of the best-known of the time, says a lot about the young Akhenaten’s rebellious instincts. (Arnold et al. 13)

In an act of supreme irreverence, Akhenaten, when he got the temple of Aten built, had its main axis facing east of the Luxor temple, overriding the existing practice of having temples on the western horizon. In so doing, he symbolically turned his back on the existing chief God, Amun-Re, who over the centuries had varyingly been the God of wind, of fertility and several other natural forces. (Arnold et al. 181) Proclaiming that the entire pantheon of Gods that the Egyptians had been worshipping for centuries was bogus, he declared that there was only one God, the true and authentic one, Aten. To him, the almighty manifested Himself to men on earth through His only visible symbol, the disk of the sun. This sun God is to be venerated through His disk; He is the sole giver of life on this planet, and the disk is the medium through which the God showers his blessings on people. Not surprisingly, Akhenaten’s new name translated into ‘Pleasing to the sun-disk’ (Hall 300)

The Aten temples he got constructed established the new paradigm, and represented the relation between the deity and the pharaoh. Gone were all the earlier ostentatious and colorful forms prevalent in the earlier temples. The only symbol that was used was the set of rays emanating from His being to denote His power. Similarly, also deleted were the various paraphernalia associated with earlier Godly depictions. Domestic divine statues were replaced by those of the pharaoh. The pharaoh was from now on considered the sole agent between God and the people. The primacy of the pharaoh to the relationship between the people and God was indicated in the form of Aten, who was shown in royal form and attire. “God and pharaoh became virtually indistinguishable; they were envisioned as a dyad, God-and-pharaoh. It could have seemed to some people that the Aten had no existence independent of the pharaoh, for the God was explicitly depicted as a pharaoh.”  (Arnold et al. 181) In line with this new attitude, among the various titles he conferred upon himself, during the course of his reign were, ‘Strong Bull Beloved of Aten’, ‘Raising high the name of Aten’ and so on. (Hart 42)

This new faith was forced upon the people; proof of this is the fact that in inscriptions dating to the time after he ordered his new faith upon the people found on the tomb of the vizier at Thebes, the pharaoh and his wife Nefertiti are shown leaning over the balcony in salutation to Aten, bestowing gifts to noblemen and plebeians alike, “and the appearance of all these persons is as different from what is seen in the rest of the tomb as can well be imagined. An exaggerated liveliness and a visible emotional intent are conspicuous; a bolder sweep of line and backs bowed lower stress the deference owed to the pharaoh; and one can hardly be deceived in the impression that the peculiarities of Akhenaten’s own body have been consciously imitated in the shapes given to his subjects.” (Gardiner 219)

From then on began the most famous experiment of his reign –the shifting of the capital from Thebes to Akhetaten, meaning ‘The horizon of the Aten’, corresponding to modern Amarna. With this, the old religion, the extant temples, religious practices and rituals died an official death at one stroke. Situated no less than 270 miles from the earlier capital, Thebes, it was a remote site that had no semblance of human habitation till Akhenaten shifted his people there. It was, predictably, built around the site of the temple of the new God, who was now officially the crowned center of the universe for Egyptians.  (Arnold et al. 182)

Once he shifted his capital, one of his first acts was to forbid the worship of all Gods other than the one he decreed, and more importantly, arrogating upon himself the power to be the sole representative of the only God. In performing this act, Akhenaten is believed to have cut down the growing power of the priests of his time drastically. In his time, it is said that the priests had accumulated so much power, that they had, far from being the medium between God and the people, become imperious and domineering. This act of antagonizing the supreme holders of power must have required unbridled courage, (Hall 301) for the High Priest of Karnak, seen to be synonymous with Luxor in terms of importance, held the most powerful office in society. He was considered the supreme governor of temples, and the designation of Town Governor and Overseer of Servants of God were resident in him. Accession to this office was usually through divine oracle, or family inheritance; the power of the pharaoh to appoint the High Priest, considered God’s prophet, had eroded almost two centuries before Akhenaten ascended office. His exclusive title translated into ‘Opener of the Gate of Heaven’. (Arnold et al. 13). Yet, his powers did not include that of either proscribing or excommunicating the pharaoh. Also lacking was the power to influence a pharaoh’s inclination or choice of God, which is perhaps why the priests could do no more than grumble once Akhenaten committed what was perceived to be the greatest act of perfidy upon divinity. (Hart 41)

There is another line of perceptive reasoning that goes on to think that it was for fear of assassination at the hands of these priests that he shifted his capital to the new location. (Hall 301)

The extent of his obsession to profess or force his new faith is also seen in the way he chose the location for his newly anointed supreme God. Amarna was free from earlier human contact, and this gave him total freedom to preach to only the devout listeners. (Hall 301) Another rationale for the shifting of the site for this exclusive temple is that he did not want his chosen, supreme deity to be sullied in association with other Gods, whom he considered base. (Hart 41)

Either this fixation or fear of his own life must have caused him to ensconce himself; this is evident in the fact that while he devoted almost all his time to delivering sermons about his newfound faith, the affairs of the state went into neglect and eventually, decay. This act had the effect of isolating him from his subjects, as well as causing resentment even among the soldiers, to whom the accumulated work of an entire line of pharaohs being ravished by the fancy of an eccentric young man was intolerable. Yet, there was little that any of these discontented people could do, for all the levers of power were firmly lodged in the hands of the pharaoh, who was dubbed the “criminal of Akhetaten” (Hall 301) In constructing this new city, a sprawling dwelling unit by the standards of the day, for the new state God, he had also shown that the old faiths could not subsist along with the new one. His total commitment to the new doctrine is proven by a line on his tomb, which translates into: ‘how prosperous is he who hears thy Doctrine of Life, and is sated with beholding thee, and unceasingly his eyes look upon Aten every day.’ (Gardiner 222-224)

Ironically, Akhenaten is himself not acknowledged to be the first ruler in ancient Egypt to have known Aten. Inscriptions show an earlier pharaoh, Amenemhat I, believed to have been assassinated in 1962 BC, almost six centuries before the advent of Akhenaten, soaring into the sky after his assassination, to unite with Aten, his creator. This line of pharaohs continued to associate Aten with one or another form of divinity. Several nobles in the court of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III were conferred titles that connected them clearly with the Aten.  The difference in the conception of the Aten between his forefathers and Akhenaten was pronounced in one crucial factor –while Aten coexisted with other Gods during the reign of the earlier rulers of the 18th dynasty, in his reign, the existence and belief in all other Gods was totally banned. This marked a radical shift from the Godhood of earlier eras in one major respect. For the first time in perhaps all recorded history, we come across a ruler who was monotheistic in every possible sense of the term. Thus, during Akhenaten’s rule, “Aten was rarefied into supreme God of the kingdom almost totally absorbing, supplanting or eliminating rival divinities.” (Hart 39)

Legacy: The earth-shaking actions of his reign were to die as quickly as they were conceived and implemented. From the moment of his death, the suppressed priests, owing allegiance to the earlier state policy of polytheism, started resurging with a vengeance. During his reign, a person by the name of Ay, believed to be his father-in-law, had acquired considerable influence in the affairs of the administration. He was also the regent for Akhenaten’s young son, Tutankhamun. No less a trusted person as him was to reverse the actions of the pharaoh in the immediate period of his death. Under his supervision, fervent efforts were made to erase his master’s memory.  One of the first tasks for the new administration was the restoration of the earlier position and power of the priests. Akhenaten was execrated as a heretic, and all the titles he had conferred upon surviving members of his family, bearing a linkage with Aten were repudiated, and replaced with those in honor of Amun-Re. Also, Tutankhamun, the new prince, was brought back to the old capital, Thebes to reestablish the capital there, in effect being made to abandon his father’s monumental work at his new capital. (Rice 32, 209) Through serious efforts, all that Akhenaten sought to achieve and force upon his people were undone hurriedly, and his idea, a sweeping departure from established orthodoxy, met its death with his demise.

Conclusion: Yet, fair evaluators of history should not deny Akhenaten his place in history as the true pioneer of monotheism. One can see a striking resemblance between his ideals of a sole God and the concept of monotheism that was to become so central an aspect of later-day, organized religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If anything, the only difference that one can probably see in the monotheism of Akhenaten and that of the later religions appears to be the name of the God. As Akhenaten believed, so did the later faiths of the Judeo-Christian faiths that there is but one God, whose exclusivity and sole existence is inalienable, immutable and irreversible. Whatever the other core beliefs of these religions, the sole common thread between them is the concept of one God. Moreover, like him, adherents of these faiths, too, believed in forcing the concept of one God, while denying the existence of all other Gods, or polytheism itself upon the people with whom they came into contact. It cannot be denied that one of the standpoints upon which later religions, especially Christianity and Islam spread to various parts of the world was monotheism. So, in this sense, can it be argued that Akhenaten sowed the seeds of these beliefs that were to get crystallized in later centuries, and cause much tumult in several parts of the world?

A popular interpretation of the extent to which later religions borrowed from Akhenaten’s beliefs is the issue surrounding the inspiration his Great Hymn to the Aten is believed to have been for Psalm 104 of the Bible. There is a fairly widely held proposition that the praise and descriptions of the merciful qualities of the God in this psalm appear heavily borrowed from his hymn. It is particularly noteworthy that it is in this psalm that the word Hallelujah first appears in the Bible; the fact that the word means ‘praise the lord’ lends credence to the thought that Akhenaten’s hymn to Aten must have inspired the Bible’s section of the praise of the lord. (Cassiodorus 49)

The rightful place, as the world’s first known monotheist cannot be denied to Akhenaten, as “…Akhenaten or his teachers went farther than a monotheistic worship of the sun itself He saw behind the sun a Deity unnamed and unnameable, “the Lord of the Disk.” We see in his heresy, therefore, the highest development of religious ideas before the days of the Hebrew prophets.”  (Hall 300)

This, however, seems the only similarity. As far as taking the goal of planting their religious beliefs upon people to its limits was concerned, Akhenaten’s idea was nipped in the bud, as we have seen, when the priests began the process of uprooting his ideas from the people’s minds immediately after his death. On the other hand, to followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition of monotheism, enforcing this ideal was a cherished policy, the pursuit of which was taken up with increasing enthusiasm with every passing generation. These zealous actions were to change the lives and beliefs of millions across Europe, the Latin Americas and later West Asia.

Written By Ravindra G Rao

Works Cited

Alliot. “Notes.”  Temples of Ancient Egypt.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. 239-317.

Arnold, Dieter, et al. Temples of Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Cassiodorus. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms. Vol. 3. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

David, Rosalie, and Antony E. David. A Biographical Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: Seaby, 1992.

Gardiner, Alan. Egypt of the Pharaohs An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. Questia.

Hall, H. R. The Ancient History of the Near East: From the Earliest Times to the Battle of Salamis. 2nd ed. London: Methuen, 1913.

Hart, George. A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Rice, Michael. Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt. London: Routledge, 1999.

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