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Akenhaten (reigned c1352 - 1336 BC) inherited a wealthy, peaceful
kingdom but his religious fervor almost destroyed the most powerful
empire in the ancient world.
In 1352 BC, Egypt was the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. It was also at peace, thanks to the diplomatic skills of the previous pharaoh, Amenhotep III.
But all this was about to change. During his reign, he had grown wary of the wealth and power of Egypt's priests, particularly those worshipping the god Amen-Re. He had begun to show an interest in Aten, the sun god.
At first, Amenhotep IV, the new pharaoh, changed very little. He encouraged new forms of art that daringly rejected old conventions, but otherwise life carried on much as before. Behind the scenes however, the seeds of a religious revolution were being set.
Gradually, Amenhotep IV reined in the priests. He built on his father's
interest in Aten and took it further than anyone ever imagined.
The new pharaoh switched his attention completely to Aten. He even changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akenhaten, which meant 'Living Spirit of the Aten'.
He then decreed that only Aten would be worshipped in Egypt, with the pharaoh as the only priest. This ended the priesthood of Amen-Re altogether. The temples of Amen-Re were closed and the priests evicted. Akenhaten was the first pharaoh to practice monotheism - the worship of a single god.
Moving on out
Then Akenhaten went one huge step further. To seal this break with the past, he ordered the construction of a brand new capital city on a desolate site called Amarna, north of Thebes.
When Amarna was completed, the entire city of Thebes was told to pack up and move out. Every aspect of government was relocated. All in all, some 20,000 people traveled the 200 miles to this massive new city.
A place in the sun
Amarna was vast - eight miles long and three miles wide. Four enormous palaces were surrounded by ornamental lakes and gardens. Dominating the city was the great temple of the Aten, open to the sun and surrounded by wide roads and open spaces.
Akenhaten moved into Amarna with his beautiful chief queen, Nefertiti, and his six daughters. Surviving images show Akenhaten as a happy, family man who loved his wife and enjoyed playing with his daughters.
Deaths in the family
Life in Amarna was good and, in his twelfth year as pharaoh, Akenhaten organized a large celebration to give thanks and offerings to Aten. Ambassadors came from all over to deliver their tribute and even the elderly Queen Tiy attended. At the head of all the proceedings were Akenhaten and Nefertiti.
But in the midst of this triumph, Nefertiti died. She was followed soon afterwards by Queen Tiy and one of his daughters. The pharaoh felt these losses deeply and took his fury out on Egypt's traditional gods, particularly Amen-Re.
An end to tolerance
Akenhaten abandoned his earlier tolerance of other gods, and began a campaign against them. He sent out armies of men to remove all mentions of Amen-Re from the temple walls. He even insisted that the 'Amen' part of his father's name be removed wherever it was found, including his tomb [experts].
This obsession was affecting his reign. Egypt headed towards bankruptcy and Akenhaten began to lose touch with the outside world. He ignored letters that poured in from his subjects, warning of the dangers to the empire and pleading for help.
A timely death?
|Akenhaten's staue lies amongst the ruins in Amarna
His neglect of the diplomacy that his father had used so effectively brought major dangers. Egypt's old enemies, the Hittites and the Assyrians, grew in strength and posed a serious threat. Egypt lost prestige and allies. The empire was in danger of collapsing.
But before disaster struck, Akenhaten died. Almost immediately, once-loyal courtiers and officials rushed back to Thebes, eager to retrieve order from the new chaos. Amarna quickly became a ghost town, while Aten was abandoned in favor of the comfort of old traditions and more familiar gods. Akenhaten's great revolution was over.
Where to next:
Women in Power - Nefertiti
Religion in the New Kingdom