This week’s Digest is dedicated to all things Amarna—the place, the people, and the religion. Discussions, book recommendations, original photography and more.
Contributors: Géraldine Ashby, Yvonne Buskens, Stephen Cross, Tania Godwin-Evans, Lyn Green, Dennis van Hoorn, Heidi Kontkanen, Mark Lauria, David Ian Lightbody, Vicky Metafora, Richie O’Neill, Keith Payne, Jan Picton, Lily Quelquechose, Tim Reid, and Kartikeya Senapati.
Akhetaten, Called Amarna
Finding the Place of Origin
From Akhenaten and Nefertiti by Cyril Aldred
“Apart from the sanctuaries of the Aten at Karnak, buildings for the worship of the Disk were erected at other sites, from Heliopolis in the north to Sesebi in Sudan, but the king was obsessed with the ide of finding “the place of origin” where the Aten had first manifested itself at the creation of the world and of establishing there a resident city dedicated to his god. Other deities had such seats in the large towns where their worship had long been observed. Only the newcomer, the Aten, had no such place of habitation. Akhenaten claims to have been directed in his search by his heavenly father, the Aten itself. Under this divine guidance the spot in which the Aten originated turned out to be a huge natural amphitheater about eight miles in diameter lying on the east bank of the Nile almost exactly halfway between Memphis and Thebes. Amenhotep [Akhenaten] called this place Akhetaten, the Horizon or Seat of the Aten, but it is more commonly known today by the modern composite name of Tell el Amarna.” (p. 22)
Bound by Fourteen Stelae
From Amarna: Ancient Egypt’s Age of Revolution by Barbara Watterson.
“Work had begun on building Akhetaten by the fourth year of Akhenaten’s reign and proceeded apace. Within a year the city was formally dedicated to the Aten in a ceremony that was commemorated on three stelae carved into the cliffs at the northern and southern ends of the site. These stelae, which are known to Egyptologists by the letters X, M, and K, are now badly damaged and the dates on them illegible but may have been Regnal Year 5. Parts of the text remain and on each stele the King relates how he planned Akhetaten and dedicated it to the Aten. A year later, eight more stelae were cut at strategic points in the cliffs that formed the backdrop to city to the east; and another three across the river at the western edge of the wide fertile plain that stretches 12 miles across before it reaches the desert. The 14 Boundary Stelae, which marked the limits of the city and its rural hinterland, together described a rough circle so that the ‘Horizon of the Aten’ stretched from one sky-line to the other on both sides of the Nile. All the stelae show Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters worshipping the Aten…
“Akhenaten’s statements that he will ‘never pass beyond’ the boundaries marked by the stelae have been understood to mean that he was vowing never to leave Akhetaten. However, it is more probable that he was undertaking never to enlarge the city limits of Akhetaten, perhaps because it was conceived to be perfectly realised at the outset in conformity with the will of the Aten.” (pp. 79-80)
Boundary stele U at Tell el Amarna. It´s 7,6m high and on both sides, there are remains of statues of the royal family. Photo taken in 2009 when I visited the place for the first time. (Heidi Kontkanen)
Part of Akhenaten´s boundary stele A, at Tuna el-Gebel. Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and two of their daughters offering to Aton. The sun is reflecting nearly at the same spot, where Aton is. Visited the site in 2010. (Heidi Kontkanen)
Cloistered in Comfort
From Nefertiti: Egypt’s Sun Queen by Joyce Tyldesley
“Amarna’s main strength as a site also seems to have been its greatest weakness. The isolation that allowed Akhenaten to make a new start away from Egypt’s traditional deities ensured that his city, despite its status as the capital of a great empire, remained very much apart from the rest of Egypt. As Amarna went about its unique business of serving the king and the Aten, elsewhere in Egypt life continued very much as it had for centuries. However, it is Amarna’s very unsuitability which has ensured its preservation. Akhenaten’s city may well have suffered from decay and both ancient and modern looting, but it has been spared the complete destruction of Amarna period monuments which we find at Heliopolis and Thebes.
“Akhenaten intended his new city to be Egypt’s permanent capital, home of the one state god Aten and the bureaucracy which hitherto had been centered on Memphis. He seems to have rejected the old peripatetic style of kingship and, although we cannot state for certain that the king never left his new home, to have settled more or less permanently in the one base which fulfilled all of his needs. The city included a full complement of temples, royal residences, housing for the civil servants, army chiefs and priests, artisan housing and a burial ground…
“Akhenaten had almost unlimited wealth at his disposal…Nevertheless, the speed with which Amarna rose from the desert was impressive. Construciton had only started during Year 5, yet by the end of that year the royal family was ensconced in temporary quarters…By Year 9, the city was fully functional.” (pp. 112-116)
Reconstruction of the Small Aten Temple at Amarna. The restored columns that can be seen in the photo, stand in front of the sactuary. Photo is taken in 2009. (Heidi Kontkanen)
Shrine facade Amarna to be seen in Egyptian Museum Cairo JE 65041 (Yvonne Buskens, contrib.)
Akhenaten and Nefertiti
“Heretic or visionary? To describe Akhenaten as a heretic is easy but lazy. Argument has raged long and hard over the nature of Akhenaten’s inspiration. Was this a genuine religious conversion? Or was it merely an excuse to attack the increasingly powerful state priesthoods? Was Akhenaten a genius, or an unbalanced self-obsessive? Whatever his motivation it is clear that Akhenaten felt entirely free to distance himself from the traditions and expectations of Egyptian monarchy.” Joyce Tyldesley, The Pharaohs.
“Nefertiti (‘The beautiful one is come’). Principal wife of Akhenaten in the late 18th Dynasty. Her family background is uncertain: some scholars have speculated that she was a princess of Mitanni, but it is more likely that she was related to the family of Yiya, Tuya, and Ay. Her sister Mutnodjmet is probably identical with the woman of the same name who became the principal wife of Horemheb. Nefertiti bore Akhenaten six daughters, and played an unusually prominent role in the politics and religion of his court.” Toby Wilkinson, Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Ancient Egypt.
“In the new religion, Aten was the creator while Akhenaten and Nefertiti were his children. Together they formed a divine triad—ironically, the unit at the heart of the traditional Egyptian pantheon—but theirs was an exclusive claim to divinity. “ Toby Wilkinson, Lives of the Ancient Egyptians.
“Inscriptions tell us that it was the king himself who instructed his artists in the new style. Not only the human figure is affected by it, but also the way they interact. Scenes of the royal family display an intimacy such as had never before been shown in Egyptian art even among private individuals, let alone among royalty. They kiss and embrace under the beneficent rays of the Aten, whose love pervades all of his creation.” Jacobus Van Dijk, “The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom” in Ian Shaw’s The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.
Casting Call: Amarna the Movie
Amenhotep III: Father of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), Amenhotep IV was a New Kingdom sun king, coming to increasingly indentify himself with the god Aten during the final decade of his reign. Recommended: Ian McKellen.
Tiye: Mother of Akhenaten and dowager queen during his reign, Tiye was a powerful force to be reckoned with during the reign of the Sun King Amenhotep III, and even during her son’s reign, foreign dignitaries wrote to Tiye asking her to use her influence over her son. She fades somewhat into the background at Amarna and may have continued to worship the old gods when away from court. Recommended: Eartha Kitt
Akhenaten: Born Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten changed his name to reflect his commitment to his new religion, a form of monotheism centered on the Aten solar disk. Along with the name change, Akhenaten outlaws the old religions, moves the capital to the new city of Amarna, and cloisters himself, thr royal family, and most of the apparatus of state to his new desert theopolis. Also inspires (insists upon?) a new, decidedly unflattering style of artistic representation of the human form. Recommended: Barack Obama (don’t read anything into that, they just look alike.)
Nefertiti: Beauty and power meet in Queen Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti (Nefertiti for short), who married Akhenaten probably soon after he ascended the throne and remained uniquely prominent until Year 13, when she simply disappears into a mystery. Did she die? Was there a scandal? Or did she rematerialize as the elusive Pharaoh Smenkhkare, taking a page from Hatshepsut’s playbook? One thing is for certain, next to Tutankhamun’s burial mask, Nefertiti’s is the most recognizable face from ancient Egypt. Recommended: Sophia Loren.
Kiya: Another of Akhenaten’s wives, more can be suggested about Kiya than we know for certain, but the implications are just begging for drama. There is a possibility that Kiya is none other than Princess Tadukhepa, daughter of the King of Mitanni, who would have come to Akhenaten when he inherited his father’s harem. Kiya, like Nefertiti, disappears from view after Year 11, and almost all of her monuments were usurped by Akhenaten’s royal princesses. Kiya was known to have officiated alongside Akhenaten and even alone, so what became of her? Recommended: Lauren Bacall.
Meritaten: Eldest daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Princess Meritaten is the child most often depicted with the royal parents and in the family scenes that are famous from the art of this period. Meritaten became queen for a season when she married Smenkhkare, and then may have taken the throne herself for a while as Neferneferuaten. Incidentally, even if Nefertiti became Smenkhkare it would not be unprecedented for Meritaten to assume the role of her mother’s queen at court, as Hatshepsut and Princess Neferure had the same dynamic going on a few years earlier. Recommended: Jessica Biel.
Meketaten: Second daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Meketatan died around age 12, possibly in childbirth—the bowyer depicted in her death scene looks much like a birthing bowyer. As the terrible mourning depicted in her death scene indicates, the early death of Meketaten shook Amarna to its foundations, closing Act I of our tragedy. Recommended: Young Natalie Portman.
Ankhesenpaaten: Third daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and future wife of Prince Tutankhuaten. In time she and her brother will change their names to Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun respectively to reflect the change from the new Amara Atenist religion back to the old state religions as Akhenaten’s revolution joins him in his tomb. Recommended: Yara Shahidi.
Tutankhuaten: The young pharaoh-to-be, Tutankhuaten would change his name to Tutankhamun and make a pretty good show of being king, given the powerful and intriguing personalities who will come to surround him, but for now he is lost in the sheltered magic of Amarna. Recommended: Zekeria Ebrahimi
Supporting roles: Michael Fassbender as the anthropomorphic Aten; Christopher Lee as Set; Sean Bean as Amun; special appearance by Danny Divito as Bes.
From Lives of the Ancient Egyptians by Toby Wilkinson
“Bak: Sculptor Who Led an Artistic Revolution”
“Bak grew up in an artistic family. His father, Men, was chief sculptor in the reign of Amenhotep III, and had married a woman from Heliopolis (ancient Iunu) named Ry. Bak, in turn, enthered the family profession, rising to the position of ‘chief sculptor in the great and mighty monuments of the king in the house of the Aten at Akhetaten (Amarna)’.
“The art of the Amarna Period, especially that from the early part of Akhenaten’s reign, is utterly distinctive. The elongation of the head, the distortion of the body’s proportions, the androgyny in royal representations—these were bold departures from the accepted norms, and must have been sanctioned at the highest levels…Bak confirms the source of the new art style, describing himself as ‘a disciple whom His Person [Akhenaten] himself instructed’. We must therefore imagine Akhenaten, at the beginning of his reign, laying down the guidelines for his artistic revolution to his leading painters and sculptors…
“Bak clearly took the king at his word and embraced the royal directive with enthusiasm. Like all converts to Akhenaten’s ‘Teaching’ who relied on royal patronage for their continued status, Bak was a passionate advocate of the new way of doing things…As chief sculptor, Bak supervised a team of craftsmen, and was responsible for training them in the new style. One of the finest products of his workshop was his own commemorative stela…it is tempting to speculate that Bak carved the stela himself. He would, after all, have been the most accomplished sculptor of his day. Could the work of an inferior talent possibly have satisfied him for his own memorial? If this is correct, Bak’s stela is the oldest self-portrait in history.” (pp. 203-4).
Stephen Cross offers the above photo of what might be another self-portrait of Bak, with this description: “I took this in Luxor Temple, the second court, decorated under Tutankhamun, usurped by Horemheb, but this man is holding a chisel, a sculptor. He may be the man who carved the decoration and added a self portrait, possibly Bak himself? His name is written next to him, B.K., so it must be him!”
Over Coffee &/or Tea: Chatting Akhenaten’s Religion
The point has been raised that Akhenaten’s monotheism was not strictly monotheist. For example, he has been depicted worshipping the Apis Bull and some of his statues are in Osiriform. So what was Akhenaten trying to do?
Kartikeya Senapati: Well, in fact he destroyed and defaced so many Temples of the Gods (also images of the Gods in the tombs…..), that it is impossible to think that he was a devotee of the Gods of Egypt. However it is true that sometimes the representations of Osiris were not destroyed by him, perhaps for the fear of such an awesome God. But defacing the images of his own father, the Great King Amenhotep III, in fact he defaced the images of Osiris.
Vicky Metafora: The ONE Is ALL!!! The Ancient Egyptians believed in One God who was self-produced, self-existent, immortal, invisible, eternal, omniscient, almighty, etc. This One God was never represented. It is the functions and attributes of his domain that were represented. These attributes were called the neteru. The term, gods, is a misrepresentation of the Egyptian term, neteru. This assumption together with the data coming from Art indicating clearly a need for changing, suggests me that maybe Akhenaten just wanted a more spiritual life … I’m trying to say that The Pharaoh, representing Egyptian society spiritual barometer, he took on himself the responsibility to drastically change things…
Lyn Green: The concept of “god” in ancient Egypt has been discussed by many scholars. [Jan] Assman has argued for a concept of god as distinct from “gods”: The Search for God in Ancient Egypt: 1.4 “God” versus “Gods”. He is critical of Hornung’s approach, but [Erik] Hornung offers a balanced historical overview of the development of modern thought regarding monotheism in ancient Egypt: “Akhenaten and the Religion of Light.”
Tania Godwin-Evans: Amenhotep III described himself as the Aten so Akhenaten could be worshipping his father.
Lyn Green: The concept that “neteru” are manifestations of one unseen god and were understood as such seems to be something is not addressed in these terms in recent Egyptological literature, although it informs a number of non-scholarly websites which have their own idiosyncratic descriptions of Egyptian theology in which they attempt to reconcile Judaeo-Christian beliefs with ancient Egyptian religion.
Kartikeya Senapati: Yes Vicky, the One is All and the All is One, but, as teaches for examples Proclus in the Commentary to the Timeus of Plato, without the Gods mortals cannot realize nor understand the “Unity of the All”. This Unity, also called Monism, and not “monotheism”, was well known in the Egyptian Religion, and indeed Monism is one of the basis of all the ancient religions, Hinduism included. For example Isis was worshipped and represented as Isis Panthea, the One Goddess of All, and in the aretalogy of Isis in the work of Apeleius it is said that Isis is the One…… Also Amon is represented as the One with the attributes of all the Gods and Goddesses, for example in many magic gems; and again, for example in the Litany of Ra, Ra is praised with the names of all the Gods and Goddesses.
Monism and monotheism are completely different, the first lead to the realization of the Unity of the Divine; the second lead only to ignorance and destruction. And indeed only the followers of the monotheistic creeds deface and destroy the Temples and the images of the Gods….
Lyn Green: But this is not ancient Egyptian religion! It is modern philosophy. A clear distinction must be made between beliefs which are followed by moderns, based on their interpretation of ancient Egyptian ideas filtered through centuries of other religions, and what it says in the actual ancient Egyptian texts.
Keith Payne: I might be mistaken, but I think Gerald Massey was the first to make the argument that neteru were not literal gods but aspects of the one god. Part of his argument was that the word “nature” comes from the ancient Egyptian word neteru, and that the gods were “natures” of the God. But Massey liked to make a lot of leaps of faith regarding the relationships of words, i.e., the anointed mummy = karast = christ = the anointed mummy.
To me it is more interesting to note the peculiar similarities between some aspects of some religions than to try and find a causative link. Otherwise you end up with entire otherwise technically sound theses hinged upon one or two unlikely assumptions. Massey was pretty good at systems that were aesthetically pleasing to those of us capable of geeking out on it, but alas, a house of cards is a house of cards!
Lyn Green: Syncretistic interpretations of ancient religions were massively popular in the 20th century: Theodore Gaster, Joseph Campbell et al.
Vicky Metafora: Moustafa Gadalla is my font… tks for suggestions!!
Lyn Green: I am not familiar with Mr. Gadalla. A quick google shows that he seems to be more “new age” than “New Kingdom”
Vicky Metafora: I like outsiders.
Lyn Green: If you are interested in ancient Egyptian thought, I would highly recommend the works of Hornung and Assman. But Gadalla doesn’t seem to be aware of much scholarly research into ancient Egypt and his qualifications seem rather sketchy. He is an engineer and seems to have a particular axe to grind, which is unrelated to ancient Egypt itself.
Vicky Metafora: I’ll keep it in mind … but scholars are not always right!!! With all my respect!!!
Lyn Green: Well, with respect, more likely than someone who is making up their own religion, like Mr. Gadalla. There are many wonderful books and articles discussing ancient Egyptian religion, particularly its theology, which are written by people who can translate all the forms of ancient Egyptian: Old, Middle, Late, Demotic.
There is a short but good description of Egyptian thought about myths and theology in [Francoise Dunand, Christiane Zivie-Coche, and David Lorton’s] Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE.
Vicky Metafora: Thanks a lot… these three are a good start.
Lyn Green: At this point I could digress for a little tribute to the late David Lorton, without whom many of these books would not be available to those who read only English. Dr. Lorton was involved in the translation of many, many books relating to Egyptian religion and theology, as well as being the author of some seminal articles himself. I’d link to one of his papers which is still online, but I fear that I would be severely punished by Facebook for sharing 18+ material.
An academic, but non-Egyptologist, view of Egyptian religion is offered by Tom Hare in “ReMembering Osiris: Number, Gender, and the Word in Ancient Egyptian”. I cannot say that I am keen on the way he deals with academic discourse with which he does not agree, but it is worth a read for those really interested in Egyptian religion…Hare could have refrained from personal remarks about scholars actually working *in* the field which he is criticising.
David Ian Lightbody: Well I think we need to look at state religion as a mechanism of the rulers. What Akhenaten did was entirely consistent with previous efforts to manage Egypt – in accordance with the laws of Ma’at. He was legitimising his preferred policies to rule the country they way he wanted. Politically, Akhenaten wanted to make a renewed power grab for the royal family, and take power back from the priests and nobles, so he tried to legitimise that approach by recreating Egyptian belief as it had been when the pharaoh was god – the Old Kingdom. In his eyes he was recreating Egypt as it had been; when the pharaoh was a demi-god and the center of the universe. Louis XIV of France did something similar, as he became The Sun King. I think we need to be careful of getting lost in the arcane discussions of religion and monotheism, and stick to looking at religion as a cultural belief system of the people and state. That’s my take!
Yvonne Buskens informs us that:
“The sarcophagus from Akhenaten was found in pieces in the Royal Tomb in Amarna. This piece is in the Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung in Berlin (14524) and shows Nefertiti (corner piece). I believe that the sarcophagus (reassembled from other pieces ) is now in Cairo Museum (without this piece!)
“You can read more about the Royal Tomb in this free download from The Amarna Project.”
Tomb of Ramose (Egyptian Monuments): Vicky Metafora shared this page from to Su Bayfield’s wonderful Egyptian Monuments blog. Says Su: “Ramose was ‘Governor of the Town’ (Thebes) and Vizier during the Dynasty XVIII transition of the reigns of Amenhotep III and IV. His tomb in the village area of Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna reflects his important position in the royal court and it is interesting because it represents the change in style towards ‘Amarna art’”
The Amarna Project: Lyn Green shares this important site, “Site for the work of the Amarna Project, headed by Barry Kemp, downloadable back issues of Horizon Newsletter.”
Amarna Virtual 3D Museum: Géraldine Ashby presents this fun and informative link.
M. A. Mansoor Amarna Collection: Yvonne Buskens provides this link to the Mansoor collection of artifacts.
The El-Amarna Letters Online: This online initiative was scoped out by Dennis van Hoorn, who shared it with us.
Vicky Metafora provided this link to Amarna-related pdf’s available for download.
Vicky Metafora provided this link to download Sameh Maqar’s great little “Amarna: Ancient Egypt’s Place in the Sun.”
Yvonne Buskens shared this article on the “In Light of Amarna” Exhibition: “New Light and New News on Nefertiti.”
Yvonne Buskens found this article on Nefertiti, “New light shed on the life of Nefertiti.”
Vicky Metafora shared this link to an online edition of Flinders Petrie’s “Tell El Amarna.”
Yvonne Buskens found this link to an article on Queen Kiya, Akhenaten’s second wife, compiled by the wonderful Anneke Bart.
Yvonne Buskens shares another of Anneke Bart’s articles, this one on The Tombs at Amarna.
Dennis van Hoorn shared this from his blog: “Re-Examining Nefertiti’s Likeness and Life” by Matthias Schulz.
Also from Dennis’ informative blog: “Akhenaten and the Amarna Period” by Kate Spence.
Lyn Green recommends Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt by Dominic Montserrat. “It may fascinate people; it may make them angry; however, I think that it takes a dispassionate (if slightly ironic) view of the phenomenon of Amarnaphilia and Amarna studies that are worth keeping in mind as we read the latest news releases.”
Jan Picton remarks “Why ‘controversial’? Dominic was a highly respected scholar and his analysis of Amarnaphilia (great word, Lyn!) was spot on. The travelling exhibition he curated for the Petrie Museum – ‘Digging for Dreams’ – explored the same themes about people’s responses to ancient Egypt (and won the National Award for Excellence in 2002). I have to declare an interest since I did some drawings for both, and even more so as Dominic still remains among my personal top 5 of most influential ‘thinkers’ in Egyptology. And I can’t tell you how much I still miss him.”
Lyn Green suggests Arielle Kozloff’s “Chips Off Old Stones: Carving the Amenhotep IV Colossi at Karnak” in the current issue of KMT. Lyn adds: “A rebuttal article to Kozloff’s has come out in Winter 2012-2013 KMT.”
Jan Picton highly recommends Barry Kemp’s “excellent, rational” The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People. From the description:
“A city of temples, palaces, offices and elite tombs, and simultaneously a city of small-scale mud-brick dwellings, Amarna was an ‘urban village’, where most of its citizens were only two or three steps removed in the social scale from the king himself. Barry Kemp evokes the sights and smells of Amarna, bringing to life its people – not only the royal family, but also prominent citizens such as the high priest Panehsy, the vizier Nakht, the general Ramose and the sculptor Thutmose, whose bust of Nefertiti is one of the masterpieces of ancient art.”
“Do you think Akhenaten knew that the correspondence with his Great Brother Kings of the ancient world was conducted in cuneiform Akkadian and that Egypt really wasn’t the centre of the universe? Just saying…” –Jan Picton
Tim Reid of The Egyptians posted a review of Barbara Mertz’s “Temple, Tombs & Hieroglyphs” to his website.
Yvonne Buskens shared this from Owen Jarus, “Oops! Brain-Removal Tool Left in Mummy’s Skull.” Oops indeed!
Mark Lauria shared: Polish archaeologists find unknown tomb in Egypt.
Yvonne passes this on: 3D Imaging Helps Understand the Role of Birds in Ancient Egypt.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2012. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photography is either in the public domain or is released under a Creative Commons license. All other photography is used by permission, all rights reserved.