City of the Heretic Pharaoh

akhenaten face-on

The reign of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV is unique amongst those of other rulers in Egyptian history. He adopted the name Akhenaten when he took the throne, and rather than repeating the conservative modes of kingship of his long line of predecessors he turned the whole system temporarily on its head. He was a spanner in the works, ushering in a revolutionary phase of ancient Egyptian history. In the process he upset a lot of powerful people with vested interests in maintaining the status quo, especially the existing priestly caste, which later made it their business to strike him literally out of the record.

The revolutionary Amarna Period

This Amarna Interlude as it is known saw the capital of Egypt moved from Thebes to Akhetaten in Middle Egypt. This was Akhenaten’s pet project and its ruins are nowadays at el-Amarna.

Akhetaten ruins

Akhenaten’s reign is all the more astonishing in that it shockingly witnessed the worship of just one god, the sun disc or Aten. This for Egypt in particular was a seismic event, as Egyptians from their earliest days had worshipped literally hundreds of anthropomorphic deities such as Isis and Osiris. Akhenaten and his famous wife Nefertiti introduced a whole new artistic style to Egypt, with the old formal rigidity of earlier statuary and art replaced by a remarkably fluid naturalism.

A doting father

Elongated heads are also characteristic of the Amarna Interlude. It is thought that Akhenaten may have suffered from Frohlich’s Syndrome because of his apparent skull malformation, elongated neck and excessive fat around the hips which give him an androgynous appearance in his surviving portraits.


Queen Nefertiti, in stark contrast, is often held up as a model of female beauty, based on the one unfinished limestone bust of her from a workshop of Thutmose the royal sculptor in Amarna.


The two of them are often shown in reliefs playing with their children and holding them up to the sun disc in a display of affection completely absent from earlier and later royal portraiture.

Royal pair

A pharaoh struck off the record

After Akhenaten’s reign things soon reverted back to normal in Egypt. His successors Smenkhkare and Tutankhamen reigned only briefly and Tutankhamen may even have been murdered. Thereafter the Amarna Interlude was determinedly struck from the official record. Akhenaten’s royal cartouches on the monuments were all chiselled out and his monumental statues smashed up, as if the heretic had never existed.

The brave new city of Akhetaten

The city of Akhetaten is important precisely because it was abandoned and anathematized after a very few years and is as a result of this the best preserved of all ancient Egyptian cities. It is bordered by the Nile on one side and by sheer cliffs on the other two, forming a natural amphitheatre. 15 huge stele stake out the city’s perimeter, and on them can still be seen damaged reliefs of the king and his wife adoring the sun disc in the company of their children.

A great avenue linking both ends of the city is known as the King’s Road. It is flanked by official buildings that include the royal palace and an innovative new temple to the Aten, the ubiquitous sun disc. The nobles’ palaces had an open-plan arrangement rather than being cramped together as was more common across the Near East at that time.

Worship of the sun disc

Today as visitors walk around the el-Amarna site, which is still being excavated, they’ll see that there’s no getting away from the Aten and its rays. The entire essence of the court and Amarna life was centred on the pharaoh and his god, the Aten. Representations of the royal family always show them under its protection, and all the scenes of farming and hunting too in the tomb reliefs make it clear that the land prospers only because of the great sun disc. Which is true, when you think about it.


A city abandoned in a hurry

There are tombs carved into the surrounding cliffs, intended for the city’s nobles, but these were never completed. If anyone had been buried in them it is likely that their relatives quickly removed them following the king’s death because of the swift and violent backlash against him afterwards.

For his own family tomb Akhenaten chose a deep ravine 6km outside the city, though the complex of tombs intended for himself, queen Nefertiti, his daughter Meketaten and his mother Queen Tiy were plundered in antiquity. Tomb robbing was common in ancient times but the reaction against Akhenaten, his extended family and all who were connected with him would account for much of the vandalism.

Akhenaten’s unwitting legacy

Akhenaten has been the subject of novels and operas and held up as the first true revolutionary, the world’s first real individual. These and other claims probably say more about his devotees and their own times than they do about the man himself, who was evidently no less autocratic than the earlier pharaohs.

He was certainly different, though, and his great city of Akhetaten unwittingly stands as his greatest achievement. Its failure as a royal metropolis and hurried abandonment have given archaeologists a unique insight into ancient Egypt that more successful cities like Thebes and Memphis ironically fail to provide.

Akhenaten in sun

Akhenaten doing his own thing

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