Failure of Akhenaton’s Cultural Revival Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Akhenaton attempted to establish a new religion based on the worship of Aton, building a new city where the god could be honored, but the new faith never caught on among the Egyptian people.

Summary of Event

In about 1350 b.c.e., Akhenaton, whose father was Amenhotep III, became pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom (c. 1570-c. 1069) of Egypt. Akhenaton began his reign as Amenhotep IV with his capital at Thebes. There is an apparently insoluble dispute about his age at the time he succeeded to the throne, a question of some importance in the light of the claims he made for his achievements. Akhenaton Amenhotep III Nefertiti

The reign of Akhenaton’s predecessor, Amenhotep III, had been a long and peaceful one of nearly forty years marked by military expeditions in the first decade and followed by three decades of affluent ease. During the latter period, there was a remarkable outpouring of artistic talent resulting in splendid architectural achievements. Amenhotep III was influenced by his queen, Tiy, the daughter of a commoner who became the mother of Akhenaton. In the last decade of his reign, Amenhotep was a sick man, unable to attend to affairs of government. Meanwhile, Syria was restive, and Egypt was suffering from sporadic attacks by invaders. When the outlying districts sent pleas to the capital for military help, their requests were ignored. Conditions called for a vigorous new ruler. Instead, Egypt received a man who was, if not a religious extremist, certainly eccentric.

Akhenaton.

(Library of Congress)

It is essential to have some grasp of traditional Egyptian religion to penetrate the meaning of the religious movement inaugurated by Akhenaton. Although Egyptian religion was polytheistic and allowed for the worship of distinctive local gods in various regions, Amen, the god of Thebes, had for all intents and purposes become the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon. Amen, “the hidden one,” was exemplified or manifest in the wind and also in breath, the life source of all living creatures.

Another god universally acknowledged among all Egyptians was Ra, the sun god. When Amen and Ra became conceptualized as a single god, Amen-Ra, combining the mysterious life-producing forces of air and the sun, Egypt had come close to the worship of a supreme and universal god. It was a worship built on a theology that saw the gods as essentially immanent in nature because knowledge was not yet sophisticated enough to permit the conception of the sun and wind as purely physical phenomena.

Therefore, at the time of Akhenaton’s accession, Egyptian worship was experiencing a growing unification, and along with this tendency, the priesthood was becoming centralized. The priestly class had actually grown so much in wealth and concomitant political power that a struggle between the ecclesiastical and the secular power blocs had begun to arise.

What Akhenaton attempted was a radical reform of the prevailing cult of Amen-Ra. The evidence, relatively abundant for so remote a period, is both archaeological and literary. Among the important documents are letters containing both sides of a diplomatic correspondence.

Akhenaton built an entire city for his god Aton at Akhetaton (now Tell el-ՙAmârna, Egypt), midway between Thebes and Memphis. Here, monuments bear witness to a god represented as a disk or sun, with rays terminating in hands that sometimes hold to the noses of the king and members of the royal family the hieroglyphic sign for “life.” Along with the missionary effort to propagate the new faith went a vigorous iconoclastic movement. Images of Amen, who was now seen as a rival to Aton, were ruthlessly destroyed, and the names of those who had promoted his cult, particularly that of Amenhotep III, were effaced from inscriptions. The change of the king’s own title from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaton was a part of this movement.

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How far the religious reform was accompanied by an effort to break the power of the priests of Amen is a matter of conjecture, with varying interpretations. The dogmatic ideas of the new religion are best expressed in the famous hymn to Aton, ascribed to Akhenaton himself. This psalmlike composition reflects a belief in a supreme provident god who resembles the God of the later Judeo-Christian tradition. These similarities led some historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to see in Akhenaton’s religion a monotheism that prefigured, if it did not actually influence, the Hebrew idea of one supreme, universal, and transcendent God. Apart from this problem, the hymn stands as a classic of ancient religious literature.

Actually, Akhenaton’s religious movement was a failure in almost every respect. On the strictly religious side, it did not take hold of the people, who went on worshiping their old gods in familiar ways. Indeed, the cult of Aton seems to have been restricted almost completely to Akhenaton, his family, and the immediate entourage at Akhetaton, the new capital. The rigidly monotheistic religion of Akhenaton had little appeal to the ordinary Egyptian who saw manifestations, or even emanations, of the divine in all phenomena. The Aton cult ran counter to the popular polytheistic worldview that seemed more tolerant of the complexities of observed realities.

Politically and militarily, Akhenaton’s reign was devoid of any outstanding accomplishment, a fact that is generally attributed to his absorption in his attempted religious reform and his lethargy concerning matters of government. In the field of art, however, the era marked a decided turn to a more naturalistic style. Instead of the stylized figures that had become typical of Egyptian art for more than a thousand years, the sculptures depicting Akhenaton are characterized by a photographic realism. The king himself is depicted as a rather grotesque, ill-shapen man, his defects set off by the beauty of his wife, Nefertiti. There are extant a number of groups showing Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and several of their daughters in domestic scenes that until that time were not considered fit subjects for public art.

Significance

Although the importance of the religious, political, and cultural aspects of Akhenaton’s reform are considerable, it was in no sense typical of Egyptian civilization, and there is no evidence of the movement’s lasting influence. A few years after his death, a deliberate and successful effort was made to obliterate traces of the cult of Aton. As Akhenaton had caused the very name of Amen-Ra to be erased from monuments—although it could not be eradicated from people’s minds—so Akhenaton himself was subjected to the same treatment. Labeled the “heretic king,” Akhenaton had his name removed from the list of kings by his successor.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten, King of Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. A biography of Akhenaton from an Egyptologist. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freed, Rita E., Yvonne J. Markowitz, and Sue H. D’Auria, eds. Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with Bulfinch Press and Little, Brown, 1999. This catalog from an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1999-2000 shows art related to Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hari, Robert. New Kingdom Amarna Period: The Great Hymn to Aten. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985. A look at the hymn to Aton composed by Akhenaton and its religious significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hornung, Erik. Akhenaton and the Religion of Light. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. An examination of Akhenaton that focuses on his religion, a form of monotheism. Examines the religion’s origins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montserrat, Dominic. Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient Egypt. New York: Routledge, 2000. A biography of the king of Egypt that examines his place in history and tries to separate fantasy from fact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murnane, William J., and Charles C. Van Siclen III. The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1993. This study of the stelae of Akhenston reproduces their text in English and Egyptian. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, C. N. Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001. A biography that looks at Akhenaton’s efforts to establish a new religion. Bibliography, index, maps.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Akhenaton; Nefertiti; Tiy; Tutankhamen. Akhenaton Akhenaton;Aton worship

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