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In Our Time: Akhenaten

Back in the summer while In Our Time wasn’t airing new episodes we dug back through the archives and found a (rare) Egyptian related one that we didn’t think we’d listened to before – about Akhenaten, which aired in 2009. The experts on the programme were Richard Parkinson (British Museum), Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford) and Kate Spence (University of Cambridge). (As it’s so old affiliations of the experts have probably changed.)

They started with a little bit of scene setting and overview of Akhenaten’s reign, placing him in context. He was one of the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom period. This was a particularly prosperous time in Egypt’s history, Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep III in particular can be considered as ruling over a Golden Age. When Akhenaten came to the throne he seemed much like a conventional Pharaoh. He initially used the more traditional name Amenhotep IV, and built and decorated traditional seeming temple architecture. But the experts pointed out that one initial sign of the differences that were to come is that his temple decoration only has scenes of himself offering to solar deities rather than to the full suite of the Egyptian pantheon. After only a few years his reign becomes more unconventional – first he starts to transition from the old state religion to a new one that only worships the Aten (the sun disc) via himself and his wife. Then he moves the capital from Thebes to a brand new city he orders built at the site we now call Amarna. The old religion is abolished, and the name of Amun (the previous chief deity) is removed from all inscriptions. When Akhenaten died in Year 17 of his reign (c.1335 BCE) there was a period of chaos which ended with the restoration of the old religion, and an attempt to remove Akhenaten’s name from history.

As you can tell from that précis Akhenaten made sweeping changes to Egyptian life and culture. The way they discussed it on the programme made me think of Pol Pot in Cambodia, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China: a top down concerted effort to erase and reset the cultural history of a nation. Most of the rest of the programme was spent discussing these changes and the impact they had on Egyptians of the time. They broke down the changes into four major areas: changes to the religion, changes to the art, changes to the language, and the movement of the political centre of the country.

Religious change had happened in Egypt before, but generally as a slow process involving different gods becoming more or less prominent over a long period of time (for instance Amun wasn’t always the main state god and didn’t really move into that position until the New Kingdom). Akhenaten’s changes were abrupt and went far beyond just which god was most important. The large pantheon was replaced with the single god, the Aten. Gone were anthropomorphic representations of deities – the Aten was only to be shown as a sun disc with rays reaching to give life to the Pharaoh and his wife. And gone was all the accumulated mythology associated with the old gods. Even the architectural style of the temples was different – the old temples were dark enclosed places, the new ones were larger, exposed to the sunlight and more airy in feel. The changes were all designed to honour the sun as the source of everything needed for life. One of the experts (Frood, I think?) suggested that Akhenaten’s new belief system might even have been more of a natural philosophy than a religion – that he was something more akin to an atheist than we generally think. There was also a general consensus amongst the experts that there was a megalomaniac flavour to his new religion – the Pharaoh was now centred in both the religion and the art. Instead of symbolic scenes of hunting or fishing one the walls nobles’ tombs from this era there are scenes of the Pharaoh giving gifts to the noble in question. The cult is as much about Akhenaten as it is about the Aten.

The art of Akhenaten’s reign is also a great departure from previous Egyptian art styles. Once he changes the state religion depictions of the Pharaoh become really quite weird to our eyes. He is depicted with pendulous breasts, wide hips and a strangely elongated face. At one time scholars thought that this meant Akhenaten was deformed, but nowadays the consensus is that it was just an art style not a direct representation of how he really looked. Backing this up is that Nefertiti is also depicted that way in some places. But in other ways the new art feels less alien to us than the standard Egyptian style. Akhenaten and Nefertiti are frequently depicted with their children, sharing tender family moments, rather than just in formal unrealistic poses. The linguistic changes in the Akhenaten era also follow this increased informality – even texts such as the Hymn to the Aten, which is very much in a formal context, are written with an informal style. The experts suggested that this might reflect the actual speech patterns of the time.

On the boundary stelae for the new city at Amarna Akhenaten justifies the move of his capital by referring things having been “bad” at Thebes – tho he doesn’t explain what he means by bad. He also says that the site was picked because the Aten told him to build his city there. It’s notable that from the river at that point there’s a stretch of the cliff face that looks like a horizon hieroglyph, which may be one of the ways that the Aten indicated the right site. More pragmatically, it’s in a central location between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which is politically useful. The site hadn’t been used for settlement before, and wasn’t afterwards until much much closer to the modern day. One of the experts (I forget who) said that that’s because it’s a stupid place to put a city! It’s poor in resources, and mostly desert, so didn’t long outlast Akhenaten himself. This is rather good for modern archaeologists, as it gives a snapshot of Egypt at a particular brief time period and it’s not been significantly disturbed or built on since.

The impact of all these changes on the elite of society was significant, and probably rather traumatic. The Egyptian culture was very conservative. Their concept of Ma’at, or order, made a religious necessity out of doing things they way they had been done before. So normally a Pharaoh would make a big deal out of how he was doing things as his father and his father’s father etc had done before him. Even if what he was doing wasn’t actually the same as what his father had done … But Akhenaten was overtly bringing in something new and saying it was better than what had gone before. Not everyone would’ve been upset, of course, and some may well have welcomed the changes – there are definitely high ranking individuals who change their names to reflect the new beliefs, although we can’t tell if this was for pragmatic reasons or religious belief. But the old certainties were gone, the festivals that measured out the year weren’t happening, the familiar symbolism wasn’t used any more, and the comforting idea of an afterlife forever with the gods wasn’t there any more. They did talk about the lower levels of society a bit – but didn’t really talk about how the loss of the festivals would affect them, which I was a bit surprised by. I’d’ve thought that would’ve been one of the areas that would have a lot of impact on your average peasant – measuring out the year by when you see the priests process with the god’s shrine. They did talk about the shrines to the old gods that have been found in private houses in Akhenaten’s new city – signs that the change from old to new religion wasn’t complete. But they didn’t talk about the idea that the household and state religions were separate things – so I’m not sure if they disagreed with this or if there just wasn’t time to discuss it.

One thing they did discuss is how we know just enough about this period and it’s just familiar enough in feel that people project their own desires onto the evidence we do have. For instance, Akhenaten has often been held up as the “world’s first monotheist” and then turned into Moses or inspiration for Moses or something that lets the theoriser believe that “obviously” he’s prefiguring Judaism or even Christianity with his new religion. The experts then danced delicately round the point that Akhenaten being an atheist or natural philosopher is also one of these situations – it’s just it’s the one that appeals most to modern archaeologists rather than early 20th Century ones.