John Florens | Jul 10, 2022

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Akhenaten, sometimes also Ekhnaten, Ikhnaten, but for the first 5 years of his reign Amenophis IV or Amenhotep IV (Thebes, c. 1375 B.C.E. - Akhetaten, 1334

He is famous for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism in favor of a new henotheistic, monolatristic religion (that is, one that maintained belief in multiple deities while worshiping only one, introduced by himself and based on the worship of the single god Aton, the solar disk. His hard-fought religious revolution proved ephemeral. A few years after his death, his monuments were concealed or torn down, his statues broken or recycled, and his name erased from royal lists. Traditional religious practices were gradually restored, and the rulers who founded a new dynasty a few decades later, with no ties to the 18th Dynasty, discredited Akhenaten and his immediate successors (Neferneferuaten, Smenkhara, Tutankhamun, and Ay), calling Akhenaten himself "the enemy of Akhetaten." Because of this damnatio memoriae, Akhenaten was completely forgotten until the discovery in the 19th century of the archaeological site of Akhetaten (Horizon of Aton), the new capital he founded and dedicated to the cult of Aton, near present-day Amarna. Excavations begun by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1891, and completed in 1937, sparked great interest in this enigmatic pharaoh. A mummy discovered in 1907 by Edward Ayrton in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings may have been his; recent DNA analysis has established that the man discovered in KV55 was the father of King Tutankhamen, but the identification of these remains with Akhenaten is much debated.

Modern interest in Akhenaten and his great royal bride Nefertiti derives in part from his connection to Tutankhamun (although the young pharaoh's mother was not Nefertiti, but an unknown woman whom Egyptologists have dubbed The Younger Lady), as well as from the artistic current he fostered and his revolutionary religious ideas.

First part of the reign: Amenhotep IV

The future Akhenaten was a younger son of Amenhotep III and the great royal bride Tiy. Their eldest son, Crown Prince Thutmose, Amenhotep III's designated successor, died relatively young under completely unknown circumstances in the third decade of his father's reign: thus it was that Prince Amenhotep unexpectedly became Crown Prince.

Debate exists regarding the possible succession of Amenhotep IV upon the death of his father, opposed to the theory of a co-regency between Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (lasting as long as 12 years according to some Egyptologists). Current studies, including those by Eric Cline, Nicholas Reeves, Peter Dorman and other scholars, strongly oppose the hypothesis of a long co-regency between father and son and opt for a short period of shared reign (1 or 2 years) or no co-regency at all. Other studies, published by Donald Redford, William Murnane, Alan Gardiner and, most recently, Lawrence Berman, in 1998, rule out co-regency altogether. There is no definitive evidence of co-regency between Amenhotep III and his son Amenhotep IV. A letter from the archives of the palace of Amarna, dated in year 2 (rather than year 12) of Amenhotep IV's reign, from the Mithannic king Tushratta, contains expressions of regret that Amenhotep IV would not fulfill Amenhotep III's promises to forward to Tushratta certain gold statues agreed upon as dowry at the time of the marriage between the old pharaoh and the Mithannic princess Tadukhipa (Amarna Letters, EA 27). Such correspondence implies that when there was a co-regency between father and son, it would not have lasted more than a year (since the aforementioned letter implies Amenhotep III's death within Akhenaten's year 2).

On the third pillar of Amenhotep III at the Karnak Temple Complex, a relief (damaged due to the damnatio memoriae that befell Akhenaten and other proponents of the Aton cult) shows Amenhotep III and his son, the future Akhenaten, on a sacred boat. The great pharaoh would be presenting his son to Amun. The inscription below reads:

In February 2014, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced what has been called conclusive evidence that Akhenaten would have shared power with Amenhotep III for at least eight years, based on findings in the tomb of the vizier Amenhotep-Huy. The tomb in question is being studied by an international team led by the Instituto de Estudios del Antiguo Egipto de Madrid and Dr. Martin Valentin. The evidence consists of the cartouches, of both Amenhotep III and Akhenaten, engraved next to each other; however, this could merely mean that Amenhotep III had already designated Prince Amenhotep as his successor before his death. There are no other objects or inscriptions naming father and son simultaneously, assigning each the same royal titles. Egyptologist and epigraphist Peter F. Dorman has rejected any hypothesis of co-regency between the two pharaohs, based on observations from the tomb of Kheruef.

Amenhotep IV was crowned at Thebes, where he inaugurated a series of architectural projects. He had the southern entrance of the enclosure of the Temple of Amun-Ra decorated with scenes of worship of the sun god Ra-Horakhty (fusion of the sun-god Ra and Horus). He also decreed the construction of a temple to Aton in the eastern part of Karnak; this Temple of Amenhotep IV was named Gempaaton ("Aton was found"). The Gempaaton consisted of a series of buildings, including a palace and a structure called Hwt Benben ("Palace of the Benben Stone"), dedicated to Queen Nefertiti. Other temples built for Aton at Karnak during those years were the Rud-menu and the Teni-menu, which may have been built at the Ninth Pillar. In his very early years of reign, Amenhotep IV did not suppress the worship of Amun, and the First Prophet of Amun was still active during the 4th year of his reign. In the inscription accompanying his figure in the act of worshipping Amun-Ra, in the sandstone quarries of Gebel Silsila, the young king describes himself, unusually:

Amenhotep IV appears with this name in the tombs of some of the aristocrats of Thebes: Kheruef (TT192), Ramose (TT55) and Parennefer (TT188). In the tomb of Vizier Ramose, Amenhotep IV appears on the western wall in the style of traditional art, seated on a throne with Ramose before him. On the opposite wall, Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti appear at the apparition window with Aton painted in his solar disk form. In the tomb of the noble Parennefer, Amenophis IV and Nefertiti appear enthroned with the sun disk over their heads. Among the last documents discovered about Amenophis IV with this name are copies of two letters from the official Apy (discovered in Gurob, they are dated to the 5th year of Amenophis IV's reign, 3rd month of Peret, 19th day.

Name change: from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten

After 5 years, 8 months and 13 days of his reign, Pharaoh arrived at the site of the new city of Akhetaten (present-day Amarna). A month earlier, Amenhotep IV had officially changed his name to Akhenaten. The king changed most of his five traditional names; the only one he kept unchanged was his praenomen, or throne name, Neferkheperura.


When he was still called Amenhotep IV, that is, at the beginning of his own reign, Akhenaten married Nefertiti. Thanks to inscriptions, there are records of six daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Recent DNA analysis has revealed that Akhenaten also took to wife one of his own biological sisters (the so-called Younger Lady) with whom he begat Prince Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamun). The parents of Smenkhara, Akhenaten's successor, are unknown: Akhenaten and an unknown bride have been speculated. A secondary bride of Akhenaten, named Kiya, is likewise known through inscriptions; some have speculated that Kiya would have attained a position of great prominence in Akhenaten's court by begetting him Smenkhara, Tutankhamun, or both.

Akhenaten's sons (sure or assumed), with the probable year of birth, were:

Akhenaten's brides known with certainty:

Some have thought that Akhenaten may have joined some of his daughters (however, this is a much debated theory lacking archaeological evidence. It is unclear whether, imitating Amenhotep III, Akhenaten elevated at least one daughter to the rank of grand royal bride. However, this would not imply a sexual relationship; that of grand royal bride was primarily an honorific position, necessary to hold a key position at court and ensure the worship of certain goddesses.

The religious revolution

Amun, creator and self-created was a god of utmost importance throughout much of Egyptian history. During the 11th dynasty (2160 B.C.-1944 B.C.) he rose to the role of patron of Thebes. After the rebellion of the Theban princes against the Hyksos and with the reign of Ahmose I (1539 B.C.-1514 B.C.E.), Amun assumed national importance, explicated by his fusion with the sun-god Ra in the figure of Amon-Ra. During the New Kingdom, Amun was the de facto head of the Egyptian pantheon. When the New Kingdom founder's army expelled the Hyksos rulers from Egypt, the victorious pharaoh's hometown, Thebes, became the country's most important city, the capital of the new dynasty. Thus Amun, patron of the new capital, became the national deity. The pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty, perhaps the most glorious in Egyptian history, attributed their every success to Amun's protection and intervention and spent a large portion of their wealth and spoils of war in building temples dedicated to Amun, to whom they gave unparalleled prestige. His role as protector of kingship entailed enormous power for his main temple, located at Karnak; this, which today is the largest and richest archaeological site in all of Egypt, received land and other property as gifts over the centuries, to the point where it became almost a state within a state and even influenced choices about succession to the throne. The gigantic size of this Great Temple of Amun, whose hypostyle hall alone measures 103 meters wide, with 134 columns 24 meters high, expresses the formidable power of Amun's clergy, capable of competing with the pharaoh's authority.

The god Aton, i.e., the sun disk, probably the result of the theological speculation of the priests of Heliopolis, was understood as a sensitive manifestation of the god Ra-Horakhti (Ra who is Horus of the Two Horizons), himself a fusion of Horus and the sun-god Ra. He made his appearance in the Middle Kingdom and the fortunes of his cult began during the reign of Thutmose IV, grandfather of Akhenaten, in the first decade of the 14th century BCE. While he was still a prince, during a hunting trip in the plain of Giza, the future Thutmose IV is said to have had a vision of the deity of the Sphinx of Giza, the solar god Ra-Horemakhet (or Harmakis), as attested by the great Dream Stele erected between the legs of the Sphinx itself, which he arranged to have restored in deference to this experience of his own youth. There is a scarab, dating from the reign of Thutmose IV, on which Aton is mentioned as a distinct deity as he leads Pharaoh to victory in battle:

Following his father's mystical aspirations, Amenhotep III showed a fondness for this god; he was the first to establish a priestly college and a temple to Aton. As Egyptologist Christine El Mahdy has observed,

The same name (or "Aton shines") was also given to a vessel that Amenophis III gave to his queen Tiy, who some believe was an ardent promoter of this cult. Unlike the other Egyptian deities, Aton was not represented in anthropomorphic form, but always as a solar disk whose rays were long arms ending in hands, some of which held the ankh, the symbol of life. The tenets of Aton's religion can be discerned on the walls of Akhenaten's Tomb: Aton was worshipped as the creator of all things and as the one who constantly cared for his creatures; his rays gave life to the royal family alone, while, in turn, the people received life from Akhenaten and Nefertiti in exchange for loyalty to Aton. Night was considered a time to be feared while, when the solar disk, Aton, shone in the sky, human actions could aspire to success or perfection.

The center of the cult of Aton was the city of Akhetaten (Horizon of Aton), founded as the capital by Akhenaten around his 5th year of reign on the east bank of the Nile, 402 kilometers north of the old capital Thebes (Luxor). Other cult sites were Heliopolis (hub of the cult of Ra) and Thebes itself. To mark the perimeter of the city he had 15 Boundary Stelae erected, by which he declared that territory belonged to Aton. Very different from all other Egyptian temples, the Great Temple of Aton was, for the most part, open-air to let in the sun's rays. No anthropomorphic representations or statues of Aton were allowed, although he had occasionally been depicted as a hawk-headed man during the reign of Amenhotep III; however, these were replaced with depictions of the royal family intent on worshipping the solar disk and receiving the ankh (the life breath) from him. Aton's priests had fewer duties than the traditional clergy, as offerings (also, Aton's temples did not collect taxes. Since there were no specific representations of Aton, the traditional daily ritual of purification, anointing and dressing of the deity's statue was not practiced at Akhetaten; in return, the solar disk was honored with offerings from the royal family, burning incense and singing hymns (such as the Great Hymn to Aton) accompanied by appropriate music.

Some recent debates have focused on the manner and extent to which Akhenaten forced his people to go along with religious reforms. Undoubtedly, as time went on, the pharaoh continued to revise the epithets of Aton and other terms of religious language to increasingly exclude references to other gods; at one point, he ordered a large-scale erasure of the names of traditional deities, especially that of Amun, even when part of proper names such as father. The word "mother," which had the same sound as the name of the goddess Mut, Amun's bride, was stripped of the vulture hieroglyph needed for its writing, as the vulture was symbolic of Mut herself and the goddess Nekhbet; the name of the god Ra-Horakhti was stripped of the hawk hieroglyph, which made it particularly difficult to read. The god Ra, the sun par excellence, did not lose his continuous presence. Some courtiers changed their names to remove all reference to the deities, following the example of Akhenaten, who replaced his own original name Amenofi (Amenhotep, i.e., "Amun is Happy") with this name. However, the latter was not, it seems, an obligatory operation or extended to the entire population, as in Amarna people with names such as Ahmose (meaning "Born of Iah," god of the moon), owner of tomb No. 3, or Thutmose ("Born of Thoth"), chief sculptor who produced numerous portraits of the royal family, including the celebrated bust of Nefertiti, have been identified. An unexpected number of faience amulets discovered at Amarna also show that Akhetaton's inhabitants freely wore talismans of the gods Bes and Tueret, the Eye of Horus and other amulets of traditional deities; in addition, a ring related to the goddess Mut, bride of Amun, was found in a jewelry cache near the Royal Tombs (now at the Museum of Scotland). All this archaeological evidence shows that although Akhenaten deprived the temples of traditional deities of their funding, his policies were tolerant, at least until a certain, unspecified time toward the end of his reign. However, the damage done to Amun's monuments, the banning of his worship and the dispersal of his clergy bordered on religious persecution, according to some scholars. As Egyptologist Franco Cimmino has observed:

The 12th or 13th year of Akhenaten's reign may date the most dramatic gesture of his reign:

Akhenaten went so far as to have the name of his own father Amenophis III chiseled off, bearing the name Amun (Amenhotep): such is the case with the inscription on an elegant diorite statue of the goddess Nephthys preserved in the Louvre Museum. With his revolutionary henotheism, Akhenaten no longer posits the ruler as a representation of the god; the pharaoh is now "useful to God, who is useful to him" as also testified by a memorial stele in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak where it is written, "God has caused the victories of my majesty to be greater than any other king. My majesty has ordained that His altar be provided with every good thing." The eschatology that replaces that of Osiris involved the souls of the dead, with the rising of the sun, coming forth in the guise of birds to live again all day long in a world parallel to the material one. In some of the hymns found in Ay's tomb, the imperial universalism at which, according to some interpretations, Akhenaten aimed is manifested, who hoped for the spread of a universal religion with the god of all people at its center.

The interpretation of Akhenaten as a religious revolutionary has produced much speculation, from specialists' assumptions to fringe or nonacademic theories. Although the popular view that Akhenaten was one of the first monotheists in history is particularly popular, it is more accurate to say that Akhenaten practiced henotheism (or monolatry) since he does not appear to have ever denied the existence of any deities other than Aton. In 1995, commenting on this complex issue, Cimmino observed:

The absolutist connotations of Akhenaten's theological elaboration seem to have distant ancestry in a current, internal to Egyptian thought, with roughly monotheistic aspects: texts dating back to even the earliest epochs of Egyptian history name "god." It is also true that every local deity, or locally highly worshipped, was conceived and defined, during liturgical actions, as primordial, original and prior to every created thing, superior to all other gods; numerous inscriptions, tomb and temple, mention "god" in the singular, in apparently monotheistic expressions, only to add the names of other gods later on: this is the case, for example, of a hymn to Isis in the Temple of Dendera:

Aton was conceptually similar to the other gods (in fact, he had a peaceful place in the Egyptian pantheon long before Akhenaten), but unique in essence and collective in prerogatives and attributes; his cult would attract rancor and criticism only from Akhenaten's insistence on reaffirming his uniqueness, far more so than such uniqueness was already normally attributed, depending on the place, to Ra, Ptah or Amun himself.

Akhenaten did not incorporate all the traditional deities into the single entity of Aton (instead, he included in Aton a synthesis of the prerogatives of the other solar deities, leaving out their myths, attributes, and physical images altogether. It is likely that such simplification into an intangible, hard-to-understand, almost aniconic entity contributed to the ultimate downfall of the cult of Aton. The link between Aton and Ra, the sun god since the predynastic period, deserves special mention: in fact, it does not appear that Akhenaten fully succeeded in emancipating Aton from the pervasive presence of Ra in theology, and in Papyrus Bulaq 17, dating from the reign of Amenhotep II, Akhenaten's great-great-grandfather, Ra is extolled in terms very similar to those of the Great Hymn to Aton. In Akhenaten's religious conception, the gods Shu and Tefnut retained a special role: Akhenaten asserted that Shu resided in the solar disk, finding a place in his new doctrine for this god and his companion Tefnut as aspects of the god of light and icons of the royal couple. In some statues dating from the beginning of their reign, Akhenaten and his great royal bride Nefertiti appear in the guise of Shu and Tefnut. Apparently, Akhenaten was reluctant to worship deities other than Aton, also expecting the people not to worship Aton but, "through an intermediary," the pharaoh himself as the sole mediator between humans and the god.

Artistic reform

The religious revolution was also accompanied by a gradual (this artistic reform is referred to as the "Amarna style," and it marked a very interesting parenthesis within the millennia-old Egyptian art. There was a shift from the idealized, severe and hieratic style of the monuments to a curious and unapologetic naturalism, not without flashes of tenderness (as seen, for example, in the stele depicting Nefertiti with her infant daughters). Before Akhenaten's reform, Egyptian art was based on traditional canons; representations in reliefs and wall paintings had the following characteristics:

With Akhenaten the traditional canon of human body representation was abandoned, inspired by a new "grid" in which figures occupied more units, especially in height; this change remained with his immediate successors. In the images, in general, a greater naturalism was imprinted to the point of merciless consequences. Having completely abandoned the idealized image, devoid of physical defects, they proceeded in the opposite direction, emphasizing even to an extreme degree the flaws; the exaggeratedly elongated head in the back, almond-shaped eyes, swollen lips, prominent mandibles, long and stylized necks, protruding and sagging bellies with silhouettes so rounded as to make it difficult to identify the sex of the character.

The latter feature suggested to some 19th-century scholars that such reliefs and sculptures represented symptoms of a malformation of the ruler, which would have caused him to develop a body with feminine features, a wide pelvis, and thin limbs, a theory that in the 20th century centered on a possible Marfan syndrome of the ruler (see Speculative Theories, subtitle Possible Diseases). Today, historians and archaeologists estimate the deformed images of the king as mere artistic representations, since there is insufficient evidence to determine a chronic illness. Moreover, such deformities involve all people, not just Akhenaten and his family members, and even objects: the ribbons placed on the back of the crown take on an elongated and tapered shape, just like the fingers and toes.

With the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, it could be observed that the skull of the teenage pharaoh's mummy is indeed elongated (though not drastically so) as in the figures of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters. Consequently, it has also been hypothesized that this type of artistic creation reflected attributes shared by members of the royal family, with the intent of offering a unified image of royalty. The study of Akhenaten's probable skeleton revealed a perfectly developed body with masculine features. The ruler was probably represented with androgynous features as a deity, thus associated with the creator myth and, consequently, neither man nor woman himself. Innovations in Amarnian art also included a marked change in the themes of the works. Once the traditional religious themes were eliminated, since Aton was an abstract god, symbolized by the simple solar disk and never embodied in a human or animal figure, scenes of the family life of the royal couple with their daughters, in intimate and affectionate poses, became widespread. The traditional iconography of the monarch intent on crushing and slaughtering his enemies was replaced by two images in the act of worshipping Aton and presenting offerings to him together with his family or with only the great royal bride, in a much more collected atmosphere. The chief sculptor Bek left word that Akhenaten himself asked the artists to express the reality they saw; thus scenes taken from animal life were also depicted, such as a hunting dog chasing a fleeing prey or a wild bull jumping among papyrus plants.

Of all the implications of Akhenaten's reign, the artistic ones proved the most enduring, surviving his death. His political conception, in fact, died with him. After the very short reigns of Neferneferuaten and Smenkhara, the court returned to Thebes with Tutankhamun. As for his religious ideas, these also died with him. Only artistic reforms survived him for some time, though attenuated and far removed from the more eccentric outcomes, and traces of this style can be recognized in the artistic production under Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb. When, upon the latter's death, the 19th dynasty took power, the return to orthodox traditional art was brought to fruition.

Domestic politics

According to part of the scholars Amenhotep IV would have reigned as co-regent with his father for some years but this interpretation of the data is disputed, by others including Gardiner, on the basis of some letters that were part of the diplomatic correspondence (the Amarna letters) and also on the hardly credible situation that would have arisen: two rulers with two different capitals.

The ruler chose his mother Tiye, Queen Nefertiti and the priest Ay, husband of his ruler, as advisers. In the second and third years of his reign, he decided to celebrate a great jubilee and began the construction of at least eight masonry structures at Karnak, where, initially, Amenhotep IV reigned; the most articulate structure was the temple to Aton known as Gen-pa-Aton ("the Sun Disk is found"), on whose walls appeared engraved scenes of the jubilee celebration and depictions of Queen Nefertiti together with her daughters in the act of making offerings to the Sun (a second temple was called "Exalted are forever the monuments of the Sun Disk" and included many depictions of domestic life in the palace; a third temple was called "Robust are forever the monuments of the Sun Disk," whose reliefs depicted offerings to the Sun, processions, and palace scenes with servants.

Foreign Policy

During Akhenaten's reign, like that of his father, Egypt was unable to counter the rise of the Hittites, losing, therefore, control of a number of vassal states in Asia Minor that represented a source of wealth for the royal coffers. Part of the diplomatic correspondence found in the ruins of the new capital (the Amarna Letters) is precisely composed of requests for help from rulers in the Palestinian area where bands of marauding Hapiru nomads exercised raids and unrest.

Despite calls for help from allies, for example those sent by Tushratta king of Mitanni, at least from what is reported in the sources available to us, there is no record of military campaigns in the Syro-Palestinian area. This inertia was taken advantage of by Šuppiluliuma I, Hittite king who, after bringing the kingdom of Mitanni under his control, began expansion into the Egyptian zone of influence. There are records of a military campaign in Nubia during the 12th year of his reign to quell a revolt by the Akayta people.

Epidemic in Akhetaton and deaths in the royal family

During the Amarnian period there was a serious epidemic, probably of bubonic plague, polio or some kind of influenza, which originated in Egypt and spread throughout the Levant, claiming many lives, including Šuppiluliuma I, king of the Hittites. In case it was influenza, its origin would come from the proximity between humans, certain waterfowl and pigs; its pandemic spread may have been caused by the development of animal husbandry systems and the proximity of animals with their droppings. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of this type of husbandry appears to date from the reign of Akhenaten, and the pandemic that affected the entire Middle East at that time may be the earliest known case of influenza. However, the precise nature of this epidemic remains largely unknown; Asia has also been hypothesized as its possible place of origin with an influenza unleashed among humans.

A series of deaths within the Egyptian royal family was to hit Akhenaten and, in general, the entire kingdom hard. Among the probable victims of this epidemic, over a period of time from the 12th to the 17th year of his reign, were the queen mother Tiy (around the 13th year of his reign) and the very young princesses Setepenra and Neferneferura, but it is also possible that the great royal bride Nefertiti (after the 16th year of his reign) and the second-born Maketaten (more likely to have died in childbirth around the 12th year of his reign) died of it. Moreover, the virulence of this disease may have been one of the factors that prompted the complete abandonment of Akhetaten during Tutankhamun's reign, and also the reason why later generations believed that the traditional gods had turned against Akhenaten. The Royal Tombs of Akhetaten turn out to be the greatest source of information on the chain of deaths that marked the final phase of Akhenaten's reign. They consist of a sequence of rooms arranged along an axis (repeatedly modified and left unfinished), an equally unfinished apartment intended for a queen (most likely Nefertiti), and a series of three rooms intended to house the remains of three princesses; it is known that around the 14th year of Akhenaten's reign a change in the canonical name of Aton occurred, and its presence in the tomb allows the burial, in the tomb in question, of three daughters of the pharaoh and their mother to be ascribed with certainty to the period. The second-born Maketaten, who must have been no more than ten years old at the time, was interred in the "Gamma Hall" where scenes of mourning appear before her small body and tributes paid to a statue of her (examination of the remains of her sarcophagus has established that, at the time of her death, Maketaten was little more than a meter tall); overlapping scenes of mourning also appear, for the little princesses Neferneferura and Setepenra, in the "Alpha Hall."

Also dating from the 14th year of Akhenaten's reign would be the burial of the queen mother Tiy in the left wing of the hypostyle hall that concludes the burial complex; scenes of homage to her statue, on a wall and on a small portion of her sarcophagus, confirm her presence in that part of the tomb. At Thebes, specifically in tomb KV22 in the Valley of the Kings, and not at Akhetaten, a gilded chapel and a number of funerary statuettes made by Akhenaten for his mother were found, to which a fragment of a canopic jar, in England since 1823, on which the name of Osiris appears to be covered by that of Aton, would also be linked. All these clues lead one to think that Tiy did not die at her son's court, at Akhetaten, but that her viscera (the canopic jars) and her body (the sarcophagus) were transported to the royal necropolis in the new capital after the reworking of the funerary inscriptions in keeping with the Aton cult in force at the pharaoh's court.

Zahi Hawass blamed all these deaths on the Black Death, based on signs of this disease discovered at the Amarna site. Arielle Kozloff, meanwhile, objected that an outbreak of polio might instead have led to one of bubonic plague. However, her contention that polio was not as virulent as other diseases was rejected because it ignores the evidence that diseases turn out to be virulent the longer they remain present in the human population, as has been observed for syphilis and tuberculosis.

In December 2012, the discovery was announced of an inscription explicitly dated to the 16th year of Akhenaten's reign, 3rd month of Akhet, 15th day (and also mentioning Queen Nefertiti, who was alive) in a limestone quarry at Deir el-Bersha, north of Amarna. The text reports on a building project at Akhetaten and makes it possible to ascertain that Akhenaten and Nefertiti were still the royal couple a year before the pharaoh's death. Some amphora seals bear the date of the 17th year of his reign, which was surely the last. Misreading two labels belonging to two shattered jars, it had previously been speculated that Nefertiti had survived her consort by reigning independently under the name "Neferneferuaton Ankheperura" or even, according to a theory considered rather fanciful, disguised as a man under the male name "Smenkhara" in order to reign as a legitimate successor and carry out the religious revolution at all costs. The feet of a funerary statuette belonging to Nefertiti are found at the Brooklyn Museum, as is another fragment at the Louvre; the first find, in the United States of America since 1933, undoubtedly from the queen's original funerary outfit, indicates Nefertiti with only the title of great royal bride, an indication that this must have been her status when she was interred in the royal necropolis of Akhetaten, ruling out a priori that she was the pharaoh-woman who succeeded Akhenaten. At the time of Nefertiti's death, the rooms of her tomb were certainly unfinished, and there are no court condolence scenes or fragments of her sarcophagus on the walls, unlike her daughter Maketaten and mother-in-law Tiy; moreover, four members of the royal family already occupied the tomb and it was necessary to leave a space available for the pharaoh. It is therefore likely that the queen was temporarily buried elsewhere. Tomb No. 28 at Akhetaten (not far from Akhenaten's tomb No. 26), with traces of the deposition of a polished granite sarcophagus, has been examined in this regard, but it appears to be unfinished and never sealed. Nefertiti was certainly buried in Akhenaten's capital, as fragments of her grave goods discovered there would prove, but the location of her tomb is unknown.

Death, burial and succession of Akhenaten

Chronologically, the last known appearance of Akhenaten and the Amarnian royal family is in the tomb of the courtier Merira II, and is dated to the 2nd month of the 12th year of the pharaoh's reign. After that, the sources become obscure and lacunose at least until Tutankhamun's accession to the throne (ca. 1323 BCE). The circumstances of Akhenaten's death are totally unknown: no document mentions or describes his death, and the time span from the middle of his reign until Tutankhamun is one of the most enigmatic and obscure among those studied by Egyptology. Nonetheless, the granite sarcophagus, canopic jar casket, ushabti funerary statuettes, and a probable, much-damaged mourning scene concerning the pharaoh constitute sure traces of Akhenaten's initial burial within his royal necropolis.

His mummy was moved to Thebes after the court moved there permanently, during Tutankhamun's reign; recent genetic tests have established that the skeleton unearthed by Edward Ayrton in 1907 in the enigmatic tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings is that of Tutankhamun's father and thus would probably be the remains of Akhenaten.

The tomb contained numerous objects belonging to the Amarnian period, including a royal funerary mask that was deliberately destroyed. The sarcophagus was also desecrated and scarred, virtually destroyed, but after the discovery it was restored and is on permanent display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The rim of the lower part bears a prayer to Aton that was originally intended for a woman, but later changed to refer to a man (with grammatical errors hinting at the female gender of the original deceased). The style of this coffin and the language of its inscriptions are easily traced to the reign of Akhenaten. Various scholars have assumed that the sarcophagus variously belonged to the queen-mother Tiy, the princess and queen Merytaten or even the secondary bride Kiya (the richness of the find, comparable in style to the second of Tutankhamun's three sarcophagi, would prove Kiya's high status in Akhenaten's court). Another decisive fact to establish that such a female sarcophagus was later adapted for Akhenaten would be a bronze uraeus, bearing the name of Aton in its final form, attached to the forehead of the mummy. Another clue to consider tomb KV55 as Akhenaten's final burial would be the presence of four magic bricks, placed in the ritually correct positions, bearing Akhenaten's cartouche; in this regard, some archaeologists, including Alan Gardiner, concluded that those who oversaw the arrangement of the tomb of KV55, faithful followers of Atonism, surely believed they were burying Akhenaten.

The young British Egyptologist John Pendlebury, shot by Nazi troops in 1941, discovered pieces of an alabaster canopic jar depicting Akhenaten, probably intended to contain the organs of the ruler himself; upon examination, it turned out that the vessel was never used since residues of the resinous, blackish substance observed in similar vessels were absent. Commenting on this finding, as well as that of the Amarna royal sarcophagi in fragments, Alan Gardiner wrote:

Although it is commonly accepted that Akhenaten died during his 17th year of reign, it is unclear whether Smenkhara became co-regent one or two years before Akhenaten's death or whether he instead enjoyed an independent, albeit brief, reign: if Smenkhara survived Akhenaten and became sole ruler, his reign must not have exceeded one year's duration. The latter's successor was Neferneferuaten, a female pharaoh who appears to have ruled Egypt for two years and one month. She was succeeded, probably, by Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamun), flanked, because of his tender age, by a regency council headed by Vizier Ay, brother-in-law of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's uncle and, in turn, future pharaoh. Tutankhamun has long been believed to be the younger brother of Smenkhara and son of Akhenaten and, possibly, of his secondary bride Kiya (few Egyptologists have understood Tutankhamun to be the son of Smenkhara). In 2010, genetic examinations of the mummies of the last representatives of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Tutankhamun and the man from tomb KV55 established that the latter was the son of Amenhotep III and Tiy and the father of Tutankhamun (as well as the brother of the so-called Younger Lady, who in turn turned out to be Tutankhamun's mother): it is therefore extremely likely that these are the remains of Akhenaten. It has also been speculated that, after Akhenaten's death, Nefertiti would reign under the name Ankheperura Neferneferuaton; others have proposed identifying this mysterious female character with Merytaton. It is possible that the so-called Coregency Stele (UC 410), found in an extremely damaged tomb in Amarna, shows Queen Nefertiti in the guise of co-regent, reigning at the same time as Akhenaten; but this is by no means certain, as the cartouches were scraped and recycled to contain the names Ankhesenpaaton and Neferneferuaton. At a 2011 symposium on Horemheb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the general chronology of the late 18th dynasty was illustrated as follows:

With Akhenaten's death, the cult he founded declined almost immediately. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun ("Living Image of Amun") in his 2nd or 3rd year of reign (ca. 1330

The "Mes Inscription," a document dating from the Ramesside period (13th century BCE) refers to Akhenaten by calling him "the Enemy of Akhetaten."

Ever since the rediscovery of his figure in the 19th century, with the curiosity born out of the eccentricity of the ever-increasing number of artistic representations found, and with the discovery between 1891 and 1937 of ancient Akhetaten near present-day Amarna, Akhenaten, his ideas, his physical appearance and his family relations have generated a very long series of speculative theories, more or less well-founded or provable, throughout the 20th century. Not only Egyptologists, archaeologists, papyrologists, and epigraphists, but also psychologists, theologians, physicians, art historians, sociologists, and thinkers have formulated hypotheses on circumscribed aspects of Akhenaten's "anomalous" story, such as his possible pathologies or implications on later monotheism. Below is a historical survey of the main speculative theories concerning Akhenaten formulated in various fields from the early 1900s to the most recent research.

Akhenaten and Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism

The idea that Akhenaten may have been a precursor or pioneer of the monotheism that blossomed into Judaism has been considered by various scholars. One of the first to take an interest in the topic was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Basing his arguments on the assumption that the Book of Exodus would deal with actual historical matters, in his essay The Man Moses and Monotheistic Religion Freud hypothesized that Moses had been a priest of Aton forced to leave Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten's death; he also wrote that the biblical Moses was able to bring Akhenaten's attempts to establish a supposed monotheistic religion to fruition. Following the publication of this book, the erroneous concept of a properly monotheistic Akhenaten entered the common imagination and academic research. Freud believed that there was a connection between Adonai (the biblical God), Aton and the Syrian name of the mythological Adonis, in a primordial linguistic unity (in this, he followed an idea of Egyptologist Arthur Weigall). Jan Assmann's view, however, is that there would be no connection between the roots of the names of Adonai and Aton. However, it is commonly accepted that there are strong similarities between the Great Hymn to Aton, possibly composed by Akhenaten himself, and Psalm 104 of the Bible, although both follow a widespread hymnological tradition in the ancient Near East before and after Akhenaten.

Donald Redford has concluded that while Akhenaten called himself a son of the Solar Disc and acted as a mediator between the god and the world, for hundreds of years before him the pharaohs had claimed the same priestly function and role (each pharaoh was supreme priest of the Kingdom): the story of Akhenaten was notable for its emphasis on the relationship between the heavenly father and the royal son. Akhenaten referred to himself with terms such as "your son who came out of your loins," "your son," "the eternal son who came out of the Solar Disc," and "your only son who came out of your body." The relationship between father Aton and son Akhenaten was so close that it was believed that only Pharaoh knew "his father's heart" and that, as a result, Aton listened to the king's prayers. As supreme priest, prophet, pharaoh and god on earth, Akhenaten placed himself in an absolutely central role within the new religious system: as the only one who could know Aton, he alone would be able to interpret his will regarding humanity. The Canadian Egyptologist then concluded:

Possible diseases

The numerous portraits of Akhenaten with strange and eccentric physical features such as a sagging belly, fat thighs on thin shins, and a very narrow and elongated face, so different from traditional portrayals of athletic and ever-youthful pharaohs, have led numerous Egyptologists to speculate that Akhenaten suffered from a genetic abnormality. Various diseases have been proposed. Observing his long neck and effeminate appearance, Cyril Aldred, building on earlier views of Grafton Elliot Smith and James Strachey, surmised that the pharaoh suffered from Fröhlich syndrome (adipose-genital dystrophy). Later, this disorder was ruled out as implying that the sufferer was infertile, while Akhenaten fathered many offspring. These offspring are continually depicted in statues and on stelae, reliefs, carvings, inscriptions and paintings: at least six daughters by Nefertiti, as well as Tutankhamun by a secondary bride.

More recently a diagnosis of homocystinuria has been proposed: the symptoms are similar to those of Marfan. As a recessive disease, it fits Akhenaten's family tree: his parents, Amenophis III and Queen Tiy, were probably healthy, as was his probable son Tutankhamun, who did not suffer from the above genetic disorders.

Egyptologist and papyrologist Dominic Montserrat, in his essay Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, wrote:

Montserrat and others have observed that physical features would be emblematic of certain religious symbolism. Since the god Aton was called "the mother and father of all mankind," Akhenaten would have been depicted with markedly androgynous features in reference to the androgyny of the god Aton: this would have required "the symbolic union of all the attributes of the creator god in the physical body of the king himself," which would have "represented on earth the many life-giving functions of Aton." Akhenaten called himself One of Ra and may have used art to highlight his difference from other human beings. Such a distance from classical idealized representations is an outstanding feature of Akhenaten's reign.

In 2012, Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, published research on Akhenaten's early death (which occurred around age 40) and the early deaths of other 18th Dynasty pharaohs (including Tutankhamun and Thutmose IV, Tutankhamun's paternal grandfather). Ashrafian identified the cause, or concomitant cause, of these deaths in hereditary temporal lobe epilepsy, which could also explain Akhenaten's strange appearance and his visionary religious beliefs (as well as the marked spirituality of his grandfather Thutmose IV, who claimed to have had a vision of the god of the Sphinx, Harmakis). Since there is still no way to diagnose this disease through genetic testing, Dr. Ashrafian's remains a theory.

Another theory, which is unfounded, is that of Immanuel Velikovsky, who speculated about an incestuous relationship between Akhenaten and his mother Tiy. Moreover, Velikovsky assumed that the pharaoh had swollen legs. Based on this, the Soviet sociologist identified Akhenaten with Oedipus, whose name, in Greek, means "swollen-footed," shifting the story from Egyptian Thebes to Greek Thebes. Among his arguments, Velikovsky mistakenly posited that Akhenaten would have his own father's name erased from monuments, an action transfigured into Oedipus' patricide. The theory of Akhenaten's disdain for his own father Amenhotep III seems to have no basis: Akhenaten provided, for him, the customary mummification and pompous, traditional burial before initiating the religious revolution. In addition, an autopsy and genetic testing in 2014 proved that his son Tutankhamun was the product of a brother-sister relationship, not a mother-son relationship.


Various damaged or uninscribed stelae depict Akhenaten in the company of what appears to be a co-regent, wearing a pharaoh's crown, in familiar, if not intimate (sometimes nude) attitudes. Since it is known that Smenkhara was a man, these images led to the theory that Akhenaten was homosexual; this possibility is considered unlikely and so commented on by Italian Egyptologist Franco Cimmino:

This theory lapsed when it was discovered that the co-regent was a woman, almost certainly Akhenaten's wife. In the 1970s, Egyptologist John Harris identified the figure next to Akhenaten with Nefertiti, arguing that the latter may have been appointed co-regent by her husband and perhaps even briefly succeeded him as an independent ruler after changing her name to "Smenkhara." Nicholas Reeves and others believe that Smenkhara and Neferneferuaton (Ankheperura Neferneferuaton), who reigned alongside Akhenaten as co-regent for a year or two before the latter's death, would have been the same person. On various monuments, the two appear sitting next to each other. In 1988, Egyptologist James Peter Allen advanced the possibility of distinguishing Smenkhara from Neferneferuaton, pointing to the fact that the name "Ankheperura" is detectable in different spellings depending on whether it referred to Smenkhara or Neferneferuaton. When inscribed next to Neferneferuaten, the praenomen included an epithet referring to Akhenaten, for example, "Desired by Uaenra" ("Uaenra" was Akhenaten's praenomen). There are no records of the "long" versions of this name (praenomen + epithet) in the presence of the nomen Smenkhara, just as the "short" version has never been found alongside the nomen "Neferneferuaton."

In the image opposite, the difference between the feminine and normal versions is minimal: the -t sound, either in the name or in the epithet (or both, as in cartouche nº94), which can be difficult to read, especially on small objects. According to Allen, disregarding the feminine grammatical elements, all three of these names could refer to a Neferneferuaten king, as they include epithets associating him with Akhenaten. In a 1994 publication, Allen speculated that the different spellings of the name in question could have referred to two different personalities rather than one:

Some time later, the French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde noticed that several objects from Tutankhamun's Tomb, originally inscribed for Neferneferuaten and bearing the epithet "desired by Akhenaten," originally had the epithet Akhet-hen-hyes, meaning "Useful to His Spouse," and necessarily making the personage who was awarded it female. Gabolde's discovery was later confirmed by Allen. The use of epithets (as well as their absence) to identify the king within an inscription has become a common practice and cited by scholars in their works (although it is sometimes necessary to ignore an inscription or its detail to support a larger hypothesis). Although the debate about Smenkhara and Neferneferuaton continues, new interpretations of known archaeological evidence can be provided thanks to these latest discoveries.

From the coronation until the 5th year of the reign:

From the 5th year of his reign until his death:

Akhenaten is the main character in Agatha Christie's drama Akhnaton, composed in 1937 but not published until May 1973 and never staged in its entirety (but in reductions and adaptations such as Akhnaton and Nefertiti in 1979. He is also a main character in Finnish writer Mika Waltari's 1945 novel Sinuhe the Egyptian (and subsequent 1954 film adaptation, where he is played by actor Michael Wilding), as well as Italian Bruno Tacconi's 1972 novel La verità perduta. Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Nagib Mahfuz wrote a short historical novel entitled Akhenaten, the Heretic Pharaoh (first edition 1985).

Pharaoh Akhenaten was also the protagonist of a 2004 Marvel comic entitled Marvel: The End. In the comic, Akhenaten was abducted by a very powerful alien race that is the master of the Heart of the Universe, a power that allows them to do anything. After spending millennia acquiring power and abilities, Akhenaten returns to Earth to resurrect the power of Egypt and create a massive new Empire. However, Akhenaten will be stopped by the Defenders and Thanos, who eventually succeeds in his intent to possess the Heart of the Universe.

In 1983, composer Philip Glass dedicated an opera in three acts and an epilogue, Akhnaten, to Akhenaten, inspired by Immanuel Velikovsky's controversial essay Oedipus and Akhnaten (1960) and featuring original language texts from the Book of the Dead and a work attributed to Pharaoh Akhenaten himself.


  1. Akhenaten
  2. Akhenaton
  3. ^ Cohen & Westbrook 2002, p. 6.
  4. ^ Una proposta di lettura del nome di Akhenaton come Akhanjati non è stata generalmente accolta. cfr. Cimmino 2003, p. 266.
  5. ^ L'iscrizione recita: "Il Primo, il Figlio di Ra, suo amato, Amenofi, divino Signore di Tebe."
  6. Neferjeperura Amenhotep es la transcripción de su primer nombre de trono y de nacimiento, según las convenciones académicas.
  7. 1 2 3 Н. Петровский, В. Матвеев. Египет - сын тысячелетий. — М.: Рипол Классик, 2013. — С. 76. — 291 с. — ISBN 9785458391450.
  8. Lise Manniche. ix // Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak / American University. — Cairo 6G: Cairo Press, 2000.
  9. Karnak, Akhenaten temples / Kathryn A. Bard. — Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. — London, NY: Routledge, 2005. — С. 391. — 969 с. — ISBN 9781134665259.
  10. David P. Silverman, Josef W. Wegner, Jennifer Houser Wegner. Akhenaten and Tutankhamun: Revolution and Restoration. — UPenn Museum of Archaeology, 2006. — С. 14. — 226 с. — ISBN 9781931707909.

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