BLOG: Why is Akhenaton so controversial?

I'm honored and pleased to welcome author N.L. Holmes to Brook's Journal this week, for two reasons. First of all, she's sharing more about the controversial pharaoh, Akhenaton. Secondly, she won the grand prize last year for the Chaucer Award Division in the CIBA Awards, and I followed her in First Place. Thus, I'm looking forward to reading her book sometime this year and am truly delighted to welcome her to my blog.

I'll let Holmes tell more about Akhenaton in a moment. While I was in Egypt, I saw many unique and intriguing works of art from the country's ancient past, but one of my photographs has always been a favorite, and that one was of Akhenaton (see below)--his long, angular face smiling serenely in the haunting lighting of the museum. Akhenaton had a haunting past, as we'll soon learn.

So without any more ado, enjoy Holmes' blog and learn more about ancient Egypt's past, along with me!

Why Is Akhenaten Such a Controversial Figure?

By: N.L. Holmes

If there’s one king of Egypt most people are likely to know, it’s Akhenaten—if for no other reason than the iconic beauty of his queen, Nefertiti! Since the discovery of his capital city at the end of the nineteenth century (1887), this pharaoh—formerly completely unknown to us, thanks to the obliteration from the historical record inflicted on him by his successors—has captured the imagination of the Judaeo-Christian west as “the first monotheist.” Is that a fair description? And if it is so, does that mean his reign was a blessing for the Egyptians? His earliest discoverers thought so, and popular sources continue to read him benevolently, but I can’t think of a single Egyptologist who thinks well of him. Why is the man so controversial three thousand years after his death?

In all fairness, we have added considerably to our knowledge of the “Amarna Period” since its excavation over a hundred years ago. Scholars have learned more about just what it was that Akhenaten did and have found out more about its consequences. Since these events underlie The Lord Hani Mysteries, let me lay out some of what we have discovered, and it may be clearer why our man is such a figure of controversy.

Beginning already in his father’s long reign (Amenhotep III, circa 1388-51 BCE), there was a movement toward a unification of overlapping gods and a concentration of all these divinities in the person of the king and his queen. At the same time, the gods were seen more and more as forms of solar deities. One might suspect that a lot of this theologizing had as its end the reduction of the powers of Egypt’s numerous priesthoods in favor of the king’s. By the end of his reign, Amenhotep had exalted a minor deity who represented the visible sun disk—the Aten—to a new position of prominence and had identified himself with this god above all.

Akhenaten, who came to the throne at about the age of seventeen, continued his father’s concentration of divine power in the Aten. He viewed his own reign as a new creation and used all the traditional symbolism of the creator gods to show that everything was starting over. But he didn’t overthrow any other gods yet. It seems to have been clear that the Aten was his real father Amenhotep, ascended into godhood, because Akhenaten claimed to be the son of the Aten and his only priest—the only one who knew his will. And apparently the Aten wanted a lot to change!

Gradually, over the next few years, things began to alter radically. Canons of art, which had been tied to religious beliefs, changed. The standards of written Egyptian changed. A new kind of temple was designed that bared the entire cult to the rays of the visible sun disk, as opposed to the old temples, where the gods were present in their statues, worshipped in darkness and secret. The temples of Amen-Ra, Egypt’s main god, were closed, his priests disbanded, his properties claimed by the throne. The festivals that structured people’s lives and assured them of an occasional meat meal disappeared. This must have inflicted unimaginable misery on the kingdom, because the priesthoods, especially that of Amen-Ra, were an enormous economic engine, employing tens of thousands of people even in addition to the priests themselves, now unemployed. Foreign policy was almost ignored, as Egypt retrenched into its navel-gazing. The traditional capitals of Thebes and Memphis were abandoned, and a new capital, the Horizon of the Aten, was built from scratch in the desert. Burials, once carried out on the west bank of the Nile, where the sun itself went to die daily, were now to take place to the east of the capital, and the dead could no longer look forward to a happy hereafter in the Field of Reeds, enjoying a life much like that of earth, but could expect to hover around the altars of the Aten forever in some bodiless form. In a society as conservative as that of Egypt, where basic values hadn’t changed for over a thousand years, all this must have seemed like the end of the world.

But that wasn’t the last of it. Little by little, the other gods, with their dangerous priesthoods and tempting wealth, were suppressed as well. No one ever declared they didn’t exist—they simply were no longer to be worshipped in the kingdom. Downright intolerance came to be practiced against those who seemed too slow to bow to the changes. Overzealous followers of the Aten chiseled the names of Amen-Ra from inscriptions, even from people’s names, even in their tombs. Other forms of pressure and even violence was no doubt aroused. The revelation of the Aten was far from kindly.

What are we to think of the man who engineered all these social, religious, esthetic and economic revolutions at once? First, it’s clear he was an autocrat with unimaginable power to do whatever he wanted without asking anyone’s permission or advice. Technically all the resources of Egypt belonged personally to the king, but no one had ever abused them so grandly. The benevolent religion of the Aten, which sounds so lovely in the hymn composed by Akhenaten, benefitted no one but himself and his family. Whether Akhenaten was a religious fanatic or a cynical politician aiming at curbing the power of the priesthoods, he did his country immeasurable harm and no good at all. So true was this that his successors restored the old ways immediately, tore down his capital and all his monuments, and expunged his very name from history, as if he had never been. They made it clear what they thought of him.

And what should we think? Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but I think the evidence is pretty clear. People who admire the “heretic king” should perhaps look a little closer at the real content of his beliefs and at their consequences. But there’s no denying his reign is a fascinating moment in which to set a novel!

All About Bird In A Snare

When Hani, an Egyptian diplomat under Akhenaten, is sent to investigate the murder of a useful bandit leader in Syria, he encounters corruption, tangled relationships, and yet more murder. His investigation is complicated by the new king’s religious reforms, which have struck Hani’s own family to the core. Hani’s mission is to amass enough evidence for his superiors to prosecute the wrongdoers despite the king’s protection—but not just every superior can be trusted. And maybe not even the king! Winner of the 2020 Geoffrey Chaucer Award for historical fiction before 1750.

All About N.L. Holmes

N.L. Holmes is the pen name of a professional archaeologist who received her doctorate from Bryn Mawr College. She has excavated in Greece and in Israel and taught ancient history and humanities at the university level for many years. She has always had a passion for books, and in childhood, she and her cousin (also a writer today) used to write stories for fun.

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