Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Akhenaten: mad, bad, or brilliant?
Almost 200 miles south of Cairo, in the heart of Middle Egypt, the archaeological site of Amarna occupies a great bay of desert beside the River Nile. To the uninformed eye, this semicircle of barren land, bound by the east bank of the river and enormous limestone cliffs, looks like nothing much: a vast, stricken dust bowl, approximately seven miles long and three miles wide, scattered with sandy hillocks. But 33 centuries ago, this spot was home to tens of thousands of ancient Egyptians, brought there by the will of a single man: the pharaoh Akhenaten.
Rebel, tyrant, and prophet of arguably the world’s earliest monotheistic religion, Akhenaten has been called history’s first individual. His impact upon ancient Egyptian customs and beliefs stretching back for centuries was so alarming that, in the generations following his death in 1336 BC, he was branded a heretic. Official king lists omitted his name.
For my money, this makes him the most fascinating and controversial figure in Egyptian history. And that’s before you consider his marriage to Nefertiti, known as the Mona Lisa of antiquity thanks to her austerely beautiful painted limestone bust discovered in a sculptor’s workshop at Amarna and now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, or the likelihood that he fathered Tutankhamun, the most famous pharaoh of them all. If I were in charge of the British Museum, I would commission an exhibition about Akhenaten in a trice.
Akhenaten was not supposed to become pharaoh. The son of Amenhotep III, who dominated the first half of the 14th century BC, ruling over a court of unprecedented luxury and magnificence that placed great emphasis on solar theology, Prince Amenhotep, as he was then called, was younger brother to the crown Prince Thutmose. Following Thutmose’s unexpected death, though, he became the heir apparent – and when his father died in 1353 BC, he took the throne as Amenhotep IV.
Almost immediately, his waywardness began to assert itself. He commissioned monumental buildings for the historic religious centre of Karnak in Thebes.