Wisdom of the Ancient Sages
The Revolutionary Sage of Ancient Egypt
An Introduction to Akhenaten
The famous Egyptologist James Henry Breasted called Akhenaten "the first individual in human history", and that because Akhenaten had never been manipulated by the ideas of his predecessors, a way of thinking and a system of beliefs he, himself could not accept. He brought forth changes that had a great impact on religion, art and architecture in Egypt and the surrounding states.
Scholars described him as the most progressive pharaoh who took Egypt one step ahead of its time. Akhenaten viewed the existence of a human being in the light it should have always been seen. Man was not just another animal, to live, procreate, work and die. For Akhenaten man was an ethical being with will power, who needed insight to attain the sacred truth.
Akhenaten's Reign & The New Religion
Akhenaten is thought to have been born between 1385 and 1375 BC, his given name was Amunhotep IV which he changed to Akhenaten to honour god Aten. He was the youngest son of Pharaoh Amunhotep III and Queen Tiye, of the most powerful 18th Dynasty of Egypt. He was brought up in the traditional, ancient Egyptian way and as a child he used to take part in rituals and services to the god Amon who was the main god figure in the polytheistic religion of his country.
He succeeded his father to the throne in c.1353 BC and married Nefertiti, whose name meant "the radiant-one-is-coming" and who was thought to be a goddess, as the ending of her name -iti appears in characterizations of goddesses. Nefertiti was not only a woman of extraordinary beauty, but also a great collaborator of her husband. Their union was a harmonious one, and resulted in having six daughters. In the later years of his reign, Akhenaten had a lesser royal wife called Kiya who is thought to be the mother of Smenkhkare, and Tutankhamun, Akhenaten's successors.
After reigning for about four years, Akhenaten decided to move the capital from Thebes to a place near the Middle East called Akhetaten (Amarna), which was situated on the East bank of the Nile, about 300 km south of modern-day Cairo. It is believed that his reasons for doing so were both theological and reformative, as he gave up the old polytheistic practices and rituals and introduced the worship of Aten, the Sun Disk God. Aten did not have a human or animal form, like other deities of that time, but was depicted having long rays that ended in the form of hands, holding the ankh which was the symbol of life and bestowing blessings to the people.
The royal family: Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children
Contrary to all the pharaos before him , which presented themselves as immaculate deities, Akhehaten is depicted very naturally. The above example depicts him with his wife Nefertiti and their children.
His father Amunhotep III had also seen the need for a change, as the priesthood of that time had gained increasing power and priests played a very important role in the administration and the economy of the country. Egypt was a theocratic state and according to traditional beliefs, the most powerful gods, such as Amon or Re-Harakhte, dictated the way that the State was ruled. The Pharaohs turned to gods for oracles, which directed the kings' activities, making the pharaohs relinquish their authority to the priesthood.
But Akhenaten, who was also a great thinker, made a big leap ahead. By moving the capital and applying a new way of worshiping, he became the only link between the god and the people, leaving priests aside. In this way, he gave his people the chance to express themselves freely through new, unconstrained religious practices and new forms of art. That was the first recorded approach to monotheism and a new way of worshiping god away from dark temples, outside in the open bright sunlight and fully open to the public.
The religion worshiping Aten had a happy nature and urged people to show their gratitude to the Sun for sustaining life and providing the Earth with life, light and warmth. People were free from the strict rules of the old religion and there was no punishment for disobedience. Akhetaten, himself expressed his gratitude to his god by addressing Aten a beautiful hymn, which bears a remarkable similarity to Psalm 104, as both refer to the blessings of god to people and all other forms of life on the planet.
That feeling of freedom people felt, had a great impact on art which became more liberal and realistic, sometimes reaching to grotesque. The new city, where everything was lively, had a real charm with attractive gardens parks and fountains. The houses were beautifully decorated with new forms of art and the walls were painted with field scenes and bouquets of flowers. However, in the old city, all names of other gods were removed from temples as Amon was the "sole god". When Ahkenaten died in the 17th year of his reign, his successors, Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun restored the old polytheistic religion and left the city of Akhetaten, which was eventually ruined.
Despite the fact that Akhenaten's name was removed from Egyptian monuments, archaeological findings at the end of the 19th century by Sir Flinders Petrie, in Amarna and in Tutankhamun's tomb, have made the "heretic pharaoh" one of the most famous personalities of the Egyptian history.
Some scholars and theologians have found links and similarities between Atenism and the early forms of Judaism, while others find similarities between Atenism and Christianity, as well as between Aten and Jesus, based mainly on the ultimate religious relationship of Father and Son.
Even in our times, Akhenaten remains a controversial figure, but it is this controversy that has been the basis for a great number of works of literature, music and theatrical plays. Even Sigmund Freud in his last book Moses and Monotheism, suggested that Moses was a priest of Aten who had to leave Amarna after Akhenaten's death. He also referred to Akhenaten as a great person of a progressive, intellectual and spiritual nature who opened the way to the monotheistic religion of Judaism.
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