The subtitle of the current Tut show—The Golden Age of the Pharaohsrefers to the fact that by ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty it was a huge empire, extending as far north as modern-day Syria and as far south as Nubia in today’s northern Sudan. Gold poured in from Nubian mines, and wealth, alliances, and marriages were exchanged with neighboring kingdoms. (And Egyptian women generally enjoyed more freedoms and self-governance than their neighbors.)

Akhenaten’s grandfather, Tuthmosis IV, who ruled from 1400-1390 BCE, had resolved the last standing hostility keeping Egypt from a peaceful existence with other major powers in the ancient world. The empire remained stable during the 37-year reign of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father. Towards the end of his kingship, Amenhotep III began to play around with the ideas of divinity and kingship, leaning toward the notion of the pharaoh becoming a living god—as opposed to becoming divine only after death and serving as intermediaries between people and gods in life.

Growing up in an environment that had already begun to depart from established religious ideas may have been an important influence in the radical extremes toward which Akhenaten progressed, once he took the throne of his vast peaceful kingdom in 1353 BCE and implemented his monotheistic revolution.

The verdict is still out on whether he was a prophet, a pragmatist, or a lunatic. One thing is clear, though: He was determined. “Akhenaten did everything in less than 17 years,” Silverman explains. “He changed how things were built, moved capitals, changed the language, changed the religion, changed the whole structure of kingship, and he made this incredible change in a very, very short period of time. People think that rapid change is something that is only modern.”

The rapidity of the changes may have stemmed from a desire to meet no opposition to his new ideas. But it still makes us wonder, why on earth did he do it? One possibility is that he may well have had serious visions, in which his god spoke to him. Or he might have been a political pragmatist and have seen that the priesthood of Amun, the most prominent national god, was getting too powerful and, moreover, requiring a lot of land and resources that competed with the king’s desires.

It is also possible that Akhenaten’s skepticism regarding the established religious system—and eagerness to establish a new city to live in—may have been motivated by a plague cycle that affected Egypt and its capital, Thebes, during his lifetime.

“There is some evidence that during the reign of Amenhotep III there was this big plague and all these people died,” says Houser Wegner. “Amenhotep III set up statues to the goddess Sekhmet, who was the goddess who warded off plague, in an attempt to save the city.” But it seems Sekhmet did not come to Thebes’ aid. “Some people suggest that Akhenaten wanted to get out of town because it was a death trap.”

She goes on to suggest that Akhenaten might have lost his faith in Sekhmet, a traditional god. Perhaps, he reasoned, a new, powerful, light-shedding, earth-warming god was the ticket. But in a world where religion was woven into the whole fabric of life, intimately connected with everyday practices and beliefs, asking a whole empire to forfeit the gods they talked to on a daily basis was asking them to change everything—which is probably why, though monotheism of the Aten was law, archaeologists still find amulets and molds for the traditional gods in people’s homes and workshops, even in Amarna.

The Radical and the Restorer By Beebe Bahrami

Photos: (Amarna) University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Tom Jenkins; (Tutankhamun) © Andreas F. Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig.

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(Below) A pectoral (broad collar or necklace) spelling out the name of the king, made of gold and inlaid with precious stones; black-bronze statuette of Tutankhamun, probably used in religious processions, in which the kneeling king would face a deity.

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/07