As the international blockbuster King Tut exhibition comes to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, the Penn Museum has unveiled an eye-opening companion show on the radical religious and political experiment imposed by the boy-king’s predecessor (and putative father), Akhenaten.
By Beebe Bahrami

There is a handsome youth, dressed in a flax-colored, striped-linen headdress and robe, sitting in the back of the trolley, looking rather austere for his young countenance. Against his chest he holds a faux-gold-and-jewel-encrusted crook in one hand and a flail in the other, the two crossing at his heart. His brow bears the golden uraeus, the poised cobra associated with ancient Egyptian royalty. No one speaks to him, but I’m curious.

“Excuse me.”

He looks at me, a bit shocked, and then regains his composure. “Yes?”

“Why are you sitting in the back? Wouldn’t you be better placed up front for all to see?”

He grimaces. “I like to sit in back so that my people won’t betray me.” As he returns to his silent-as-a-tomb pose, the bus’s motor revs and I return to my seat. I look back at the trolley-riding Pharaoh.

He has good reason to cover his back. He is Akhenaten, the radical pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who in the short period of his rule—1353-1336 BCE—built a new capital city in the middle of nowhere, between the cosmopolitan Nile cities of Thebes and Memphis, and along the way altered art styles, language, and the time-honored ideas of kingship. Practically overnight Akhenaten had some 20,000 to 50,000 people leave their homes, mostly in Thebes and Memphis, and relocate to the newly built city of Akhetaten, today known as Amarna. Most radical of all, he made it law throughout the land that people had to give up their gods, both the great national gods and the little domestic ones, the beings to whom they turned for everything. Amun, the prominent national creation-god of the Egyptian pantheon, was definitely out of favor, along with his perhaps too-powerful priesthood. In the new era, the only priest necessary would be the pharaoh himself and the only viable god would be his beloved Aten, the sun disk, the visible manifestation of the sun deity. Not only that, but Akhenaten told his subjects that they could not worship the Aten directly. Rather, they would worship the pharaoh and his family and he in turn would worship the Aten on their behalf.

It was within this new capital and surrounded by this new ideology that the pharaoh who would become known as Tutankhamun was born. Amarna and Egypt’s vast empire were his inheritance, and so were its problems.

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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Rich history: More than 200 artifacts will be on display in the Amarna and Tut shows, including: (From left) A statue of the god Amun with the features of King Tutankhamun, who restored the old gods; wooden bust of Tutankhamun that shows him more as boy than king, and may have been used as a clothes-dummy; unfinished limestone statue, depicting a servant bearing a heavy burden, found in a part of Amarna that contained workshops for craftsmen and artisans.

More Information

>> The extensive listing for Philadelphia’s city-wide Egypt-inspired shopping, food and drink, hotel packages, and themed tours, and spa treatments can be found at

>> Information for Amarna is at, and for Penn Museum’s Year of Egypt events at

>> Tutankhamun at the Franklin Institute: or

>> Both exhibits have full-color, text-rich companion books: Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, by Zahi Hawass. Washington: National Geographic Society, 2005. Akhenaten & Tutankhamun—Revolution & Restoration, by David P. Silverman, Josef W. Wegner, and Jennifer Houser Wegner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2006.

>> The young Akhenaten whom I met on the Tut Trolley was an actor with the Vagabond Acting Troupe, who performed “The Trials of Akhenaten” throughout November in the Penn Museum’s Lower Egyptian Gallery as a part of Amarna’s opening festivities. When I saw him later at Amarna, he handed me his business card. It read, “Akhenaten (Recently deceased), “Heretic” Pharaoh; Probable Father of Tutankhamun; Sole One of the Aten.” —B.B.

Eternal Tut

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