22 Mar The rise of a new Order
AKHENATEN the Pharaoh of Egypt, c.1400–c.1350 BCE. The second son of Amenhotep III of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, the future Pharaoh Akhenaten was originally named Amenhotep. There may have been ill feeling between father and son, as the young Amenhotep is never named or portrayed alongside his siblings on his father’s monuments, but he became crown prince after the death of his older brother Thothmes and took the throne a few years later as Amenhotep IV.
Shortly after his enthronement, he proclaimed that the gods of Egypt’s polytheism were lifeless and powerless, and the only real god was Aten, the physical sun. In the first four years of his reign he imposed a religious revolution on Egypt, abolishing the priests and temples of all gods but his own and changing his name from Amenhotep, meaning “Amen is satisfied,” to Akhenaten, “spirit of Aten.”
In the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten abandoned the capital city at Thebes and built a new capital for himself nearly a hundred miles down the Nile, at Tell el-Amarna, across the river from the ancient city of Hermopolis. Akhetaten, “Horizon of Aten,” contained a huge temple to Aten and a grandiose palace for Akhenaten himself, built and decorated in a style that flouted the traditional geometries of Egyptian art. Surrounded by his courtiers and favorites, the pharaoh pursued his religious vision and isolated himself from the world outside Akhetaten’s walls.
The last decade of his reign was a period of continual crisis, as the burden of rising taxes and forced labor for Akhenaten’s building programs crushed the Egyptian economy, and the rising power of the Hittite Empire in what is now Turkey challenged a military already stretched to the limit by Egypt’s own internal troubles. Meanwhile epidemic disease swept through Egypt, adding another strain to a crumbling society. Many Egyptians believed that the gods were abandoning Egypt because Egypt had abandoned the gods.
In the midst of these crises, Akhenaten died. Three short-lived successors – a shadowy figure named Smenkhare, the boy-king Tutankhamen, and Akhenaten’s elderly Prime Minister Ay – struggled with the situation without resolving it. Finally, on Ay’s death, the throne passed to Horemheb, commander of the army. Often tarred as the villain of Akhenaten’s story, Horemheb was a canny realist who understood that Akhenaten’s disastrous experiment had to be reversed if Egypt was to survive. During Horemheb’s 25-year reign, Egypt returned to peace and prosperity, but the price was the total destruction of Akhenaten’s legacy. Akhetaten was razed to the ground, the temples of Aten were torn down stone by stone to provide raw materials for new temples to the old gods of Egypt, and every trace of Akhenaten’s reign, his image, his name, and his god was obliterated.