Of all the pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt, there is one in particular that stands out from the rest. Over the course of his 17-year reign (1353-1336 BCE), Akhenaten spearheaded a cultural, religious, and artistic revolution that rattled the country, throwing thousands of years of tradition out the window and imposing a new world order. After his death his name was omitted from the king lists, his images desecrated and destroyed. From the surviving fragments of evidence, Egyptologists have pieced together the story of his life and reign, a period of spiritual upheaval and experimentation unlike any other in Egyptian history. Under his supervision, Egyptian art underwent a monumental transformation, with centuries of rigid convention abandoned in favor of a new, highly stylized artistic approach imbued with divine meaning.
EARLY REIGN OF AMENHOTEP IV
The second son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Akhenaten (originally Amenhotep IV) was never meant to be king. His elder brother, Prince Thutmose, was heir apparent, but after his untimely demise, young Amenhotep found himself thrust into the political spotlight. Following a brief period of co-regency, Amenhotep III died in 1353 BCE, and Amenhotep IV ascended to the throne. With his Great Wife Nefertiti by his side, the new pharaoh began what appeared to be a conventional reign: he dedicated monuments to Amun, added to the temple complex at Karnak, and even held a Sed festival in Regnal Year 3. However, Amenhotep IV’s rule was anything but ordinary, and before long the king began to let his true colors show. The pharaoh was a fanatical devotee of Aten, a deity representing the physical form of the sun disk. Unlike most other Egyptian gods and goddesses, Aten had no human characteristics and took no anthropomorphic form. Under Amenhotep’s direction, this fringe cult soon became the largest religious sect in Egypt.
In Regnal Year 5, the pharaoh dropped all pretense and declared Aten the official state deity of Egypt, directing focus and funding away from the Amun priesthood to the cult of the sun disk. He even changed his name from Amenhotep ('Amun is Satisfied') to Akhenaten ('Effective for the Aten,') and ordered the construction of a new capital city, Akhetaten ('The Horizon of Aten') in the desert. Located at the modern site of Tell el-Amarna, Akhetaten was situated between the ancient Egyptian cities of Thebes and Memphis on the east bank of the Nile.
ARCHITECTURE OF THE AMARNA PERIOD
Not long after coming to power, Akhenaten/Amenhotep IV commissioned the construction of a new temple complex adjacent to the one at Karnak (modern-day Luxor). This new project, however, was a completely separate entity from the temple to Amun, made clear by the fact that the site was located outside of Karnak’s perimeter. Named Gempaaten ('The Aten is Found'), Amenhotep’s new temple complex was unlike any that had come before it. Instead of being comprised of private, closed-in sanctuaries, the open-air courtyards at Gempaaten allowed Aten’s sunlight to flow directly into the complex.
Following in the footsteps of Gempaaten, the Great Aten Temple in Amarna was another prime example of an “open-air” temple. Surrounded by a large enclosure wall, the temple complex consisted of two primary structures: the Sanctuary, located in the eastern section of the complex, and the Long Temple, located in the western section. The fact that this temple was arranged on an east-west axis was itself a nod to the path that Aten took across the sky each day. The Sanctuary was composed of two courts, the second of which was open to the air and housed the altar where Akhenaten and Nefertiti would present their private offerings to the sun disk. The Long Temple consisted of a columned court and more than 900 small, open-air altars where priests would burn offerings to the Aten. North of the Great Aten Temple was a second, smaller temple, situated in the center of Amarna closer to the palace and king’s royal residence. This second temple also followed the layout of Gempaaten and the Great Aten Temple, constructed so that it was exposed to direct sunlight at all times.
Amarna’s multiple palaces were constructed of mudbrick and painted with colorful, highly decorative scenes of plants, wildlife, and the royal family. These structures included many open courts and columned porticos, as well as large courtyards decorated with colossal stone statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
PORTRAITURE OF AKHENATEN
Artifacts from Akhenaten’s reign are instantly recognizable for their unique artistic style. Among the most striking of these pieces are those depicting the king himself, many of which have lead Egyptologists to question the state of the pharaoh’s health and physical appearance. A prime example comes from Gempaaten: an enormous, full-body statue of Akhenaten exhibiting some peculiar characteristics. The king’s face is long and thin, with slit eyes and large, full lips. His figure is equally strange and out-of-proportion, with spindly arms, long fingers, a paunch, and feminine hips and breasts. This particular statue is fragmentary, cutting the pharaoh off at the knees, but from other depictions of Akhenaten that have survived, it can be inferred that the pharaoh’s legs tapered out from large thighs to thin calves ending in elongated feet. At first glance, such a statue is shocking, as it strays so far from the path of typical Egyptian artistic convention. Instead of presenting the image of a young, fit, virile king, artistic representations of Akhenaten convey a very different message. With such strange bodily proportions and facial features, the pharaoh comes across as weak, sickly, and effeminate.
Why did Akhenaten choose to be presented to his subjects like this? As pharaoh, he had complete control over the production and distribution of artwork and, therefore, was certainly the driving force behind such bold creative choices. Statues like the Gempaaten colossi have caused many historians to speculate about Akhenaten’s life and the possibility of the pharaoh being afflicted by a genetic disorder. Generations of inbreeding and brother-sister marriages during the 18th Dynasty make this theory a very real possibility. However, most Egyptologists contend that Akhenaten’s striking visage has more to do with religious symbolism than capturing the king’s literal physical likeness.
Like many of his predecessors, Akhenaten believed himself to be a living god. While most Egyptian pharaohs aligned themselves with the gods of the traditional Egyptian pantheon such as Horus, Akhenaten fittingly decided to associate himself with Aten; one of the king’s many epithets was 'The Dazzling Aten,' and he believed himself to be the sun disk’s physical manifestation on earth. Unlike other Egyptian deities, Aten was neuter; the sun disk was a physical object with no discernable sex. It is reasonable to believe, therefore, that Akhenaten (a form of the deity itself) chose to depict himself in a similarly androgynous way. Historical and archaeological evidence has clearly proven that Akhenaten was a fertile male (he had at least six daughters and one son), but the inclusion of such striking female traits in artistic depictions of the king sent a powerful message, connecting the pharaoh to the essence of Aten itself.
Over the course of Akhenaten’s reign, it is known that at least two different sculptors were employed in the service of the king. The first, a man named Bak, is mainly credited with the earliest and most radical Amarna-style pieces (i.e. the Gempaaten colossi). It has been suggested the period immediately following Regnal Year 5 served as a sort of “experimentation period” in which Akhenaten tried to push the boundaries of Egyptian artistic convention as far as he could, as a result producing some of the most radical and stylized pieces of the Amarna Period. In the later years of Akhenaten’s rule, Bak was replaced by another sculptor, Thutmose, who had a more measured approach to his work. Items recovered from Thutmose’s workshop show that the sculptor favored a more realistic, less-exaggerated style than his predecessor, best exemplified by his iconic bust of Nefertiti on display in Berlin.
IMAGES OF NEFERTITI & THE ROYAL FAMILY
One of the most touching and fascinating aspects of art during the Amarna Period is how Akhenaten and his family presented themselves. In traditional Egyptian artwork, the figures are usually quite stiff and composed, often depicted participating in solemn religious ceremonies or political events. Seldom were the royal family shown in a casual setting, spending time together in scenes from their daily life. During the reign of Akhenaten, however, all this changed. The pharaoh was almost always accompanied by his daughters, and his Great Wife Nefertiti was always by his side. The family was frequently shown offering to the Aten, but there are also scenes of the royal family eating together and relaxing in the palace. The young princesses were often captured playing around their parents’ thrones, or cradled in their laps. Nefertiti (and her daughters) were also painted with the same red ochre skin tone as her husband, a color typically reserved for males, and, along with the pharaoh, had unusually detailed hands and feet (before this point, the Egyptians had made no effort to distinguish between right and left appendages).
There exist countless stelae and carvings of Akhenaten and Nefertiti doting on one another and holding hands: in one instance the queen even sits on her husband’s lap. The couple also frequently appears in relief scenes showing them riding chariots together and bestowing gifts on their subject from the “Window of Appearances” in their Amarna palace. This kind of affectionate, realistically-casual portrayal of a pharaoh was unprecedented in Egyptian history.
Similarly unheard of was the symbolic precedence given to Queen Nefertiti in the art of the Amarna Period. Instead of being portrayed as a scaled-down female figure standing behind her husband, Nefertiti was frequently presented at the same scale as Akhenaten, a bold artistic choice denoting her great importance and influence in court. And important she was: during the last few years of Akhenaten’s reign, he appointed Nefertiti as his official co-regent, essentially making her a second king of Egypt on completely equal footing with him.
To further emphasize both her elevated position and the couple’s close relationship, early artistic depictions of Akhenaten and Nefertiti portray the king and queen as nearly identical figures. Only a few discrete markers existed to differentiate the two rulers, such as crowns (Akhenaten favored the khat headdress while Nefertiti favored a flat-topped blue crown), wig styles (variations of the cropped “Nubian-style” wig were popular with both husband and wife), and the length and/or style of their garments. This bold choice was, once more, spurred on by religious symbolism.
By appearing as identical figures, Akhenaten and Nefertiti were aligning themselves with the twin deities Shu and Tefnut, respectively. Nefertiti’s aforementioned flat-topped headdress was traditionally associated with the goddess Tefnut. Akhenaten clearly wanted to associate himself and his queen with these primordial creation deities, who, complementary to the Aten, represented forces of life and rebirth. The king and queen, in essence, became the “Father” and “Mother” of the earth and heavens, putting them in a divine triad with Aten. Just as depictions of the pharaoh became more toned-down and realistic during the later years of his reign, the tendency of the king and queen to appear as identical figures faded, although their divine association with the twin deities remained in place.
When it comes to the private tombs and monuments of Amarna’s non-royal inhabitants, images of the royal family play an interesting role. Where once there would have been images of Horus, Amun, Isis, and other traditional deities lining the walls of elite burial chambers, now stood images of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children. Of course, images of Aten were always present, and the sun disk always took precedence over any human characters depicted alongside it. However, during the Amarna period images of the royal family completely replaced images of the gods that had decorated Egyptian tombs for centuries. Even on the pharaoh’s own stone sarcophagus, images of Nefertiti replaced those of traditional goddesses. Akhenaten, by associating himself with Shu and the Aten, and Nefertiti with Tefnut, had effectively presented himself and his family as living gods. What need was there, then, for images of other deities on the walls of his subjects’ tombs? The pharaoh, his queen, and their offspring were a sacred extension of Aten on earth and therefore expected to be worshipped in their own right and to act as intermediaries between Aten and the common man.
THE END OF A DYNASTY
After 17 years on the throne, Pharaoh Akhenaten died in 1336 BCE. He was succeeded by the mysterious Smenkhkare (a short-lived pharaoh many Egyptologists believe to have been Nefertiti), who in turn was succeeded by Akhenaten’s young son Tutankhaten. Following Akhenaten’s death, the Egyptian people were quick to voice their opposition to the “heretic” king’s radical religious reforms. Favoring the stability of the old order, Tutankhaten moved the capital back to Memphis and reinstated the worship of Egypt’s polytheistic pantheon. Within a few years, Amarna, Akhenaten’s glorious 'Horizon of the Aten' had been completely abandoned, its king and queen buried and forgotten. In a further attempt to distance himself from his father’s legacy, the boy king changed his name from Tutankhaten ('The Living Image of Aten') to Tutankhamun ('The Living Image of Amun'). His wife and half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten, also followed suit, rebranding herself as Ankhesenamun ('Her Life is of Amun').
During his reign, Pharaoh Tutankhamun made great strides towards restoring Egypt to its pre-Amarna state, a campaign championed by the subsequent kings Ay and Horemheb. While Amarna-style art continued to be produced during this transitional period (particularly evident in the murals decorating Tutankhamun’s burial chamber), ultimately artistic tradition prevailed and Egyptian art from the 19th Dynasty and beyond largely adhered to historical conventions. With the death of Pharaoh Horemheb in 1292 BCE came the end of the 18th Dynasty itself: Horemheb’s heir Ramesses I would found a new dynastic line, ushering Egypt into a golden age of military might and economic prosperity. In less than 50 years, nearly every trace of Akhenaten, his controversial reign, and the artistic conventions that defined it had been wiped from existence.