At the time Akhenaten became Egypt’s pharaoh during the XVIII Dynasty circa 1350 BC., Thebes was the capital and its patron god, Amun, the most powerful of the Egyptian gods. Amun had delivered Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom, driving foreign occupiers out of the land. The priests that served Amun were powerful and held as much as 30% of the land. Known first as Amonhotep IV, the pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten during the fifth year of his reign, banishing the old Egyptian gods.
Akhenaten and the Cult of Aten
Rejecting the traditional Egyptian gods, Akhenaten took the extraordinary step of moving the capital to a new city, built from scratch on the east bank of the Nile at Amarna. It was called Akhetaten or the “horizon of the Aten,” and would stand for thirty years. Moving his court to the new city, Akhenaten vowed never to leave, a decision that would have negative implications.
Aten was the sun disk, the Re of Old Egypt, personified in the pharaoh who was both the son and intermediary. Some historians believed that the sun disk first appeared probably a thousand years earlier during the Old Kingdom. Writing much of the liturgy himself, Akhenaten’s most well known poem of adoration was his Great Hymn to the Aten.
Effects of Aten in Ancient Egypt
Because the cult of Aten was confined to Amarna, the everyday Egyptian remained largely unaffected. Additionally, many of the court and bureaucratic functionaries never fully accepted the cult, rejecting Atenism upon the death of Akhenaten. While the pharaoh withheld temple donations, a significant loss of revenue, Amun was still revered by most Egyptians.
Part of the reason common Egyptians might have rejected the new theology was connected to the most fundamental change tied to the new beliefs. Traditional Egyptian deities were “visual gods” (zoomorphic in most cases) while Atenism reflected an “abstract concept.”
Some scientists have noted marked deterioration of the Egyptian imperial frontiers, particularly in borders shared with the Hittites, because Akhenaten was too preoccupied with Atenism. Far away from his people, Akhenaten never fulfilled the traditional roles associated with the pharaonic title. Renewed conflict broke out shortly after Akhenaten’s death and would continue for many years.
Full recovery of the traditional gods came when the nine-year old Tutankhamen became pharaoh. The cult of Aten was discontinued and Akhenaten’s new capital at Amarna razed to the ground, doomed to oblivion until discovered in the 19th century.
Bob Brier, The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998). See pp. 48ff.
Sigrid Hodel-Hoenes, Life and Death in Ancient Egypt: Scenes from Private Tombs in New Kingdom Thebes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), translated by David Warburton.
Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1988), see chapter 10.
Julia Samson, Nefertiti and Cleopatra: Queen-Monarchs of Ancient Egypt (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1985).