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7 -13 December 2000
Issue No.511
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Kiss and Tel

By Fatemah Farag

Often hailed by historians as the father of monotheistic religion, the Pharaoh Akhenaten is legendary among the pantheon of famous Egyptian rulers for his unconventional rule (1375-1350 BC).

The stories of Akhenaten's rule are fodder for wild speculation by both Egyptologists and tourists alike, as they are filled with juicy hints, but little is truly known about the mysterious king. We brushed up on our history as we made our way out to visit the city of Akhetaten -- popularly known as Tel Al-Amarna. Once the short-lived capital of Egypt, Tel Al-Amarna was built by Akhenaten to replace Thebes.We set out by taxi from Minya City to the district of Mallawi, south of which you can pick up the ferry to cross the Nile to Tel Al-Amarna. It takes about two hours to get to the ferry, but it's a pleasant drive, large portions of which are off the main highway and travel down roads lined with casuarina trees amid lush fields. On the main road, the view is sometimes marred by security trucks, but the peasants, obviously unimpressed, go about with the day's work.

Akhetaten (literally, "the horizon of the sun disk"), is one of the very few ancient towns archaeologists have been able to thoroughly excavate, as it was abandoned only 15 years after its construction.

This is also the site that gave birth to so-called Amarna art, a distinctive style of art particular to Akhenaten's reign. Amarna murals and drawings focused on nature and human life, as opposed to the afterlife. Also exceptional to the Amarna period is that images of royalty were not formalised, but depicted naturally (hence the unflattering depictions of Akhenaten himself - potbelly and all).

It is believed that Akhenaten suffered from an illness that caused his unusual physical characteristics (possibly Marfan's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that leads to feelings of alienation). Other theories suggest that he was a hermaphrodite. Much is said of the pairing of beauty (Nefertiti) and the beast (Akhenaten), but many accounts speculate that the couple were estranged in the later years of their marriage (something to think about when you are looking at the images of the king and queen smooching in tombs at Tel Al-Amarna. Even more scandalous, some say that Akhenaten had an affair with his brother Smenkhkare, with whom he shared the later years of his reign.

From top: our guide leads us through the "remains" of Tel Al-Amarna (photo: Nabil Shawkat); Akhenaten worshipping the sun-disk Aten (source: Upper Egypt and Nubia); a "natural" depiction of a woman's body in the Amarna style, currently on display in London (source: Atlas of Ancient Egypt); Death's corner (photo: Nabil Shawkat)
Born Amenhotep IV (son of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III), Akhenaten changed his name in the fifth year of his rule in honour of the god he had chosen to worship. During his 17 years of rule, Akhenaten overthrew the religious establishment with his decision to worship the sun disk Aten. Previously a low-ranking deity in the hierarchy of ancient gods, Aten was exalted under Akhenaten as the only god. All other kings (and all thereafter) worshipped the sun god Amun-Ra, and Akhenaten's decision wreaked havoc, both spiritual and political.

Akhenaten ordered the purge of all temples dedicated to the old cults and across Egypt temples were shut down and statues of the other gods disfigured. The resulting chaos was left in the hands of the king's minister of interior, Mahu. By introducing Aten as the only god to be worshipped, Akhenaten introduced the world's first monotheistic religion, a step described by many specialists as a breakthrough in human spirituality and no less than a cultural evolution. But the author of my guidebook (Egypt: a practical guide) begs to differ. The book indicates that when a ruler overthrows one religion in favour of another, it is fair to classify him "not as an enlightened monotheist but a tyrannical dictator."

Akhenaten was born into an unconventional family. His father, Amenophis III, married his Nubian concubine, Tiy, despite her lack of royal blood. From then on it is unclear whether the son reigned with his father until the latter's death, or jointly with his mother. In his turn, Akhenaten married Nefertiti, whose name means "a beautiful woman has come." Her lineage is unclear. She may have been a Mesopotamian princess, originally betrothed to Akhenaten's father. Various accounts identify her as Akhenaten's sister, by another mother, or the daughter of Amenhotep's vizier, Ay. To add further intrigue to these tales, the mummies of Akhenaten and Nefertiti are among the very few of the great kings and queens that remain to be found.

When we reached Mallawi, I grew disappointed. Mallawi is one of the largest and most affluent of Minya's districts; its name allegedly began as "Mal-Levi" -- literally, the City of the Levites. According to one guide book, a small Jewish population continues to reside here. But the city has crumbled under years of curfews and violence.

We moved on to catch the ferry and were told that it comes every 15 minutes. In the end, we realised that there are really no specific times; departure and arrival seem to be set by demand. We were the only "tourists" and shared the ferry with a few farmers, vying for space with a number of donkeys who had obviously done the trip a hundred times. As soon as the ferry let its ramp down, they all made a rush for the shady spots.

A young man approached us and asked if we would like a guide. He said he would take us around for any price -- he wasn't really in a position to be choosy. As we crossed the Nile, he lamented the strict security situation, which he said keeps business from coming to Tel Al-Amarna. We weren't really sure what he was talking about, since until that point, no one had stopped us. But when we got to the other side, we got a good idea of what he meant.

Here is the routine: first, you are escorted to a cement room to the side of the road with a few dusty, oversized desks. Something like five people will wander in to look at you and ask where you are from. Then, an official comes in and searches for a paper and pencil. Eventually, a scrap of paper is found in a drawer and the official asks my (male) companion to hand over his ID. I am not questioned. He copies the information down and throws the paper in another drawer and we are assigned a plainclothes man in galabiya and armed with a huge rifle to accompany us.

It all seemed rather futile, an impression cemented by the apologetic attitude of our escort. "We don't know why, but they are scared for your safety," he explained. "It is very safe, though," he assured us. We passed through modern-day Tel Al-Amarna, and our guard announced proudly: "This is Tel Al-Amarna of the living -- 95 per cent of the people here are educated."

So far so good, but where was the ancient city? "Now, here to your left is the Great Palace, and over there is the Great Temple," our guide sang, pointing in the direction of large hills of rubble. He must be joking, I thought, but he continued in earnest: "The records office where the 'Amarna Letters' were found -- you know, the ones written in Akkadian script for correspondence with Asiatic States?" We didn't know, but he pointed it out anyway. "It's over there." I followed the direction of his pointed finger and, once again, saw nothing but rubble." I ventured the query he must have heard before, "But it is just a mound of rubble."

The answer was prompt and came with a smile, "But of course. Everything was built with raw brick and the rains washed much of it away," he explained, oblivious to our disappointment. "Not to mention the plunder that took place when power was returned to Thebes after Akhenaten's death," he added. "In fact, so much effort was put into obliterating the memory of Akhenaten and Nefertiti that they were not discovered until the 19th century."

Despite the fact that the city was razed to the ground, excavation work, started in 1911, has been able to uncover exact floor plans and descriptions of fashionable villas with gardens, as well as the 1,500-metre Aten complex. All that is fine and good, but I had come a long way to feed my curiosity about Akhenaten, and piles of rubble were the last thing I was prepared to accept. Even the one pillar that stands at the entrance of what was once the palace is a new construction, set up by one of the archaeologists who works at the site.

We started with the most important of the southern tombs, that of Akhenaten's vizier, Ay. When we reached the southern tombs, we were confronted with a jagged mountain hill, dotted with little numbered doors. At the entrance of Ay's tomb (number 25) is an engraving of the famous hymn to Aten (this was the case with most tombs we saw). Depictions of the vizier showed him to have had kinky dark hair that looks uncannily similar to mine and I contemplated the heritage of my difficult mane.

It is a half-hour trek between Ay's tomb and that of Mahu, the minister of interior, and all along the way there are piles of pottery pieces that look like they were broken yesterday. In fact, they date back to the times when Tel Al-Amarna was inhabited. In Mahu's tombs, there is a telling mural of a donkey thief being thrown into the fire by the minister as punishment for his crime (some professions never change).

As we were leaving the southern tomb area, we saw a small bus being followed by a bunch of plain-clothes men. Inside the bus was a single backpacker with a guide book in his hand looking pensively out of the window. With him on the bus were seven officers, one with a walkie-talkie in his hand and lots of stars on his shoulders. Talk about overkill.

We declined an offer to tour the northern tombs and decided to get a head start on the journey back. Leaving the ruins behind, one could not help but regret that so many of the artefacts excavated from these now barren lands have ended up so far removed from their origins. The famous painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, excavated by a German team 1912, currently resides in the West Berlin Museum. The famous painting of two of Akhenaten's daughters, found in his private residence, now resides at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Many other pieces can now be found in Paris; New York; or London.

Even though what remains at Tel Al-Amarna may seem disappointing on the surface, it still seems worth it to make the trip and contemplate first-hand a place born of such an esoteric period in Pharaonic history.

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