Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1430, (14 - 20 February 2019)
Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Issue 1430, (14 - 20 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Akhenaten and Nefertiti

The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten and father of the boy king Tutankhamun, started a religious revolution in Egypt that did not outlive him, writes Zahi Hawass


Amenhotep IV
Amenhotep IV

The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III had been a boy king, coming to the throne at around the age of ten. His wife, queen Tiye, was a commoner whom he loved greatly. She remained extremely influential, and together they had two sons.

Prince Thutmose is generally believed to have been the elder and Amenhotep III’s intended successor. However, Thutmose died before his father, which meant that the throne would go to his younger brother, also called Amenhotep. Some scholars believe that in his later years Amenhotep III had Amenhotep IV rule alongside him. Others believe that there was no co-regency and that Amenhotep IV assumed the throne only after Amenhotep III’s death.

In any case, whether his father sat on the throne with him or not, the beginning of Amenhotep IV’s reign marked a turning point in history that would affect the art and culture of ancient Egypt long after his death.

Unlike most of his predecessors, this king did not seem fond of military conquests. His father had gone into battle only a couple of times as a young man, so Egypt had seen no wars during Amenhotep IV’s lifetime. But Amenhotep IV would bring a very different kind of battle to Egypt by revolutionising ancient Egyptian religion after the fifth year of his reign.

There was, he decided, one and only one god in the form of the god Aten, the solar disk, the most abstract form in which the ancient Egyptians represented their sun god, Re. Amenhotep eliminated the worship of the god Amun, shutting down all of Amun’s temples and ordering the obliteration of Amun’s name everywhere it could be found.

As king of Egypt, and the son of Aten, Amenhotep IV was the god’s representative on earth. Aten spoke directly only to him, and the god’s blessing flowed through him and other members of the royal family. Amenhotep IV thus changed his name from “Amun is satisfied” to “Akhenaten”, which means “he who is effective for Aten.” Because Thebes was so closely associated with a god whom Akhenaten now so despised, he also abandoned the city.

Aten required temples on virgin land where no other god had ever been worshipped. About 400km downstream from Thebes Akhenaten found just such a site. In this part of the country, the steep hills of the Eastern Desert come quite close to the Nile, but here was a place where they surrounded a sort of large desert “bay,” giving more than enough room for a city of temples, palaces, and houses for courtiers and for the thousands of workers necessary for a royal city to function.

The cliffs were a suitable place for men of high rank to build tombs for themselves and their families. And here, too, was a desert valley that divided the cliffs so that they resembled the hieroglyphic sign for “horizon”, from which the sun rose. In that valley Akhenaten would build his own royal tomb. The city he founded was named Akhetaten, “Horizon of Aten”. Today the site is called Tell Al-Amarna.

Before becoming king, Akhenaten had married a woman named Nefertiti, who, like his mother, was a commoner. By the time of the great move from Thebes, they had had three daughters, Meritaten, Meketaten, and Ankhesenpaaten. Nefertiti was a strong, politically astute woman who would come to rule alongside her husband. She appeared beside him in temples and public appearances, along with their growing number of children, all girls. Nefertiti eventually gave birth to six surviving daughters, but no sons.

Despite Nefertiti’s strong character, Akhenaten elevated a secondary wife, named Kiya, to prominence. Who Kiya was is not known. Some speculate that she was a foreign princess for whom Amenhotep III had negotiated a bride price but who had arrived only after the old king’s death. The last known mention of her name dates to around year 11 of Akhenaten’s reign. Some scholars believe that Kiya was the mother of Akhenaten’s son, a boy named Tutankhaten (“the living image of Aten”), later called Tutankhamun, and her disappearance from history at the same time as Tutankhaten’s birth might suggest that she died in childbirth.

However, all of this is speculation. DNA tests on royal mummies from this period have revealed that Tutankhamun’s mother was a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye and, therefore, Akhenaten’s sister. Tutankhaten was probably born at one of the palaces of Tell Al-Amarna sometime between his father’s seventh and 11th year as king. There are too many questions about the chronology of the Amarna Period to be more specific.

Late in his reign, Akhenaten took a co-regent. This second monarch, who used the name Ankhkheperure or its feminine form Ankhetkheperure, was most likely Nefertiti. She also outlived him, though only briefly. Tutankhamun may have been old enough to remember the death of his father in the 17th year of his reign, the cause of which remains a mystery. Akhenaten’s religious revolution also did not survive him, and even during the reign of Ankhkheperure the worship of Amun was being restored.

Ankhkheperure reigned independently for only a year or less. She was succeeded by her stepson, the eight- or nine-year-old Tutankhaten. The boy’s health suffered because his parents had been full-blooded siblings. Most notably, he had a clubfoot and needed to walk with a cane, but he must have seemed fit enough to be king. Despite coming to the throne so young, he would rule Egypt for only about 10 years before his own untimely death.

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