Akhenaten: the mythologising of a pharaoh

This 18th dynasty pharaoh ruled Egypt c1352 – 1336 BC from his new capital at Tell el-Amarna (Amarna), roughly midway between Cairo and Luxor. It was a city built on a virgin site, and although preservation of the mudbrick buildings is limited, it still survives better than any other ancient city in Egypt. Richly painted plaster and vibrant faience tiles once adorned the palace walls; elaborately carved stone blocks once cased the mud brick temple walls. Exploration of the tombs of Akhenaten’s civil servants, set high in the limestone desert cliffs at Amarna, furthers an understanding of the ancient city, as temples and palaces are represented in detail on their carved walls. The art on the walls of these tombs is typical of the intriguing ‘Amarna style’.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their two eldest daughters in the rays of Aten, Tomb of the civil servant Ipy, Tell el-Amarna

Traditionally the pharaoh was represented in a hyper-masculine way – strong, mighty and virile – forever young, muscles rippling, expressing an ideology rather than a true portrait. Akhenaten chose to be depicted in a style that is in marked contrast to the traditional strong athletic bodies and usually somewhat beatific faces of the rulers of Egypt. He is portrayed instead with voluptuous hips, stomach, bottom and thighs, with a long face and neck, spindly limbs, and unusual facial features. The style of art is quite different during Akhenaten’s reign, but few people get to experience this extraordinary art in situ, because few people visit Tell el-Amarna.

Akhenaten on blocks from a temple to Aten, now in Luxor Museum

This unusual mode of representation for this one and only pharaoh in some 3000 years of remarkably consistent pharaonic iconography has led to much theorizing, including claims that Akhenaten must have been suffering from Frohlich’s Syndrome or Marfan’s Syndrome. It is extremely unlikely he actually looked as he is portrayed on the walls of the temples and tombs at Amarna, and much more likely he chose to have himself and indeed his family represented in an exceptional manner in order to reflect their divine status as the focus of a ruler cult. While Akhenaten’s one god, Aten, is the only deity in the ancient Egyptian pantheon given the kingly attribute of names written in cartouches. This complex iconography generates varying interpretations and lively discussion.

Norman de Garis Davies’s drawings of scenes in the Theban tomb of Ramose: two images of Akhenaten, the top one very much in the style of his father Amenhotep III (from The Tomb of the Vizier Ramose (Egypt Exploration Society, 1941))

In fact, Akhenaten’s iconography changed over time. His image carved in relief evolved early in his reign from a representation almost identical to that of his father, Amenhotep III, to the unusual depiction, usually referred to as the ‘Amarna style’. A visit to the tomb of Ramose in the Theban hills on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor is the best place to find both styles of representation of this intriguing pharaoh in one place. In fact, you’ll find them on either side of a doorway within this tomb of a Prime Minister who died in an era of innovation and perhaps uncertainty. The scenes are unfinished but the two very different styles of art still emerge clearly from the walls, the moment when instruction was sent out to all the artists of Egypt that the pharaoh was to be represented in a new and very different way.

Nefertiti bust from Tell el-Amarna, now in the Neues Museum, Berlin

Akhenaten was already married to Nefertiti when he succeeded to the throne of Egypt. Nefertiti is of course best known from the limestone and plaster painted bust in the Neues Museum, Berlin. But is this iconic image of Ancient Egyptian beauty and queenship a true likeness? An absence of portraiture in the representation of the pharaoh seems to have extended to other members of the royal family. The famous bust of Nefertiti in Germany was discovered with a number of other statue heads of this influential queen, in the workshop of the royal sculptor Thutmose at Amarna. This was in 1912 at a time when the Egypt’s Antiquities Service allowed a share of the finds at the end of a dig season to be taken by the person or institution responsible for funding the excavations. The excavations at Amarna at this time were funded by a wealthy German businessman named James Simon, so the museum in Berlin ended up with more than its fair share of images of Nefertiti. Simon had the famous bust at home on his mantelpiece for seven years before donating it to the Neues Museum. The other heads of Nefertiti from this discovery are in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. They can be enjoyed there, together with extraordinary colossal statues of Akhenaten, and possibly Nefertiti, from their temple to Aten to the east of the temple to Amun at Karnak. More of these colossal statues are beautifully displayed in the Luxor Museum.

Early image of Nefertiti, from Tell el-Amarna, now in Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Like the iconography of her husband, that of Nefertiti changed considerably over time, begging the question, what did she actually look like? We might hope she ressembled the beautiful bust in Berlin, but this clearly dates to late in the reign, when her image had mellowed. Early on in the reign she is represented in rather a severe manner, with poky facial features and oversized ears placed high on her head. Exploring the Amarna gallery in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, the early images of Nefertiti are glaringly obvious. She is far from beautiful, and wears not her iconic flat-topped blue crown, but a headdress that identifies her with traditional deities of the polytheistic religion: Hathor and Amun, deities that the ‘heretic’ Akhenaten was keen to wipe out.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti beneath the rays of Aten, on Boundary Stela A, Gebel el-Silsila

Akhenaten’s seeming attempt at monotheism c1350 BC tends to fascinate. The ‘boundary stelae’ at Gebel el-Silsila and Tell el-Amarna, and the tombs of contemporary high officials and priests, as well as of Akhenaten himself, display depictions of Aten – a sun disc with a uraeus; hands at the end of its rays extending the ankh to the nostrils of the royal family.  Was this really monotheism before its time? Not long after Akhenaten’s death there was a return to the polytheistic religion and Tell el-Amarna, or Akhetaten (‘Horizon of Aten’) as it was then called, was abandoned, pillaged, and left to fall into rack and ruin. The site wasn’t occupied again for nearly 2000 years when a Christian community flourished here, 5th – 7th centuries AD, bringing monotheism once more to this out-of-the-way place. The tomb of Akhenaten’s priest Panehsy was converted into a church at this time; early Christian art, including a unique six-winged bird, overlays imagery of the Amarna royal family and Aten.

R.S. George’s cover art to the English translation of Dmitri Merezhkovsky’s novel Akhnaton, c1927

This period of two millennia between Akhenaten and an early Christian community at the site hammers home just what a vast period of time Egyptian history covers. After all, by the time Akhenaten ruled Egypt, the Great Pyramid at Giza was already over 1000 years old. It is hardly surprising that a historical figure from so long ago, who clearly chose to break with convention, has been so heavily mythologized, even by academics, who can be just as guilty of creative interpretations of the past as writers, artists and composers. Akhenaten has inspired a host of these – Thomas Mann, Naguib Mahfouz, Frida Kahlo, Philip Glass and Derek Jarman, to name but a few.

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, grandson of Matthew Flinders

The difficulty is that there are so few hard facts known about his reign, so imaginations run wild. We expect that of an artist, but hope not to find an academic guilty of this. However Egyptologists over the years, burdened with the cultural baggage of their day, have projected what they wish on to Akhenaten. The ‘Father of Egyptology’ from a British perspective, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (grandson of Matthew Flinders), writing in the The Times newspaper in 1892, said that Akhenaten ‘openly proclaims the domestic pleasures of a monogamist’, clearly expressing his bourgeois Utopian interpretation of the Amana art.

One expert on Akhenaten, who shall remain nameless, has written a much-read book on this pharaoh in which he describes him as ‘a man deemed ugly by the accepted standards of the time, secluded in the palace in his minority, certainly close to his mother, possibly ignored by his father, outshone by his brothers and sisters, unsure of himself’. No one reading the work of this respected Egyptologist would be blamed for assuming that this analysis of Akhenaten was based on evidence, but … we have absolutely no archaeological or textual evidence for Akhenaten during his childhood, nor for his relationships with his family members, nor for attitudes towards him at the time.

‘King List’, Seti I’s Temple, Abydos

What we do know is that 60 or so years after his death, Akhenaten was omitted from the lists of pharaohs written down in the 19th Dynasty, such as the only one to survive in situ, the beautifully preserved king list on the wall of Seti I’s temple at Abydos. Akhenaten and those pharaohs most associated with him such as his son, Tutankhamun, were written out of history as they were deemed ideologically incorrect. Presumably Akhenaten’s major changes to the religion, and accompanying art, were believed to deviate too radically from all that the ancient Egyptians considered to be good and proper – a state of order they referred to as maat. Maat underpinned the ancient Egyptian belief system, and Egypt was clearly not ready for the free-thinking Akhenaten and his attempt at monotheism some 3400 years ago.

Upper part of colossal statue of Akhenaten, Luxor Museum
Lucia Gahlin

Lucia Gahlin

Lucia Gahlin is an Egyptologist based in the UK with over 20 years experience of leading tours to Egypt, and to collections of Egyptian antiquities in museums around the world. She has a strong personal interest in the art, archaeology, literature and architecture of ancient Egypt, and is the author of chapters and books, such as ‘Egypt: gods, myths and religion’. Lucia holds a First Class Honours Degree in Egyptology/Ancient History from University College London. Her postgraduate research took her into university teaching, curatorial work in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, and archaeological excavations in Egypt.

Upcoming tours led by Lucia Gahlin

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