Without digressing too far into the subject of congenital disorders, let me just suggest that Amenhotep IV, Ahkenaton, suffered from extra chromosome syndrome, that he was in fact a 47XXY. Normally, humans have 46 chromosomes and gender is determined by the sex chromosomes, X and Y. Females have two X chromosomes and males have an X and a Y. In a small percentage of conceptions, an extra Y chromosome fertilizes an X bearing egg. This produces a male 47XYY. In an even smaller percentage of conceptions, an extra Y chromosome fertilizes an XX, or female gendered, egg. The extra Y chromosome, an indicator of maleness, disturbs the XX egg and produces a wide range of hermaphroditic-like genetic abnormalities. While Ahkenaton was not a hermaphrodite, his overall body type suggests a hormonal dysfunction of the sort produced by a 47XXY problem. The psychological effect of this disorder can range from clinical retardation to severe emotional instability with psychotic obsessions and manias.
From this perspective, it is not hard to see why the royal family kept quiet about the new heir. Perhaps they thought that if he lived to puberty, then the family would acknowledge him and call his deformities a sign that he was divinely inspired. In the thirtieth year of Amenhotep III’s reign, that is just what happened. Amenhotep IV, soon to be Ahkenaton, was acknowledged and made co-ruler and therefore semi-divine. He was about sixteen years old and would rule, all together, for seventeen years. His genetic abnormalities did not prevent him from becoming Pharaoh, but they seem, at best, a terrible obstacle to overcome.
Ahkenaton had no doubt that his very being was divinely inspired, deformities and all. His sense of his own uniqueness had been supported by his mother and grandmother and all the women of the court since his birth. His father and the priests and officials of the state paid him just as much reverence. The young prince developed a personal connection to the family tradition of Aton worship. Within this tradition, he was the most important person of all, the direct link to the god “Re lives, Harrakte, rejoicing on the Horizon in his name ‘Heat which is in Aton.’”
Events are confused at the end of Amenhotep III’s reign. He either died or abdicated in the sixth year of Ahkenaton’s co-regency. We are unsure because he and Queen Tiy appear on a commemorative stele dated the ninth year of Ahkenaton’s reign. While this is not proof that he survived into the Amarna era, we can be sure that Amenhotep was buried in the ancient necropolis on the western bank of Thebes, not in the tomb created for him in the new city of Ahkhetaton. This does suggests that he was no special adherent to the cult of the Aton.
Queen Tiy survived and, along with her niece, Ahkenaton’s wife Nefertiti, encouraged the growth of the cult. When Ahkenaton assumed the throne in own right, in the sixth year of his co-regency, he changed his own name, and the name of the divinity by whose authority he ruled. To symbolize this, Ahkenaton built a new temple to the Aton midway between his father’s temple at Luxor and the establishment temple of Amon at Karnak.
This Theban temple gives us a glimpse of the early mythology and esotericism of the Aton cult. The flavor is strongly Heliopolitan, even down to the Benben, or sacred stone on which the phoenix alights. Horus and Set are honored in wall inscriptions. From this, it seems that the “monotheistic” Aton cult was composed of a modified triad—Aton, Re-Harrakte and Set—combining to give the Pharaoh Ahkenaton their seal of approval.
And then, in the seventh year of his reign, Ahkenaton shifted gears again. As the new temple of the Aton neared completion, Ahkenaton announced that Amon-Re was no longer the official state deity. That unique relationship was now held by the Aton. And, perhaps feeling oppressed by the magnificence of the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, Ahkenaton decided to move the capital from Thebes.
As Pharaoh commands, so it happens. An army of architects, builders, scribes and workmen descended on a broad stretch of the Nile Valley just south of the ancient city of Hermopolis. In a little more than a year, a new city, Akhetaton, “Horizon of the Aton,” was created. This was the world’s first venture in conscious city planning and its broad avenues and well-laid out plazas and temples gave it an open, almost modern feeling. Akhetaton would not seem out of place in southern California. In the eighth year of his reign, Ahkenaton left Thebes forever. A glittering flotilla of barges, with perhaps “Aton Sparkles” in the lead, sailed down the Nile carrying the young Pharaoh, his family and all the apparatus of government. To the simple peasant watching from the river bank, it must have seemed as if the very foundations of the world were shifting.
As indeed they were. The new city acted as a tonic on Ahkenaton. He threw himself into reorganizing the state and for awhile even paid attention to the diplomatic needs of his vast Empire. He also spent time organizing the priesthood of the Aton, and undoubtedly spent long hours in direct communication with his divine father, the power of the Aton itself. Barely a year after his departure from the old city of Thebes, Ahkenaton was ready for the next phase in his religious revolution.
He declared war on the gods of Egypt.
Amon-Re had long since been demoted to just another creator god among many such formulations. Now Ahkenaton went even further and declared the temples closed and prohibited the worship of Amon. But he didn’t stop there, the ancient popular festivals of Osiris were banned, as were the worship of Isis, Ptah, Horus, or Mut and Khonsu. All the elaborate interwoven descriptions of divine processes, gathered over the millennia of Egyptian civilization, all were declared to be “unreal” and therefore banned. There was only One God, and that god was the Aton.
Not even Re-Harrakte was spared. Ahkenaton’s vision of the Aton had no place for a falcon-headed phoenix-soul. His god was the literal disk of the sun itself, and the power it represented over life. Only the presence of the King was required to transmit this power directly to humanity.
This insistence on literalism produced the distinctive artistic “naturalism” of the period. We can better understand this not as a movement toward nature in art, but as a religious gesture that deified the literal image of the new God-King Ahkenaton. It was as mannered in its own way as the classical style it replaced.
As might be expected, resistance to changes on this level was intense. The priests of Amon-Re, who had the most to lose, became Ahkenaton’s chief focus. He declared that all reference to the god Amon, and even the plural of god, be erased from all structures in the Two Lands. We can only imagine crews of workmen on scaffolds scouring the vast monuments of Karnak for the offending phrases. Not even the common word for hidden, “amon,” was allowed to remain.
In this Ahkenaton made a major mistake. It meant that his father’s name, Amenhotep, must be obliterated. The King’s name, or ren, was a component of his being. It was thought that a nameless being could not be introduced to the gods and therefore could not be resurrected. The Good King, son of the divine, was in this way turned into a hungry ghost for all of eternity. The Egyptian people might have stood for the demotion of Amon-Re, they might even have come to terms with the loss of the ancient Osrian faith, they could and would have nothing but contempt for a King who destroyed his own father’s immortal soul.
And so, Ahkenaton withdrew, isolating himself with his family and his court in the new, open spaciousness of Akhetaton. While Egypt underwent a cultural revolution far more extreme than Mao’s Great Leap Forward in China, Ahkenaton played with his baby daughters, lovingly embraced his wife and sang hymns to the Aton. From Syria to the Sudan, the workmen plied their chisels; temples, palaces. private homes and even tombs were invaded so that all mention of the old gods could be banished. Egypt rocked from this unprecedented upheaval. Insulated and isolated in his new city, Ahkenaton recognized no hint of dissension.
For three years, it must have seemed to the group around the young King that the Aton did indeed dwell in the City of His Horizon. The state ran smoothly, the decrees of the King were being carried out, and the plans of the priests of Amon seemed to have been permanently thwarted. Temples to the Aton were built in the remote portions of the Empire and the nobles began to plan elaborate tombs on the outskirts of Akhetaton. Ahkenaton enjoyed his bliss, enjoyed being God, singular. It is from this period that we find reliefs, such as the one in the tomb of Merye, High Priest of the Aton, which depict relaxed open air ceremonies in which the “Heat which is in the Aton” is transferred to the person of the King.
From the hymns on these reliefs, we can see that very little was actually new in the worship of the Aton. They read much like any hymn to any sun-god, with the added twist of Ahkenaton as the sun-god’s authority on earth. Their sole point of uniqueness is their insistence that no other god exists but the Aton. In this way, the hymns of Ahkenaton are the first text in Egyptian or any other history to assert a negative, singular form of monotheism. But, Ahkenaton’s religion of an exclusive divinity was not completely unknown to the New Kingdom Egyptians; they understood that the only parallel to Ahkenaton’s revolution was Set’s usurpation of Osiris and his attempt to become the “only god.” It is impossible to say how a very Setian idea, such as divine exclusivity, became the focus of a unitary Heliopolitian theology. We can only say that by the ninth year of his reign, Ahkenaton had completed on earth the mythical usurpation of divine power traditionally assigned to Set.
“Thou art The Aton, living forever. . .,” declares the shorter hymn found in Merye’s tomb. Undoubtedly Ahkenaton believed this to be literally true. It is not hard to imagine how a mentally unstable young man, burdened with the unimaginable pressures of running a vast Empire and raised to believe that he was a divine individual, might pass into a realm of delusion where he becomes in his own mind the very source of the divine presence. […] Egypt was ruled by a madman.
It is sunset in Akhetaton, barely a decade after its founding. The broad streets are empty, the palaces and temples deserted; wild animals graze in its plazas and only the ghosts remain to worship the Aton in its open and spacious ceremonial arenas. The shadows lengthen across the Horizon of the Aton and even its tombs have been abandoned by the nobles and courtiers of the dead Pharaoh’s court. Soon, all memory of this place and its people would fade, until, two millennia and more later, it became a rock quarry for the Arab city of Kus, a few miles to the south. Another millennium and more would pass before its history was recovered.
The story of Ahkenaton’s fall reads like a Greek tragedy. Indeed, no lesser mind than that of Immanuel Velikovsky found the roots of the Oedipus story in the tangled tale of Akhenanton’s demise. Even Sigmund Freud found Ahkenaton fascinating. He considered the Great Pharaoh to be a forerunner of Moses, and thought that the monotheism of both the Jews and the Christians owed something to the Atonist doctrine of Ahkenaton. But for over three thousand years, all anyone knew of the period was a distorted reference in Mantheo, whose works have survived only as quotes in the works of others. In about 80 AD, the Roman/Hebrew author Josephus quoted a long passage of Mantheo in his “Contra Apion”. The details of this passage, without directly naming Ahkenaton, are recognizable as the events of the Amarna/Akhetaton period. In fact, they provide an invaluable insight into how Ahkenaton’s revolution appeared to the long memory of the Egyptian people.
Mantheo, through Josephus, tells us that how a certain Pharaoh Amenophis, Greek for Amenhotep, wished to have a closer communion with the gods. He consulted a wise man who told him to gather 80,000 unclean persons together and send them to certain rock quarries on the east bank of the Nile where they might live apart from other Egyptians. However, the wise old man foresaw that these people would rise up and control all Egypt. This so distressed the wise man that he died, after sending a note warning the King. Soon, a group of these people settled in Avaris, the old capital of the Set worshipping Hyksos, and, led by a priest of Heliopolis named Ahmose, Moses, declared war on Egypt and its gods.
Allied with the kingdoms of Palestine, these unclean people conquered and ruled Egypt for 13 years. They destroyed the images of the old gods and forbade all forms of traditional worship. At the end of 13 years, the old King Amenophis returned from exile and drove them from Egypt back into Palestine.
Parts of this story are surprisingly accurate. Akhetaton held about 80,000 inhabitants at its peak and was built in an old rock quarry on the east bank of the Nile. It was indeed 13 years from Ahkenaton’s decision to make the Aton the state religion to his death. And Ahkenaton did persecute the followers of the old gods. The return of Amenophis is a reflection of Horemheb’s damage control in the generation after Ahkenaton’s death, but apart from this, the story is basically accurate.
Then what are we to make of the clear association of Ahkenaton’s revolution and the Set worshippers of Avaris?
For one thing, it strongly suggests that Ahkenaton’s revolution survived in folk memory as a Setian event. Only someone like the Set worshipping Hyksos could have conspired to forbid the worship of the old gods. Only Set could conceive of something so monstrous and so disrespectful. In many ways, Egyptian folk wisdom saw the Ahkenaton period more clearly than most modern Egyptologists.
While upheaval swept Egypt and its Empire, Ahkenaton, insulated in his new city of Akhetaton, paid no attention, preferring, instead of warriors and diplomats, the company of his family and his followers. No word of dissent was permitted to reach the Pharaoh’s ears. And no one seemed to be in charge. Revolts flared up and spread in Palestine and the Sudan. No one at Akhetaton paid the slightest attention. There the Aton still seemed to smile as the Pharaoh gracefully received its power; the incense flared and flamed as the court followers quietly chanted a hymn of praise to the God-King in the clear, bright sunlight.
But not for long. In the twelfth year of Ahkenaton’s reign, clouds gathered to obscure the smiling face of the Aton. As things went wrong, the Great Pharaoh retreated ever deeper into his religious wonderland.
The first shadow came with the death of Ahkenaton’s daughter. The Aton did not respond to Ahkenaton’s entreaties; his daughter was truly dead. To Ahkenaton, this can only have appeared as a rebuke from God. To be “Thou art Aton, living forever. . .” and yet not to be able to save that which he loved most, his own daughter, must have been a terrible shock. Close behind came another shock. Queen Tiy, staunch supporter of the Aton since before Ahkenaton’s birth, also died. This seems to have sent Ahkenaton into a deep decline. Queen Nefertiti also died or perhaps divorced Ahkenaton and faded from the scene around this time. The God-King was left alone on the center stage of his own tragedy. As Ahkenaton retreated deeper into his religious mania, some of the court, heeding the chorus of voices murmuring of revolt, war and famine, began to move back to Thebes. A compromise was in the winds.
It came in the fifteenth year of Ahkenaton’s reign. A coalition of nobles and the remaining priests of Amon forced the god-king to accept his half-brother and son-in-law Smenkhare as co-regent. They also forced him to officially halt the desecration of monuments and to re-instate the worship of the old gods, Amon included. At this, Ahkenaton seems to have balked. Two tense years passed before the priests of Amon decided to settle things by assassination. Both Ahkenaton and Smenkhare were killed and another half-brother/ son-in-law, Tutanhkaton, was placed on the throne.
Tutanhkaton ruled for nine years and, at least at first, was not antagonistic to Ahkenaton’s memory or the worship of the Aton. But he was firmly under the control of the priests of Amon. The capital was restored to Thebes and Akhetaton was abandoned. The worship of the old gods was restored, Amon in particular, although Amon-Re did not immediately return to the status of official state deity. A few years before his fatal hunting accident, Tutanhkaton changed his name to Tutanhkamun. When he died, he was buried in the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of Thebes. With him died the last remnant of Ahkenaton’s revolution.
Tutanhkamun’s successor was another member of the court party, Nefertiti’s father Aye. The political implications of his assumption of the throne is unknown. Perhaps he represented the coalition of Amun and the military that came to power after his death, or perhaps he was the tool of the new civil service that had grown up around the worship of the Aton, and who desperately needed a way to hold onto control of the government. At any rate, Aye was violently anti-Ahkenaton.
Aye ordered that the same thing be done to Ahkenaton as was done to his father Amenhotep III—the complete removal of his name and image. As Aye’s instructions were carried out, Ahkenaton and his era faded into the shadows of historical limbo. The next Pharaoh, General Horemheb, backdated the beginning of his reign to the end of Amenhotep III’s, effectively rendering non-existent four Pharaohs and thirty years of history. And so it remained, except for Mantheo’s folk tale, for almost 3,500 years.
To the Victorian Egyptologists who uncovered the story, such as James Henry Brestead, Ahkenaton appeared as the first individual in history. They saw in him an early version of Christ, and his monotheism seemed modern and admirable. There was a romance to the forgotten period that was heightened by the discovery and unveiling of Tutanhkamun’s tomb in the 1920’s. In our time, the New Age purveyors of blissful refried nostrums have stumbled upon the Great Heretic Pharaoh and embraced him as one of their own. His genetic abnormalities have been taken as proof of his extra-terrestrial origin and his decade of religious genocide has been pictured as some kind of science fiction golden age.
As we have seen in this essay, the real Ahkenaton was a complex creation of his age and his obsessions. Just as in all dictatorship and tyrannies, the personality of the leader became the reality of the people. This reality, and its Setian nature, was remembered long after Ahkenaton’s name was forgotten. It is not surprising that a madman should become ruler of the first great world empire. Given the long reach of Egyptian history, we are surprised to find so few.
What is surprising is that the philosophy of [Akhenaten] influenced the three great monotheistic religions of our modern world. There can be no doubt that the early Hebrews came in contact with Atonist ideas. A simple comparison of Psalm 104 (below) and the Aton Hymn of Ahkenaton demonstrates the closeness of the connection. We do not have to believe, with Freud, that Ahkenaton and Moses are directly related (although there is that Heliopolitan priest named Ahmose, Moses, in the quote from Mantheo?) to understand that the singular and exclusive form of monotheism enunciated by Ahkenaton is identical to the jealous God of the Old Testament prophets.
From this we learn that an idea, such as monotheism, can be powerful enough to survive the loss of its historical context. The power of an exclusive one-god-ism lies in its ability to restrict and control the natural spirituality of the human being. The story of Ahkenaton is a cautionary tale for all fundamental monotheists.