Jan 18

Amenhotep IV was an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh who reigned about 3,500 years ago. In the fifth year of his reign, Amenhotep IV radically broke with some of the most important traditions of his time. He installed the religion of the Aten or sun-disk as the only god, thereby rejecting the former state-god Amun and his mighty priesthood. The king, as the Aten’s divine son, was also his sole priest. Accordingly, he changed his name to Akhenaten ('he who acts beneficently for Aten') and founded a new capital, Akhetaten ('horizon of the Aten'), at present-day Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. The period of his rule is known as the Amarna period.


No Pharaoh of Egypt causes quite so much debate as the 'Heretic' Akhenaten. Despised by his successors and all but erased from history, only now are some of the details being painstakingly put together of this man and the profound effect he had on an empire.

Not a Pharaoh to do things by half, when Akhenaten established his new religion he built an entire city dedicated to the Aten complete with a necropolis and royal tomb. This city was Akhetaten; the Horizon of the Aten and at the peak of Akhenaten's reign over 20,000 people lived there. The city was built in middle Egypt, on a site chosen because it was not tainted by the worship of other gods.

Akhenaten & Nefertiti

Akhenaten ruled in the eighteenth dynasty, which seemed to be an age of revolution in ancient Egypt. Only a few reigns before his had been the reign of Hatshepsut, the most famous (but not the only) female Pharaoh. His wife was Nefertiti who was probably a distant relative to Akhenaten.

The Couple had six daughters named Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuaten-tasharit, Neferneferure, Meketaten, Merytaten, and Sotepenre. Also present in the family are two unknown members in Akhenaten’s family. They are Smenkhkare (successor of Akhenaten) and Tutankhaten who was later renamed Tutankhamen.



Akhenaten's strange appearance and mysterious behaviour, as well as his connection with Nefertiti and with the ill fated "boy king" Tutankhamun, have made him the subject of much passion and controversy in the last century or so.

During Akhenaten's reign he became all things to all people. To some he was a fanatical lunatic, to some he comes across as a strange, eccentric young man whose behaviour was strongly influenced by his mother. To others he was a Christ-like visionary and a mentor of Moses, and to still others he was simply someone who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and who really had nothing to do with the dramatic reformations that went on during his reign.

Akhenaten's Revolution

The nature of Akhenaten's revolution is well established; he overthrew Egyptian polytheism in favour of the worship of a single god (Monotheism), Aten, but the reason behind it is still unknown.

When historians first began to study Akhenaten carefully, in the late 1800s, the first thing that naturally came to everyone's mind was that Akhenaten was divinely inspired revolutionary. However, it does not seem likely that Akhenaten simply decided out of the blue to make such a major change. Many early historians, determined to link Akhenaten's religion (Atenism) somehow to the Jewish religion, said that Joseph or Moses inspired him. This is a possibility, considering that Joseph, at least, was around in roughly the same time period as Akhenaten.

However, after close examination of Akhenaten's religion, this hypothesis seems unlikely. Akhenaten's religion did centre on one god, but his major emphasis was on the Aten's visibility, tangibility, and undeniable realness. Akhenaten placed no emphasis, therefore, on faith. The reasons for Akhenaten's revolution still remain a mystery. Until further evidence can be uncovered, it will be impossible to know just what motivated his unusual behavior.

Still though, Atenism could be interpreted as the first step in a logical evolution of religion from many minor gods to one major one. If this is the case then Akhenaten could well be viewed as the forefather of most modern beliefs.

Another track could be that he was a political opportunist. When Akhenaten ascended to the throne the priests of Amun controlled much of Egypt. The temples were wealthy and powerful and Akhenaten may have seen their destruction as the way to further his own ambitions. Effectively in Atenism the Pharaoh was the only person who could make offerings directly to the God, which would have given him power as both religious and political leader.

The Mystery Surrounding Akhenaten's Appearance.

Akhenaten's odd appearance was particularly prominent in art from the early part of the reign. One early statue portrays the king in the nude and without genitalia of any kind.

Akhenaten Unusual Shape

Akhenaten Unusual Shape

These features have puzzled archaeologists since Akhenaten was first discovered in the early nineteenth century. Statues of Akhenaten in the so-called 'Amarna' style show the Pharaoh as a gaunt figure with a narrow chest and wide hips. The following reasons for this have been given:

1. Akhenaten was a woman

One interpretation of Akhenaten's strange physique was that 'he' was actually 'she'

2. He suffered from a disease

It has been suggested that Akhenaten suffered from Frohlich's Syndrome. This may explain his strange appearance, but one side effect of that disease is impotence. Akhenaten is reported to have had six daughters by Nefertiti alone, which makes this explanation unlikely, although it is possible that the disease struck in later life.

3. It was the unique style of Amarna art

The artistic styles of the Amarna period has no comparison to any other period in Ancient Egypt. For the first time royalty were shown in a more natural, less formal poses. In addition the freakish statues at Karnak could have been deliberately exaggerated to set the kings appearance apart from 'mortal' men.

What happened To Akhenaten?

There is also uncertainty about events after Akhenaten's death. Evidence indicates that he was originally interred in the royal tomb at Akhetaten, along with his daughter Meritaten, and that he was later moved (by Tutankhamun?) to another location, probably the Valley of the Kings. It is possible that after his original burial the Mummy was moved to tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings to protect it from the anti-Atenist backlash. It is also possible that his tomb in the Valley of the Kings is yet to be discovered.

Akhenaten's mummy has never been positively identified. The most likely candidate was thought to be the mummy found in the tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings but it is very unlikely that this body is Akhenaten's. Research has shown it to be that of a young man. It is more likely that this body is of Smenkhkare. A piece of gold foil bearing Smenkhkare's cartouche, stolen when the tomb was opened, has recently surfaced in Germany, which would seem to confirm the identity of the occupant.

Akhenaten in Profile

Akhenaten in Profile

The burial seems to have been hastily arranged using a coffin originally intended for a woman. The length of Smenkhkare's reign probably means that there was little time to make arrangements.

After the death of Akhenaten the city was abandoned, and the old religions which had been suppressed quickly re-established their control over Egypt. It is thought that this return was started by Smenkhkare, and completed by Tutankhaten who changed his name to Tutankhamun and moved his capital from Akhetaten to Memphis.

Akhenaten is perhaps unfairly not credited with being a particularly successful Pharaoh. Records seem to indicate that he allowed Egyptian influence wane but this may not be true. These ideas are based on the famous Amarna letters found in Akhetaten in many of which Egyptian vassal cities plead for assistance, but no replies are preserved.

As there is no surviving record of Egyptian territory being lost at this time it is possible that Akhenaten was merely skillfully playing one city against the other to achieve through diplomacy what would otherwise require military force.

Later Pharaohs attempted to erase all memories of Akhenaten and his religion. Much of the distinctive art of the period was destroyed and the buildings dismantled to be reused. Many of the Talitat blocks from the Aten temples in Thebes were reused as rubble infill for later pylons where they were rediscovered during restoration work and reassembled.

It is interesting to note that this destruction was directed at Akhenaten personally and not the Aten itself which in later dynasties it returned to it's original minor position in Egyptian religion.

The backlash against the religion of Akhenaten led to the widespread destruction of his palaces and temples. Work began on dismantling Akhetaten shortly after it was abandoned and along with many other of Akhenaten's monuments it's stone was re-used by later Pharaohs.

Restoration work on the great pylons of Ramesses II at Karnak showed that they used 'recycled' Aten temples for the filling. This has left modern Archaeologists with the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle. A section of a temple wall has now been restored and is on display in the Luxor Museum.


Dunham, Barrows (1963). Heroes and Heretics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Mertz, Barbara (1966). Red Land, Black Land. New York: Coward McCann, Inc.

Redford, Donald B. (1984). Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

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The Enigma of Tomb KV55

This tomb is probably one of the most enigmatic ever to have been found in Egypt. Mystery has swirled, unabated, around the tomb and its contents since its discovery in 1907 by Edward Ayrton. The English archaeologist worked under the patronage of American financier Theodore Davis and launched a nearly century long odyssey of mystery and controversy, theft, and intrigue.

Entrance to KV55

Entrance to KV55

Initially labeled the ‘Tomb of Queen Tiye,’ chief wife of one pharaoh (Amenhotep III) and the mother of another (Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten), an identity linked to her surviving image on a shrine covered with gold leaf that was found collapsed within the small, single-chambered tomb. It has been variously referred to, as the ‘Tomb of Akhenaten,’ and the ‘Amarna Cache,’ but is known officially as KV55.

On the south side of the chamber a badly decayed Rishi, or feathered coffin was found. The mask had been torn off in antiquity, and the mummy inside was crowned with a bronze pectoral, which was wrapped round the head.

There is archaeological evidence in the tomb that there were originally two mummies there. The other content point to the tomb being a cache of equipment brought from Akhetaten, possibly by Tutankhamun. If this is the case it is possible that the other mummy was that of Akhenaten himself.

The mystery of the occupant of the coffin was deepened by the removal of the Cartouches. There are various theories about this, each of which leads to a different identity for the body.

Originally it was thought that the mummy was that of queen Tiye, but examination revealed that it was actually that of a young male. One theory says the mummy is actually of Akhenaten himself. But the mummy has been identified on the basis of partially erupted wisdom teeth of being of a person of young age would seem to preclude this, although the wisdom tooth explanation is by no means a certain indication of age.

Inside was a heavily damaged mummiform wooden coffin decorated with the "rishi" (feather) style inlays that were very popular during the Amarna period. The mummy, the coffin, and the tomb are particularly mysterious for several reasons:

  1. The gold face is broken off the wooden layer underneath, just below the eyes, so we can't tell who is supposed to be inside
  2. The cartouches on the outside are hacked away in an attempt to rob the person of an afterlife, making it further difficult to determine who it belongs to (this made some people suspect that it is Akhenaten)
  3. The hieroglyphic phrases on the outside of the coffin refer to the owner as a “her” but the person inside is a male
  4. Scientific tests on the body support the identity of Smenkhkare - the age is right, and the tissues match Tutankhamun as a brother
  5. Canopic jars crafted for Akhenaten's lesser queen Kiya were found in the tomb with the mummy... but there isn't a single thing with Smenkhkare's name on it!

The most likely occupant of the coffin is the short-lived Pharaoh Smenkhkare who succeeded Akhenaten. Various other objects found in the tomb could indicate a hastily arranged burial with items from various sources gathered together. In the tomb there are objects inscribed for Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, and Tiye. The recent discovery of a piece of gold foil bearing Smenkhkare's cartouche, stolen when the tomb was opened, would seem to confirm this.

A set of Canopic jars was found in a niche at the back of the tomb. These are generally accepted as being originally intended for Kiya, who replaced Nefertiti for a short time after Year 12 of Akhenaten's reign. The theory about a hastily arranged Pharaohnic burial is strengthened by alterations made to the brow of the jar stoppers to add the royal cobra.

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