Akhenaten: The Egyptian Sun King | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and writer based in Leeds, UK.

Temple to Aten at Akhetaten, modern-day Armana

Egyptian Civilization

Ancient Egypt, the land of pharaohs, was a grand civilization. The civilisation of the pharaohs developed a complex system of government over which the pharaoh reigned supreme and was assisted by an advanced civil service who, as the Egyptian Empire expanded, administered the decrees of pharaohs over a domain spreading from Libya to Syria.

They were the first people to devise a formal written language. They were the first to develop a calendar. Their mastery of engineering in their construction of dams proved that they could bend the natural world to their will, while their construction of their temples, pyramids, and sphinx continues to impress modern travellers.

From 3150 BC until the c.1334 BC it was the world’s pre-eminent superpower, and Egypt remained a force to be reckoned with until its conquest by the Assyrian Empire in 667 BC.

Egyptian Gods

Egyptian Religion

For the majority of their history the Egyptians were polytheistic; they believed in many gods, each of whom represented a different force of nature. When they were conquered by the Assyrians and later by Alexander the Great, there were no forced conversions because the gods of the Egyptians were easily subsumed into the Greek pantheon.

Yet in the illustrious history of the Egyptian people there was a very brief time period in which the ruling class enforced monotheism at the behest of a religiously fundamentalist pharaoh who believed that his personal rule was to usher in a golden age in which heaven and earth would be made new. In the process, however, this pharaoh severely weakened the Egyptian Empire.

The Fundamentalist Pharaoh

By the time of the eighteenth dynasty of the pharaohs (1549 BC–1292 BC) Ancient Egypt was at the height of its imperial splendour. The rule of the pharaohs extended to Sudan in the south, Libya to the west, and into Syria in the east, and in 1353 BC the tenth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, Amenhotep IV, came to power.

Akenaten at the Cairo Museum (CCBY)

Husband to the famous Nefertiti, Amenhotep IV had a rather grandiose view of himself:

He imagined that he was ‘the beneficent centre from which the blessings of the universe flowed’.[1]

There had always been a sense that the pharaohs were in some sense divine, and there was an understanding that the pharaohs would become gods after their deaths, but while he was living Amenhotep took the idea of pharaonic divinity to an extreme. Under his reign, no longer would the Egyptians worship a variety of gods.

The Living Aten

Instead all of Egypt’s citizens would now be compelled to worship the Sun god, Aten (Aten was distinct from Ra, the other Egyptian Sun god; Ra was the god, not only of the sun but of the sky and ‘order’, whereas Aten was the god solely of the sun).

Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari, 13th century BC

Amenhotep IV declared himself to be the living embodiment of Aten at a Sed—an Egyptian festival—held in the third year of his reign. The holding of a Sed in the third year of his rule was another manifestation of his zealotry, for these festivals were usually held once a pharaoh had been on the throne for thirty years.

The Rise of ‘Akhenaten’

Amenhotep’s devotion to Aten led him to even change his name to Akhenaten (‘Effective for the Aten’). This was truly an ‘unprecedented’ deifying of the office of pharaoh.[2] He set about building a new temple to Aten on his accession but also mutilated the temples and monuments dedicated to other gods and forbade his subjects from worshipping their old gods.

This limestone relief of a royal couple in the Amarna style has variously been attributed as Akhenaten and NefertitiSmenkhkare and Meritaten, or Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun.

Instead of appeasing the gods through sacrifices, Egyptians would have to worship Akhenaten alone. Egyptians no longer had to be good people and offer sacrifices to Osiris the god of the underworld because all that would be required for their salvation was to worship the living god, Akhenaten. A religious revolution was at hand, but the common Egyptians hated it.[3]

The Construction of Aketaten

Strongly believing that his rule was to usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity for all,[4] he set about commissioning the building of a new capital city: Akhetaten. The city was speedily built; it appeared within ten years of his accession and, for the ancient world, it was no small city for it could accommodate 50,000 people. Akhenaten then chose the city for his seat of government.

A Weakening Empire

From Akhetaten, as the incarnate god of the Aten, he would rule the world. Yet far from ruling the world, Akhenaten retreated from it. Although he inherited a vast empire, he showed little interest in defending its territory and he often ignored requests for military help from the provinces.

The rise of the Hittites to the east was left virtually unopposed.[5]

Akhenaten refused to send aid to his vassal, Rib-Hadda of Byblos, when the latter’s kingdom was besieged by the Ammonites.

As the one who would usher in a golden age, then peace, not war, was his motto and Akhetaten took this doctrine to an extreme.

Reality Bites

Still believing he was immortal, but with an empire tottering around him and his people annoyed with his iconoclasm, reality soon hit: Bubonic plague ravaged his empire.

In quick succession the queen mother, Tiye, died, as did his daughter Merytaten, as well as his consort Kiya. His wife Nefertiti then suddenly disappeared. The dream was shattered. The living god and his progeny could no longer claim to be the immortal divine beings dispensing blessings from his city of Akhetaten.

People began to question his fitness to rule. Akhenaten’s answer to this was to initiate a virtual reign of terror against apostates.

Akhenaten Erased from the Public Record

Historians do not know how Akhenaten died: it may have been the case that he was struck down by disease, or perhaps he was assassinated on the orders of one of the general Horemheb. The latter scenario seems very likely; after Akhenaten’s death his successors attempted to eradicate all traces of him and his religion by desecrating his monuments and temples.

The famous Tutenkhamen

Horemheb, who later became pharaoh, removed all mentions of Akhenaten from public monuments. One of his successors Tutenkhaten abruptly broke with the legacy of his predecessor by moving the capital away from Akhetaten and changing his name to Tutenkhamen—the old gods were back!

Evaluating Akhenaten

Akhenaten was one of the first people in recorded history to have claimed that his rule would bring about a new world. His was not quite the apocalyptic thinking that characterised that of later messiahs and there was no sense that the ‘old’ Egyptian world be destroyed, but he did claim to be ushering in a new age.

Yet as with all religious leaders who have claimed to represent the beginning of a new age, his project failed and his successors reviled him.

Akhenaten’s Legacy—Louis XIV: ‘The Sun King’

So successful was the purge of all traces of Akhenaten that he would have been forgotten completely had not archaeological excavations in the early modern period brought his reign once more to people’s notice. He was enthusiastically ‘rediscovered’ in France, when writings about him were printed after archaeological excavations had been carried out.

Louis XIV of France, or, ‘The Sun King’

One person in particular who was inspired by Akhenaten was Louis XIV who named himself ‘The Sun King’.[6]

Just like Akhenaten, Louis XIV centralised the workings of the early modern French state and he set about building a grand and gilded palace: Versailles. From here he ruled with a firm conviction that he was the grandest, most important person in the world. L’etat c’est moi (‘the state is me’), he is once supposed to have said, and that statement embodies Louis’s vision of himself as a grand ruler whose personality is one with the state.[7]

Just as Akhenaten’s reign weakened Egyptian civilization, three quarters of a century after Louis XIV’s rule had ended France exploded in a revolution, which gave birth to yet more apocalyptic writings in Europe.

[1] Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 160.

[2] Landes, p. 162.

[3] Landes, p. 154.

[4] Landes, p. 174.

[5] Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten, King of Egypt, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 11.

[6] Landes, p. 183.

[7] Herbert H. Rowen, ‘ “L’Etat c’est a moi”: Louis XIV and the State’, French Historical Studies, 2: 1 (1961), 83–98 (p. 83).