The seventeen-year reign of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten is remarkable for the development of ideas, architecture, and art that contrast with Egypt’s long tradition.
Shortly after coming to the throne, the new pharaoh Amenhotep IV, a son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, established worship of the light that is in the orb of the sun (the Aten) as the primary religion, and the many-armed disk became the omnipresent icon representing the god. The new religion, with its emphasis on the light of the sun and on what can be seen, coexisted with a new emphasis on time, movement, and atmosphere in the arts. Exceptional as the new outlook seems, it certainly had roots in the increasing prominence of the solar principle, or Re, in the earlier Dynasty 18, and in the emphasis on the all-pervasive quality of the god Amun-Re, developments reaching a new height in the reign of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390–1353 B.C.). Likewise, artistic changes were afoot before the reign of Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten. For example, Theban tombs of Dynasty 18 had begun to redefine artistic norms, exploring the possibilities of line and color for suggesting movement and atmospherics or employing more natural views of parts of the body.
While the art and texts of what is commonly called the Amarna Period after the site of the new city for the Aten are striking, and their naturalistic imagery is easy to appreciate, it is more difficult to bring the figure of Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten himself or the lived experiences of Atenism into focus. The courtiers who helped the king monumentalize his vision refer to a kind of teaching that the king provided, to them at a minimum, and the art and particular hymns or prayers convey a striking appreciation of the physical world.
Beautifully you appear from the horizon of heaven, O living Aten who initiates life—
For you are risen from the eastern horizon and have filled every land with your beauty;
For you are fair, great, dazzling and high over every land,
And your rays enclose the lands to the limit of all you have made;
For you are Re, having reached their limit and subdued them for your beloved son;
For although you are far away, your rays are upon the earth and you are perceived.
When your movements vanish and you set in the western horizon,
The land is in darkness, in the manner of death.
(People), they lie in bedchambers, heads covered up, and one eye does not see its fellow.
All their property is robbed, although it is under their heads, and they do not realize it.
Every lion is out of its den, all creeping things bite.
Darkness gathers, the land is silent.
The one who made them is set in his horizon.
(But) the land grows bright when you are risen from the horizon,
Shining in the orb in the daytime, you push back the darkness and give forth your rays.
The Two Lands are in a festival of light—
Awake and standing on legs, for you have lifted them up:
Their limbs are cleansed and wearing clothes,
Their arms are in adoration at your appearing.
The whole land, they do their work:
All flocks are content with their pasturage,
Trees and grasses flourish,
Birds are flown from their nests, their wings adoring your Ka;
All small cattle prance upon their legs.
All that fly up and alight, they live when you rise for them.
Ships go downstream, and upstream as well, every road being open at your appearance.
Fish upon the river leap up in front of you, and your rays are within the Great Green (sea).
(excerpted from the Great Hymn to the Aten in the Tomb of Aya, as translated in William J. Murnane, Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt, edited by Edmund S. Meltzer [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995])
At the same time, Atenism gave the king himself a divinelike role as sole representative and interpreter of the Aten—as stated elsewhere in the above hymn, “there is no one who knows you except your son”—so that any access to and understanding of the god was mediated through the figure of the king and his family. Although there is no reason to think the king’s self-promotion was only politically motivated, the differentiation of king and gods was altered.
The king’s reign can be divided into two phases: the years before the move to the site of Amarna, when building was centered on Karnak, termed the proto-Amarna phase by scholars who have revealed the significance and course of this period, and the Amarna years. Here, the emphasis will be on the architecture and art associated with these phases. Amarna itself, as an exemplary Egyptian city, requires its own discussion. Work in the last decades has cast fresh light on these subjects, so the focus in the further reading is on items that ground these discussions, rather than in representing the immense topic of Amarna.
The Karnak Years (the Proto-Amarna Phase): Architecture and Art
The proto-Amarna phase lasted for about five years. Understanding of this seminal period is aided by the preservation of sculpture dismantled where it stood, and building stones from the Aten’s Karnak complexes systematically reused as packing stones inside the Karnak temple pylons shortly after the Amarna Period. Discoveries of fundamental importance have been made by following the clues these building stones hold about the changes that unfolded at Karnak as Atenism emerged, discoveries contextualized and elaborated in a recent biography of the king.
The king at first continued traditional attentions to Amun-Re, but already within his first year revealed a new focus on the falcon-headed god Re-Harakhti, who was given a long name identifying him with the Aten, although the name was not yet written in cartouches. The king undertook a considerable expansion of an area already devoted to Re-Harakhti on the eastern side of Karnak. Year 4 saw several major happenings, more or less in the following sequence: the Aten’s name with epithets became fixed and immutable, written in cartouches (termed by scholars the “didactic” name), “Living Re-Harakhti who rejoices on the horizon in his name of Shu who is in the Aten”; a representation of the human figure was introduced that was overall more sinuous and heavy in the hips and evolved hereafter to be more so; the Aten’s new icon—a many-handed sun disk represented as very spherical—was created and the falcon-headed image abandoned; Nefertiti emerged as the king’s wife (22.9.1); and a vast complex was undertaken for the Aten yet further to the east within the Karnak precinct. The focus on Aten corresponded to a radically decreased attention to Amun in particular. By early in year 5, Amenhotep IV had identified a new home for the Aten at the site of Amarna, an area that he claimed belonged to no other god, and by the time his oath was recorded in boundary stelae some time during the ensuing year, his name had been changed to Akhenaten: at that point the focus shifted to the site of Amarna, considered in the second section of this essay.
The new religion unleashed a progression of changes, almost as if by domino effect, in architectural forms and representational organization. Amenhotep IV’s initial constructions in East Karnak had employed the huge blocks typical of traditional Egyptian temple architecture, and on the walls the king officiated before the god depicted as a man with a falcon head. But in year 4, when the sun disk with hands appeared as the god’s new icon expressing the new focus upward toward the sunlight, a large platform reached by a ramp was erected on which the king officiated in the open air. With this emphasis on worship taking place toward the light in the sky, solar worship spaces typically dispensed with the roof. Realizing the walls of the primary god’s main temples no longer needed massive blocks to bear heavy roofing stones, Egyptian architects switched to the small blocks called talatat that characterize constructions of this period. Measuring about 20 1/2 inches long by 10 1/4 deep by 9 1/2 high (26 x 52 x 24 cm) and weighing about 120 pounds, talatat were considered manageable by one worker. In wall scenes, the displacement of the divine image to the top of scenes left the king or the king and queen alone under the Aten’s rays without a divine figure placed in symmetrical opposition, creating a static appearance. This aesthetic quandary played a role in the changes in scene organization that evolved along with new subject matter introduced into temple scenes—scenes of the lives of the royal family, the royal entourage, and surroundings teeming with activity (61.117; 65.129).
To the north of the platform temple, a gigantic court was built that was surrounded by sandstone colossi, depicting the king and probably Nefertiti, with some other smaller royal statuary. The court seems to have been connected with a Heb Sed, or rejuvenation festival, celebrated by the king and the Aten probably again in year 4. Discovered in the early years of the twentieth century, and before Amarna became otherwise well known, the colossi have evoked the radical nature of the Amarna experiment for moderns. The figures have the heavy hips that characterize Amarna depictions. These have been recognized as feminized proportions, and this may have been intended to characterize the king and queen, and indeed the entire world as it is represented in this way in Amarna art, as recipients of life and divine inspiration in relation to the Aten. More difficult to comprehend are the facial features of the colossi: slitlike eyes, swollen noses, and bulbous drooping chins that are dramatically stranger than most faces known from the reign, a difference that has been attributed to an evolution in the art. A recent insight has tamed this appearance in some measure by reminding the modern viewer that these faces, which were on statues that stood plus or minus 15 feet high, were never meant to be seen at eye level as they now tend to be photographed; rather, they seem to have been carved in this way with the perspective of the viewer far below in mind. With this corrective, the features of the king still strongly suggest a very particular picture of the divine and the king’s relation to it, but are more in accord with the range of variability one sees in the Karnak reliefs of the period. A more coherent picture of Amarna style is the result.
Nefertiti serves as Akhenaten’s religious counterpart from her first appearance in year 4. The representation of their relationship certainly evoked traditional divine pairings. Shu and Tefnut, the children of Re, are alluded to. Scholarship has also drawn attention to Nefertiti’s multifaceted relationship to Hathor, counterpart to Akhenaten in his relation to Re. With the move to Amarna, the royal pair were supplemented by the halo of—ultimately—six daughters.
The Amarna Years: Architecture and Art
Having just undertaken the huge complex at Karnak, the king early in year 5 determined on a newer and, indeed, his most remarkable act of devotion to his god, probably spurred on by resistance to his programs at Thebes: he proclaimed the foundation of a new city for the Aten at a site in Middle Egypt now known as Tell el-Amarna. We know these events from a set of fifteen boundary stelae (the number includes one discovered in 2006 by the current expedition to the site). The stelae, marking the first anniversary of the proclamation, stood in the cliffs enclosing the large plain on either side of the Nile at the site. Naming himself Akhenaten and thus referring to the Aten, and abjuring his previous name Amenhotep referring to that god, the king proclaimed the founding and layout of a city he called Akhetaten, or Horizon of the Aten: he prescribed temples for the Aten, a so-called sunshade shrine in the name of Nefertiti, palaces, burial places for the royal family and high officials, and festivals and ritual provisions for the Aten. Over the twelve years between the date of the first proclamation and Akhenaten’s death in year 17 of his reign, this program was largely fulfilled. Some of the major structures are discussed below.
Firm chronological markers for understanding the development of the city are unfortunately few, particularly in comparison to the Karnak years. The gradually increasing size of the royal family—to six daughters—is an indication only, to be used with care. The most generally used marker has been the form of the Aten’s didactic name. A more abstract second version has long been accepted as having been introduced anywhere between year 9 and 12 and may have coincided with more severe measures against Amun. However, the date this name was introduced has been reexamined. Two pieces of evidence argue strongly for a late date: first, the second name appears relatively infrequently, which suggests that it was introduced later rather than earlier; second, the royal tomb, as the place where events represented are most likely to be contemporary with the version of the Aten name inscribed, indicates the change is likely to have taken place after year 12 and even as late as year 14.
In its initial formal plan, the city stretched from north to south along a royal road that led from a huge palace—termed the North Riverside Palace—at the north, through the Central City with the Great Aten Temple, the Small Aten Temple, the Great Palace (the ceremonial palace), and the administrative and provision quarters, to a southern temple for Nefertiti at Kom el-Nana. Over the years, the road to the south was obscured by a growing suburb, but certainly the Royal Road from north to the Central City constituted a sort of processional route where the king and his family in their chariots could be seen progressing to and from the temple. Most of these buildings have been excavated to some degree.
A central structure of the city was the Great Aten Temple, excavated by Flinders Petrie in 1891–92, then again over two seasons by the Egypt Exploration Society expedition that worked at Amarna from 1921 to 1937, and since 2012 as part of the Amarna Project under the direction of Barry Kemp, who has worked at Amarna since 1979. The Metropolitan Museum of Art helps to support this present work at the temple, as related to understanding of our Amarna collections. The temple’s precinct encompassed a vast expanse in which traces of two complexes can be seen, one in the front third and one at the rear. In both areas, there were initial works in mud brick, which were later replaced with stone buildings. Current work at the site has revealed that at least the front building, known as the Long Temple, or Gem-Aten, was substantially rebuilt again fairly late in the reign for reasons that are as yet unclear. These substantial changes over the short span of eleven years suggest the temple was a construction site for most of its existence.
The entire temple was open to the sky. In what we understand as its final state, one entered the temple enclosure through a mud-brick pylon, and advanced through a forecourt filled with numerous large low basins toward two colonnades of huge columns on either side of the axis. Beyond the colonnades stretched a long progression of courts filled with offering tables and punctuated by large altars. Fields of hundreds of offering tables aligned the Long Temple, though whether on both sides simultaneously is not clear (21.9.8). Then, beyond a huge stretch of ground, unexcavated and more or less featureless to the modern eye, stood a second building known as the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple. Within its own walled area, the Sanctuary was raised on a high gypsum cement podium. The building was fronted by a porch with columns and colossi of the king, and within, under the open sky, opened a court with small offering tables and a large altar, surrounded by twelve chapels. The Sanctuary seems to have been completed before the Long Temple, and certainly its plan suggests it was a successor of the Karnak platform temple. Not far outside the Sanctuary enclosure wall was a site where a large stela with an offering list stood on a podium alongside a seated statue of the king. The stela site was on an axis with an unusual entry building in the side wall of the main enclosure wall; it has been conjectured that this entry building allowed access to the stela and statue area, possibly by those wishing to participate in the king’s cult. A butcher yard within the temple enclosure and huge bakeries outside saw to the needs of the Aten cult.
The Great Aten Temple was adorned with reliefs. Some scenes and inscriptions in the Long Temple were spectacularly inlaid with colored stones, glass, and faience; some from the Sanctuary were gilded. Not long after the Amarna Period, the reliefs were removed for reuse as building matrix for other constructions, but the stones left at the site attest to many scenes of presentation of offerings or performance of ritual actions by the king and queen under the Aten’s rays. Scenes of nature and large intimate family tableaux are also attested. Fragments document statues in quartzite, granite, granodiorite, and particularly in beautiful hard white limestone known as indurated limestone, a specialty of the two Aten temples. The Metropolitan Museum has many indurated limestone sculptural fragments from the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple, where they were broken up on site by the temple’s destroyers. These indicate that sculptors continued to adopt expressive forms to represent the royal couple’s relation to their deity—the king’s and queen’s narrowed eyes and arching bodies with locked knees evoke a certain otherness, even if we do not understand the direct import of these features. But, in fact, the fragments also show considerable stylistic variability. Poses of the Great Aten Temple statuary as they can be reconstructed are often new to Egyptian art and surely express meaningful ritual actions within the definitions of the new cult: the king and queen as a dyad with their arms raised high before them and tall pillars inscribed with the Aten’s names stretching from their fingertips to toes; the king prostrate before the god; the king with arms raised in adoration (26.7.1395; 57.180.79; 21.9.3; 21.9.4; 21.9.431).
The ceremonial palace—the Great Palace—stood near the Great Aten Temple. This was the largest building in the city, and was elaborately decorated with relief and statuary, fine stone balustrades, stone, faience and glass inlay (26.7.942), gilding, and wall and pavement paintings. As the current excavator notes, it was designed to impress. This was the ceremonial or reception palace of the royal family, who seem to have lived elsewhere. The palace was entered from the north. Those arriving ascended ramps to pass through a monumental entrance decorated with columns, reliefs, and perhaps seated statues. They then descended ramps into the Broad Court, where great colossi in quartzite and granite stood, preserved only in fragments but reminiscent of those in the Karnak Heb Sed court. At the southern end of the Broad Court was a large porticoed balcony that may have been one of the locales termed a “window of appearance,” where the king and his family appeared to a larger public. The Broad Court complex at the Great Palace has been suggested as a site for official awards and feasting. To the east, the palace adjoined the Royal Road; on the western side, to judge from relief depictions, porticoes lined the riverfront (1985.328.15).
Less is known about the sunshades—an ancient Egyptian term for a place for sun worship—of the royal women. One at least, the Maruaten, evoked a lush natural setting with water and plants and a sort of island. The Kom el-Nana, certainly Nefertiti’s shrine, has provided evidence of a particular type of statuary associated with Amarna known as composite statuary, where lifelike skin coloring and textures, garments, and poses are mimicked by attaching separate pieces in different stones. Whether composite or no, statues in warm-colored stones such as yellow-brown or deep red quartzite of the king and queen and their daughters, often in groups and often linked by intimate gestures of held hands or interlaced arms, are a type that flourished at the site of Amarna itself, wherein the special intimacy and beauty of the family expresses their status as the beloved children of the Aten (2005.363; 11.150.26).
Reliefs decorated all the temples and palaces, and wall, floor, and ceiling paintings adorned many of the palaces (30.4.135; 30.4.136). Although the buildings were torn down after the end of the Amarna Period, the stone itself was removed to other sites to be used as fill in constructions. So, while it has not yet been possible to reconstruct larger scenes and their coordination with particular spaces as it was at Karnak, some sense of the themes represented is available. The life of the royal family, the beautiful children of the Aten, in the company of their god is central, from intimate depictions of the king and queen with the young princesses, to their movement through the city in chariots to the temples (1985.328.18), to scenes of ritual and offering under the rays of the Aten (1985.328.2). Scenes of nature under the Aten’s rays figure largely: dewy grapes (1985.328.23), gamboling animals (1985.328.21), startled birds, and scenes in the marsh (1985.328.22). Ambient activities are represented in similar spirit: busy cleaners and porters at the palace, soldiers sleeping alongside their smoking fires, attendants tending burning coals (65.129), boat and dock scenes (1985.328.15).
Amarna as an Egyptian City
Not only was Akhetaten the center for worship of the Aten and the dwelling place of the king, it was the home of a large population—an estimated 30,000 people, nowhere signaled in the provisions of the boundary stelae. When the city was abandoned after about two decades, the streets and structures with their archaeological evidence were preserved in the state in which they were left after removal of much of the stonework and destruction of statuary. Because the city was not impacted by use over long periods of evolution, the site constitutes a remarkable laboratory for observation of an ancient society, albeit a very particular one created from the ground up at a specific moment.
A large population of officials and their dependents migrated to the city with the king. Villas of officials were scattered throughout the city; each villa or every few villas had a well, and that nucleus was then surrounded by smaller houses arranged according to the lights of their inhabitants. Amarna’s excavator Barry Kemp has aptly described clusters thus formed as villagelike, and he has referred to the city they formed as an “urban village.” The grouping of smaller houses around an official’s house points to the attachment of dependents to a given official, but also to the fact that the members of the complex were all aware of each other as interdependent in a way common to small villages. These villagelike complexes produced statuary; stone, faience, and glass vessels, jewelry, or inlays; metal items, and the like. Usually several industries operated in the same complex, serving the furnishing and embellishment of the royal buildings and other needs; by providing for these workers, the official heading the complex must have had rights to the things produced, which he then provided toward the court undertakings (31.114.2a; 21.9.43; 26.7.1176). By contrast, a gridded, officially planned settlement, created probably to house workers on the royal tombs and known as the Workman’s Village, lay out in the desert plain between the city and the eastern cliffs. Houses themselves, from the simplest to the most elaborate, favored a plan with an oblique entry, a central room with a low hearth for reception or gathering, pillared when possible, and bedrooms and workrooms further back. Second stories may have existed, but sleeping might also take place on the roof. Cooking and food preparation seem to have been done in courtyards (29.7.1,.2a,b; 55.92.2).
As a beehive of building and production, the city provides many insights into ancient industry and technology, from construction, to manufacture of glass and faience, to statuary and textile production, to bread making. One revelation is the ubiquity of gypsum as a working material. Gypsum can be used as a stone, but its main use at Amarna was as a powdered material, which with various admixtures can produce anything from a hardening plaster, to an adhesive, to a concrete. Gypsum had long been employed in Egypt as a mortar, a ground for painting, and for its adhesive qualities, but at Amarna it was used to create great long foundation levels, to build up platforms, and in a few instances to form large concrete blocks that functioned like stone. It was used as a mortar for talatat and glue for inlay. It may even have been used to create a whole large stela surface in the newly discovered boundary stela H. And it was used to adhere the elements of the composite statuary created at Amarna, and apparently to construct some balustrades from a three-dimensional mosaic of pieces. The combination of flourishing and inventive composite methods with the ubiquitous use of gypsum-based adherents has the appearance of an acceleration of technological change that constitutes a kind of breakthrough, whether or not it had any validity when Amarna and Amarna systems were abandoned.
The city offers a good deal of information about the spiritual concerns of its people, although the disparate evidence leaves many gaps and questions. As for involvement in the official Aten religion and the temples, officials presumably commissioned some of the temple statuary of the royal family or small-scale temple equipment at workshops distributed throughout one whole zone of the city. Some of the society at least also seems to have had particular access to certain parts of the temple: the Stela Emplacement area toward the back is one example. Certain figured ostraka or carved single ears—known elsewhere as dedications asking for a god’s attention to prayers—may likewise be offerings deposited at some locale in the temples (66.99.40). Moreover, the huge bakeries attached to the Great Aten Temple, along with the many hundreds of offering tables in the temple, point to wide distributions of food, and these could be tied to broad accommodation within areas of the temple enclosure, possibly in connection with the festivals of the Aten promised on the boundary stelae. In their homes, officials might exhibit devotion to the royal family as the children of the Aten, sometimes constructing small chapels in gardens alongside their houses for their own or perhaps neighborhood use. And at least one structure located in the city’s bureaucratic and military district was a sort of neighborhood shrine for a cult of the king. From the perspective of the small finds attached to houses and burials of the wider populace, there is very little overt evidence of attention to the new god, although such attention might not be well manifested in such finds for a variety of reasons. What is clear is that there was no absolute prohibition on other gods: material remains testify to continued interest in household gods like Bes and Taweret (21.6.73), protector deities like Shed and Isis, and belief in the efficacious magic of female or cobra figurines. The practice of honoring and invocation of important ancestors and probably other figures in the community through statues or stelae in household shrines or elsewhere seems to have pervaded society and points to a better understanding of the phenomenon usually termed “ancestor worship” (11.150.21; 31.114.1).
Recent excavations have revealed the long-unknown cemeteries of the general populace. The royal and elite tombs have long been known: the royal tomb for Akhenaten along with other partly finished tombs lay in the Royal Wadi through the cliffs to the east of the city and probably held the king’s body along with a number of his daughters and his mother, but these interments were removed (30.8.54; 30.8.372; 66.99.37); two groups of fine tombs for a number of the great officials lined the cliffs to the east of the city, although most of the owners were not actually buried there before habitation at the site was ended. In contrast, the recently excavated South Tombs Cemetery of the general populace shows ample evidence of use, probably holding about 3,000 individuals. A few of these individuals had a coffin or a stela or a piece of jewelry (66.99.38); most were simply wrapped, apparently not mummified, in a mat of rushes that served as a sort of coffin, and accompanied by a few pots. While there was certainly no mention of traditional funerary religion involving Osiris in the royal or elite tombs, there was some variability in the South Tombs Cemetery: one burial had a coffin apparently representing the Sons of Horus. The remains present many points of interest, but perhaps most surprising is the evidence of duress and poor diet well beyond that known for other typical New Kingdom populations. The profile of the population in terms of age at death also indicates to researchers that an as yet unidentified epidemic scoured the population. Other cemeteries have been identified, and more excavation is anticipated.
The Last Years
Possibly even Akhenaten’s last years and certainly the period after his death give evidence of a troubled succession. Nefertiti, Meritaten, the mysterious pharaoh Smenkhkare, and the female pharaoh Ankhetkhepherure—for whom the chief candidates in discussions so far have been Nefertiti and Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti—and ultimately Tutankhaten (Tutankhamun) all have roles. Energetic scholarly discussion of the events of this period and the identity, parentage, personal history, and burial place of many members of the Amarna royal family is ongoing. It is clear that already during the succession period, there was some rapprochement with Amun’s adherents at Thebes. With the reign of Tutankhaten / Tutankhamun, the royal court left Akhetaten and returned to Memphis; traditional relations with Thebes were resumed and Amun’s priority fully acknowledged. With Haremhab, Akhenaten’s constructions at Thebes were dismantled, and dismantling began at Amarna. Apparently in the reign of Ramesses II, the formal buildings of Akhetaten were completely destroyed, and many of their blocks reused as matrix stone in his constructions at Hermopolis and elsewhere. The site had presumably been abandoned.