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Akhenaten was the second son of King Amenhotep III (r. 1390–1352 B.C.E. ) of the Eighteenth Dynasty and his wife Tiye. When his older brother Thutmose died young, Akhenaten became the crown prince. It is possible that Akhenaten served for a time as co-regent (co-king) with his father, but the evidence for a co-regency is disputed. When his father died around 1352 B.C.E. , he ascended to the throne as Amenhotep IV. He was married to the beautiful Nefertiti, as his Great Royal Wife. She may have been his cousin, although this is uncertain. He was also married to a woman named Kiya, who may have been a Mitannian princess from a region north of modern Iraq. With Nefertiti, Akehnaten had six daughters, three of whom died in infancy. It is also possible that he was the father of Tutankhamun (born Tutankhaten), but, as with so much from this period of Egyptian history, the evidence is inconclusive.


In the fifth year of his reign, the king signaled a new religious direction for his kingdom by changing his name to Akhenaten, “He who is effective for the Aten.” “Aten” was the Egyptian word for the physical disk of the sun. In the same year, the king began construction of a new capital for Egypt. At a vacant site in Middle Egypt he built the city of Akhetaten, “the horizon of the sun-disk.” In the sixth year of his reign, Akhenaten moved his family and administration into his new capital.


Akhenaten introduced a new religion to Egypt. Akhenaten worshipped only one god, the light that was in the sun. This light was believed to grant the world life, and to keep it alive. This new god was depicted as a sun disk emanating rays that ended in hands. These hands were frequently directed towards Akhenaten and his family, and could be shown offering the breath of life, symbolized by ankh-signs, to their noses. In order to worship the Aten, Akhenaten had a new type of temple constructed, reminiscent of the sun temples of the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 B.C.E. ), nearly 1,000 years earlier. These temples consisted of a series of open courts oriented towards the east, centering on an altar. Such temples were built at Thebes, Memphis, Heliopolis, and of course, Akhetaten. In these temples, even the doorways had broken lintels, to allow the sun’s rays to reach all parts of the temple.


While Akhenaten and his family worshipped the Aten, the people of Egypt, especially those living at Akhetaten, were to worship the royal family. Akhenaten was considered to be the son of the Aten, and it was through him that the Egyptians were to worship the sun. Egyptian homes at Akhetaten contained stelae (carved or inscribed slabs of stone) showing the royal family worshipping the Aten. These stelae served as the focal point of the cult of the Aten within their homes. One official, Panehsy, praised Akhenaten as “my god, who built me, who determined good for me, who made me come into being and gave me bread.”


Even the traditional conception of the afterlife underwent a drastic change. No longer did the dead live on in the underworld in the company of Osiris, or journey through the sky in the barque of Re. Essentially there was no longer a world of the beyond. Both the living and the ba-spirits of the dead continued to live here on earth, under the sun’s rays. At sunrise, the bas of the justified dead traveled to the Great Temple of the Aten in Akhetaten to receive the sun’s life-giving rays and to participate in the offerings made to Aten in his temple. Justification no longer meant being found innocent in the tribunal of Osiris, but was a status reserved for those who were loyal to the king during life. Akhenaten, as Aten’s sole representative on earth, was the dispenser of provisions to the dead.


Not only did Akhenaten promote the worship of a new deity, he went so far as to close down the temples to the other gods of Egypt, particularly the temples of Amun. Also in his fifth year, Akhenaten sent workmen throughout Egypt to remove the names of Amun, his consort Mut, and even the plural term “gods” from the monuments of Egypt. Akhenaten referred to the Aten as a god of whom “there is no other but him.” Aten had no consort, no children (other than Akhenaten), and no opponent. Akhenaten may have been the world’s first monotheist. After his death, however, Tutankhamun soon restored the full Egyptian pantheon. Akhenaten’s revolution was short-lived and unsuccessful.


Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten King of Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988).

Erik Hornung, Akhenaten and the Religion of Light (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Donald Redford, Akhenaten: The Heretic King (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).

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