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played lyre akhenaten’s instruments


The reigns of Akhenaten and Nefertiti spanned only seventeen years from 1352 to 1336 B.C.E. Yet Akhenaten’s artists decorated the palace, tombs, and temples with many scenes of music making. This brief period witnessed a dramatic change in Egyptian religion. Akhenaten abandoned the worship of Amun, the King of the Gods, and substituted the god Aten, the physical disk of the sun. He closed Amun’s temples and moved the royal court from homes in Thebes and Memphis to a new city at the site of Tell el Amarna. Thus this period is called the Amarna Period and includes the reign of Tutankhamun, who restored the religion of Amun and returned the royal court to Thebes. The richness and diversity of the scenes of music-making demonstrate some key trends in music during this time. Many scenes show Akhenaten’s six daughters playing the sistrum and menat—two sacred rattles used in worship—suggesting that the royal daughters had a prominent role in the musical life of Aten’s cult. Also, the presence of foreign musicians at court in drawings demonstrates the cosmopolitan nature of Akhenaten’s reign. The foreign musicians may have accompanied foreign wives to court, though the evidence that Nefertiti, his primary wife, was a foreigner is not conclusive.


A scene from a tomb in Amarna representing the women’s quarters at the palace of Akhenaten and Nefertiti at Amarna includes many musical instruments. The scene shows six different rooms. In one room, musicians manning a harp, lyre, and lute play for a woman who is singing and perhaps dancing. In a second room, a woman dressed in foreign clothing dances to a harp player and another instrumentalist whose image is too damaged to interpret. Four other rooms appear to be for instrument storage. Included in them are lutes, lyres, and the giant harp imported from Mesopotamia in this time period. Akhenaten’s many wives and daughters clearly spent some of their time at home playing music. Notably the instruments shown in their domestic quarters are not the same instruments that they played in religious settings. In the temples they played mostly the sistrum, an instrument not depicted in this private, domestic scene.


During the Amarna Period the royal daughters and the queen played the sistrum for the Aten rather than Hathor. Though Hathor had been the main deity associated with sistrum playing in traditional Egyptian religion, her worship was not practiced during the Amarna Period. Thus the two sistra found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and the sistrum depicted on a block from an Amarna building omit the normal decoration with Hathor’s head. Instead the sistra from this period have simple handles shaped like papyrus plants. The rattle disks themselves are housed on snake-shaped rods. Perhaps the sound of the sistrum was associated with the cobra who protects the royal family.


Included among the treasures buried with Tutankhamun were a pair of ivory clappers. Amarna artists depicted men playing clappers during
processions. Yet the clappers found in Tutankhamun’s tomb were inscribed with the names of women: Queen Tiye, Akhenaten’s mother, and Merytaten, his eldest daughter. These instruments were carved to end in human hands recalling through their shape the arms and hands that Amarna artists gave to the sun disk.


Amarna professional musicians included native Egyptian women and men as well as foreign men. The foreign women playing instruments in the women’s quarters of the palace show them playing privately for themselves. Many representations of foreign musicians are damaged, however. Since clothing worn especially by Syrian male and female musicians was so similar, it may be that some scenes that do not preserve the head have been misinterpreted as men rather than women. At present it is not possible to know for certain.


In the Amarna Period, including Tutankhamun’s reign (1352–1322 B.C.E. ), female musicians played in the same combination of instruments often found earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty (from 1539–1352 B.C.E. ). The biggest difference is that the strings are sometimes doubled in number during the Amarna Period. Thus while earlier groups consisted of a harp, a lyre, a lute, and an oboe, the Amarna ensembles have two harps, two lutes, and two lyres and sometimes omit the oboe altogether. The detailed reliefs also show a waisted lute (narrowing in the middle of each side) that anticipates the shape of the modern guitar.


Amarna artists depicted male musicians only during the first four years of Akhenaten’s reign in buildings at Karnak. Neither the tombs nor temples of Amarna itself depict male musicians. At Karnak the male musicians wear blindfolds while they play. Their heads are shaved and they wear both short kilts and the longer, calf-length kilt. These characteristics connect them with the priesthood in other time periods, though officially Akhenaten himself was the only priest of the Aten. Male musicians at Akhenaten’s Karnak temples played the harp, lute, and lyre. Usually these instruments were only played by women in other contexts. In fact the harp, lute, lyre, and oboe ensemble was the typical female band that played at earlier Eighteenth-dynasty banquets. This combination of instruments, lacking only the oboe, reflects a general Amarna Period tendency to break down barriers between the sexes. Queen Nefertiti, for example, took on typically male activities such as ceremonially smiting Egypt’s enemies at the temple in Karnak. The other male ensemble during this period is composed of a large group of men—up to seventeen—chanting and clapping to the rhythm of a barrel-shaped drum. This drum was primarily a military instrument in other time periods. These scenes also occur only at Karnak during Akhenaten’s reign.


Male foreign musicians who played in Akhenaten’s temples in Karnak are identified by their unusual clothing and instruments. They wore conical hats and long kilts with three flounces. They also wore blindfolds. They played both the giant lyre and the hand-held lyre. Two musicians played the giant lyre at the same time. This lyre was taller than the musicians. They each stood on one side of it and seem from the relief sculptures to have played at the same time. There were more strings on a giant lyre than on the smaller, hand-held lyre. These additional strings suggest either that the giant lyre had a greater range of notes than a hand-held lyre or that the two musicians played strings tuned to the same note simultaneously. If both played the same note, this would increase the volume of the sound. These musicians and their instrument were unique to the Karnak temples of the Amarna period. Even the tombs of this period did not depict the giant lyre.


The cult of the Aten, Akhenaten’s new religion, included music in the palace that honored the king as the earthly embodiment of the god. In the “Great Hymn to the Aten” the author made a specific connection between offering food to the Aten and music. Food offerings were the god’s meal. The god consumed the spirit of the food while priests or even the royal family acting as priests consumed the physical food. While everyone ate, music played. The relief sculptures from the temples at Karnak suggest that lyres and even lutes were included in these offering ceremonies in addition to the more traditional sistra played throughout Egyptian history during ritual chanting.


Lisa Manniche, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1991).

Musical Deities - BES., ISIS AND OSIRIS., THE HYMN TO THE ATEN, SOURCES [next] [back] Muse, Clarence (1889–1979)

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