Akhenaten, pharaoh of Egypt for 17 years between 1375 and 1358 B.C., has often been identified as the first monotheist. Beginning with Sigmund Freud, some have suggested that Akhenaten’s monotheism exercised a direct, or possibly indirect, influence on Mosaic monotheism, although Moses probably lived a hundred years or more after Akhenaten.
Others have even gone so far as to find in Akhenaten a harbinger of Jesus. After all, Akhenaten did call himself the son of the sole god, “thine only son that came forth from thy body.”
Whether for these or other reasons, Akhenaten remains one of the most intriguing and absorbing Pharaohs who ever lived, vying in popularity with such pharaonic giants as Thutmose III and Ramesses II and even with that relatively minor Pharaoh Tutankhamen, who, as King Tut, is known to all because of the treasures found in his tomb. The great Egyptologist Henry Breasted called Akhenaten “the first individual in History.”1
On the intriguing question of Akhenaten’s alleged monotheism and its influence, we must look at the matter in context, how his religious beliefs related to Egypt’s past and how he influenced or failed to influence Egyptian beliefs after he passed from the scene. Indeed, this is all worth examining for its own sake. Quite apart from Akhenaten’s claim to fame as an alleged precursor of Israelite monotheism, his reign provides a fascinating chapter in Egyptian history—quite different from anything that happened before in the land of the Nile—or since.
When Akhenaten ascended the throne in the 14th century B.C., Egyptian power was at its height. He was the heir to Egypt’s “extended boundary.”
To those accustomed to reading in Israelite history, it will seem strange to read that Akhenaten ruled during what is called in Egyptian history the New Kingdom. Israelite history had hardly begun. The Egyptian dynasties, however, began before 3000 B.C. In Akhenaten’s day, Egyptian historians could already look back on nearly 2,000 years of their national existence. The Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom were ages past. Separated from the Middle Kingdom by one of the so-called Intermediate Periods, the New Kingdom began with the expulsion from Egypt of foreign rulers known as Hyksos, Asiatics who ruled Egypt in the 17th and 16th centuries B.C.
The New Kingdom’s “extended boundary” was largely the result of the conquests of Thutmose III (1504–1451 B.C.), Akhenaten’s great-great grandfather. Within three generations after him, Thutmose’s conquests had been fully integrated into the empire. As a result, Egypt was the unrivaled leader of the known world. Her messengers ranged unimpeded over the Middle East to Babylon, the Hittite Kingdom, Mitanni and Cyprus; her merchant fleets sailed unmolested by pirates to Byblos, Tyre, Ugarit, Crete and Aegean Greece. Untold wealth poured in from the gold mines of the Sudan and the far-flung lands of central Africa; tribute came annually from the north, borne on the backs of cowed Canaanites and Hurrians.
When Amenophis III, Thutmose’s great-grandson and Akhenaten’s father, came to the throne in 1416 B.C., he was in the enviable position of being able to reap the benefits of the conquests of his enterprising predecessors. The Egypt he ruled never had been, nor would be again, in a position of such absolute power in the world. The by-now legendary might of Egypt was sufficient to forestall invasion from without and to discourage any would-be rebel in the provinces of the empire. The “Pax Aegyptiaca” reigned supreme.
Amenophis III took full advantage of the status and wealth of the country to fashion a court, a society and an artistic taste that became proverbial for elegance.
Among his other achievements, Amenophis III supervised the first great building boom of the 18th Dynasty. A century later his gigantic constructions were envied and emulated by Ramesses II (the Great) who some identify as the Pharaoh of the Israelite bondage.
Theban glory was the creation of Amenophis III. The major center of Egypt at the beginning of Amenophis III’s reign was Memphis, at the apex of the Delta. Amenophis III resided at Memphis for at least the first 20 years of his reign. Sometime in the third decade of his reign, however, he apparently decided to move his court to the “Southern City,” Thebes. The final ten years of the reign witnessed a program of construction and embellishment of his new southern residence. A vast mortuary temple, fronted by two colossal statues of the king 70 feet tall, rose out of the flat plain on the west of Thebes (now Luxor) to house the mortuary service of the king’s spirit throughout all eternity. About a kilometer to the south, the king’s engineers planned an enormous harbor-basin for merchant ships, cut out of the alluvial flats and connected by a canal to the Nile. On the western side of the basin lay docks, warehouses, a settlement and the large rambling palace thrown up hastily for the court and constructed of mudbrick, wood and other light materials. The complex contained a palace for the king with quarters for his wives, an audience hall with private apartments, a separate palace for his principal wife Tiy, villas for officials, servants’ quarters and a small temple of Amun.
On the east bank of the Nile, Amenophis III built splendid new temples to the gods, constructed of durable sandstone. Here he created an organic whole by means of sphinx-lined avenues. The avenues led, of course, to the temples. To provide a suitable point of arrival at the temples, giant pylons were erected in front of them. These pylons gave the great temple of Amun two fortress-like entries.
The outlay of wealth represented by all this building was unusually large. The recorded figures of the metals and precious stones that went into the Montu temple, for example, are quite staggering- 3.25 tons of electrum, 2.5 tons of gold, 924 pounds of copper, 1,250 pounds of lapis lazuli, 215 pounds of turquoise, 1.5 tons of bronze and over 10 tons of beaten copper. Such was the return on Egypt’s investment in an empire!
Possession of wealth beyond measure and the willingness to spend it are not always accompanied by good taste, but in Amenophis’s case a discriminating taste was most certainly present. Whether in monumental architecture, painting, relief or in the “lesser” arts, his craftsmen display a confident and complete command of their medium, which was never again equalled in the 1,500 years Egypt’s pharaonic culture survived. The grace and balanced proportions of the papyriform columns of the Luxor temple, and the splendor and majesty of the Memnon colossi alike evoke a breathless awe of the skill, imagination and ambition of both craftsman and patron.
If Amenophis himself set the standard of aesthetic appreciation, his court did not lag far behind. The beautiful tombs of his ministers at Thebes are decorated with delicate, low reliefs, showing elegant ladies and gentlemen at meal and capturing the diaphanous quality of their fine linen gowns. The artist was equally adept at conveying the feel of a curvaceous lady’s supple flesh, as depicting the regularity of the tight curls of her wig. Here, one must conclude, was a court of voluptuaries, to whom expense was no consideration, and who could gratify any aesthetic whim!
Seven months into his 38th year, probably in January 1377 B.C., Amenophis III died in his palace west of Thebes. His son Amenophis IV—later known as Akhenaten—ascended the Horus throne of the living.
Amenophis IV was the second, not the eldest, son of Amenophis III. His elder brother was named Thutmose after his grandfather, while he, the younger, was named after his father. His elder brother—by what stroke of fate we do not know—died young. So Amenophis IV became heir to the throne.
Sometime in the fifth year of his reign, the heretic Pharaoh, as he came to be known, moved his court from Thebes to a new capital in Middle Egypt that he created from the ground up. He called his new city Akhetaten. It was dedicated to the Sun-Disc, Akhenaten’s heavenly father, the sole god. We shall have more to say of Akhetaten later, for there is much known.
Until quite recently, the history of Akhenaten’s first five years, the Theban years, however, was largely a gaping hole, a shocking hiatus in our historical knowledge. Almost nothing was known of these years of his reign, despite the fact that this was a critical period in the development of his religious thought.
What we did know was that very early in his reign, while still residing at Thebes, Akhenaten decided to celebrate a jubilee. A jubilee (in Egyptian, a ‘sd-festival) is a very ancient ritual, attested already in the First Dynasty (31st–30th century B.C.) and with roots in prehistoric times, which sought to reaffirm the king’s reign and responsibility to rule Egypt.
Throughout Egyptian history allusions to the jubilee, both in art and literature, abound, but a precise order of service is yet to be found. The jubilee basically comprised a conclave of gods and grandees from all over the kingdom. Summoned well in advance of the celebration—some performances are known to have allowed lead time of as much as one year—the invited guests, both mortal and divine, were convened in a great complex of buildings erected for the occasion. The cult images of the gods were housed in groups of shrines built especially for the purpose.
The various jubilee installations having been dedicated and purified by a torchlight procession, the sacred drama opened with a procession of the gods and their standards, the deputations and the king’s court, and the king himself riding in his palanquin attended by fan bearers. This procession was repeated many times on successive days, as the king visited in turn all the shrines of the gods.
A key act in the jubilee was the reenactment of the king’s coronation. Having achieved acceptance by the gods, the king would mount the dais and be crowned, once with the white crown of Upper Egypt on one throne, then with the red crown of Lower Egypt on the other. There followed a parade of officials and deputations—including ten “chiefs” from Upper Egypt and ten from Lower Egypt—to the throne to offer allegiance to the newly, or re-newly crowned king.
Jubilees were not traditionally celebrated before the 30th regnal year. What motivated Amenophis IV/Akhenaten to even entertain the prospect of a jubilee so early in his reign is as unknown to us today as it probably was to his contemporaries. Nevertheless, sometime early in his second year at the latest the intent crystallized in Akhenaten’s mind to celebrate a jubilee, perhaps because his father had celebrated three jubilees in the last decade of his reign.
Akhenaten’s decision to celebrate a jubilee sparked the commencement of an energetic building program at Thebes, including four major structures. However, though mentioned time and again in the texts, the four buildings are nowhere described, and their purpose is never made explicit. Moreover, until recently no trace of them could be found on, or under, the ground. Yet we knew that they must have been covered with revealing pictures of scenes from the jubilee celebration and hundreds of hieroglyphic texts.
The reason the buildings did not survive, as we now know, is that they were destroyed by a later ruler, the general Horemheb who governed Egypt from 1347 to about 1318 B.C. Horemheb wished to obliterate all memory of Akhenaten’s reign. Now 3,300 years later we are recovering the very blocks Horemheb dismantled—and, in a sense, putting them back together again, thereby recovering the story they have to tell of the early years of Akhenaten’s reign, the first five years in Thebes.
As early as the 1840s, the great Prussian explorer Richard Lepsius identified some of these blocks from Akhenaten’s temples bearing the cartouches of Amenophis IV/Akhenaten with representations of his Sun-Disc. These blocks were found lying about loose and disarticulated among the debris. In the early 1880s Sir Gaston Maspero, the erstwhile director of the Service des Antiquités, discovered that the so-called ninth pylon, which had been erected by Horemheb, was literally filled with these blocks from Akhenaten’s temples; Horemheb had employed these blocks by the thousands as masonry to fill the inside of the pylon he erected in the course of his own Theban building program. In the 1890s, during the clearance of the Luxor temple, about two miles south of Karnak, it was discovered that the great pylon of the temple built by Ramesses II in about 1295 B.C. was also stuffed full of these blocks from Akhenaten’s Theban temples.
The villagers dubbed these blocks from Akhenaten’s Theban temples talatat, an Arabic-sounding word whose meaning and etymology are unclear; nevertheless the term has survived in colloquial usage, and is now so well established in scholarly literature that there is no escaping its usage. The word is used both as singular and as plural. Each talatat is about 20 inches long, 10 inches high and 10 inches wide.
In 1925 a program of restoration at Karnak included dismantling the buildings of Horemheb and as might be expected this produced still more talatat. It soon became clear that wherever Horemheb had built, the core and the foundations of his buildings were likely to contain talatat.
Between 1925 and 1953 over 20,000 inscribed talatat (and many more uninscribed) were recovered from Horemheb’s second pylon and from beneath the floor of his hypostyle hall. By the mid-60s, after work on the ninth pylon, the number of retrieved inscribed and decorated talatat reached nearly 45,000!
Each talatat had once constituted a component block in a wall, carved in relief and brightly painted. Since there is no immediate visual means of telling which blocks originally had been contiguous, the talatat became a huge and jumbled jigsaw puzzle.
The apparent hopelessness of piecing the puzzle together again discouraged scholars for a long time. Occasionally, isolated talatat with interesting reliefs or inscriptions were copied and photographed, and sometimes found their way into the scholarly literature. Thanks to lax security during the early decades of this century some of the better pieces, especially those containing heads of the king or queen, were spirited away illegally to be sold on the art market in Europe and America. But well over 95 percent of the relief material remained unknown and unstudied.
Examined individually the talatat yield considerable new information, but their contribution would be enhanced many times over if matched into the original scenes of which the walls were composed.
In 1965 a retired United States Foreign Service officer named Ray Winfield Smith became interested in the talatat. Through his efforts the Akhenaten Temple Project was initiated. There could be no question of physically reassembling the blocks; abortive attempts in the Forties had proved this approach both time-consuming and unproductive. Smith opted for a campaign in which all blocks would be photographed to scale, and the details of the reliefs coded in preparation for feeding into a computer. Then, with the computer’s guidance, the photographs could be matched on paper into collages.
To date, the project has matched a little over 2,000 “temporary scenes” (the term used for the individual collages of the puzzle). Some number as few as two or three blocks, but many comprise several score, and the largest contains approximately 160. Often a point is reached where a temporary scene defies further additions, until someone realizes that a totally different collage actually fits onto one end of the scene. Suddenly the original scene expands to twice its width and one begins to acquire a view of the broader whole and the overall scheme of composition.
Although the matches constitute only between 15 and 20 percent of the 45,000 blocks, it must be remembered that the constant repetition of motifs often makes completion of every scene unnecessary. Indeed, we were soon able to reconstruct offering scenes or processional scenes in every detail and to the proper scale simply by extrapolating from the evidence of one or two component pieces.
Since 1975 we have also been excavating the remains, recently located, of one of the four temples Akhenaten built at Thebes. Here, too, talatat have been found.
With the aid of the reconstructed talatat and the excavated remains, we can now write a new chapter in the history of Akhenaten’s reign—the critical first five years of his reign, the Theban years. What we learn is that Akhenaten’s monotheism came very early in his reign, while he still resided at Thebes. And the sole god he championed was the Sun-Disc.
Although Akhenaten was heir to a rich Egyptian mythology that included an army of gods and goddesses in animal as well as human form, after the first few months of his reign not even the sun-god was permitted an anthropomorphic (human) depiction.
The word used for the god Akhenaten worshipped, “Aten,” is often left untranslated, as though it were a proper name; but in fact it is a common noun of some antiquity in the Egyptian lexicon, and means only “disc.” We find it as early as the Old Kingdom used for circular objects such as mirrors or disc-like accoutrements of cult objects; probably it was also used at the same time in the expression “disc of the day,” meaning the physical sun. This latter use gave rise to widespread derivatives in religious literature. We frequently hear of the sun-god Re as one “who is in his disc,” i.e., who is manifest in the physical sun-disc; pious devotees longed for the time after death when they would ride “in the disc” together with the sun-god through the heavens every day. In these cases the disc is spoken of as an entity distinct from the sun-god, through which he manifests himself. A few passages associate the sun-disc with the word for “sunshine,” or “sunbeams.”
This sun-god, portrayed as a disc, was the god that sometime during the first months of his reign, Akhenaten proclaimed the new and unique deity.
Why Akhenaten hit upon this god, we shall probably never know.
From two talatat in the fill of Horemheb’s tenth pylon we have retrieved—admittedly in only the most fragmentary form—the text of a speech by Akhenaten declaiming that the other gods have somehow failed or “ceased” to be operative.
In contrast, the next few columns of the text celebrate a god who has not “ceased”! “[who himself gave birth] to himself, and no one knows the mystery of [ … -unknown length- … ] he [go]es where he pleases and they know not [his] g[oing].”
Akhenaten describes his newly adopted god as absolutely unique and located in the heavens. On the walls from which this text must originally have come, numerous vignettes make perfectly plain that the god in question is Reharakhty, “Re, the horizon-Horus,” the great sun-god. The new god is celestial, self-engendered, his creation is exalted, his ways mysterious. Clearly a “new” god of solar aspect is here being proclaimed.
In the earliest scenes, repeated ad nauseam, we see the sun-god represented as a falcon-headed man in a kilt, with scepter in hand and a large sun-disc on his head; he confronts the king across a table of offerings. Offerings include what is normal in the cult menu- water, wine, meat, vegetables, bread, flowers, etc. When referring generically to his god, Akhenaten always uses the term “the sun-disc.”
The second and final stage in the development of the iconography of the new god came late in the second or early in the third regnal year of Akhenaten’s reign, and was undoubtedly introduced coincident with the celebration of the jubilee. Gone is the falcon-headed man. The sun-disc remains—now enlarged—and, is viewed straight on. Where the god’s figure once was, are now a series of long, straight, stick-like arms which splay down and terminate in human hands (the only concession to anthropomorphism). These hands either open to grasp the offering, or extend symbols of life and health to the royal celebrant. The standard name and epithet of the god is now enclosed within two upright cartouches, of exactly the same type as those used by royalty, placed in pairs on either side of the disc, and accompanied by a new epithet, “the great, living Disc which is in jubilee, lord of heaven and earth, who resides in (temple name).”
Traditional representations—or any depictions for that matter!—of the gods are no longer carved or painted; their emblems, except for those few required for the jubilee are ignored. Even in the hieroglyphic script, figures of animals and humans are sometimes avoided. Only a few icons connected with the sun cult continue to be tolerated- falcon, sphinx, baboon, bull.
The king alludes to the Disc as “the one who built himself by himself, with his [own] hands—no craftsman knows him!” The talatat inscriptions describe the sole god as the supernal lord of light. They stress the fact that he is “uplifted” above all men. The Disc is “he who decrees life, the lord of sunbeams, maker of brightness”; he “causes everyone [to live], and people are never sated with seeing him.”
All mythology and superstition of the sun-god, developed during nearly 2,000 years of Egyptian religion, was, however, expunged. The only concepts of the deity that could be predicated were those of universalism, dependence of life on the sun, transcendence, creativity, cosmic regularity and absolute power.
The Disc is the creator and sustainer of the whole earth- “Thou createst the earth when thou wert afar—namely men, cattle, all flocks and everything on earth which moves with legs, or which is up above flying with wings. The foreign countries of Syria and Kush, and the land of Egypt, thou placest every man in his place, and makest their food. Everyone has his food, and his lifetime is reckoned.”
And again- “The world came forth from thy hand, inasmuch as thou madest them.”
Even time is the creation of the Disc- “(Thou) creator of months and maker of days, and reckoner of hours!”
His transcendence and power is extolled- “Thou shinest on the eastern horizon and fillest the whole earth with thy beauty, thou art beautiful, great, dazzling, exalted above every land … and while thou art afar off thy beams are on earth, and thou art in every face! Thou hast made heaven afar off to shine in, in order to see everything that thou hast made from afar, shining in thy form of living Disc, arisen, resplendent, far-off.”
All life depends on the Disc- “When thou shinest they live, when thou settest they die; thou thyself art lifetime, and in thee do they live … Infinite life is in thee to quicken them, and the breath of life for (their) nostrils. Thy beams appear, and all nourishing plants grow in the soil, caused to grow by thy rays!”
Let us call a spade a spade. Akhenaten was a monotheist. He was well aware of the contrast between all other gods, who have “ceased,” and his own, “the solitary sole one.”
Despite its surface sophistication, however, Akhenaten’s monotheism was really quite arid and sterile. This is important to bear in mind in any consideration of its possible influence on Mosaic monotheism. The essence of Akhenaten’s monotheism was a principle of denial rather than an affirmation. It excluded, rather than included. Akhenaten was an iconoclast who espoused one deity to the exclusion of others.
The cult of the Sun-Disc emerged from an iconoclastic “war” between the “Good God” (Akhenaten), and all the rest of the gods. The outcome of this “war” was the exaltation of the former and the annihilation of the latter. Akhenaten taxed and gradually closed the temples of the other gods; the images of their erstwhile occupants were occasionally destroyed. Cult, ritual and mythology were anathematized, literature edited to remove unwanted allusions. Names were changed to eliminate hateful divine elements; and cities where the old gods had been worshipped, were abandoned by court and government.
Akhenaten destroyed much, he created little. No mythology was devised for his new god. No symbolism was permitted in art or the cult, and the cult itself was reduced to the one simple act of offering upon the altar. Syncretism was no longer possible- Akhenaten’s god does not accept and absorb—he excludes and annihilates.
Akhenaten, whatever else he may have been, was no intellectual heavyweight. He failed to comprehend (or if he did, to appreciate), the true role and potential of cultic mythology. Possibly he saw it as a means of concealment rather than revelation of the deity. Maybe he was reacting to the sophisticated cynicism of his age.
In any event, he failed to recognize that myths are the building blocks of any religion, even Judeo-Christianity. Though they come to us as the often crass impedimenta from an early and slightly embarrassing stage in our intellectual development, myths nonetheless pose the challenge of reinterpretation on a higher plane and integration one with another to provide a new and consistent view of the supernatural.
Ancient Egyptian theologians, like modern ones, rose to this challenge and lifted their myths to a higher plane, just as the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, does. Such documents as the Memphite Theology or the New Kingdom hymns to Ptah and Amun are philosophical treatises of the highest achievement.
What did Akhenaten substitute for them, once he had declared them anathema? Nothing! If mythology (in the broadest application of the term) is the only means of divine revelation, then what Akhenaten championed was, in the truest sense of the word, atheism.
Moreover, even the doctrine of the Sun-Disc which he elevated was unoriginal. All the attributes of the Sun-Disc, including the universalism, can be found earlier, predicated on Amun, Ptah or various other deities of the old pantheon.
If there is anything novel in Akhenaten’s beliefs it may reside in the role he chose for himself in the new program. Akhenaten called himself the son of the Sun-Disc and functioned as the chief mediator between god and his creation. Before one jumps to the conclusion that here is a harbinger of Christ, let it be stated emphatically that kings for thousands of years before Akhenaten’s time had claimed exactly the same relationship and priestly role. But Akhenaten added something, if only a heightened stress. He is “thy son who came forth from thy limbs,” “thy child,” “the eternal son that came forth from the Sun-Disc,” “thine only son that came forth from thy body”!
Akhenaten is “the progeny of the Sun-Disc,” “thy child who came forth from thy rays … thou hast given birth to His Majesty, as thou bearest thyself daily without ceasing; thou hast built him from thy sun-rays.” The Sun-Disc, who exercised a universal kingship in the heavens over all creation, had appointed Akhenaten as his regent upon earth; and so a celestial kingship was mirrored by a terrestial kingship, linked by a father-son relationship.
If this father-son union is as intimate as described, then there is no better celebrant of the cultus than the king himself. He calls himself the “first-prophet,” that is, the high priest of the sun-god- “I, it is myself that make offering to the Sun-Disc my father.”
Akhenaten so insists on the paternity of his god that one wonders whether this might provide the key to unlocking the secret of his motivation—buried deep in the rejection of his own father Amenophis III.
To Akhenaten the Sun-Disc was simply the symbol of divine kingship, a pale reflection of his own on earth, projected heavenwards.
The fragmentary texts from the talatat stress the paternity of the Disc and the sonship of the king- the king is the “beautiful child of the Disc” whose “beauty” was “created” by the heavenly luminary. Akhenaten has been granted the kingship by his father, and occupies his throne on earth- heaven and earth are his, his boundaries reach the limits of heaven, and all lands are beneath his feet.
All these tenets were accentuated at his later capital Akhetaten, where no silent memories or dead rivals could interfere with the promulgation of this single theme. Only the king truly knows the heart of “his father,” and in return that loving father hearkens to his son’s prayers. Akhenaten is king on earth, as his father is king in heaven. He is like his father; in fact, he is his father’s image on earth; and his “beauty” is that of the Sun-Disc. The office of king belongs to the Sun-Disc and he has installed Akhenaten on the throne- the king “is upon the throne of the Sun-Disc that created [him],” and “thou (the Disc) hast installed him in thine office of king of Upper and Lower Egypt.” The Sun-Disc naturally favors his son; “he has exalted the name of no other king [who has ever been,]” say the courtiers of Akhenaten.
The king thus enjoyed the closest of relationships with his father. And for that reason, he occupied the central position in the whole system. Since he only was the one that knew his father’s mind and will, he alone could interpret that will for all mankind. True teaching could come only from Akhenaten, and the texts concentrate on this “teaching” without, however, specifying its content.
Scholars have often remarked on the essentially monarchist strain which informs the new worship. The Sun-Disc has all the trappings of kingship while his son exercises universal rule upon earth. The one great feast Akhenaten allowed to remain in the festal calendar was the royal jubilee, an ancient rite designed to sanction the king’s continued rule.
The history of Egyptian religion had been filled with collections of moral maxims characteristically described as “the teaching of testimonies, and the aphorisms of the way of life.” The word translated “teaching” is extremely common in ancient Egyptian vocabulary. It approximates the meaning of Hebrew hokma(h), “wisdom.” It has essentially the same application and the same overtones.
In the scenes reconstructed from the talatat, we frequently see a favored officer “listening intently” to Akhenaten’s “teaching.” These courtiers often refer to their obedience to the king’s “teaching,” but none makes explicit what that teaching was. Nor is there extant today a single papyrus that contains anything like a “teaching of Akhenaten.” What has survived from his reign suggests that the king had a penchant for poetic description, rather than didactic moralizing.
Akhenaten’s forte was his aesthetic sensibility. He could stand in awe of the power, majesty and universality of the sun, and could express himself in polished and sensitive poetry. He could guide sculptors and painters into a new style of art (undoubtedly of his own creation) which, although perhaps bizarre in its intent and execution, nonetheless shows imagination and technical excellence. But is this all there is to the monotheist and his movement? Sadly, the answer is affirmative.
One can marvel at his skill as a poet and his taste and imagination in art. But neither he nor his god showed much compassion for mankind. The Sun-Disc provides the people with life and sustenance, but only in a rather perfunctory way. No text tells us he hears the cry of the poor man, or succors the sick or forgives the sinner.
The concept of a compassionate god who created and sustains mankind, and cares about their problems, was very much at home in Egyptian thinking. Seven centuries before Akhenaten an Egyptian ruler was advised by his father to look after mankind, for that is in keeping with the divine will- “Care for mankind, the cattle of god. For he (god) made heaven and earth for their sake after defeating the water-monster, and made the breath of life so that their nostrils might breathe. They are his images who came forth from his body. For their sake he shines in heaven, and has made for them cattle, plants, fowl and fish that they might eat. … He makes the light for their sake and sails by just in order to see them … and when they weep he hearkens. … ”
Three generations before Akhenaten arrived on the scene, an Egyptian hymnist lauded the creator-god as “Atum who made people and distinguished their natures … who hears the supplication of him that is in affliction, who is soft-hearted when called on … who rescues the timorous from the overbearing, who judges (in favor of) the wretched and the weak.”
Amun himself, that hated head of the pantheon whom Akhenaten went to such great lengths to extirpate, is called “he that hears the prayer of him that calls on him … the champion of the living … the avenger of the weak … the ‘vizier’ of the poor man; he does not accept bribes from the guilty, he does not countenance ‘salaam’ (i.e., flattering speech).”
If mildness and tender concern for their creatures is a prominent trait in the character of Egyptian gods, its total absence in the nature of the sole deity Akhenaten forced upon his land ought to assist us in forming a judgment as to what the new religion was all about.
It was not, nor ever intended to be, a popular religion. An act of self-indulgence in respect of the personal relationship he enjoyed with “his father” the sun, Akhenaten’s religion offered no place to others outside the immediate royal family. At Akhenaten’s capital at Akhetaten, the upper class could only stand back and watch. Occasionally, they might pray to the Disc, but there was little else of a cultic nature for them to participate in. They could only stand to one side as onlookers, and hope the role of bystander might enable them to share vicariously in whatever benefits accrued to the king. The lower classes shared neither in the cult nor the benefits.
The lack of spiritual content in the cult of the Sun-Disc meant that it could never take root among the people, even under the best of circumstances. It is not a case of Akhenaten’s being “ahead of his time,” and his people unable to understand. They understood him only too well- he had nothing to offer! If length of life is a criterion on which the essential worth of an idea is to be measured, then Time has delivered a crushing judgment on the heretic king- the kingship of the Sun-Disc and his son, that dominion “for ever and aye,” “for myriads of years,” lasted less than two decades.
Akhenaten died peacefully at Akhetaten in the summer of 1359 B.C., and was duly buried in the royal tomb. The cult of the unique Sun-Disc and the iconoclasm it entailed was too inalienably stamped with the persona of Akhenaten to survive him long. It was not the sort of cult another could champion; for the “sonship” of Akhenaten vis à vis the Disc, his father, was an intensely personal relationship. It is questionable whether his family and members of his coterie fully understood, or even wished to understand, the king’s thinking in this regard. In any case, the negative aspects of his concentration on “Oneness” were not appealing. Nor were they practical. The people at court in Akhetaten may well have basked in the warmth, sophistication and luxury that inevitably attends the political capital of a state; but the vast majority of the population throughout the state were left with nothing.
Within 13 years after Akhenaten’s death, Akhetaten, his capital, was abandoned, and the court moved once again to Thebes.
There was, however, no sudden damnatio memoriae of Akhenaten. Indeed, for ten years the cult of the Disc continued to exist, if not thrive. But there was a major and significant difference- The Sun-Disc was no longer sole god. Individuals were once again free to use the names of the older gods with impunity.
In 1347 B.C. the general Horemheb assumed the powers of king as the 18th Dynasty, the Thutmosids, was drawing to a close. At the outset of Horemheb’s reign, and in keeping with the exhiliration everyone sensed in the air, Horemheb conceived a triumphal procession to Thebes at one of the major festivals. Horus, his own patron god, led the Nile flotilla upstream to Thebes, and made the necessary “introduction” to Amun. All went according to plan. Amun-Re received Horemheb with joy, ushered him into the “palace” and then and there, in the “company” of seven major deities, placed the crowns and other regalia upon him. Outside in the bright sunlight, before the wondering gaze of the Theban citizens, Amun embraced Horemheb as his son, and officially proclaimed him king. No act could better have signaled the end of the Sun-Disc’s exclusivity.
In the end it was Horemheb who finally closed the temples of the Sun-Disc at Thebes. In destroying the sun-temples, Horemheb was not simply removing buildings in the way of new construction, or using their stones as a substitute for freshly quarried masonry. He was in fact doing away with the only surviving symbols of Akhenaten’s heresy.
Not one block was left upon another. Walls were torn down to their foundations, mudbricks pillaged and steles and statuary hopelessly smashed. The talatat, in secondary usage, are all that have survived. At the site of the buildings Akhenaten built for his jubilee, new buildings were constructed which at once obliterated the sun-temples for all time and used their blocks for masonry fill in cores and foundations.
Can Akhenaten’s monotheism claim a continued life in its influence on Hebrew monotheism? Did Moses know and copy Akhenaten’s beliefs?
While there is virtually no direct evidence from Egypt relating to Israel’s bondage in Egypt, nor of Moses, his birth and mission, and no sure indications of date for the events described in Exodus 1-15, nevertheless it is inconceivable that Israelite monotheism as represented in Deuteronomy and the Prophets should owe anything to Akhenaten’s monotheism.
Akhenaten’s god is solar; the Hebrew God Yahweh assuredly is not. The Sun-Disc was essentially a heavenly king; the royal aspect of Yahweh worship was secondary and peripheral. The Sun-Disc is a faceless icon without personality or feeling; Yahweh, a wrathful God to be sure, is wont to take pity on his creation. The Sun-Disc always appears with his son Akhenaten, who in fact dominates every scene; but no terrestrial “god” ever parallels Yahweh on earth.
In the worship of the Sun-Disc, ethical teaching is largely conspicuous by its absence; but in Yahwism a rigorous morality forms a major component of didactic literature. Where Akhenaten eliminated most ritual acts from his new cult, a fairly elaborate ceremonial continued to surround the worship of Yahweh.
The essential characteristics of the two monotheisms are so diverse as to exclude the possibility of influence, one upon the other.
In every respect, Akhenaten’s monotheism died with his buildings. All that modern scholarship has retrieved is a historical curiosity.
1. For further information, see Akhenaten- The Heretic King, Donald B. Redford (Princeton, NJ- Princeton University Press, 1984). This book is available at a discount to BAR readers.