Akhenaten: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Akhenaten oversaw Egypt in one of the most bizarre periods of its history. In this lesson, we'll talk about his life and achievements, and see how he tried to change the Egyptian world.

Akhenaten's Early Life and Reign

We know very little about Akhenaten's early life, except that he was born in Egypt's 18th Dynasty at some point in the mid-14th century BCE. He was the son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. There is some evidence that the young prince co-ruled with his father during the last years of the old pharaoh's reign but around 1353 BCE, Amenhotep III died.

His son (the future Akhenaten) was crowned as Amenhotep IV and married to Nefertiti, who would remain his principle wife and queen. With Nefertiti, Amenhotep IV had several daughters. He also had numerous consorts, at least one of whom gave him a son and successor named Tutankhaten.

Akhenaten was a unique ruler in the history of Egypt
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After becoming pharaoh, for about four years or so, Amenhotep IV ruled just like his father. He controlled a vast empire and respected the rights of the various priests. One group, however, was starting to gain an extraordinary amount of power.

Now, at the time, the god Amun-Ra had become the most revered deity in Egypt (with the possible exception of Ra and Osiris). Even the pharaoh's name contained the character for Amun (sometime spelled 'Amen'). The priests of Amun-Ra, therefore, were extremely wealthy and powerful, eventually owning even more land than the pharaoh himself. This was a problem.

The Cult of Aten

In Amenhotep IV's fifth year as pharaoh, everything changed. The pharaoh suddenly declared that Egypt's traditional religion was dead and that he was the living incarnation of a new god, a sun-disk figure named Aten.

We need to appreciate what this declaration meant. The pharaoh was always seen as a semi-divine figure, but in the context of a polytheistic religion full of numerous deities, all of whom interacted to keep the cosmos from plunging into chaos. Then, all of a sudden, Amenhotep IV announced that the polytheism on which Egyptian values of harmony and peace were based would be replaced by a monotheistic religion, with a single true god that only listened to the king. To symbolize this change, Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten, which meant ''Of great use to Aten.''

Within a few more years, Akhenaten had formally closed the temples to Egypt's traditional gods, abolished the old priesthoods, and forbidden former religious practices. He also decided to move the capital of the kingdom from its tradition location in Thebes. But where to move it to?

As another powerful symbol of this new era in Egyptian history, Akhenaten built himself a brand new capital city called Akhetaten out in the desert where no one had tried to build a city before. Since it had to be built quickly, all of the buildings and temples at Akhetaten were made of smaller stones than the monoliths used for structures like the pyramids of Giza. Still, Akhenaten got his capital, and proceeded to fill it with all the art, records, and carvings an Egyptian capital should enjoy.

Of course, Egypt was a different place now, so Akhenaten couldn't use the same artistic styles as before! That would be ludicrous! The artwork at Akhetaten is completely unique in Egyptian history, when the traditionally angular and blocky human figures in Egyptian paintings and reliefs were exchanged for ones with elongated heads, thin chests, and unnaturally rounded hips. This oddity has been a constant source of inspiration among conspiracy theorists who see it as evidence that aliens ruled Egypt, but many mainstream archeologists interpret it as Akhenaten presenting the non-earthly, non-human, and godly nature of the entire royal family.

The daughters of Akhenaten as they appeared in the unique Amarnan style of art
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The Death and Legacy of Akhenaten

Today, historians refer to this era in Egyptian history as the Amarna Period, named for the modern city of El-Amarna that sits over Akhenaten's favored capital. It is an era artistically, politically, and socially unique in one of Earth's oldest cultures, and the reality is that there's much about it we don't know.

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