Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Do you know anyone who is so focused on one thing or another that they lose all interest in anything else? Some sports fans, for example, can't even maintain good personal relationships, such is their ardor for their favorite team. While this might be a personal issue for a private citizen, the unhealthy obsessions of a leader can be a problem for the whole country.
Such was the case for Egypt with Pharaoh Akhenaten. In this lesson, we'll explore the reign of Akhenaten, his policies, and how his own fervent obsession shaped Egypt during his time as pharaoh.
Amenhotep III, Amenhotep IV, & Aten
Akhenaten did not become Akhenaten until later in his reign. Instead, Akhenaten began his reign as Amenhotep IV, the son of Amenhotep III. When Amenhotep IV took the throne in 1352 or 1353 B.C.E., Egypt was arguably the most prosperous and dominant state in the ancient world. Not only was it rich, but it was at peace with its neighbors and well-positioned for long-term stability.
But one thing external peace could not protect against was the instability of its pharaoh's whims. Indeed, Amenhotep IV took his father's predilection for the Egyptian sun god, Aten, to new heights. Amenhotep III's adoration of Aten had been in part political; the priests of the previously most-followed god, Amen-Re, had grown quite powerful in 14th-century Egypt. When the pharaoh began openly preferring Aten to Amen-Re, it was a subtle attack on the stature of Amen-Re and the power of its priests.
But Amenhotep IV took his father's interest in Aten even further. Only a few years after he took the throne, he changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning 'Living Spirit of Aten,' and proclaimed himself to be the only conduit through which the living world could speak to Aten. This effectively ended the priesthood of Amen-Re.
But even this was not enough for Akhenaten. He ordered the name of the previous god to be scrubbed from all official buildings and writings, to the point that some instances of his father's pharaonic name were destroyed because it began with 'Amen.' Eventually, Akhenaten ordered the building of a new capital to honor Aten and secure the break with tradition he had initiated.
He built an entirely new capital, Amarna, some 200 miles north of the Egyptian capital of Thebes and ordered the relocation. Situated at the center of the enormous new city was a giant temple dedicated to Aten.
Things took a turn for the worse for Akhenaten when he held a massive celebration in the 12th year of his reign dedicated to Aten. His queen, Nefertiti, to whom many historians believe he delegated numerous governing responsibilities, died during the festivities. Akhenaten's mother, Queen Tiye, and one of his daughters died shortly after. These deaths greatly affected Akhenaten, causing him to redouble his dedication to Aten and his campaign against the other gods of ancient Egypt. However, before he could complete his efforts, Akhenaten died suddenly, in 1336 B.C.E. according to many sources.
Akhenaten's dedication to Aten died with him. Soon after his death, Egyptians flocked back to Thebes where they resumed traditional worship and religion.
Culture & Foreign Policy
Akhenaten's religious fervency had spilled over into other areas as well. Akhenaten's single-minded overhaul of Egyptian religion caused him to withdraw from other matters. This is confirmed by the recently discovered 'Amarna Letters,' which show various foreign dignitaries and rulers writing to Akhenaten pleading for Egypt's help and assistance.
Many historians agree that Egypt's status in the ancient world fell during Akhenaten's reign. Without Egyptian influence in the region, traditional Egyptian enemies, such as the Hittites, grew in stature and expanded their territory at the expense of Egypt's allies. Akhenaten's lack of concern for foreign policy unraveled some of the hard-fought alliances made by his father, Amenhotep III.
In art, Akhenaten's reign also ushered in a decidedly different style. Previous Egyptian art idealized its subjects, whereas depictions of Akhenaten and the royal family have a decidedly different look, with elongated limbs and faces and squat, rotund bodies. While some historians have suggested this may have been due to Akhenaten having a physical disorder, such as Marfan's syndrome, others simply consider it part of a wider movement in ancient Egyptian art toward more natural depictions of their subjects.
In addition, settings became less formal as well. During the reign of Akhenaten we find the first examples of the royal family being depicted in scenes from everyday life rather than in traditional, more formal settings.
Akhenaten took the throne in 1352 or 1353 B.C.E. as pharaoh of the most powerful state of the ancient world: Egypt. But Akhenaten undermined the prosperity of Egypt through his own obsession with the sun god, Aten. This obsession caused him to relocate Egypt's capital, destroy the Egyptian priesthood, and declare that he alone could communicate with the god, Aten. Akhenaten's obsession did not outlast his death, and after he died in 1336 B.C.E. the Egyptian capital returned to Thebes and Egyptians resumed their traditional religious worship. Egypt's standing in the ancient world suffered during Akhenaten's reign. Artistically, Akhenaten's reign saw a shift toward more life-like depictions of royalty in everyday settings.
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