Amenhotep IV becomes Akhenaten, the famous "heretic" pharaoh

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Amenhotep IV becomes Akhenaten, the famous "heretic" pharaoh.

Akhenaten (1352-1336 BC) was son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy. During his reign both the art and religion in Egypt were marked by rapid change. When he initially succeeded the throne he was known as Amenhotep IV, but changed his name to Akhenaten in his fifth regnal year, and began to build a new capital called Akhetaten ("horizon of the sun"), in Middle Egypt. This phase, encompassing Akhenaten's and Smenkhkara's reign and the beginning of Tutankhamun's, is now referred to as the Armarna Period, and the site of the city of Akhetaten is now known as el-Amarna.

Akhenaten was a philosopher and a thinker, much more so than his forebears. His father Amenhotep III had recognised the growing power of the priesthood of Amun and had sought to curb it - Akhenaten however took matters a lot further by introducing the new "monothesitic" cult of worship to the sun-disc Aten. This was not a new idea, as a minor aspect of the sun god Ra-Horakty, the Aten had been somewhat venerated in the Old Kingdom. A large scarab belonging to Tuthmosis IV (Akhenaten's grandfather) has a text that mentions the Aten.

The major religious innovation of this reign was the worship of the sun disc Aten to the exclusion of the rest of the Egyptian gods, even Amun. Art took on a new distinctive style - the reliefs and stelae in the tombs and temples of Akenaten's reign show Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti and the royal princesses worshipping and making offerings to the Aten, which was displayed as a sun-disc with radiating arms and hands stretched downwards (see pictures above). The names of other deities were removed from temple walls in an attempt to reinforce the idea of the Aten as a single supreme deity.

The Aten is portrayed as a sun disc whose protective rays stretch down into hands holding the ankh, the symbol for life. Everywhere the royal family appeared they were shown to be under the protective rays of the Aten. The king, usually accompanied by Nefertiti and a number of their daughters, dominate the reliefs on walls of the tombs of the nobles at el-Amarna. This Aten symbol is prevalent in all of the distinctive art of the Amarna period, and is also depicted upon some of the treasures of the later pharaoh, Tutankhamun.

Physical representations

Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner, and they are clearly shown displaying affection for each other. Nefertiti also appears beside the king in actions usually reserved for a Pharaoh, suggesting that she attained unusual power for a queen. Artistic representations of Akhenaten give him a strikingly bizarre appearance, with slender limbs, a protruding belly and wide hips, giving rise to controversial theories such as that he may have actually been a woman masquerading as a man, or that he was a hermaphrodite or had some other intersex condition. The fact that Akhenaten had several children argues against these suggestions. It has also been suggested that he suffered from Marfan's syndrome.

Until Akhenaten's mummy is located and identified, proposals of actual physical abnormalities are likely to remain speculative. However, it must be kept in mind that there is no good evidence that we are necessarily dealing with a literal representation of Akhenaten's physical form, or that of his wife or children. As pharaoh, Akhenaten had complete control over how he, his family, and his government in general was represented in art. We can only assume that what we see as an odd physical abnormality was in fact the way that Akhenaten wanted to be artistically portrayed.

Family values

Akhenaten was married to Nefertiti at the very beginning of his reign, and the couple had six known daughters: Meritaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, later Queen of Tutankhamun, Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Neferneferure, Setepenre

Akhenaten's most famous wife was of course Nefertiti who was known as the "great royal wife" early in his reign. He also had additional consorts, including Kiya, a "lesser royal wife", Meritaten, who was recorded as his "great royal wife" late in his reign, and Ankhesenpaaten, his third daughter, who is thought to have borne a daughter to her own father. After Akhenaten's death, Ankhesenpaaten married Tutankhamun.

What happened after Akhenaten?

Following Akenaten's death, a peaceful but comprehensive political, religious and artistic reformation returned Egyptian life to the norms it had followed previously during his father's reign. Much of the art and building infrastructure that was created during Akhenaten's reign was defaced or destroyed in the period immediately following his death. Stone building blocks from his construction projects were later used as foundation stones for subsequent rulers temples and tombs.

The mysterious Smenkhkare

In year 14 of Akhenaten's reign, Nefertiti herself vanishes from the historical record, and there is no word of her after that date. Her disappearance coincides with the rise of co-ruler Smenkhkare to the throne. Smenkhkare is thought to have been married to her daughter Meritaten, and may have become Akhenaten's co-regent for a few years before Akhenaten's death. He certainly ruled Egypt for a brief period since he is attested in his Year 1 on a wine label from "the House of Smenkhkare".


However, Smenkhkare is also depicted in many of the same ways as Nefertiti was, and his regnal name, Nefernefruaten, is quite similar to that of Nefertiti. He is sometimes depicted as looking very feminine, and even his name was sometimes written with a feminine ending. This has led some scholars to believe that Smenkhkare was in fact another name for Nefertiti, and instead of falling from grace or dying, Nefertiti actually rose in power, taking the throne for herself after the death of her husband.

After a reign of around 18 years, Akhenaten was succeeded for a short time by Smenkhkara. Soon after, a rather youthful Tutankhaten succeeded the throne. He may have been a son of Akhenaten's, or a younger brother of Smenkhare, or even a younger son of Amenhotep III. Within a few years, Tutankhaten had abandoned the city at Tell el-Amarna in favour of the traditional administrative centre at Memphis, and in the second year of his reign he changed his name to Tutankhamun, effectively signalling the end of the supremacy of the Aten. Many reliefs from this period were later heavily damaged as a reaction against the so-called heresy of Akhenaten.  

What happened to their bodies?

One other mystery remains surrounding the Amarna period - the disappearance of the bodies of Akhenaten and his immediate family. The royal tomb to the east of el-Amarna appears to never have been completed and there is little evidence to suggest that anyone other than one of his daughters was ever buried there. In 1907 a young male member of the royal family was discovered by Theodore Davis in tomb 55 in the Valley of the Kings. This mummy had been reburied with a set of funerary equipment mainly belonging to Queen Tiy, and was initially identified as that of Akhenaten (a view still accepted by some Egyptologists) but is now considered to be that of Smenkhkara.

Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay (Tutankhamun's successor) were excised from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. This is thought to be part of an attempt by Horemheb to delete all trace of Atenism and the pharaohs associated with it from the historical record. Akhenaten's name never appeared on any of the king lists compiled by later Pharaohs and it was not until the late 19th century that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.

“Ahkenaten” Egyptology Online. March 19, 2009.

Great Lives from History: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476 c.e.


Born: c. 1390 b.c.e.; Egypt

Died:c. 1360 b.c.e.; Akhetaton (now Tel el Amarna), Egypt

Egyptian king (r. 1350-c. 1334 b.c.e.)

Akhenaton is credited with the establishment of monotheism in Egypt; he built a new capital, Akhetaton, in honor of Aton, the sun god.

Area of Achievement Government and politics, religion

Early Life

Born Amenhotep IV, Akhenaton (ah-keh-NAH-tuhn) was the son and successor of Amenhotep III (also known as Amenophis III) of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Akhenaton’s life and accomplishments need to be seen in the context of his family and of Egyptian history in general. Egyptian history is conventionally divided into thirty-one dynasties, which stretched from about 2925 to 332 b.c.e., and were succeeded by the Greek Ptolemies from 332 until 30 b.c.e. and the Roman emperors from 30 b.c.e. to 395 c.e. These dynasties are clumped together in groups under various designations, with the period of Akhenaton falling into the group of dynasties known as the New Kingdom Period (c. 1570-c. 1069), approximately in the middle of ancient Egyptian history.

The New Kingdom in the fifteenth century b.c.e. covered an area almost two thousand miles from north to south, most of it centered on the Nile River. The architects of this kingdom were Thutmose I, Thutmose III, and Amenhotep II. By the time of Amenhotep II, the northern city of Memphis had been, in effect, displaced by Thebes as the center of royal power. Three hundred miles upriver from Memphis, Thebes was the home of the royal family, and the rulers of the Eighteenth Dynasty began building tombs for themselves in the desolate region west of Thebes known as the Valley of the Kings.

One consequence of Thebes’s rise to power was an increase in the influence of the god Amen-Ra, whose large temple was at nearby Karnak. Amen-Ra was a powerful sun god whose name is embedded in such proper names as Tutankhamen and Amenhotep. As a result of Amen-Ra’s dominance at Thebes, the city became the center of religious celebrations.

Akhenaton’s father, whose reign was roughly from 1386 to 1349, controlled Egypt at the peak of its power. He married, when quite young, a general’s daughter named Tiy, but as was common, he had numerous concubines from Syria and other regions. Only the six children—two boys and four girls—of his marriage to Tiy, however, had royal significance. The second son, who became Amenhotep IV, was born around 1390.

Amenhotep III was an impressive man who achieved a reputation as a bold hunter and a gifted diplomat. He publicized his reign in a series of innovative scarab seals, each inscribed with a brief account of some historic event. Amenhotep III was also an ambitious builder; although early in his reign he continued to maintain a royal household in Memphis, he later moved to Thebes and spent the last ten years of his life directing construction projects in that city. At the same time, he had built the temple of Amen-Ra (in modern Luxor) near Karnak on the Nile River. The costs were enormous: The temple at Montu alone used 2.5 tons (2.25 metric tons) of gold and 1,250 pounds (567 kilograms) of lapis lazuli.

During these last ten years in Thebes, Amenhotep III hosted three opulent jubilees in his palace. The sybaritic life took its toll. Amenhotep III’s mummy presents a fat, bald man with rotten teeth; the king died at about the age of thirty-eight and was succeeded by his second son, Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaton, as he soon came to call himself.

Life’s Work

His older brother apparently having died young, Amenhotep IV ascended the throne in about 1377. One peculiarity of the new king’s background is his failure to appear on his father’s monuments, suggesting that for some reason his existence had deliberately been downplayed. The depictions of him show a deformed body that may have been an embarrassment to his family. His sagging belly, elongated face and neck, and feminine hips all point to a pituitary condition now known as Frölich’s syndrome. Although Frölich’s syndrome usually results in eunuchoidism, Amenhotep IV married Nefertiti, and they had several children. Unfortunately, little is known about Nefertiti—she may have been Amenhotep’s cousin—and it is not even certain that Amenhotep was the natural father of the children she bore.

For the first year of his reign, Amenhotep continued the building projects of his father. He then embarked on his own distinctive projects. He soon planned a spectacular jubilee, a surprising departure from the usual practice of hosting them only after a reign of thirty years; this jubilee was marked by the building of four large temples at nearby Karnak.

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Death mask of Akhenaton.

Death mask of Akhenaton.

(Library of Congress)

The historical record at this point is extremely sketchy for two reasons. First, when he erected his new city of Akhetaton, Amenhotep thoroughly eradicated the memorials to Amen-Ra and the other sun gods. Second, after his death, one of his successors, Horemheb, destroyed the four temples at Karnak, whose remains, in the form of blocks known as talatat, scholars have recently been painstakingly fitting together.

The reconstructed reliefs on these temple remains have produced several surprises for scholars. The talatat reveal, for example, that Amenhotep maintained a heavy military presence around himself at all times, a practice that implies insecurity. The talatat reliefs also celebrate Nefertiti in diverse depictions—especially surprising because Amenhotep himself appears nowhere in the decorations of his structures. No firm conclusions can be drawn, but it is impossible not to speculate on the possibility that Nefertiti played a much greater role in the royal planning than that evinced by the scanty evidence available before the talatat reconstructions.

After about five years at Thebes, Amenhotep suddenly abandoned that city and built a new capital farther north down the Nile River. This new capital was named Akhetaton, or “horizon of the Disk.” At the same time, Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaton (he who is useful to the Sun-disk). In keeping with his new name and devotion, Akhenaton declared Amen-Ra, the old sun god, anathema. He had Amen-Ra’s name plastered over on each royal cartouche (an oblong figure enclosing a royal name or epithet), and the name of his god Aton was then inscribed on them. Throughout the kingdom, the name Amen-Ra was also at this time desecrated wherever it appeared on such objects as walls and tombs. Akhetaton was built on what is today called Tell el-Amārna, and the period of Akhetaton’s dominance is designated the Amarna Age.

Akhenaton’s new city was a hastily constructed affair, probably of inferior workmanship, stretching out for seven miles along the east bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt. Akhenaton’s own residence was a large village at the city’s north end. An unusual walled enclosure designated Maru-aton dominated the southern part of the city; with its pools and gardens, it was probably a site for cult observances.

Akhenaton’s mother, Queen Tiy, was part of the entourage that moved to Akhetaton, and it now appears that a second wife, known as Queen Kiya, also accompanied him to the new home, although her role and status are unclear. The military guard continued as strong around Akhenaton at Akhetaton as at Thebes, but there was a complete shuffle in the important personnel at the court. The other cities, especially Thebes and Memphis, were allowed to fend for themselves; the old elite believed that they had been snubbed by the heretic king and his parvenus in the new center of the kingdom.

In about the eleventh year of Akhenaton’s rule, the royal family began dying, perhaps as a result of a plague in the region. Thus by the fourteenth year, Queen Tiy, Kiya, and four of Akhenaton’s six daughters were all dead. With their passing, and the king’s aging, his daughter Meritaton rose in power and esteem, and by the fifteenth year, she was being depicted in statuary with her husband, Smenkhare (he whom the spirit of Ra has ennobled). The epithets devoted to Smenkhare indicate that he probably acted as the king’s coregent. It is an open question whether Smenkhare ever actually ruled by himself or whether the throne went directly to Tutankhamen on Akhenaton’s death around the year 1360.

What happened to Nefertiti during these last years of Akhenaton’s reign is not known. The fact that she seems to have disappeared at about the same time that Smenkhare came on the scene has inspired scholarly conjecture that they were the same person, but the theory is burdened by too many improbabilities to be convincing. As far as is known, she survived these final years at Akhetaton but with greatly reduced royal influence.

Tutankhamen, possibly Akhenaton’s son by Kiya, moved back to Thebes after three years, and the power in the kingdom was concentrated largely in the capable hands of one of Akhenaton’s top officials, Ay, who himself ruled for about four years after Tutankhamen’s death. Ay’s successor, Horemheb, destroyed Akhenaton’s temples at Karnak, and the work and innovations of the heretic king were concluded.


Recent scholarship challenges the old romantic picture of a humanist Akhenaton, a pioneering champion of monotheism in whose steps Moses followed. The king was an insecure ruler, physically unattractive, thrust into a role that surrounded him with figures from his father’s establishment whom he feared. His vacillation weakened Egypt’s control of its northern provinces, and he left the administration of his kingdom to his military advisers. Historian Donald Redford characterizes Akhenaton as a dreamy soul devoted to cultic reforms that he did not really understand. By not replacing Amen-Ra with a significant mythology, Akhenaton was actually propagating atheism. The Sun-disk, Redford says, could never be seen as “god,” and Redford spells out his conception of the real focus of Akhenaton’s worship:

What it was Akhenaton tells us plainly enough: the Disk was his father, the universal king. Significant, it seems to me, is the fact that, on the eve of Amenophis III’s passing, the king who sat on Egypt’s throne bore as his most popular sobriquet the title “The Dazzling Sun-disk”; on the morrow of the “revolution” the only object of veneration in the supernal realm is King Sun-disk, exalted in the heavens and ubiquitously termed by Akhenaton “my father.”

Redford’s contemptuous verdict on Akhenaton is that the king was an effete and slothful leader of an “aggregation of voluptuaries.” Moreover, Akhenaton appears to Redford as the worst kind of totalitarian, one who demanded “universal submission” from everyone. It is a harsh verdict that Redford submits and one that more sympathetic scholars will surely challenge as they continue to study the meager evidence of the life and accomplishments of this elusive king.

Further Reading

  • Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten and Nefertiti. New York: Viking Press, 1973. This catalog of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, written by one of the period’s most eminent scholars, is an invaluable study of the art of Akhenaton’s reign. Includes illustrations, many in color, and an extensive bibliography. Fully annotated.

  • Aldred, Cyril. The Egyptians. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Aldred provides an excellent general history of the region, with many black-and-white and color illustrations. Includes a bibliography and indexes.

  • Baines, John, and Jaromir Málek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York: Facts on File, 1984. Baines and Málek provide an especially full and detailed reference book, replete with excellent tables, summaries of the ancient hieroglyphic writing system, maps, and time lines.

  • Hornung, Erik. Akhenaton and the Religion of Light. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. This examination of Akhenaton’s period extends to recent archaeological finds. Hornung emphasizes that Akhenaton’s monotheism represented the earliest attempt in history to explain the entire natural and human world on the basis of a single principle, making light the “absolute reference point.” Also addresses the origins of the new religion.

  • Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A detailed scholarly analysis of Akhenaton and his accomplishments by the man who directed the Akhenaton Temple Project. Redford’s account is one of the standard studies. Includes an index, a bibliography, and illustrations.

Related articles in Great Lives from History: The Ancient World

c. 1570 b.c.e., New Kingdom Period Begins in Egypt; c. 1450 b.c.e., International Age of Major Kingdoms Begins in the Near East; c. 1365 b.c.e., Failure of Akhenaton's Cultural Revival; 1069 b.c.e., Third Intermediate Period Begins in Egypt.

Frank Day

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