Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lecture twelve

Leaving the realm of the private tombs, with their impressive murals, we return to the major personalities of the Eighteenth dynasty. Who was the most outstanding? Hatshepsut would certainly make a claim. She demonstrated the virtues of trade and peace, instead of war. In her own person, she fused (in her view) the perfect female and the perfect male, introducing an androgynous model that resurfaced with Akhnaten (albeit in different form). Her nephew, the macho Tuthmose III could make his claim based on his conquests, which extended Egyptian territory significantly. Amenhotep III, the “dazzling sun” and creator of over 1000 statues of himself, represented the zenith of Egyptian power. His son Amenhotep IV, known as Akhnaten, introduced a new religion and a new style of art. As his virtual coregent, Nefertiti could have made a claim, with her serene beauty and self-confidence. Finally, the boy king Tutankhamen, owing to the happy accident of the survival of his treasure, ranks as one of the most famous--if not the most famous--pharaohs for our own age.

Previously we dealt with the first two of these Great Ones, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Now we transition to the third worthy by means of Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV. The former’s tomb survives in the Valley of the Kings (KV 35) in reasonably good condition. The sarcophagus is superb (note the golden figure of Isis), and the walls are decorated with scenes from the Amduat (the book of “That Which Is in the Netherworld), divided into 12 hours (of the night). He had reigned for 27 years.

The succession of Thutmose IV seems to have been uncertain, confirmed though (as he believed) by a dream in which the sphinx appeared to him, commanding her restoration. Thutmose’s sphinx is clearly “solarized,” by the identification Khepri-Ra-Atum, that is, the rising sun, zenith, and setting sun. He reigned for only 9-10 years.

The Eighteenth dynasty peaked during the reign of Amenhotep III, who reigned for almost 40 years.. Sustained by the enormous wealth of past conquests, by tribute and diplomatic gifts of vassal kings and foreign rulers, Amenhotep III became one of the greatest builders in the history of his country.

Like his ancestors, he continued extending the great temple of Amun at Karnak. He was responsible for rebuilding the Temple core at Luxor. His architect may have been Amenhotep, son of Hapu. On the Theban west bank, he built a large palace complex (known as Malkata) and a funerary temple of which, unfortunately, only the two damaged colossi (“of Memnon”) now bear witness. Excavators have uncovered the basic elements of the plan of the palace which consisted of a succession of halls and courtyards, with satellite villas.

His sculptures show an oscillation of features, from the severe “basilisk countenances” to the baby-faced types. He is sometime shown with his wife Tiye, daughter of Yuya and Tuya (the latter occupied tomb KV 46).

Anticipating Louis XIV, Amenhotep III had himself identified as the “dazzling sun.” The Aten disk appears in the iconography of his reign. As we noted at the outset of this course, a tendency to solar preeminence was always latent in Egyptian culture (note, e.g., the Sun Temple at Abu Ghurob of the Fifth dynasty). In view of the absolute triumph of the sun under his son Akhneten, it is tempting to seek elements of the new, revolutionary religion in the long reign of the father. In this quest for origins, it is difficult to find a balance--in part because the theologians of Amenhotep III did not know where they were going. Akhenaten did.


In the early years of his reign, Amenhotep IV lived at Thebes with Nefertiti and his 6 daughters. Initially, he permitted worship of Egypt's traditional deities to continue, but near the Temple of Karnak (Amun-Re's great cult center), he erected several massive buildings including temples to the Aten or sun disk. These buildings at Thebes were later dismantled by his successors and used as infill for new constructions in the Temple of Karnak; when they were later dismantled by archaeologists, some 36,000 decorated blocks from the original Aten building here were revealed which preserve many elements of the original relief scenes and inscriptions.

The relationship between Amenhotep IV and the priests of Amun-Re gradually deteriorated. In Year 5 of his reign, Amenhotep IV took decisive steps to establish the Aten as the exclusive, monotheistic god of Egypt. With stunning ruthlessness, the pharaoh disbanded the priesthoods of all the other gods, diverting the income from the other cults to support the Aten. This step suggests that their may have been an economic subtext behind his reform, a subtext that would garner support among the military and the bureaucracy, increasingly concerned about priestly domination.

The king officially changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten or “Servant of the Aten.”
As we have previously noted, their is a kind of latent solarism that runs through Egyptian religion. This theme had become stronger in the reign of the father Amenhotep III, the “dazzling son.” Thus Akhenaten’s “heresy” had real roots.

Still, there is no doubting the genuinely revolutionary character of Akhenaten’s new faith, which was, in essence, a “found” religion, and not one that had simply evolved like all previous belief systems. Contrary to some doubters, I believe that it was genuinely monotheistic. As such, it proclaimed a new dichotomous standard of truth and falsehood, seen as absolutely opposed. With regard to the Aten, there was no “complementary dualism,” unless it was the pharaoh himself, the deity’s own vicar on earth. Atenism was both aniconic (no anthropomorphic or animal representation) and iconoclastic (destruction of images of rival gods). In all these respects, it forecasts later forms of monotheism.

As seen in the Great Hymn (possibly written by Akhenaten himself) the new religion presented many appealing aspects. The supremacy of the sun, the source of all life, accounts for both human diversity (what we would term multiculturalism) and human solidarity (the sun shines equally on all lands). The Hymn shows some similarities with other forms of Middle Eastern wisdom literature (cf. Psalm 104).

As if this new religion was not enough, Akhenaten made two other innovations: his new capital and his new style (or styles) of art.


Akhenaten's fifth year also marked the beginning of construction on his new capital, Akhetaten, or “Horizon of Aten,” at the site known today as Amarna. This city ranks as the first effort in world history to create a new capital from scratch, foreshadowing Washington, Canberra, and Brasilia.
The area of the city was effectively a virgin site. It may be that the Royal Wadi's resemblance to the hieroglyph for horizon showed that this was the place to found the city.

Construction started in or around Year 5 of the king’s reign (1346 BCE) and was probably completed by Year 9 (1341 BCE), although it became the capital city two years earlier. To speed up construction of the city most of the buildings were constructed out of mud brick, and white-washed. The most important buildings were faced with local stone.

It is the only ancient Egyptian city that integrally preserves its internal plan, in large part because the city was abandoned after the death of Akhenaten. The city seems to have remained active for a decade or so after his death, and a shrine to Horemheb indicates that it was at least partially occupied at the beginning of his reign, if only as a source for building material elsewhere.

Hastily constructed, Akhetaten extended along approximately 8 miles of territory on the east bank of the Nile River; on the west bank, land was set aside to provide crops for the city's population. The entire city was encircled with a total of 14 boundary stelae detailing Akhenaten's conditions for the establishment of this new capital city of Egypt.

The ruins of the city are laid out roughly north to south along a grand avenue, the Royal Road. The royal residences are generally to the north, in what is known as the North City, with a central administration and religious area and the south of the city is made up of residential suburbs.
Most of the important ceremonial and administrative buildings were located in the central city. Here the Great Temple of the Aten and the Small Aten Temple were used for religious functions; between these the Great Royal Palace and the Royal Residence were the ceremonial abodes of the King and Royal Family, being linked by a bridge and ramps. Located behind the Royal Residence was the Pharaoh’s Bureau of Correspondence, where the Amarna Leters were found. This central zone was probably the first area to be completed.

To the south of the city was the area now referred to as the Southern Suburbs, containing the estates of many of the city's powerful nobles. This area also held the studio of the sculptor Thutmose, where the famous bust of Nefertiti was found in 1912.

The tombs broke with the tradition of location on the west bank of the nile Away from the city Akhenaten's royal necropolis was started in a narrow valley to the east of the city, hidden in the cliffs.

The king was active in architecture outside of his new capital. In honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt. In these new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight, rather than in dark temple enclosures, as had been the previous custom.


Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art, bearing a variety of inflection, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, outright ugliness and the beauty of Nefertiti. 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 an elongated face, slender limbs, a protruding belly, wide hips, and an overall pear-shaped body. It has been suggested that the pharaoh had himself depicted in this way for religious reasons, or that it exaggerates his distinctive physical traits. Until Akhenaten's mummy is located and identified, such theories remain speculative, though some evidence from mummies of relatives has recently come to light.

Because of its surpassing beauty, the famous bust of Nefertiti (now in Berlin) is both the masterpiece and the exception among the Amarna works. Probably a model rather than a finished work, the Nefertiti relies upon superb detailing and (compositionally) on a kind of counterintuitive balancing, with the most massive element at the top. Several other heads and torsos of female figures suggest that the Amarna approach was (to our eyes at least) more congenial for women rather than for men. There are, however, some eloquent male heads, some apparently modeled from life.


Although it is accepted that Akhenaten himself died in Year 17 of his reign, the question of whether Smenkhkare became coregent perhaps 2 or 3 years earlier or enjoyed a brief independent reign is unclear. If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten, and became sole Pharaoh, he likely ruled Egypt for less than a year. The next successor was either Neferneferuaten, possibly a female Pharaoh who reigned for perhaps 2 or three years, or Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), with the country perhaps being run by the chief vizier and future Pharaoh, Ay. Tutankhamun is believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of Akhenaten, and possibly Kiya although one scholar has suggested that Tutankhamun may have been a son of Smenkhkare instead. It has also been suggested that after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti reigned with the name of Neferneferuaten.
With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded gradually fell out of favor. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in Year 2 of his reign (1332 BCE) and abandoned the city of Akhetaten, which eventually fell into ruin.

Finally, Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay 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 nineteenth century that his identity was rediscovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.

Akhenaten has been called by historian J. H. Breasted “the first individual in history." According to taste, he ranks as the first monotheist, the first scientist, and the first romantic. (The scientist claim seems to derive from his understanding of the sun as the source of energy.)

The striking portrayals of Akhenaten, with a sagging stomach, thick thighs, pendulous breasts, and long, thin face--so different from the athletic norm of royal portraiture--have led certain Egyptologists to suppose that Akhenaten suffered some kind of genetic abnormality. However, Dominic Montserrat in Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt argues that "there is now a broad consensus among Egyptologists that the exaggerated forms of Akhenaten's physical portrayal...are not to be read literally.” Montserrat and others argue that the body-shape relates to some form of religious symbolism. Because the god Aten was referred to as "the mother and father of all humankind" it has been suggested that Akhenaten was made to look androgynous in art as a symbol of the androgyny of the god. This required "a symbolic gathering of all the attributes of the creator god into the physical body of the king himself", which will "display on earth the Aten's multiple life-giving functions". Akhenaten did refer to himself as "The Unique One of Re," and he may have used his control of artistic expression to distance himself from the common people, though such a radical departure from the idealized traditional representation of the image of the Pharaoh would be truly extraordinary. (As indeed, it is.)

There has also been interest in the identity of the pharaoh Smenkhare (to be discussed next time), the immediate successor to Akhenaten. In particular descriptions on a small box seemed to refer to Smenkhare beloved of Akhenaten, posing the possibility that Akhenaten might have been bisexual. In all likelihood, Smenkhkare was a half-brother or a son to Akhenaten.

No comments: