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Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

During Akhenaten's rule, from 1353 to 1336 BCE, He moved the capital city of Egypt from Thebes to Amarna, then known as Akhetaten, a city he constructed on what had been just a piece of desert. There he created a new religion and new temples. His influence lived on beyond his death.

Akhenaten

You may know that throughout their history ancient Egyptians worshiped many gods and goddesses. In some ways these deities were a lot like people: they had arguments, could get married and had children. Together, they were believed to control everything from health to rainfall.

Everyday Egyptians kept images of the gods and goddesses in their homes and communicated with them. Making offerings,celebrating religious holidays and preparing complex fun eralswere all a part of Egyptians’ constant interactions with their royal gods.

Akhenaten was born into this world of many gods. At that time, Amun Re was the most important of Egypt’s gods. Amun Re was a mysterious god with many abilities, but he appeared to the people as the sun. A powerful group of priests served Amun-Re.

When Akhenaten became king in 1353 BC he began to make changes. He declared that there was only one god who could be worshiped –the Aten – and he declared that as pharaoh he was the only person who could communicate with this god.

Why did Akhenaten make this huge change?Some people think he wanted to get rid ofthe powerful priests of Amun Re, whose power could challenge the pharaohs. Other people think that Akhenaten was totally dedicated to the Aten, and that he was one of the first people in history to express unique and personal thoughts on spirituality.

The Aten literally meant “the disk of the sun.” Akhenaten searched for a place to build a new city for the Aten. He found it in a spot where the sun appeared to rise from an eastern valley and spread its light over abroad piece of land in front of the Nile river.The new city was named Akhetaten, “horizon of the Aten.” Today, historians call the city Amarna.

The pharaoh lived at Amarna with his family. As a result,all the government officials, artists, builders and families who served the king moved there, too. This was a great huge move.

As the population grew, the city stretched north and south along the Nile, which was the source of water for the wells the people of Amarna dug into the desert. Official royal buildings and the temples of the Aten were concentrated in the heart of the city. Suburbs, where most people lived, surrounded the center of the city.

Cartouche of AkhenatenSurely, daily life went on for the Egyptian people. They farmed, fished and built as they had for hundred of years. The king, his wives and children went about their daily lives, but the family had a new significance in the new religion. Instead of the many statues of gods the people had been used to seeing when worshiping in the past, the king’s family were now Egyptians visible link to god. In sculpture, at important events, and even traveling around the city, the pharaoh family were not only royalty or representatives of gods on earth: they were the people’s only link to god. They also took the place of myths of the gods and their families.

During the rule of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III, the numerous gods of ancient Egypt were worshiped widely, but Amun Re was held above the rest. The priests of Amun Re became so powerful and wealthy that they could even challenge the pharaoh. This wasn’t good for the royal family, and within his reign Amenhotep III made steps to raise other gods up and control the power of the priests. One of the gods he called attention to was the Aten, a solar god who was represented by an image of the sun in the sky.

About the year 1350 BCE, new rules were given by Pharaoh Akhenaten to the people of Egypt, and they came as a shock. The one and only god would be the Aten, which had no human or animal form. It was simply the sun in the sky. Only Akhenaten could know the Aten’s wishes, or ask the Aten for help.

When Akhenaten closed all the gods’ temples, including those of Amun Re, and announced that he was moving to a new city, priests suddenly lost all their power.

When the traditional gods were outlawed, everyday Egyptians lost their connection to the spiritual world. Akhenaten proclaimed that he and his family were the only ones capable of communicating with the Aten. If people wanted to communicate with the god, they would have to look to the pharaoh.

Of course, some people weren’t happy about all these changes, but they had also been trained for generations to think that the pharaoh was a god on Earth. They didn’t challenge his changes.

You may hear people claim that the religion of the Aten was monotheistic, which means a religion with only one god. Certainly the religion of the Aten was much closer to monotheism than the religion of the many gods Egyptian shad worshiped before. But there is one problem: The people had to worship Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti and their family as the representatives of the Aten. The royal family would, in turn, worship the Aten. This isn’t strictly monotheism as we know it today.

Think of it - what if you had to worship the president,who could then worship god. The Egyptians were used to thinking of their leaders as godly, so it wasn’t as strange to them as it would be to you - but they still remembered the old ways.

In about 1346 BC Akhenaten chose Amarna as the site of a new city to be built for the Aten. All the people whose jobs depended on the pharaoh, from sculptors to builders to government officials, left their homes in Thebes and traveled to Amarna to begin a new life under one god. There, temples were built without roofs, so that the sun could be seen in the sky.

Did Akhenaten really believe in the Aten, or did he just use the Aten to upset Egypt’s power structure and reshape it the way he wanted? Signs show that Akhenaten really did believe in his spiritual connection to the Aten. He composed songs and poems in honor of the god, and sometimes neglected Egypt’s well-being and safety in his pursuit of building the perfect home for the Aten. But all of Akhenaten’s devotion to the Aten couldn’t erase what the people of Egypt had known for hundreds of years.

Soon after Akhenaten’s death, Amarna was abandoned and the capital cities moved to Memphis and Thebes,where the Aten was turned back into just one of many minor gods.

Akhenaten set out to build the Aten a city so amazing, rich and beautiful that it put memories of old gods out of his subjects’ minds. He wanted to create a place worthy of his god, and one that would impress his people with the Aten’s magnificence.

Because the pharaoh was so wealthy, he could hire as many painters, sculptors and artisans as he wanted - and it seems that a virtual army of artists lived in Amarna during the city’s short time. Akhenaten himself developed a new style for showing the human body in art. Instead of the very stiff and straight traditional figures, his were long and curved, with large hips and thin arms. Some people have even wondered if Akhenaten was born with an illness that gave him a strange figure - but now it is believed he was shown in this way as part of the new artistic style.

Family portraits of the royal family, Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters, also changed at this time. In addition to formal, ceremonial pictures, the family was shown playingand relaxing together, holding each other and enjoying age under the rays of the Aten.
On this block from a temple relief, Akhenaten (ack-en-AH-ten), recognizable by his elongated features, holds a duck up toward Aten, the solar disk. Akhenaten believed that light was the only divine power in the universe and thus was the source and sustainer of all creation. The solar disk was the means through which this power came into the world. Akhenaten’s god was not portrayed in human or animal form but through the symbol of the solar disk with rays ending in small human hands, one of which holds an ankh, symbol of life, toward the king’s nose. The sun-disk symbol is a large-scale hieroglyph meaning ‘light”
On this block from a temple relief, Akhenaten (ack-en-AH-ten), recognizable by his elongated features, holds a duck up toward Aten, the solar disk. Akhenaten believed that light was the only divine power in the universe and thus was the source and sustainer of all creation. The solar disk was the means through which this power came into the world. Akhenaten’s god was not portrayed in human or animal form but through the symbol of the solar disk with rays ending in small human hands, one of which holds an ankh, symbol of life, toward the king’s nose. The sun-disk symbol is a large-scale hieroglyph meaning ‘light”
On this block from a temple relief, Akhenaten (ack-en-AH-ten), recognizable by his elongated features, holds a duck up toward Aten, the solar disk. Akhenaten believed that light was the only divine power in the universe and thus was the source and sustainer of all creation. The solar disk was the means through which this power came into the world. Akhenaten’s god was not portrayed in human or animal form but through the symbol of the solar disk with rays ending in small human hands, one of which holds an ankh, symbol of life, toward the king’s nose. The sun-disk symbol is a large-scale hieroglyph meaning ‘light”

With one hand Akhenaten holds the duck firmly by its wings and with the other he wrings its neck before offering it to his god. Although early depictions of Akhenaten often appear strangely exaggerated, his sculptors later in his reign attempted a more naturalistic style, emphasizing transitory motion and a sense of space and atmosphere. Akhenaten’s hands here are grasping and straining to hold on to the struggling duck. Such a scene, capturing a moment in a sacrifice being made by a king, would never have been attempted in another period. Akhenaten’s right hand, however, is twisted so that all five fingers can be seen, a pose that conforms to the Egyptian convention of presenting each part of the body as completely as possible.

The type of relief used here is called sunk relief. Instead of cutting the background away and leaving the figures raised above the surface of the stone (as in raised relief), the artist has cut the outlines of the figures into the surface. Sunk relief in general appears mostly on the outside of buildings, where the outlines are emphasized by shadows cast by Egypt’s brilliant sunlight, but during the Amarna period almost all relief was executed in this technique.

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