King Akhenaten of the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt

King Akhenaten  of the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt
King Akhenaten  of the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt

The earliest monuments of Amenhotep IV, who in his fifth regnal year changed his name to Akhenaton (“One Useful to Aton

”), are conventional in their iconography and style, but from the first, he gave the sun god a didactic title naming Aton, the solar disk.

This title was later written inside a pair of cartouches, as a king’s name would be.

The king declared his religious allegiance through the unprecedented use of “high priest of the sun god” as one of his own titles.

The term Aton had long been in use, but under Thutmose IV the Aton had been referred to as a god, and under Amenhotep III those references became more frequent.


Thus, Akhenaton did not create a new god but rather singled out this aspect of the sun god from among others.

He also carried further radical tendencies that had recently developed in solar religion, in which the sun god was freed from his traditional mythological context and presented as the sole beneficent provider for the entire world.

The king’s own divinity was emphasized: the Aton was said to be his father, of whom he alone had knowledge, and they shared the status of king and celebrated jubilees together.

In his first five regnal years, Akhenaton built many temples to the Aton, of which the most important was in the precinct of the temple of Amon-Re at Karnak. In these open-air structures was developed a new, highly stylized form of relief and sculpture in the round.

The Aton was depicted not in anthropomorphic form but as a solar disk from which radiating arms extend the hieroglyph for “life” to the noses of the king and his family.


During the construction of these temples, the cult of Amon and other gods was suspended, and the worship of the Aton in an open-air sanctuary superseded that of Amon, who had dwelt in a dark shrine of the Karnak temple.

The king’s wife Nefertiti, whom he had married before his accession, was prominent in the reliefs and had a complete shrine dedicated to her that included no images of the king. Her prestige continued to grow for much of the reign.

At about the time that he altered his name to conform with the new religion, the king transferred the capital to a virgin site at Amarna (Tell el-Amarna; Al-ʿAmārinah) in Middle Egypt.

There he constructed a well-planned city—Akhenaton (“the Horizon of Aton”)—comprising temples to the Aton, palaces, official buildings, villas for the high ranking, and extensive residential quarters.

In the Eastern Desert cliffs surrounding the city, tombs were excavated for the courtiers, and deep within a secluded wadi, the royal sepulcher was prepared.


Reliefs in these tombs have been invaluable for reconstructing life at Amarna. The tomb reliefs and stelae portray the life of the royal family with an unprecedented degree of intimacy.

In Akhenaton’s ninth year, a more monotheistic didactic name was given to the Aton, and intense persecution of the older gods, especially Amon, was undertaken.

Amon’s name was excised from many older monuments throughout the land, and occasionally the word gods were expunged.

Akhenaton’s religious and cultural revolution was highly personal in that he seems to have had a direct hand in devising the precepts of the Aton religion and the conventions of Amarna art.

In religion, the accent was upon the sun’s life-sustaining power, and naturalistic scenes adorned the walls and even the floors of Amarna buildings.

The king’s role in determining the composition of the court is expressed in epithets given to officials he selected from the lesser ranks of society, including the military.


Few officials had any connection with the old ruling elite, and some courtiers who had been accepted at the beginning of the reign were purged.

Even at Amarna the new religion was not widely accepted below the level of the elite; numerous small objects relating to traditional beliefs have been found at the site.

Akhenaton’s revolutionary intent is visible in all of his actions. In representational art, many existing conventions were revised to emphasize the break with the past. Such a procedure is comprehensible because traditional values were consistently incorporated into cultural expression as a whole; to change one part, it was necessary to change the whole.

A vital innovation was the introduction of vernacular forms into the written language. This led in later decades to the appearance of current verbal forms in monumental inscriptions.

The vernacular form of the New Kingdom, which is now known as Late Egyptian, appears fully developed in letters of the later 19th and 20th dynasties.

Akhenaton’s foreign policy and use of force abroad are less well understood.


He mounted one minor campaign in Nubia. In the Middle East, Egypt’s hold on its possessions was not as secure as earlier, but the cuneiform tablets found at Amarna recording his diplomacy are difficult to interpret because the vassals who requested aid from him exaggerated their plight.

One reason for unrest in the region was the decline of Mitanni and the resurgence of the Hittites. Between the reign of Akhenaton and the end of the 18th dynasty, Egypt lost control of many territories in Syria.

The aftermath of Amarna

Akhenaton had six daughters by Nefertiti and possibly a son, perhaps by a secondary wife Kiya.

Either Nefertiti or the widow of Tutankhamun called on the Hittite king Suppiluliumas to supply a consort because she could find none in Egypt; a prince was sent, but he was murdered as he reached Egypt. Thus, Egypt never had a diplomatic marriage in which a foreign man was received into the country.


After the brief rule of Smenkhkare (1335–32 BCE), possibly a son of Akhenaton, Tutankhaten, a nine-year-old child, succeeded and was married to the much older Ankhesenpaaten, Akhenaton’s third daughter.

Around his third regnal year, the king moved his capital to Memphis, abandoned the Aton cult, and changed his and the queen’s names to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamen.

In an inscription recording Tutankhamun’s actions for the gods, the Amarna period is described as one of misery and the withdrawal of the gods from Egypt.

This change, made in the name of the young king, was probably the work of high officials.

The most influential was Ay, known by the title God’s Father, who served as vizier and regent (his title indicates a close relationship to the royal family), and the general Horemheb, who functioned as royal deputy and whose tomb at Ṣaqqārah contains remarkable scenes of Asiatic captives being presented to the King.


Just as Akhenaton had adapted and transformed the religious thinking that was current in his time, the reaction to the religion of Amarna was influenced by the rejected doctrine.

In the new doctrine, all gods were in essence three: Amon, Re, and Ptah (to whom Seth was later added), and in some ultimate sense, they too were one.

The earliest evidence of this triad is on a trumpet of Tutankhamun and is related to the naming of the three chief army divisions after these gods; religious life and secular life were not separate.

This concentration on a small number of essential deities may possibly be related to the piety of the succeeding Ramesside period because both viewed the cosmos as being thoroughly permeated with the divine.


Under Tutankhamun, a considerable amount of building was accomplished in Thebes.

His Luxor colonnade bears detailed reliefs of the traditional beautiful festival of Opet; he decorated another structure (now only a series of disconnected blocks) with warlike scenes.

He affirmed his legitimacy by referring back to Amenhotep III, whom he called his father.

Tutankhamun’s modern fame comes from the discovery of his rich burial in the Valley of the Kings.

His tomb equipment was superior in quality to the fragments known from other royal burials, and the opulent display—of varying aesthetic value—represents Egyptian wealth at the peak of the country’s power.

Ay and Horemheb

Tutankhamun’s funeral in about 1323 BCE was conducted by his successor, the aged Ay (ruled 1323–19 BCE), who in turn was succeeded by Horemheb.


The latter probably ruled from 1319 to c. 1292 BCE, but the length of his poorly attested reign is not certain.

Horemheb dismantled many monuments erected by Akhenaton and his successors and used the blocks as a fill for huge pylons at Karnak. At Karnak and Luxor he appropriated Tutankhamun’s reliefs by surcharging the latter’s cartouches with his own.

Horemheb appointed new officials and priests not from established families but from the army. His policies concentrated on domestic problems.

He issued police regulations dealing with the misbehavior of palace officials and personnel, and he reformed the judicial system, reorganizing the courts and selecting new judges.

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