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Monotheism

Akhenaten (previously called Amenhotep IV) was a very controversial Egyptian king who did not have a right to the throne. His older brother Prince Thutmose was the next in line to the throne after their father Pharaoh Amenhotep III, the son of Thutmose IV. However, in a turn of events triggered by the demise of Amenhotep III in 1353 B.C.E., Akhenaten ascended the throne.

Akhenaten would go on to rule Egypt for 17 years, creating distinct and remarkable changes in culture and religion that were considered liberal by some and radical by others. Despite the iconoclasm that would be obvious throughout his rain, Amenhotep IV started out pretty conventionally. He initially did all that would be expected of a normal Egyptian king; worshipping Amun alongside his queen, Nefertiti and holding the Sed festival in his 3rd Regnal year.

However, he started out on his radical difference by building a huge temple in Karnak which was dedicated not to the usual deities like Amun, Amun-Ra, or Re-Horakhty, but to a less important deity called the Aten.

The radicalism of this action was accentuated by the fact that unlike the other gods, Aten did not have any physical representation. Aten represented the sun disk and had no prior human-like attribute. Therefore, by adopting Aten as the deity to worship, Amenhotep IV was setting the stage to present himself as the human and earthly representative of the god.

He went a step further with this plan when he changed his name to Akhenaten (Effective for the Aten) from the conventional Amenhotep (Amun is satisfied). His queen was not left out as she also adopted the title Neferneferuaten, which translates to “Beauteous are the Beauties of Aten”.

Beyond just worshipping Aten personally, Akhenaten decided to make the deity the official god of the Egyptian nation. The worship of all the other Egyptian gods was also banned, converting the nation to a monotheistic state where Aten was the only god that could be worshipped. Many scholars are of the opinion that Akhenaten’s reign was the first instance of monotheism in history.

He also went further to build a new Egyptian capital city in the desert area between Thebes and Memphis. The city was dedicated to Aten and named Akhetaten, which can be interpreted as the Horizon of the Aten. In recent times however, the city’s name has been changed to Amarna.

Apart from the much talked about religious and cultural revolutions, the period of Akhenaten’s rule (referred to as the Amarna Period) was also characterized by outstanding architectural and artistic patterns. The structure of the temples built in honor of Aten differed markedly from those built for Amun and others God. Rather than the secluded nature of the conventional temples, Aten’s temples were more open-aired in style, allowing access to penetration by sunlight.

 

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The temples featured artworks depicting the king and his family performing religious rites in honor of Aten. However, the images had a unique artistic style to them in which the features of both the king and other people were weirdly distorted. The lips, for example could be accentuated while the eyes would feature as thin slits. The limbs were also represented as being thin and elongated.

It is possible that these distorted depictions were right. Perhaps Akhenaten really did have that weird physique due to genetic mutations from years of incest within the royal bloodline. On the other hand, the king might have had normal features with the weird artistic representations being an attempt to give him a look that distinguished him from the average person since he was supposedly an emissary of the sun-god Aten.

Consequent upon the demise of Akhenaten in 1336 B.C.E, inhabitants of Egypt wasted no time in executing a quick departure from the previous king’s religious system and ideas. Almost all of his changes were reversed; the worship of Aten was abandoned and they returned to worshipping Amun. Also, the erstwhile king’s statues as well as those of his family were destroyed. The capital was moved back to Thebes from Akhetaten. His name was also not included in the official records of the kings who ruled Egypt.

Smenkhare was the next king after Amenhotep IV but his reign didn’t last long (there were rumors that Smenkhare was actually Akhenaten’s wife ruling under camouflage). At the end of Smenkare’s reign, Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamun came to power as the Pharaoh.

 

Updated On April 21, 2020