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Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Amenhotep (IV)
in hieroglyphs
praenomen or throne name
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ra wa
nomen or birth name
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Akhenaten in hieroglyphs
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G25 x

Akhenaten, known as Amenhotep IV at the start of his reign, was a Pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. He is thought to have been born to Amenhotep III and his Chief Queen Tiy in the year 26 of their reign (1379 BC or 1362 BC). Amenhotep IV succeeded his father after Amenhotep III's death at the end of his 38-year reign, possibly after a co-regency between the two of up to 12 years. Suggested dates for Akhenaten's reign (subject to the debates surrounding Egyptian chronology) are from 1353 BC-1336 BC or 1351 BC-1334 BC. Akhenaten's chief wife was Nefertiti, who has been made famous by her exquisitely painted bust in the Ägyptisches Museum of Berlin.

other names:

  • Amenhotep (IV), (nomen, or birth name)
  • Amenophis (Greek variant of birth name)
  • Nefer-kheperu-Rê (praenomen, or throne name)
  • Naphu(`)rureya (Variant of throne name found in the Amarna letters)
  • Alternative spellings of Akhenaten (the name taken on conversion to Atenism which means "He Who Works for Aten")

- Akhnaten', Akhenaton, Akhnaton, Ankhenaten, Ankhenaton, Ikhnaton


Atenist revolution

Main article: Atenism

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten

A religious revolutionary, Amenhotep IV introduced Atenism in the first year of his reign, raising the previously obscure god Aten (sometimes spelt Aton) to the position of supreme deity. Aten was the name for the sun-disk itself — hence the fact that it is often referred to in English in the impersonal form "the Aten". The Aten was by this point in Egyptian history considered to be an aspect of the composite deity Ra-Amun-Horus. These previously separate deities had been merged with each other. Amun was identified with Ra, who was also identified with Horus. Akhenaton simplified this syncretism by proclaiming the visible sun itself to be the sole deity, thus introducing monotheism. Some commentators interpret this as a proto-scientific naturalism, based on the observation that the sun's energy is the ultimate source of all life. Others consider it to be a way of cutting through the previously ritualistic emphasis of Egyptian religion to allow for a new "personal relationship" with God. Yet others interpret it as a political move designed to further centralise power by crushing the independent authority of the traditional priesthood.

This religious reformation appears to have begun with his decision to celebrate a Sed-festival in his third regnal year — a highly unusual step, since a Sed-festival, a sort of royal jubilee intended to reinforce the Pharaoh's divine powers of kingship, was traditionally held in the thirtieth year of a Pharaoh's reign.

Year 5 marks the beginning of his construction of a new capital, Akhetaten ('Horizon of Aten'), at the site known today as Amarna. In the same year, Amenhotep IV officially changed his name to Akhenaten ('Effective Spirit of Aten') as evidence of his new worship. Very soon afterward he moved the religious capital of Egypt from Thebes to Akhetaten, though construction of the city seems to have continued for several more years. In honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt, including one at Karnak, close to the old temple of Amun. In these new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight, rather than in dark temple enclosures, as the old gods had been. Akhenaten is also believed to have composed the Great Hymn to the Aten.

Initially, Akhenaten presented Aten as a variant of the familiar supreme deity Amun-Ra (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun becoming merged with the sun god Ra), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar Egyptian religious context. However, by Year 9 of his reign Akhenaten declared that Aten was not merely the supreme god, but the only god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He even ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt. In a number of instances inscriptions of the plural 'gods' were also removed.

Aten's name is also written differently after Year 9, to emphasise the radicalism of the new regime, which included a ban on idols, with the exception of a rayed solar disc, in which the rays (commonly depicted ending in hands) appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten, who by then was evidently considered not merely a sun god, but rather a universal deity. It is important to note, however, that representations of the Aten were always accompanied with a sort of hieroglyphic footnote, saying, in effect, that the representation of the sun as All-encompassing Creator was to be taken as just that: a representation of something that, by its very nature as something transcending creation, cannot be fully or adequately represented by any one part of that creation.

The early stage of Atenism appears to be a kind of henotheism familiar in Egyptian religion, but the later form suggests a proto-monotheism. The idea of Akhenaten as the pioneer of monotheistic religion was promoted by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis), in his book Moses and Monotheism and thereby entered popular consciousness. Recently Ahmed Osman has even claimed Moses and Akhenaten to be the same person,[1] supporting his belief by interpreting aspects of biblical and Egyptian history. Apart from the most obvious correlation (both forms of monotheism arising around the same time and geographically close), there are alleged to be others, including a ban on idol worship and the similarity of the name Aten to the Hebrew Adon. This would mesh with Osman's other claim that Akhenaten's maternal grandfather Yuya was the same person as the Biblical Joseph.

Although Ahmed Osman's hypotheses have gained acceptance in some quarters, most mainstream Egyptologists do not take them seriously, pointing out that there are direct connections between early Judaism and other Semitic religious traditions, and that the principal Judaic terms for God, Yahweh and Elohim have no connection to Aten. Furthermore abundant visual imagery was central to Atenism, which celebrated the natural world, but was proscribed in the ten commandments. It is also known that Yuya's family were part of the regional nobility of Akhmin, in Upper Egypt, which would make it very unlikely that he was an Israelite.

Immanuel Velikovsky, in Oedipus and Akhnaton, Myth and History, (Doubleday, 1960) has argued that Moses was neither Akhenaton, nor one of his followers. Instead, Velikovsky identifies Akhenaton as the history behind Oedipus and moved the setting from the Greek Thebes to the Egyptian Thebes. Velikovsky also posited that Akhenaton had elephantiasis, producing enlarged legs - Oedipus being Greek for "swollen feet."

Depictions of the Pharaoh and his family

a portrait of Akhenaten in the naturalistic style of the late-Amarna period, associated with the sculptor Thutmose

a portrait of Akhenaten in the naturalistic style of the late-Amarna period, associated with the sculptor Thutmose

Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art, bearing a variety of affectations, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, exaggerated 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 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.

However, it is also suggested by Bob Brier, in his book "The Murder of Tutankhamen", that the family suffered from Marfan's syndrome, a dominant autosomal mutation of Chromosome 15, which is known to cause elongated features, a long thin face, arachnodactyly (spider like fingers), a sunken chest and an enlarged aorta, with a proneness for heart problems. Conic shaped eyes also gives a distinctive slit eyed appearance, and may be associated with short-sightedness. Brier speculates that this may explain Akhenaten's appearance, and perhaps his fascination with the sun - since Marfan's sufferers often feel cold easily. [2]

Marfan's Syndrome tends to be passed on to the children, usually appearing after 10 years of Age. Artists tended to show Akenaten's children as suffering the same physical character as their father. If the family did suffer from Marfan's syndrome it could help explain the high mortality rate within the family. Akhenaten, three of his daughters, and his co-regent Smenkhkare all died within a brief period of 5 years at the end of his reign. Against the Marfan's diagnosis is the fact that his successor, Tutankhamen, does not appear to have suffered from the condition. An alternative source of the elevated mortality of the Royal Family of the Amarna period is the fact that a known pandemic was sweeping the region (see below).

It is possible that the history of the royal family inbreeding could have finally taken a physical toll. This claim is countered by the fact that Akhenaten's mother Tiy was not from within the royal family, probably being the sister of Ay (Pharaoh after Tutankhamen), and High Priest Anen.

It has also been claimed that he suffered from acromegaly, a pituitary disorder that can cause longer and thicker bones, oversized jaw, dolicephaly, bilharzia and altered sex characteristics. However, other leading figures of the Amarna period, both royal and otherwise, are shown with some of these features, suggesting a possible religious connotation – though its also possible that his family and court were depicted as similarly formed to Akhenaten as a compliment to him. In addition, in Akhenaten's later reign, art becomes less idiosyncratic. Under the new chief sculptor Thutmose, Akhenaten is depicted as more normal-looking. Some claim that his earliest portraits appear the most normal, with a progression towards more elongated and feminine features later in life, suggesting an endocrine disorder of post-pubertal onset, but the earliest images of the pharaoh are in the conventional pre-Amarna style.

Until Akhenaten's mummy is located and identified, these proposals are likely to remain speculative.

Problems of the reign

Crucial evidence about the latter stages of Akhenaten's reign was furnished by discovery of the so-called "Amarna Letters". These letters comprise a priceless cache of incoming clay tablets sent from imperial outposts and foreign allies. The letters suggest that Akhenaten's neglect of matters of state were causing disorder across the massive Egyptian empire. The governors and kings of subject domains wrote to beg for gold, and also complained of being snubbed and cheated. Early on in his reign, Akhenaten fell out with the king of Mitanni. He may even have concluded an alliance with the Hittites, who then attacked Mitanni and attempted to carve out their own empire. A group of Egypt's other allies who attempted to rebel against the Hittites were captured, and wrote begging Akhenaten for troops; he evidently did not respond to their pleas.

Plague and pandemic

This Amarna period is also associated with a serious outbreak of a pandemic, possibly the plague, or perhaps the world's first outbreak of influenza, which came from Egypt and spread throughout the Middle East, killing Suppiluliuma I, the Hittite King. The prevailance of disease may help explain the rapidity with which the site of Akhetaten was subsequntly abandoned. It may also explain the fact that later generations considered the gods to have turned against the Amarna monarchs.


See also : Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt Family Tree

Amenhotep IV was married to Nefertiti at the very beginning of his reign, and the couple had six known daughters. This is a list with suggested years of birth:

His known consorts were:

Two other lovers have been suggested, but are not widely accepted:

  • Smenkhkare, Akhenaten's successor and/or co-ruler for the last years of his reign. Rather than a lover, however, Smenkhkare is likely to have been a half-brother or a son to Akhenaten. Some have even suggested that Smenkhkare was actually an alias of Nefertiti or Kiya, and therefore one of Akhenaten's wives.
  • Tiy, his mother. Twelve years after the death of Amenhotep III, she is still mentioned in inscriptions as Queen and beloved of the King. It has been suggested that Akhenaten and his mother acted as consorts to each other until her death. This would have been considered incest at the time. Supporters of this theory (notably Immanuel Velikovsky) consider Akhenaten to be the historical model of legendary King Oedipus of Thebes, Greece and Tiy the model for his mother/wife Jocasta. Mainstream Egyptologists do not take these speculations seriously.


Akhenaten planned to start a relocated Valley of the Kings, in the Royal Wadi in Akhetaten. His body was probably removed after the court returned to Memphis, and reburied somewhere in the Valley of the Kings. His sarcophagus was destroyed but has since been reconstructed and now sits outside in the Cairo Museum.


There is much controversy around whether Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, Amenhotep III, or whether there was a co-regency (lasting as long as 12 Years according to some Egyptologists). Current literature by Nicholas Reeves, Peter Dorman and other scholars comes out decisively against the establishment of a long coregency between the 2 rulers and in favour of either no coregency or a brief one lasting 1 to 2 years, at the most.

Similarly, although it is accepted that both Smenkhkare and Akhenaten himself died in Year 17 of Akhenaten's reign, the question of whether Smenkhkare became co-regent perhaps 2 or 3 years earlier is also unclear, as is whether Smenkhkare survived Akhenaten. If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten, becoming sole Pharaoh, he ruled for less than a year.

The next successor was certainly Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), at the age of 9, with the country perhaps being run by the chief vizier (and next Pharaoh), Ay. Tutankhamun is believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of Akhenaten.

With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded gradually fell out of favor. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in his Year 2 of his reign (1349 BC or 1332 BC) and abandoned Akhetaten, the city eventually falling into ruin. Temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, were disassembled by his successors Ay and Horemheb, reused as a source of easily available building materials and decorations for their own temples, and inscriptions to Aten defaced.

Finally, Akhenaten, 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 19th century that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeolologists.

Akhenaten in the arts

Further reading

External links

Preceded by:
Amenhotep III
Pharaoh of Egypt
Eighteenth Dynasty
Succeeded by: