gigatos | December 10, 2021


Akhenaten, sometimes also Ekhnaton, Ikhnaton, but for the first 5 years of his reign Amenophis IV or Amenhotep IV (Thebes, about 1375 BC – Akhetaten, about 13341333 BC), was an Egyptian pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. He reigned for 17 years, dying probably around 1334 BC.

He is famous for having abandoned the traditional Egyptian polytheism in favor of a new religion of henotheistic mold, monolatry (which maintained, that is, the belief in multiple gods while worshiping only one, introduced by himself and based on the worship of the only god Aton, the solar disk. His religious revolution, harshly opposed, proved ephemeral. A few years after his death, his monuments were hidden or torn down, his statues broken or recycled and his name erased from the royal lists. The traditional religious practices were gradually restored and the rulers who a few decades later founded a new dynasty, with no ties to the Eighteenth Dynasty, discredited Akhenaten and his immediate successors (Neferneferuaten, Smenkhara, Tutankhamen and Ay), calling the same Akhenaten “the enemy of Akhetaten”. Because of this damnatio memoriae, Akhenaten was completely forgotten until the discovery, in the nineteenth century, of the archaeological site of Akhetaten (Horizon of Aton), the new capital that he founded and dedicated to the cult of Aton, near the current Amarna. The excavations began by the English archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1891, and ended in 1937, gave rise to a great interest in this enigmatic pharaoh. A mummy discovered in 1907 by Edward Ayrton in the tomb KV55 of the Valley of the Kings could be his, recent DNA analysis have determined that the man discovered in KV55 was the father of King Tutankhamen, but the identification of these remains with Akhenaten is much debated.

Modern interest in Akhenaten and his great royal bride Nefertiti stems in part from his connection to Tutankhamun (although the young pharaoh”s mother was not Nefertiti, but an unknown woman whom Egyptologists have dubbed The Younger Lady), as well as the artistic current he fostered and his revolutionary religious ideas.

First part of reign: Amenhotep IV

The future Akhenaten was a younger son of Amenophis III and the great royal bride Tiy. Their eldest son, Crown Prince Thutmose, the designated successor of Amenophis III, died relatively young under completely unknown circumstances, in the third decade of his father”s reign: it was thus that Prince Amenophis unexpectedly became Crown Prince.

There is a debate about the possible succession of Amenhotep IV at the death of his father, opposed to the theory of a co-regency between Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (which lasted even 12 years according to some Egyptologists). Current studies, including those of Eric Cline, Nicholas Reeves, Peter Dorman and other scholars, are strongly opposed to the hypothesis of a long co-regency between the father and son and opt for a short period of shared reign (1 or 2 years) or for no co-regency. Other studies, published by Donald Redford, William Murnane, Alan Gardiner, and most recently Lawrence Berman in 1998, rule out co-regency altogether. There is no definitive evidence of co-regency between Amenhotep III and his son Amenhotep IV. A letter from the archives of the palace of Amarna, dated in year 2 (instead of year 12) of the reign of Amenoph IV, from the Mithannic king Tushratta, contains expressions of regret that Amenoph IV would not have kept the promises of Amenoph III to forward to Tushratta certain golden statues agreed upon as dowry at the time of the marriage between the old pharaoh and the Mithannic princess Tadukhipa (Amarna Letters, EA 27). This correspondence implies that, when there was a co-regency between the father and son, this would not have lasted more than a year (since the aforementioned letter implies the death of Amenophis III within the year 2 of Akhenaten).

On the third pillar of Amenophis III at the Temple Complex of Karnak, a relief (damaged for the damnatio memoriae that affected Akhenaten and other proponents of the cult of Aton) shows Amenophis III and his son, the future Akhenaten, on a sacred boat. The great pharaoh would be presenting his son to Amun. The inscription below reads:

In February 2014, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced what has been called definitive proof that Akhenaten would share power with Amenhotep III for at least eight years, based on findings in the tomb of the vizier Amenhotep-Huy. The tomb in question is being studied by an international team led by the Instituto de Estudios del Antiguo Egipto de Madrid and Dr. Martin Valentin. The evidence consists of cartouches, both of Amenophis III and Akhenaten, engraved next to each other; however, this could only mean that Amenophis III had already designated, before his death, Prince Amenophis as his successor. There are no other objects or inscriptions that name simultaneously father and son assigning to each the same royal titles. The Egyptologist and epigraphist Peter F. Dorman has rejected any hypothesis of co-regency between the two pharaohs, based on observations of the tomb of Kheruef.

Amenophis IV was crowned at Thebes, where he inaugurated a series of architectural projects. He had the southern entrance of the enclosure of the Temple of Amon-Ra decorated with scenes of worship of the solar god Ra-Horakhty (fusion of the sun-god Ra and Horus). Also decreed the construction of a temple to Aton in the eastern area of Karnak; this Temple of Amenophis IV was called Gempaaton (“Aton has been found”). The Gempaaton consisted of a series of buildings, including a palace and a structure called Hwt Benben (“Palace of the Benben Stone”), dedicated to Queen Nefertiti. Other temples built for Aton, at Karnak, in those years were the Rud-menu and the Teni-menu, which may have been built at the Ninth Pylon. In his very first years of reign, Amenophis IV did not suppress the cult of Amun, and the First Prophet of Amun was still active during the 4th year of his reign. In the inscription that accompanies his figure in the act of worshiping Amon-Ra, in the sandstone quarries of Gebel Silsila, the young king defines himself, unusually:

Amenophis IV appears with this name in the tombs of some aristocrats of Thebes: Kheruef (TT192), Ramose (TT55) and Parennefer (TT188). In the tomb of the vizier Ramose, Amenophis IV appears on the western wall according to the stylistic features of traditional art, seated on a throne with Ramose in his presence. On the opposite wall, Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti appear at the window of the apparitions with Aton painted in the form of a solar disk. In the tomb of the nobleman Parennefer, Amenophis IV and Nefertiti appear enthroned with the sun disc over their heads. Among the last documents discovered about Amenhotep IV with this name are copies of two letters from the official Apy (discovered at Gurob, they are dated to the 5th year of Amenhotep IV”s reign, 3rd month of Peret, 19th day.

Change of name: from Amenophis IV to Akhenaten

After 5 years, 8 months and 13 days of reign, the pharaoh arrived at the site of the new city of Akhetaten (the current Amarna). A month earlier, Amenophis IV had officially changed his name to Akhenaten. The king changed most of his five traditional names; the only one he kept unchanged was his praenomen, or throne name, Neferkheperura.


When still called Amenophis IV, that is at the beginning of his reign, Akhenaten married Nefertiti. Thanks to the inscriptions, we have news of six daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Recent DNA analysis have revealed that Akhenaten took as wife also one of his biological sisters (the so-called Younger Lady) with whom he generated the prince Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamen). The parents of Smenkhara, Akhenaten”s successor, are not known: have been assumed Akhenaten and an unknown bride. A secondary bride of Akhenaten, called Kiya, is also known thanks to the inscriptions; some have speculated that Kiya would have reached a position of great importance at the court of Akhenaten for having generated Smenkhara, Tutankhamen or both.

The sons of Akhenaten (sure or assumed), with the probable year of birth, were:

The brides of Akhenaten known with certainty:

Some have thought that Akhenaten may have joined some of his daughters (it is, however, a theory much debated and lacking in archaeological evidence. It is unclear whether, imitating Amenhotep III, Akhenaten has elevated at least one daughter to the rank of great royal bride. However, this would not imply a sexual relationship; that of great royal wife was primarily an honorific position, necessary to hold a key position at court and ensure the worship of certain goddesses.

The religious revolution

Amon, creator and self-created was a god of utmost importance for much of Egyptian history. During the XI dynasty (2160 BC – 1944 BC) rose to the role of patron of Thebes. After the rebellion of the Theban princes against the hyksos and with the reign of Ahmose I (1539 BC-1514 BC), Amun assumed a national importance, expressed by its fusion with the sun-god Ra in the figure of Amon-Ra. During the New Kingdom, Amon was the de facto head of the Egyptian pantheon. When the army of the founder of the New Kingdom expelled the hyksos rulers from Egypt, the city of origin of the victorious pharaoh, Thebes, became the most important city in the country, the capital of the new dynasty. Thus Amun, patron of the new capital, became the national deity. The pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty, perhaps the most glorious of Egyptian history, attributed all their success to the protection and intervention of Amun and spent a large part of their wealth and spoils of war in the building of temples dedicated to Amun, which gave an unparalleled prestige. His role as protector of kingship entailed enormous power for his main temple, located in Karnak, which today is the largest and richest archaeological site in Egypt, over the centuries received gifts of land and other properties, to the point of becoming almost a state within the state and also influence the choices on the succession to the throne. The gigantic size of this Great Temple of Amun, whose only hypostyle hall measures 103 meters wide, with 134 columns of 24 meters high, express the formidable power of the clergy of Amun, able to compete with the authority of the pharaoh.

The god Aton, ie the solar disk, probably the result of theological speculation of the priests of Heliopolis, was intended as a sensitive manifestation of the god Ra-Horakhti (Ra who is Horus of the Two Horizons), in turn a fusion of Horus and the sun-god Ra. He made his appearance in the Middle Kingdom and the fortunes of his cult began during the reign of Thutmose IV, grandfather of Akhenaten, in the first decade of the fourteenth century BC. When he was still a prince, during a ash hunt in the plain of Giza,”s future Thutmose IV would have a vision of the deity of the Sphinx of Giza, the solar god Ra-Horemakhet (or Harmakis), as evidenced by the great Stele of Dream erected between the legs of the Sphinx itself, to restore it in deference to this experience of his youth. There is a scarab, dating from the reign of Thutmose IV, on which Aton is mentioned as a separate deity while leading the pharaoh to victory in battle:

Following his father”s mystical aspirations, Amenophis III demonstrated a fondness for this god; he was the first to establish a priestly college and a temple to Aton. As Egyptologist Christine El Mahdy has observed,

The same name (or “Aton shines”) had also a boat that Amenophis III gave to his queen Tiy, which some believe a strong promoter of this cult. Unlike other Egyptian deities, Aton was not represented in anthropomorphic form, but always as a solar disk whose rays were long arms ending with hands, some of which held the ankh, the symbol of life. The principles of the religion of Aton can be identified on the walls of the Tomb of Akhenaten: Aton was worshiped as the creator of all things and as the one who constantly took care of their creatures, his rays gave life to the only royal family, while, in turn, the people received life from Akhenaten and Nefertiti in exchange for loyalty to Aton. The night was considered a time to be feared while, when the solar disk, Aton, shone in the sky, human actions could aspire to success or perfection.

The center of the cult of Aton was the city of Akhetaten (Horizon of Aton), founded as the capital by Akhenaten around his 5th year of reign on the eastern bank of the Nile, 402 kilometers north of the old capital Thebes (Luxor). Other places of worship were Heliopolis (fulcrum of the cult of Ra) and the same Thebes. To delimit the perimeter of the city he erected 15 boundary stones, with which he declared the belonging of that territory to Aton. Very different from all other Egyptian temples, the Great Temple of Aton was, for the most part, in the open to allow access to the rays of the sun. No anthropomorphic representations or statues of Aton were allowed, although he was occasionally depicted as a hawk-headed man during the reign of Amenhotep III; however, these were replaced with depictions of the royal family intent on worshipping the solar disk and receiving the ankh (the life breath) from him. The priests of Aton had fewer duties than the traditional clergy, as the offerings (moreover, the temples of Aton did not collect taxes. Since there were no specific representations of Aton, the traditional daily ritual of purification, anointing and dressing of the statue of the deity was not practiced at Akhetaton; in return, the solar disk was honored with the offerings of the royal family, burning incense and singing hymns (such as the Great Hymn to Aton) accompanied by appropriate music.

Some recent debates have focused on the manner and extent to which Akhenaten forced his people to go along with religious reforms. Undoubtedly, as time passed, the pharaoh continued to revise the epithets of Aton and other terms of religious language to exclude more and more references to other gods; at one point, he ordered a large-scale erasure of the names of traditional deities, especially that of Amun, even when part of proper names such as that of the father. The word “mother”, which had the same sound of the name of the goddess Mut, wife of Amon, was deprived of the hieroglyph of the vulture necessary to its writing, because the vulture was a symbol of Mut herself and of the goddess Nekhbet; the name of the god Ra-Horakhti was deprived of the hieroglyph of the hawk, which made it particularly difficult to read. The god Ra, the sun par excellence, did not lose his continuous presence. Some courtiers changed their names to remove any reference to the gods, following the example of Akhenaten, who with this name replaced his original name Amenofi (Amenhotep, ie “Amon is Happy”). The latter was not, however, it seems, a compulsory operation or extended to the entire population, since in Amarna have been identified characters with names such as Ahmose (which means “Born of Iah”, god of the moon), owner of the tomb No. 3, or Thutmose (“Born of Thot”), chief sculptor who made many portraits of the royal family, including the famous bust of Nefertiti. An unexpected number of amulets in faience discovered at Amarna also shows that the inhabitants of Akhetaten wore freely talismans of the gods Bes and Tueret, the Eye of Horus and other amulets of the traditional deities; moreover, in a cache of jewelry, near the Royal Tombs (now at the Museum of Scotland), was found a ring related to the goddess Mut, wife of Amun. All this archaeological evidence shows that, although Akhenaten deprived the temples of traditional deities of their funding, his policies were tolerant, at least until a certain time, unspecified, towards the end of his reign. However, the damage done to Amun”s monuments, the prohibition of his worship, and the dispersal of his clergy bordered, according to some scholars, on religious persecution. As noted by the Egyptologist Franco Cimmino:

To the 12th or 13th year of Akhenaten”s reign could date the most dramatic gesture of his reign:

Akhenaten came to chisel the name of his own father Amenhotep III, bearing the name of Amon (Amenhotep): this is the case of the inscription on an elegant statue of the goddess Nephthys in diorite preserved in the Louvre Museum. With his revolutionary henotheism, Akhenaten no longer places the sovereign as a representation of the god; the pharaoh is now “useful to God, who is useful to him” as evidenced by a memorial stele in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak where it is written: “God has made the victories of my majesty to be greater than any other king. My Majesty has ordained that His altar be furnished with every good thing.”. The eschatology that replaces that of Osiris, provided that the souls of the dead, with the rising of the sun, came out in the guise of birds to live again all day long in a world parallel to the material one. In some hymns found in the tomb of Ay is manifested the imperial universalism to which, according to some interpretations, aimed Akhenaten, who hoped the spread of a universal religion with the center of the god of all men.

The interpretation of Akhenaten as a religious revolutionary has produced much speculation, from specialists” assumptions to fringe or non-academic theories. Although it is particularly popular opinion that Akhenaten would have been one of the first monotheists in history, it is more correct to say that Akhenaten practiced henotheism (or monolatry) since it does not appear that he has ever denied the existence of other deities other than Aton. In 1995, commenting on this complex issue, Cimmino noted:

The absolutist connotations of the theological elaboration of Akhenaten seem to have distant ancestry in a current, within the Egyptian thought, from approximately monotheistic aspects: texts dating back even to the most ancient periods of Egyptian history name “god”. It is also true that every local deity, or locally very worshipped, was conceived and defined, during liturgical actions, as primordial, original and prior to all created things, superior to all other gods; many inscriptions, tombs and temples, mention “god” in the singular, in apparently monotheistic expressions, only to add the names of other gods: it is the case, for example, of a hymn to Isis in the Temple of Dendera:

Aton was conceptually similar to other gods (had in fact a peaceful location in the Egyptian pantheon long before Akhenaten), but unique in essence and collective in prerogatives and attributes; his cult would have attracted rancor and criticism only from the insistence of Akhenaten in reaffirming its uniqueness, much more than this uniqueness was not already normally attributed, depending on the places, to Ra, Ptah or Amon himself.

Akhenaten did not incorporate all the traditional deities in the single entity of Aton (instead, included in Aton a synthesis of the prerogatives of the other solar deities, leaving out completely the myths, attributes, physical images. It is likely that this simplification into an intangible, difficult to understand, and almost aniconic entity contributed to the final downfall of the cult of Aton. The link between Aton and Ra, the sun god since the predynastic period, deserves special mention: in fact, it seems that Akhenaten has not fully succeeded in emancipating Aton from the pervasive presence of Ra in theology, and in the Papyrus Bulaq 17, dating from the reign of Amenophis II, great-grandfather of Akhenaten, Ra is exalted in terms very similar to those of the Great Hymn to Aton. In the religious conception of Akhenaten the gods Shu and Tefnut retained a special role: Akhenaten stated that Shu resided in the solar disk, finding place in his new doctrine for this god and his companion Tefnut as aspects of the god of light and icons of the royal couple. In some statues dating from the beginning of their reign, Akhenaten and his great royal bride Nefertiti appear in the guise of Shu and Tefnut. Apparently, Akhenaten was reluctant to worship deities other than Aton, also expecting that the people did not worship Aton but, “through an intermediary”, the pharaoh himself as the only mediator between men and the god.

Artistic Reform

The religious revolution was also accompanied by a gradual (this artistic reform is called “style of Amarna”, and marked a very interesting parenthesis within the multi-millennial Egyptian art. It went from the idealized style, severe and hieratic monuments to a curious and pitiless naturalism, not free from flashes of tenderness (as noted, for example, in the stele depicting Nefertiti with her daughters children). Before the reform of Akhenaten, Egyptian art was based on traditional canons; the representations in reliefs and wall paintings had the following characteristics:

With Akhenaten abandoned the traditional canon of representation of the human body, inspired by a new “grid” in which the figures occupy more units, especially in height, this change remained with his immediate successors. In the images, in general, a greater naturalism was imprinted until reaching merciless consequences. Having completely abandoned the idealized image, devoid of physical defects, they proceeded in the opposite direction, emphasizing even to an extreme degree the defects; the head exaggeratedly elongated in the back, almond-shaped eyes, swollen lips, prominent jaws, long and stylized necks, protruding and sagging bellies with silhouettes so rounded as to make it difficult to identify the sex of the character.

This last feature suggested to some scholars in the 19th century that such reliefs and sculptures represented symptoms of a malformation of the ruler, which would have caused him to develop a body with feminine features, with a wide pelvis and thin limbs, a theory that in the 20th century focused on a possible Marfan syndrome of the ruler (see the section Speculative theories, subtitle Possible diseases). Today, historians and archaeologists estimate the deformed images of the king as mere artistic representations, since there is insufficient evidence to determine a chronic disease. Moreover, these deformations involve all people, not only Akhenaten and his family members, and even objects: the ribbons on the back of the crown take an elongated and tapered shape, just like the fingers and toes.

With the discovery of Tutankhamun”s tomb in 1922, it was observed that the skull of the adolescent pharaoh”s mummy is indeed elongated (although not drastically so) as in the figurations of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters. Consequently, it has also been hypothesized that this type of artistic creation reflected attributes shared by members of the royal family, with the intent of providing a unified image of royalty. The study of the probable skeleton of Akhenaten has revealed a perfectly developed body and masculine features. The king was probably represented with androgynous traits as a deity, then associated with the creator myth and, consequently, neither man nor woman himself. Among the innovations of Amarna”s art there was also a decisive change in the themes of the works. Once eliminated the traditional religious themes, since Aton was an abstract god, symbolized by the simple solar disk and never embodied in a human or animal figure, were widespread scenes of family life of the royal couple with their daughters, in intimate and affectionate poses. The traditional iconography of the monarch intent on crushing and slaughtering his enemies was replaced by two images in the act of adoring Aton and presenting him with offerings together with his family or with only the great royal bride, in a much more intimate atmosphere. The chief sculptor Bek left news that Akhenaten in person asked the artists to express the reality they saw, so they were also depicted scenes taken from animal life, such as a hunting dog chasing a fleeing prey or a wild bull jumping in the middle of papyrus plants.

Of all the implications of the reign of Akhenaten, those artistic proved to be the most durable, surviving his death. His political concept, in fact, died with him. After the very short reigns of Neferneferuaton and Smenkhara, the court returned to Thebes with Tutankhamen. As for his religious ideas, these also died with him. Only the artistic reforms survived him for some time, although attenuated and very far from the most eccentric outcomes, and traces of this style can be recognized in the artistic production under Tutankhamen, Ay and Horemheb. When, at the death of the latter, the 19th dynasty took power, the return to orthodox traditional art was brought to completion.

Domestic policy

According to some scholars Amenophis IV would have reigned as co-regent with his father for some years, but this interpretation of the data is challenged by others, including Gardiner, on the basis of some letters that are part of diplomatic correspondence (the letters of Amarna) and also on the little credible situation that would be created: two kings with two different capitals.

The ruler chose as advisors his mother Tiye, Queen Nefertiti and the priest Ay, husband of his ruler. In the second and third year of his reign, he decided to celebrate a great jubilee and began the construction of at least eight structures in masonry at Karnak, where, initially, Amenhotep IV reigned; the most articulated structure was the temple to Aton called Gen-pa-Aton (“the Disk of the Sun is found”), on whose walls appeared engraved scenes of the celebration of the jubilee and depictions of Queen Nefertiti with her daughters in the act of making offerings to the Sun (a second temple was called “Exalted are forever the monuments of the Disk of the Sun” and included many depictions of domestic life in the palace; a third temple was called “Robust are forever the monuments of the Disk of the Sun”, whose reliefs described offerings to the Sun, processions and scenes of the palace with servants.

Foreign Policy

During the reign of Akhenaten, as that of his father, Egypt was not able to oppose the rise of the Hittites losing, therefore, the control of a series of vassal states of Asia Minor which represented a source of wealth for the royal coffers. Part of the diplomatic correspondence found in the ruins of the new capital (the Letters of Amarna) is precisely composed of requests for help from sovereigns of the Palestinian area where bands of nomadic marauders Hapiru exercised raids and disorders.

Despite the requests for help from the allies, such as those sent by Tushratta king of Mitanni, at least from what is reported in the sources at our disposal, there is no news of military campaigns in the Syrian-Palestinian area. This inertia was taken advantage of Šuppiluliuma I, Hittite king who, after having brought under his control the kingdom of Mitanni, began the expansion in the area of Egyptian influence. There is news of a military campaign in Nubia during the 12th year of his reign, to quell a revolt of the Akayta population.

Epidemic in Akhetaton and deaths in the royal family

During the Amarnian period there was a serious epidemic, probably of bubonic plague, poliomyelitis or some kind of influenza, which originated in Egypt and spread throughout the Levant claiming many lives, including Šuppiluliuma I, king of the Hittites. In case it was influenza, its origin would come from the proximity between humans, certain waterfowl and pigs; its pandemic spread could have been caused by the development of breeding systems and the proximity of animals with their excrement. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of this type of breeding seems to date back to the reign of Akhenaten, and the pandemic that affected the entire Middle East at that time may be the earliest known case of influenza. However, the precise nature of this epidemic remains largely unknown; Asia has also been hypothesized as its possible place of origin with an influenza that was triggered among humans.

A series of deaths within the Egyptian royal family had to hit hard Akhenaten and, in general, the whole kingdom. Among the probable victims of this epidemic, in a period of time ranging from the 12th to the 17th year of reign, include the queen mother Tiy (around the 13th year of reign) and the very young princesses Setepenra and Neferneferura, but it is possible that also died the great royal wife Nefertiti (after the 16th year of reign) and the second-born Maketaton (more likely died in childbirth around the 12th year of reign). In addition, the virulence of this disease may have been one of the factors that led to the complete abandonment of Akhetaten during the reign of Tutankhamen, and also the reason why later generations believed that the traditional gods had turned against Akhenaten. The royal tombs of Akhetaten are the greatest source of information on the chain of deaths that marked the final phase of the reign of Akhenaten. They consist of a sequence of rooms arranged along an axis (several times modified and remained unfinished), an apartment also unfinished and intended for a queen (probably Nefertiti) and a series of three rooms intended to accommodate the remains of three princesses, it is known that around the 14th year of the reign of Akhenaten there was a change in the canonical name of Aton, and its presence in the tomb allows to ascribe with certainty to the period the burial, in the tomb in question, of three daughters of the pharaoh and their mother. The second daughter Maketaton, who at the time should not have more than ten years, was buried in the “Gamma Room” where there are scenes of mourning in front of his little body and the homage made to a statue of her (the examination of the remains of his sarcophagus has established that, at the time of death, Maketaton was little more than one meter high); overlapping scenes of condolences also appear, for the princesses Neferneferura and Setepenra, in the “Alpha Room”.

Also in the 14th year of the reign of Akhenaten dates back the burial of the queen mother Tiy in the left wing of the hypostyle hall that concludes the tomb complex; scenes of homage to his statue, on a wall and on a small portion of his sarcophagus, confirm the presence in that part of the tomb. At Thebes, precisely in the tomb KV22 of the Valley of the Kings, and not at Akhetaton, were found a gilded chapel and some funerary statues made by Akhenaten for his mother, to which would be linked also a fragment of canopic jar, in England since 1823, on which the name of Osiris is covered by that of Aton. All these clues lead to think that Tiy did not die at the court of his son, at Akhetaten, but that his entrails (the canopic jars) and his body (the sarcophagus) have been transported to the royal necropolis of the new capital after the reworking of the funeral inscriptions in harmony with the cult of Aton in force at the court of the pharaoh.

Zahi Hawass blamed all these deaths on the Black Death, based on signs of this disease discovered at the Amarna site. Arielle Kozloff, meanwhile, objected that an outbreak of polio might instead have led to one of bubonic plague. However, her argument that polio is not as virulent as other diseases was rejected because it ignores the evidence that diseases are virulent the longer they remain present in the human population, as has been observed for syphilis and tuberculosis.

In December 2012 it was announced the discovery of an inscription explicitly dated to the 16th year of Akhenaten”s reign, 3rd month of Akhet, 15th day (and which also mentions Queen Nefertiti, in life) in a limestone quarry in Deir el-Bersha, north of Amarna. The text refers to a building project at Akhetaten and allows to ascertain that Akhenaten and Nefertiti were still the royal couple a year before the death of the pharaoh. Some amphora seals bear the date of the 17th year of his reign, which was certainly the last. The misreading of two labels belonging to two jars in pieces, it was previously assumed that Nefertiti had survived the consort reigning independently with the name of “Neferneferuaton Ankheperura” or even, according to a theory considered rather fanciful, disguised as a man with the male name of “Smenkhara” to reign as the legitimate successor and carry out at all costs the religious revolution. At the Brooklyn Museum are the feet of a funerary statuette belonging to Nefertiti, as another fragment at the Louvre, the first finding, in the United States of America since 1933, certainly from the original funeral of the queen, indicates Nefertiti with the only title of great royal wife, an indication that this was to be his status when it was buried in the royal necropolis of Akhetaten, excluding a priori that it was the pharaoh-woman succeeded Akhenaten. At the time of the death of Nefertiti, the rooms of his tomb were certainly unfinished and there are no scenes on the walls, unlike his daughter Maketaten and his mother-in-law Tiy, scenes of condolences of the court, nor fragments of his sarcophagus, in addition, four members of the royal family already occupied the tomb and it was necessary to leave a space available for the pharaoh. It is therefore likely that the queen was temporarily buried elsewhere. It has been examined in this sense the tomb No. 28 of Akhetaten (not far from that of Akhenaten, the No. 26), with traces of the deposition of a polished granite sarcophagus, which, however, is unfinished and never sealed. Nefertiti was certainly buried in the capital of Akhenaten, as would prove the fragments of his grave goods discovered there, but the location of his tomb is unknown.

Death, burial and succession of Akhenaten

Chronologically, the last known appearance of Akhenaten and the Amarna royal family is in the tomb of the courtier Merira II, and is dated to the 2nd month of the 12th year of the pharaoh”s reign. After that, the sources become obscure and lacunose at least until the ascension to the throne of Tutankhamun (ca. 1323 BC). The circumstances of the death of Akhenaten are totally unknown: no document mentions or describes his death, and the time span that extends from the middle of his reign until Tutankhamen is one of the most enigmatic and obscure among those studied by Egyptology. Nevertheless, the granite sarcophagus, the coffin for the canopic jars, the funerary statuettes ushabti and a probable scene of mourning, very damaged, concerning the pharaoh are sure traces of the initial burial of Akhenaten within his royal necropolis.

His mummy was moved to Thebes after the court moved there permanently, during the reign of Tutankhamen; recent genetic tests have established that the skeleton found by Edward Ayrton in 1907 in the enigmatic tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings is that of the father of Tutankhamen and therefore, probably, it would be the remains of Akhenaten.

The tomb contained numerous objects belonging to the Amarna period, including a royal funerary mask that was deliberately destroyed. The sarcophagus was also desecrated and scarred, practically destroyed, but after the discovery it was restored and is on permanent display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The border of the lower part bears a prayer to Aton that was originally intended for a woman, but later changed to refer to a man (with grammatical errors that suggest the female gender of the original deceased). The style of this coffin and the language of its inscriptions can easily be traced back to the reign of Akhenaten. Several scholars have believed that the sarcophagus belonged variously to the queen-mother Tiy, the princess and queen Merytaton or even the secondary bride Kiya (the richness of the find, comparable in style, the second of the three sarcophagi of Tutankhamen, would prove the high status of Kiya at the court of Akhenaten). Another decisive fact to establish that this female sarcophagus was adapted at a later time for Akhenaten would be a bronze uraeus, bearing the name of Aton in its final form, fixed to the forehead of the mummy. Another clue to consider the tomb KV55 as the final burial of Akhenaten would be the presence of four magic bricks, placed in the ritually correct positions, bearing the cartouche of Akhenaten; in this regard, some archaeologists, including Alan Gardiner, concluded that those who took care of the arrangement of the tomb of KV55, faithful followers of Atenism, certainly believed to bury Akhenaten.

The young English Egyptologist John Pendlebury, shot by Nazi troops in 1941, discovered pieces of an alabaster canopic jar depicting Akhenaten, probably intended to contain the organs of the sovereign himself, an examination showed that the container was never used since they were absent residues of resinous substance and blackish observed in similar vessels. Commenting on this finding, as well as that of the royal sarcophagi of Amarna in fragments, Alan Gardiner wrote:

Although it is commonly accepted that Akhenaten died during his 17th year of reign, it is not clear whether Smenkhara has become co-regent one or two years before the death of Akhenaten or if he enjoyed, instead, an independent reign, even if short: if Smenkhara has survived Akhenaten and become sole ruler, his reign must not have exceeded the duration of one year. Successor of the latter was Neferneferuaten, a woman pharaoh who seems to have ruled Egypt for two years and one month. She was succeeded, probably, by Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamen), flanked, because of his tender age, by a council of regency led by Vizier Ay, brother-in-law of Amenophis III, uncle of Akhenaten and, in turn, future pharaoh. Tutankhamen has long been considered younger brother of Smenkhara and son of Akhenaten and, possibly, of the secondary bride Kiya (few Egyptologists have understood Tutankhamen as son of Smenkhara). In 2010, genetic tests on the mummies of the last representatives of the Eighteenth Dynasty, on Tutankhamen and on the man of the tomb KV55 have established that the latter was the son of Amenophis III and Tiy and father of Tutankhamen (as well as brother of the so-called Younger Lady, in turn turned out to be the mother of Tutankhamen): it is therefore extremely likely that these are the remains of Akhenaten. It has also been suggested that, after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti would have reigned with the name of Ankheperura Neferneferuaton; others have proposed to identify this mysterious female character with Merytaton. It is possible that the so-called Stele of Co-regency (UC 410), found in a tomb in Amarna, extremely damaged, shows the queen Nefertiti in the guise of co-regent, reigning simultaneously with Akhenaten; but this is not at all sure, because the cartouches were scraped and recycled to contain the names of Ankhesenpaaton and Neferneferuaton. During a 2011 symposium on Horemheb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the general chronology of the late 18th Dynasty was illustrated as follows:

With the death of Akhenaten, the cult he founded declined almost immediately. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamen (“Living Image of Amun”) in his 2nd or 3rd year of reign (ca. 13301329 BC) and returned to the traditional capital Thebes, abandoning Akhetaten, which quickly fell into disrepair and then be exploited as a quarry for building materials during the XIX dynasty. Already the two immediate successors of Tutankhamen, Ay and Horemheb (main supporter of the cancellation of Akhenaten and his heresy from history), began to dismantle the temples that Akhenaten had built, even those at Thebes, using the materials to build and decorate the temples of their commission. Starting from the reign of Horemheb (1319 BC-1292 BC. ), which had no family ties with his predecessors, was implemented the complete exclusion of Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten, Smenkhara, Tutankhamen and Ay from the royal lists and chronicles, attributing as a result all their years of reign, in addition to inscriptions and statues, so as to make it appear that his accession to the throne followed directly the reign of Amenophis III (considered the last king not yet in open struggle with the clergy of Amun), died about thirty years earlier, around 1350 BC. Akhenaten did not appear in any list of pharaohs compiled in later periods of Egyptian history until its rediscovery in the nineteenth century by archaeology.

The “Inscription of Mes”, a document dating back to the Ramesside period (thirteenth century BC) refers to Akhenaten calling him “the Enemy of Akhetaten”:

Since the rediscovery of his figure in the nineteenth century, with the curiosity born from the eccentricity of the increasing number of artistic representations found and with the discovery, between 1891 and 1937, the ancient Akhetaten near the current Amarna, Akhenaten, his ideas, his physical appearance and his family relationships have generated a long series of speculative theories, more or less founded or demonstrable, throughout the twentieth century. Not only Egyptologists, archaeologists, papyrologists and epigraphists, but also psychologists, theologians, physicians, art historians, sociologists and thinkers have formulated hypotheses on circumscribed aspects of the “anomalous” story of Akhenaten, such as its possible pathologies or implications on subsequent monotheism. Below is a historical overview of the main speculative theories concerning Akhenaten formulated in various fields from the early ”900 until the most recent research.

Akhenaten and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism

The idea that Akhenaten may have been a precursor or pioneer of monotheism that resulted in Judaism has been considered by various scholars. One of the first to take an interest in the subject was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Basing his arguments on the assumption that the Book of Exodus would deal with historical matters really happened, in his essay The Man Moses and the monotheistic religion Freud assumed that Moses had been a priest of Aton forced to leave Egypt with his followers after the death of Akhenaten, also wrote that the biblical Moses was able to bring to fruition the attempts of Akhenaten to establish a supposed monotheistic religion. Following the publication of this book, the misconception of a properly monotheistic Akhenaten entered the common imagination and academic research. Freud believed that there was a connection between Adonai (the biblical God), Aton and the Syrian name of the mythological Adonis, in a primordial linguistic unity (in this, followed an idea of the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall). Jan Assmann”s opinion is, however, that there would be no link between the roots of the names of Adonai and Aton. However, it is commonly accepted the identification of strong similarities between the Great Hymn to Aton, perhaps composed by Akhenaten himself, and Psalm 104 of the Bible, although both follow a tradition of hymnology widespread in the ancient Near East before and after Akhenaten.

Donald Redford concluded that, while Akhenaten defined himself as a son of the Solar Disk and acted as a mediator between the god and the world, for hundreds of years before him the pharaohs had claimed the same function and the same priestly role (each pharaoh was high priest of the Kingdom): the story of Akhenaten was distinguished by the emphasis placed on the relationship between the heavenly father and the royal son. Akhenaten referred to himself with terms such as “your son who came out of your loins”, “your son”, “the eternal son who came out of the Solar Disk” and “your only son who came out of your body”. The relationship between the father Aton and his son Akhenaten was so close that it was believed that only the pharaoh knew “the heart of his father” and that, consequently, Aton listened to the prayers of the king. As high priest, prophet, pharaoh and god on earth, Akhenaten placed himself in an absolutely central role within the new religious system: as the only one able to know Aton, he alone could have interpreted his will regarding humanity. The Canadian Egyptologist then concluded:

Possible diseases

Various diseases have been proposed. Observing his long neck and effeminate appearance, Cyril Aldred, building on previous positions of Grafton Elliot Smith and James Strachey, assumed that the pharaoh suffered from Fröhlich”s syndrome (adipose-genital dystrophy). Later, this disorder was ruled out as it implies the sterility of the affected person, while Akhenaten generated many offspring. This offspring is continuously depicted in statues and on stelae, reliefs, engravings, inscriptions and paintings: at least six daughters by Nefertiti, in addition to Tutankhamen by a secondary bride.

More recently, a diagnosis of homocystinuria has been proposed: the symptoms are similar to those of Marfan. As a recessive disease, it fits the family tree of Akhenaten: his parents, Amenophis III and Queen Tiy, were probably healthy, as well as the probable son Tutankhamen, who did not suffer from the above genetic disorders.

Egyptologist and papyrologist Dominic Montserrat, in his essay Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, wrote:

Montserrat and others have noted that physical features would be emblematic of certain religious symbolism. Since the god Aton was called “the mother and father of all mankind”, Akhenaten would have been depicted with markedly androgynous features in reference to the androgyny of the god Aton: this would have required “the symbolic union of all the attributes of the creator god in the physical body of the king himself” that would have “represented on earth the many life-giving functions of Aton”. Akhenaten defined himself as Unique Ra and may have used art to highlight its difference from other human beings. Such a distance from the classical idealized representations is an extraordinary feature of the reign of Akhenaten.

In 2012, Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, published research on Akhenaten”s premature death (which occurred around age 40) and the early deaths of other 18th Dynasty pharaohs (including Tutankhamun and Thutmose IV, Tutankhamun”s paternal grandfather). Ashrafian identified the cause, or concause, of these deaths in the epilepsy of the temporal lobe hereditary, which could also explain the strange appearance of Akhenaten and his visionary religious beliefs (in addition to the strong spirituality of his grandfather Thutmose IV, who claimed to have had a vision of the god of the Sphinx, Harmakis). Since there is still no way to diagnose this disease through genetic testing, Dr. Ashrafian”s remains a to to theory.

Another theory, unfounded, is that of Immanuel Velikovsky, who assumed an incestuous relationship between Akhenaten and his mother Tiy. Velikovsky also assumed that the pharaoh had swollen legs. Based on this, the Soviet sociologist identified Akhenaten with Oedipus, whose name, in Greek, means “swollen feet”, moving the story from the Egyptian Thebes to the Greek Thebes. Among his arguments, Velikovsky, erroneously, put the fact that Akhenaten would have erased the name of his father from the monuments, action transfigured in the patricide of Oedipus. The theory of a contempt of Akhenaten for his own father Amenophis III does not seem to have any foundation: Akhenaten provided, for him, the usual mummification and pompous funeral and traditional before starting the religious revolution. In addition, an autopsy and a genetic test in 2014 proved that his son Tutankhamen was the result of a relationship between brother and sister, not between mother and son.


Several stelae damaged or without inscriptions represent Akhenaten in the company of what appears to be a co-regent, with pharaoh”s crown, in familiar attitudes, if not intimate (sometimes naked). Since it is known that Smenkhara was a man, these images led to the theory that Akhenaten was homosexual; this possibility is considered unlikely and so commented by the Italian Egyptologist Franco Cimmino:

This theory declined when it was discovered that the co-regent was a woman, almost certainly wife of Akhenaten. In the seventies, the Egyptologist John Harris identified the figure next to Akhenaten with Nefertiti, arguing that the latter may have been appointed co-regent by her husband and perhaps even have succeeded him briefly as an independent ruler, after having changed his name in “Smenkhara”. Nicholas Reeves and others believe that Smenkhara and Neferneferuaton (Ankheperura Neferneferuaton), who reigned next to Akhenaten as co-regent for one or two years before the death of the latter, would have been the same person. On various monuments, the two appear sitting next to each other. In 1988, the Egyptologist James Peter Allen advanced the possibility of distinguishing Smenkhara from Neferneferuaton, pointing out that the name “Ankheperura” is detectable in different spellings depending on whether it was referred to Smenkhara or Neferneferuaton. When inscribed next to Neferneferuaten, the praenomen included an epithet referring to Akhenaten, for example “Desiderato da Uaenra” (“Uaenra” was the praenomen of Akhenaten). There are no records of “long” versions of this name (praenomen + epithet) in the presence of the nomen Smenkhara, as well as the “short” version has never been found next to the nomen “Neferneferuaton”.

In the adjacent image, the difference between the feminine and normal versions is minimal: the -t sound, either in the name or in the epithet (or both, as in cartouche nº94), which can be difficult to read, especially on small objects. According to Allen, without taking into account the female grammatical elements, all three of these names could refer to a Neferneferuaten king, as they include epithets that associate him with Akhenaten. In a 1994 publication, Allen speculated that the different spellings of the name in question could have referred to two different personalities rather than one:

Some time later, the French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde noted that several objects from the Tomb of Tutankhamen, originally inscribed for Neferneferuaton and bearing the epithet “desired by Akhenaten”, had originally the epithet Akhet-hen-hyes, which means “Useful to His spouse”, and that necessarily makes the personage who was awarded it female. Gabolde”s discovery was later confirmed by Allen. The use of epithets (as well as their absence) to identify the king within an inscription has become a common practice and cited by scholars in their works (although it is sometimes necessary to ignore an inscription or its detail to support a larger hypothesis). Although the debate over Smenkhara and Neferneferuaton continues, new interpretations of known archaeological evidence can be provided thanks to these latest discoveries.

From the coronation until the 5th year of the reign:

From the 5th year of his reign until his death:

Akhenaton is the protagonist of Agatha Christie”s drama Akhnaton, composed in 1937 but published only in May 1973 and never staged in its entirety (but in reductions and adaptations such as Akhnaton and Nefertiti in 1979. He is also a main character in the novel by Finnish writer Mika Waltari Sinuhe the Egyptian of 1945 (and the subsequent film adaptation of 1954, where he is played by actor Michael Wilding), as well as the novel La verità perduta by Italian Bruno Tacconi, of 1972. The Nobel Prize”s Egyptian writer Nagib Mahfuz has written a short historical novel entitled Akhenaten, the Heretic Pharaoh (first edition 1985).

Pharaoh Akhenaten was also the protagonist of a 2004 Marvel comic book titled Marvel: The End. In the comic, Akhenaten was abducted by a very powerful alien race that was the master of the Heart of the Universe, a power that allows them to do anything. After spending millennia acquiring power and skills, Akhenaten returns to Earth to resurrect the power of Egypt and create a new massive Empire. Akhenaten, however, will be stopped by the Defenders and Thanos, who will eventually succeed in his intent to possess the Heart of the Universe.

In 1983 the composer Philip Glass dedicated to Akhenaten an opera in three acts and an epilogue, Akhnaten, inspired by the controversial essay by Immanuel Velikovsky Oedipus and Akhnaten (1960) and with texts in the original language taken from the Book of the Dead and from a work attributed to the same pharaoh Akhenaten.



  1. Akhenaton
  2. Akhenaten
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