2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology; Historical figures

Preceded by:
Amenhotep III
Pharaoh of Egypt
18th Dynasty
Succeeded by:
Akhenaten / Amenhotep IV
Amenophis IV
A portrait of Akhenaten or Smenkhkare in the naturalistic style of the late-Amarna period, associated with the sculptor Thutmose
Reign 1352 BC – 1336 BC or
1351– 1334 BC
ra nfr xpr Z3 ra

Beautiful are the forms of Re, the one of Re
i t
G25 x

He who is beneficial to the Aten
(after Year 4 of his reign)
M17 Y5
X1 Q3
R8 S38 O28

Horus name Meryaten
Nebty name Wernesytemakhetaten
Golden Horus Wetjesrenenaten
Consort(s) Nefertiti, Kiya
Meritaten, Ankhesenpaaten,
Issues Meritaten, Meketaten,
Neferneferuaten Tasherit,
Neferneferure, Setepenre, Tutankhamun
Father Amenhotep III
Mother Tiye
Died 1336 BC or 1334 BC
Burial Royal Tomb of Akhenaten

Akhenaten (original pronunciation ʔxnʔtn, vowels unknown; modern pronunciation axɛnatɛn), known as Amenhotep IV at the start of his reign, was a Pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, especially notable for single-handedly restructuring the Egyptian religion to monotheisticly worship the Aten. He was born to Amenhotep III and his Chief Queen Tiye and was his father's younger son. Akhenaten was not originally designated as the successor to the throne until the untimely death of his older brother, Tuthmose. Amenhotep IV succeeded his father after Amenhotep III's death at the end of his 38-year reign, possibly after a coregency lasting between either 1 to 2 or 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 Altes Museum of Berlin.

Atenist revolution

Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the Aten
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. The early stage of Atenism appears to be a kind of henotheism familiar in Egyptian religion, but the later form suggests a proto-monotheism. 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. Akhenaten simplified this syncretism by proclaiming the visible sun itself to be the sole deity, thus introducing a type of 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; this interpretation is hampered by the fact that only the Royal family was able to interact with and perform rituals pertaining to the Aten. Others interpret it as a pragmatic political move designed to further centralise power by crushing the independent authority of the traditional Amun priesthood who controlled Egypt's wealth and produce. However, Akhenaten did not formally break with the Amun priests and still used his old Amun inspired royal name--Amunhotep IV--until Fourth Year when the latter defied his authority, according to the text on one of his Amarna border stela.

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 marked 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 centralized Egyptian religious practices in Akhetaten, though construction of the city seems to have continued for several more years. In honour 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 had been the previous custom. Akhenaten is also believed to have composed the Great Hymn to the Aten.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children

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 ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt, and 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", stating 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.

Depictions of the Pharaoh and his family

Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo

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. It has also been suggested that he suffered from Marfan's syndrome.

Until Akhenaten's mummy is located and identified, proposals of actual physical abnormalities are likely to remain speculative. However, it must be kept in mind that there is no good evidence that we are necessarily dealing with a literal representation of Akhenaten's physical form, or that of his wife or children. As pharaoh, Akhenaten had complete control over how he, his family, and his government in general was represented in art. Rather than a literal representation of his physical appearance, it must be kept in mind that what we see as an odd physical abnormality was the way that Akhenaten wanted to be artistically portrayed.

Following Akenaten's death, a peaceful but comprehensive political, religious and artistic reformation returned Egyptian life to the norms it had followed previously during his father's reign. Much of the art and building infrastructure that was created during Akhenaten's reign was defaced or destroyed in the period immediately following his death. Stone building blocks from his construction projects were later used as foundation stones for subsequent rulers temples and tombs.

Problems of the reign

Crucial evidence about the later stages of Akhenaten's reign has been provided by the discovery of the Amarna Letters, a cache of diplomatic correspondence discovered in modern times at el-Amarna, the modern designation of the Akhetaten site. This correspondence comprises a priceless collection of incoming messages on clay tablets, sent to Akhetaten 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, Tushratta. 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. Evidence suggests that the troubles on the northern frontier led to difficulties in Canaan, particularly in a struggle for power between Labaya of Shechem and Abdi-Kheba of Jerusalem, requiring the Pharaoh to intervene in the area by dispatching Medjay troops northwards. There is some evidence that the spread of plague throughout the Middle East at this time was precipitated by this action.

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 prevalence of disease may help explain the rapidity with which the site of Akhetaten was subsequently abandoned. It may also explain why 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 and possibly one son. This is a list with suggested years of birth:

  • Meritaten – year 1.
  • Meketaten – year 3.
  • Ankhesenpaaten, later Queen of Tutankhamun – year 4.
  • Neferneferuaten Tasherit – year 8.
  • Neferneferure – year 9.
  • Setepenre – year 9.
  • Tutankhaten–year 11

His known consorts were:

  • Nefertiti, his Great Royal Wife early in his reign.
  • Kiya, a lesser Royal Wife.
  • Meritaten, recorded as his Great Royal Wife late in his reign.
  • Ankhesenpaaten, his third daughter, and who is thought to have borne a daughter, Ankhesenpaaten-ta-sherit, to her own father. After his death, Ankhesenpaaten married Akhenaten's successor Tutankhamun.

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.
  • Tiye, 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.


Akhenaten planned to relocate Egyptian burials on the East side of the Nile (sunrise) rather than on the West side (sunset), in the Royal Wadi in Akhetaten. His body was probably removed after the court returned to Thebes, 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 coregency (lasting as long as 12 years according to some Egyptologists). Current literature by Eric Cline, Nicholas Reeves, Peter Dorman and other scholars comes out strongly 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.

It has also been suggested that after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti reigned with the name of Neferneferuaten .

With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded gradually fell out of favour. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in Year 2 of his reign { 1332 BC) and abandoned the city of Akhetaten, which eventually fell into ruin. His successors Ay and Horemheb disassembled temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, using them as a source of easily available building materials and decorations for their own temples.

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 archaeologists.

In the arts

  • Spelled 'Akenhaten', he appears as a major character in the first of a trilogy of historical novels by P.C. Doherty, "An Evil Spirit out of the West".
  • The song 'Cast Down the Heretic' by the death metal band Nile on the album Annihilation of the Wicked.
  • The song 'Son Of The Sun' by swedish Symphonic Metal band Therion on the album Sirius B.
  • Thomas Mann, in his fictional biblical tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers (1933-1943), makes Akhenaten the "dreaming pharaoh" of Joseph's story.
  • Savitri Devi: play Akhnaton: A Play (Philosophical Publishing House [London], 1948)
  • Mika Waltari: historical novel The Egyptian, first published in Finnish (Sinuhe egyptiläinen) in 1945, translated by Naomi Walford ( G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949, ISBN 0-399-10234-5; Chicago Review Press, 2002, paperback, ISBN 1-55652-441-2)
  • The Egyptian, motion picture (1954, directed by Michael Curtiz, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation), based on the novel by Mika Waltari.
  • Gwendolyn MacEwen: historical novel King of Egypt, King of Dreams (1971, ISBN 1-894663-60-8)
  • Agatha Christie: play, Akhnaton: A Play in Three Acts ( Dodd, Mead [New York], 1973, ISBN 0-396-06822-7; Collins [London], 1973, ISBN 0-00-211038-5)
  • Nefertiti: The Musical is a stage musical based on the Amarna period in the life of Akhenaten. Book by Christopher Gore and Rick Gore, Music by David Spangler.
  • Philip Glass: opera, Akhnaten: An Opera in Three Acts (1983; CBS Records, 1987)
  • Naguib Mahfouz, novel, Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985)العائش فى الحقيقة
  • Allen Drury, historical novels, A God Against the Gods (Doubleday, 1976) and Return to Thebes (Doubleday, 1976)
  • Andree Chedid, novel, " Akhenaten and Nefertiti's dream"
  • Wolfgang Hohlbein, German novel, Die Prophezeihung (The Prophecy), in which Echnaton is killed by Ay and curses him into eternal life until a prophecy is fulfilled.
  • Moyra Caldecott: novel Akhenaten: Son of the Sun (1989; eBook, 2000, ISBN 1-899142-86-X; 2003, ISBN 1-899142-25-8)
  • Judith Tarr, historical fantasy, Pillar of Fire (1995)
  • Carol Thurston, fiction, The Eye of Horus (William Morrow & Co., 2000), posits the "Akhenaten was Moses" theory.
  • Moyra Caldecott: novel The Ghost of Akhenaten (eBook, 2001, ISBN 1-899142-89-4; 2003, ISBN 1-84319-024-9)
  • Lynda Robinson, historical mystery, Drinker of Blood (2001, ISBN 0-446-67751-5)
  • Edgar P. Jacobs: comic book, Blake et Mortimer: La Mystère de la Grande Pyramide vol. 1+2 (1950), adventure story using the mystery of Akhenaten as motor
  • The Akhenaten Adventure P.B. Kerr: fiction Akhenaten is said to be the holder of 70 lost Djinn
  • Dorothy Porter, verse novel, Akhenaten (1991)

Speculative theories

Akhenaten's status as a religious revolutionary has led to much speculation, ranging from the mainstream to New Age esotericism. He has been called "the first individual in history", as well as the first monotheist, first scientist, and first romantic. As early as 1899 Flinders Petrie gushingly declared that,

If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe.

H. R. Hall even claimed that the pharaoh was the "first example of the scientific mind".

The idea of Akhenaten as the pioneer of a monotheistic religion that later became Judaism was promoted by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in his book Moses and Monotheism and thereby entered popular consciousness. Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest forced to leave Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten's death.

In vivid contrast, the pro-Nazi Aryanist writer Savitri Devi insisted in her book The Lightning and the Sun that Akenaten's god bore no resemblance to,

the jealous tribal god Jehovah, created in the image of the Jews, — but the equivalent of the immanent, impersonal Tat — That — of the Chandogya Upanishad, no less than of das Gott (as opposed to “der Gott”) of the ancient Germans, and the one conception of Divinity that modern science, far from disproving, on the contrary, suggests.

More recently, Ahmed Osman has claimed that that Moses and Akhenaten were the same individual. While these speculative views have gained acceptance in some quarters (e.g. Laurence Gardner, Bloodline of the Holy Grail, Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark; Gary Greenberg, The Moses Mystery: The African Origins of the Jewish People), 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 two of the three principal Judaic terms for God, Yahweh and Elohim, have no connection to Aten . Additionally, Akhenaten appears in history almost two-centuries before the first archaeological and written evidence for Judaism and Israelite culture is found in the Levant. Furthermore abundant visual imagery was central to Atenism, which celebrated the natural world, while such imagery is not a feature of Israelite culture. Osman also claimed that Akhenaten's maternal grandfather Yuya was the same person as the Biblical Joseph. Egyptologists reject this view because Yuya had strong connections to the city of Akhmin in Upper Egypt, which is indicated in his title "Overseer of the Cattle of Min at Akhmin. Hence, he most likely belonged to the regional nobility of Akhmim. This makes it very unlikely that he was an Israelite, as most Asiatic settlers tended to cloister around the Nile delta region of Lower Egypt . Some Egyptologists, however, give him a Mitannian origin. It is widely accepted that there are strong similarities between Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Aten and the Biblical Psalm 104, though whether this implies a direct influence or a common literary convention remains in dispute.

Another claim was made by Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky argued that Moses was neither Akhenaten, nor one of his followers. Instead, Velikovsky identifies Akhenaten as the history behind Oedipus and moved the setting from the Greek Thebes to the Egyptian Thebes. His theory also includes that Akhenaten had an incestous relationship with his mother, Tiy. Velikovsky also posited that Akhenaten had elephantiasis, producing enlarged legs – Oedipus being Greek for "swollen feet." As part of his argument, Velikovsky uses the fact that Akhenaten viciously carried out a campaign to erase the name of his father, which he argues could have developed into Oedipus killing his father.

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