Akhenaten - Ancient Egypt's Prodigal Son?

The author of this 4000-year-old hymn to one God has been portrayed as a mad idealist who turned the civilisation of the pharaohs upside down. John Ray discusses the man and his myth.

At some point around 1375 BC (Egyptian chronology is not yet an exact science) a flotilla made its way along the Nile. It contained the migrating royal court, or at least the royal family, and the purpose of the journey was to found a new capital. This sort of thing was not unknown in the ancient Near East, but the sequel to this particular voyage was unprecedented. A series of boundary stelae marks the spot to this day, a semi-circular bay in the cliffs of the eastern desert, some 200 miles south of modern Cairo. Here, according to the inscriptions, the new city would stand, with its palaces and administrative buildings, its complexes of temples, and its tombs for the king and his consort. There is no doubt that we are in ancient Egypt, with its preoccupation with death and the gods. The king informs us in these texts that he would never extend the boundaries of his new capital, although since the territory claimed covered a nine-mile swathe across the entire Nile Valley, this was hardly a concession, but the most interesting fact in the narrative is near the beginning: the site had been revealed to the king by his father.

By this term was not meant the pharaoh's earthly father, Amenhotep III, who had ruled imperial Egypt for thirty-eight years, but a heavenly progenitor, the disk or globe of the sun, generally known to us by its Egyptian name, the Aten. Indeed, the new capital was founded on a desert site which had never belonged to any previous god; the concept of divine territory was firmly held in the ancient world. Here the king, who had changed his name from that of his father to Akhenaten, 'the pious one [or possibly the luminous emanation] of the Aten', would be free to build his city, and to practise his new religion.

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