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Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

  1. Aidan Dodson

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah15023

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Dodson, A. 2012. Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

The second son of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye of the 18th Egyptian Dynasty succeeded his father initially under the name of Neferkheperure-waenre Amenhotep (IV)-netjerheqawaset. There has been considerable debate as to whether the succession occurred on Amenhotep III's death, or whether the two kings ruled as co-regents for up to a dozen years. The balance of evidence currently seems to support the former option, although the younger Amenhotep may have been proclaimed heir in Year 30, on the death of his elder brother, Thutmose (Dodson 2009b; Dorman 2009).

Amenhotep IV seems to have married Nefertiti shortly after his accession, and had Meryetaten, the first of their six daughters, not long afterwards. These girls - Meryetaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuatentasherit, Neferneferure, and Setepenre-are depicted on many contemporary monuments, but there is only one potential mention of a son. This is on one of a pair of blocks found at Hermopolis Magna (Ashmunein) but originally from Amarna; this names the prince, Tutankhuaten, who ultimately became king as Tutankhaten/amun (see Tutankhamun). The other block gave the name and titles of one of Akhenaten's daughters.

During his first years, the king was depicted in the traditional manner, but by his Year 4 he and his entourage were being shown in a distorted revolutionary style that is expressly stated in a text of his chief sculptor, Bak, to have been directed by the king. This was accompanied by a change of the iconography of the sun-god Aten (see Aten/Aton)from a conventional anthropomorphic representation to an abstract one comprising a sun-disk, from which descended rays terminated in hands, the latter holding the sign of “life” to the nostrils of the royal family. This transition was accompanied by a move to make the Aten supreme, if not yet sole, god-the first known experiment in Monotheism. Whether this was wholly a theological shift or had a political aspect of reducing the power of the priesthoods of the traditional pantheon-especially that of Amun-remains a matter for scholarly debate. At some point the names and images of a number of deities, especially those connected with Amun, were destroyed on a wide variety of monuments. This iconoclasm has been variously dated to the earlier part of the reign and to its very end, once again with a lack of scholarly unanimity, something that bedevils assessment of the whole reign and its aftermath.

The earliest monument of this new style was a large temple to the Aten that was built to the east of the main temple complex at Karnak.It was apparently built in a hurry, using much smaller blocks than those usually used in Egyptian temple-building. Known as talatat, many have been found reused in the filling of later buildings at Karnak. Reliefs in this temple commemorate at least one jubilee celebrated in the very earliest years of the reign (Gohary 1990). It remains unclear whether this was a jubilee of the king, of the king and the Aten, or simply of the Aten itself.

Figure 1.

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Figure 1. Carving from Amarna, depicting Amenhotep IV and his family presenting offerings to Aten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.© Photo Scala, Florence.

Not long after the adoption of the newartistic style, the king changed his personal name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten, meaning something like “Effective Spirit of the Aten” -i.e., the god's representative on Earth. Furthermore, a new city was founded at Amarna, roughly half way between the old capitals of Memphis and Thebes, both as a dedicated cult-center for the Aten and as a new capital city for Egypt. The decision to build the city is recorded on the boundary stelae of the site, which date it to Year 4 (Murnane and van Siclen 1993). Apart from Amarna and Thebes, traces of buildings of Akhenaten's reign have been found at various sites around Egypt.

Somewhere around Year 9, there was a fundamental change in the full name of the Aten, which presumably reflected some kind of further theological reform. At some point during the next four years, a second wife of Akhenaten, Kiya, was disgraced; nothing is known of the reasons for this, nor the fate of her daughter. There is no substantive evidence for the frequent suggestion that Kiya was the mother of Tutankhuaten.

A major international festival was held in Year 12, with gifts to the king being brought by representatives from much of the known world. Its significance is uncertain, one possibility being that it could have marked the formal completion of the city of Amarna. Soon afterward, a number of deaths occurred within the royal family, including Tiye and up to three of the king's daughters. It has been suggested that a plague brought into Egypt by the Year 12 delegates may have been responsible.

Information on Akhenaten's foreign relations is provided by an archive of cuneiform tablets found at Amarna and known as the Amarna letters. These represent correspondence between the kings of the contemporary great powers and Egypt, as well as between Egypt's Levantine vassals and the royal court (Moran 1992). These have been variously interpreted as indicating a decline in Egyptian authority in Syria-Palestine resulting from royal neglect, and as simply reflecting an expected ebb and flow of affairs over a period of some two decades. However, it does seem clear that the reign saw increasing tensions in northern Syria related to the respective spheres of influence of Egypt and the empire of the Hittites.

Soon after Year 12, Akhenaten appointed a co-ruler, Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare, of uncertain antecedents, but certainly a member of the wider royal family. He married Meryetaten, and is named on a number of inscribed items and monuments, but appears to have been short-lived. He was replaced as co-ruler by a woman, Ankhkheperuremerywaenre Neferneferuaten, who was almost certainly none other than Nefertiti.

Akhenaten died in his Year 17 and was buried in his tomb at Amarna, which had previously received the interments of a number of his family. He was succeeded by Tutankhaten/ amun, but steps were soon taken to reverse Akhenaten's religious revolution. As a result the king's buildings around Egypt began to be dismantled, and after the death of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten's names and images were mutilated on the monuments, and by the 19th Dynasty he and his immediate successors were being omitted from official lists of the kings of Egypt. The fate of Akhenaten's mummy is uncertain; one possibility is that it was removed from the royal tomb at Amarna to tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings during Tutankhamun's reign, but was removed and destroyed soon after the latter's death.

Nevertheless, in modern times Akhenaten has become one of the best-known pharaohs, albeit with his career frequently distorted and manipulated for political, social, artistic, and religious reasons (Montserrat 2000). There is also a significant lack of scholarly consensus concerning many aspects of the reign, covering such aspects as chronology, genealogy, and the broader significance of events (compare Aldred 1968, 1988a; Dodson 2009; Redford 1984; Reeves 2001).

A number of mummies of the period were subject to DNA analysis in 2009 (Hawass et al. 2010); however, more work needs to be done before any firm conclusions can be reached on any need to revise the reconstruction set out above.

References and Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Aldred, C. (1968) Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt. London.
  • Aldred, C. (1988) Akhenaten, King of Egypt. London.
  • Davies, N. de G. (1903–08) The rock tombs of El Amarna. London.
  • Dodson, A. (2009a) Amarna sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb and the Egyptian counter-reformation. Cairo.
  • Dodson, A. (2009b) “On the alleged ‘Amenhotep III/IV coregency’ graffito at Meidum.” Göttinger Miszellen 221: 258.
  • Dorman, P. F. (2008) “The Long coregency revisited: architectural and iconographic conundra in the tomb of Kheruef.” In P. J. Brand and L. Cooper, eds., Causing his name to live: studies in Egyptian epigraphy and history in memory of William J. Murnane 6582. Leiden.
  • Freed, R. E., Markowitz, Y. J., and D'Auria, S. H., eds. (1999) Pharaohs of the sun: Akhenaten; Nefertiti; Tutankhamen. London.
  • Gabolde, M. (1998) D'Akhenaton à Toutâankhamon. Lyon.
  • Germer, R. (2001) “Die Mumie aus dem Sarg in ‘KV55.’” In G. Grimm and S. Schoske, eds., Das Geheimnis des goldenen Sarges: Echnaton und das Ende der Amarnazeit: 5861. Munich.
  • Gohary, J. (1990) Akhenaten's Sed-Festival at Karnak. London.
  • Hawass, Z. et al. (2010) “Ancestry and pathology in King Tutankhamun's family.” Journal of the American Medical Association 303, 7: 63847.
  • Hornung, E. (1999) Akhenaten and the religion of light. Ithaca.
  • Montserrat, D. (2000) Akhenaten: history, fantasy and ancient Egypt. London.
  • Moran, W. L. (1992) The Amarna letters. Baltimore.
  • Murnane, W. J. and van Siclen, C. C. III (1993) The boundary stelae of Akhenaten. London.
  • Redford, D. B. (1984) Akhenaten: the heretic King. Princeton.
  • Reeves, C. N. (2001) Akhenaten: Egypt's false prophet. London.