Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who introduced worship of the Aten, the one god, and banished the rites of other Egyptian gods, left a revolutionary legacy that undermined the role of Pharaoh and led to the end of his dynasty.
Though we admire Akhenaten for his monotheism, he made no attempt to persuade other Egyptians of his beliefs. He was the Son of God and it was for others to obey. His son Tutankhamon reaped the whirlwind.
The role of the god Pharaoh had always been necessary for the survival of his people. Through his divine power the Nile flowed each year and fed the land. Now, with Akhenaten, that prosperity seemed at risk.
What Tutankhamon inherited was a throne where power was exercised by the Vizier, the Prime Minister, and Pharaoh was a mere figurehead.
Birth of a figurehead
Tutankhamon was a Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, a dynasty which founded what is called the New Kingdom. (The division of Egyptian history into periods and dynasties comes from a work by Manetho who may have written in the second century BC and whose work survives in digest form). The New Kingdom saw the country reunite after a period of foreign domination. Egyptian power expanded in the south towards Nubia, and was active in west Asian politics. Tuthmosis III (1479-1425), Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BC), Amenhotep III (1388-1350), Akhenaten (1351-1334 BC), Tutankhamon (1332-1323), then the Vizier Ay (1323-1319), and Horemheb (1319-1292) were all famous rulers of the 18th dynasty. After the powerful reign of Rameses II in the nineteenth dynasty, Egypt gradually ceased to be a significant world power and became a province of Persia, then Macedon and finally, Rome.
When Akhenaten was succeeded by one of his sons, Tutankhamon, Egypt was a country in disarray. Incursions by foreign armies, and revolution by the priesthood of the traditional deities, disrupted the succession. After two short reigns of obscure Pharaohs, Tutankhamon became Pharaoh. He was nine years old.
Tutankhamon was born with a deformed foot, and walked wit the assistance of a cane. Examination of his skeleton revealed that he was often ill with malaria, probably the cause of his death at age 19 (untreated malaria causes almost a million deaths a year today). Symptoms can include seizures or coma. Genetic defects caused by inbreeding (sibling marriages) had an effect on his immune system, and on his ability to father healthy children. He had two stillborn daughters.
This was clearly not a god who ruled Egypt, and it prompted the Vizier Ay to seize control of the throne.
It must have been apparent that Akhenaten’s rule had earned the anger of the gods. Ay embarked on a program of cancellation of all that Akhenaten had done, in Tutankhamon’s name. The city of the Aten at Amarna was abandoned, its worship was stopped. Akhenaten’s name was deleted from all records. He was made to disappear, to remove his offence from the sight of the gods.
The royal pretender
Ay was a commoner who had risen through the army to become Vizier to Akhenaten. He may have been the father of Queen Nefertiti. He it was who looked after foreign affairs while Akhenaten followed his religious interests in seclusion at Amarna. After the Pharaoh’s death Ay was left virtual ruler of Egypt, though a general, Horemheb, who was Commander in chief of the army, was also designated as Akhenaten’s successor, and eventually ruled after Ay had died.
Ay’s hold on power was maintained by a marriage and three deaths. He may have risen to power as the father of Nefertiti, as she was still a powerful ruler after the death of Akhenaten. But she died before the election of Tutankhamon as Pharaoh. Ay ruled in fact during the short and ineffective reign of Tutankhamon, who died aged 19. He married a royal daughter much younger than himself, Ankhesenamon, who had been the wife of Tutankhamon. But then she died.
The suppliant wife
A letter survives written by Ankhesenamon to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I after Tutankhamon’s death, one of the few personal documents to have survived from ancient west Asia.
“My husband has died and I have no son. They say about you that you have many sons. You might give me one of your sons to become my husband. I would not wish to take one of my subjects as a husband… I am afraid”.
This “one of my subjects” may be Ay. Suppiluliuma I had been conquering Egyptian territory in Asia while Akhenaten was Pharaoh. He now responded to this letter by sending one of his sons to marry Tutankhamon’s widow. But this son died on the journey, and murder was suspected. Ankhesenamon eventually married Ay. She was right to be afraid, as she too died not long after marrying Ay.
A legacy of waste
Ay’s reign was a short one, as he was elderly even during the reign of Tutankhamon. He was succeeded by the army’s Commander in chief Horemheb, who continued the job or erasing the records and monuments of previous Pharaohs: of Akhenaten, Tutankhamon, and Ay as well. With the death of Horemheb came a new dynasty, founded by Ramesses I, Horemheb’s Vizier, who began the job of retrieving the losses Egypt under Ay and Horemheb had suffered at the hands of west Asian powers.
In previous reigns Pharaohs had usurped power, erased the records of enemies and reused their buildings and tombs for material for their own structures. But the throne had remained undisturbed. Akhenaten changed that. By his worship of the one Aten and suppression of the cults of all other gods, the position of the Pharaoh, before unassailable, a function which merged divine power with natural processes to create the richness that made Egypt a great state, was damaged beyond repair. Egypt, like other ancient states, was now engaged in power politics, and in aggressive diplomacy to wield power and influence. The Pharaoh had ceased to be divine.
Ay has been often seen as a ruthless politician, removing all who stood in his way to power. This is a bit anachronistic I think. Ay was a man of his time. For him the gods were real, manifest in daily occurences. The damage had been done, incredibly, by Pharaoh, and Ay did what he could to placate the offended deities. In any case a man of his rank would have done little more than indicated impatience with a person or situation for a servant to oblige with a solution.
Ankhesenamon, whose fate is unknown, tried to save herself by marrying a powerful husband from foreign lands. But Ay prevailed, married her to legitimise his reign, and she simply disappears from the records
Hidden beneath the picture we have of the grandeur and riches of the Pharaohs, and their monumental buildings and sculptures and preoccupation with eternity, is another, more obscure one. A handicapped child confused by religious doctrine, unable to father a son with his royal wife and half sister. A young queen in fear of her life. And an elderly man moved perhaps to countenance murder to placate the gods.
Akhenaten’s worship of the Aten must have generated a lot of fear in other Egyptians. They worshipped Amon, the chief god, who was a form of Ra, and both lord of life and of the sun. Although the Aten seems similar to us, to ancient Egyptians to deny Amon must have seemed a very dangerous thing to do.
To change the way gods are worshipped is a dangerous thing to do. Akhenaten’s fate tells us a lot of how ancient Egyptians viewed the world and the gods.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.