Akhenaten, Nefertiti & Aten: From Many Gods to One

By Anna StevensUniversity of Cambridge & Monash University
The face of Akhenaten, with characteristic exaggerated features, on an unfinished sculptor’s trial piece from Amarna
Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The reign of King Akhenaten stands out in ancient Egyptian history for artistic innovation, the creation of a new religious capital and intrigue surrounding royal succession. Above all, though Akhenaten is known for his development of a kind of early monotheism that stressed the uniqueness of the sun god Aten, and of Akhenaten’s own relationship with this god. For this king, there was only one god and only one person who now knew the god: Akhenaten himself.

Initially called Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten came to the throne around 1349 BCE. He spent his early years as king engaged in fairly traditional building projects, including at the great Karnak Temple, home of Amun, and in the gold-rich land of Kush (Nubia) to Egypt’s south. Late in his third year of rule, however, he took the extraordinary step of celebrating a Jubilee Festival, a ritual renewal of kingship usually held after 30 years on the throne. At Karnak, Akhenaten constructed a series of Jubilee buildings with talatat, small stone blocks that became a signature of his reign.

Initially, the king’s building projects embraced a range of cults, including that of the Aten – shown at the time as a falcon-headed man. But the Karnak Jubilee buildings featured the Aten alone and represented in a new form: as the disc of the sun, its rays ending in hands reaching out to the royal family.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters under the rays of the sun god Aten in the tomb of the official Aye at Amarna
Photo: G. Owen

One of the Karnak buildings was also decorated with striking, colossal statues of the king with heavily exaggerated and androgynous features: drawn-out face, broad hips and distended belly. These statues set the king apart from the mortal world and highlighted his role as a divine provider of fertility and prosperity, like the Aten.

Another of the Karnak buildings showed the Aten not with Akhenaten but with his queen, Nefertiti, and the royal daughters. The Aten cult afforded a special place to royal women, especially Nefertiti, who was linked with Akhenaten and the Aten in a divine triad. The three were assimilated with the divine figures in one of Egypt’s most important creation myths: the birthing of the twins Shu and Tefnut from the androgynous creator god Atum. Royal women helped to legitimize the Aten cult. They stood in for goddesses in contexts where female divine power was needed, and so became semi-divine themselves.

Akhenaten’s promotion of the Aten cult soon intensified. He changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten – One Who is Effective for the Aten – and redirected revenue from Egypt’s temples into the Aten cult. Teams of workers were dispatched to chisel out the names and images of other gods from the walls of monuments. Amun, Mut and Khonsu, the patron gods of Thebes, were especially targeted. This removal work was often sloppy and incomplete, but it must surely have been an affront to Egypt’s religious institutions.

In the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten announced plans to create a new cult arena entirely for the Aten. He chose a place halfway between Memphis (Cairo) and Thebes (Luxor) and named it Akhetaten – Horizon of the Aten. The site is known today as Amarna. Whether driven by religious fervor or a political desire to distance himself from the priesthood of Amun, Akhenaten’s abandonment of Thebes was a remarkable step away from the status quo.

The ruins of ancient Akhetaten occupy a broad riverside bay at Amarna
Photo: The Amarna Project

Akhetaten grew quickly into a large, sprawling city on the east bank of the Nile River. Vast temples were dedicated to the Aten, left unroofed to be filled with light – thus eliminating the need for cult statues of the god. Offerings of bread, beer, cattle, fowl, wine, fruit and incense were given to the sun god on open-air altars. As the sun moved east-west over the temples, Akhenaten traveled north-south through the city in a golden chariot as the Aten’s representative on earth.

Akhenaten’s palaces and temples were decorated with scenes from the natural world, including birds, frolicking calves and river plants, celebrating the life-giving aspects of the Aten. Reliefs, paintings and statues of the royal family adorned cult buildings, less extreme in style than the early Karnak colossi but often still fluid and exaggerated. Occasionally the royal family was depicted kissing and embracing.

Around the city’s outskirts, Akhenaten built at least four Sunshade of Re temples dedicated to royal women, where the king connected with the regenerative powers of the sun god. In a valley deep in the eastern cliffs, he created a new royal burial ground. Loyal officials were granted space in the cliff face for their own grand tombs. Hoping for an afterlife in the company of the sun god, they celebrated the cult of the Aten and the divine king through scenes and texts carved on the tomb walls. These included the famous Hymns to the Aten, in which the Aten is presented as the creative power of light. The Hymns stress that the Aten is the only god, encompassing concepts of beauty, love and fatherhood.

The heavily denuded remains of one of Akhenaten’s Aten temples at Amarna
Photo: M. Mallinson

Today, the ruins of Akhetaten at Amarna form a remarkable archaeological site: one of the most intact cities to survive from the ancient world and one containing the houses, temples, palaces, streets and cemeteries of a single generation. Archaeological work here has focused not only on the Aten cult but also on the lives and experiences of Akhenaten’s people. Ongoing fieldwork by the Amarna Project at the city’s non-elite cemeteries, for example, has shown that difficult working lives and poor nutrition were common, although whether these conditions were more or less extreme at Akhetaten is still unknown. The cemetery excavations also have yielded coffins decorated with images of traditional funerary deities, suggesting that not everyone followed the king in abandoning the gods.

The occupation of Akhetaten was ultimately to be short-lived. After 17 years on the throne, Akhenaten died of causes now unknown. He was buried in the Amarna Royal Tomb, where his daughter, Meketaten, and perhaps his mother, Tiye, had already been interred. The Amarna period was followed by a quick succession of reigns, the details of which remain hazy.

In his final years, Akhenaten seems to have shared the throne with one or more family members. One of these was Smenkhkare, perhaps the son or brother of Akhenaten, who was married to the king’s daughter, Meritaten. Smenkhkare appears only briefly in the historical record.

Nefertiti also seems to have taken the throne under the name Neferneferuaten. Details of her rule are also frustratingly scarce. She may have ruled briefly with Akhenaten, reigned alone in her own name or served as coregent in the early years of Tutankhamun’s reign. In any case, her time on the throne lasted just a few years. The Royal Tomb at Amarna contains a prominent but unfinished side chamber that was likely intended for Nefertiti’s tomb but it was never used. A young Tutankhaten (later Tutankhamun) next assumed the throne. He was likely Akhenaten’s son. Within a few years, probably led by influential officials, he shut down Akhetaten, relocated the royal court to Memphis and announced the restoration of traditional cults. Around this time, the Amarna royal burials were moved to Thebes. After Tutankhamun’s early death, the official Aye took the throne, followed by Horemheb, a military general from Memphis. From Horemheb’s reign onward, the grand stone buildings at Akhetaten were dismantled to leave little of Akhenaten’s initiatives.

Akhenaten left a complicated legacy. To later Egyptian kings, he was a heretic whose name and family were excluded from official king lists. Today, views of him are more diverse and sometimes more sympathetic. In any case, Akhenaten’s momentous reign challenges us to consider how and why spiritual and societal changes occur, whether in ancient Egypt or any land.


Recommended Reading

The Amarna Project

D. Arnold. 1996. The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A. Dodson. 2014. Amarna Sunrise: From Golden Age to Age of Heresy. AUC Press.

A. Dodson. 2018. Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation (revised edition). AUC Press.

R.E. Freed, Y. J. Markowitz & S.H. D’Auria, eds. 1999. Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

B. Kemp. 2012. The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. Thames and Hudson.

D. Montserrat. 2000. Akhenaten: History, fantasy and ancient Egypt. Routledge.

N. Reeves. 2001. Akhenaten: Egypt’s false prophet. Thames and Hudson.

TopicsArchaeology, Art History, Egyptology, History, ReligionThemeArchaeological Sites, Cities & Towns, Gods & Goddesses, Pharaohs & Rulers, ReligionHistoric PeriodNew KingdomLocationMiddle Egypt
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