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Nearly everyone is familiar with the dramatic art of the Amarna period -- fluid, rounded shapes that were so different from the angular, formulaic figures of the earlier dynasties. The period grew from he actions of a single pharaoh, Amenhotep IV.
Amenhotep IV was a younger son of Amenhotep III and was brought to throne after the death of his older brother, Thutmose. It is possible that he ruled in co-regency with his father for a few years at the beginning of his reign, but this is not conclusively proven.
Amenhotep IV changed his name in the sixth year of his reign to Akhenaton and created the new cult religion worshipping the sun-god, Aten (which means "disk"). He built a new royal residence halfway between memphis and Thebes and called it Akhet-Aten. We know it today as Amarna, or Tell el Amarna. HIs devotion to his new god was such that during his reign, he erased the names and images of Amun and his consort Mut, throughout Egypt. It can be argued that Akhenaton's new religion was the first documented example of monotheism.
It is likely that his father, Amenhotep III, had paid considerable attention to the rise of the solar cults in Egypt, and perhaps even promoted them in an attempt to diminish the power of the priesthood of Amun at Karnak, who were gaining tremendous power and authority. This focus on the sun god Ra-Horakhty was taken up by Akhenaton with a single-minded focus that eventually lead to the break with Amun an the new city at Amarna.
The temples and buildings at Akhetaton were like nothing seen elsewhere. Unlike the dark roofed sanctuaries of the Temples to Amun, the temples in Amarna were roofless and decorated with scenes of daily life in white limestone. THe entire complex must have shined. Other than the monumental building projects to raise his city of Aten and the great Northern and Southern palaces there, he added to the temple of Luxor. There was little else.
The art of the Amarna period under Akhenaton is much more naturalistic than the art of previous kingdoms -- to the point of being almost caricatures of human figures. Akhenaton is portrayed as a figure with stick-like arms and legs, a bulbous abdomen, pointed face, and misshapen head. Art historians argue whether it was truly a caricature or whether the realism of the art extended to portraying the true form of the king -- a deformed and unnatural shape.
THe scenes in the tombs of Amarna are startlingly different than the earlier tomb decorations and feature the pharaoh and his wife worshipping the sun disk Aten (shown with rays ending in hands) and pictures of daily life. Most of the decorations are seriously defaced. We found no pictures of the pharaoh that were not chipped away. Statues of the pharaoh in the Egyptian Museum show an elongated, rounded figure that looks very feminine and almost grotesque.
Of course, the art of Amarna produced probably the most beautiful statue ever -- the bust of Nefertiti. The serene and beautiful face of the queen is still held as an example of female beauty.
Given his break with the traditions of his father, Akhenaton is one of the most controversial pharaohs in Egyptian history. He ruled for only about eighteen years and during that time he raised the worship of the single sun-disk god, Aten as the primary religion.
Akhenaton married Nefertiti, the daughter of Ay, his father's vizier. For a time, he lived in the royal palace near Thebes. Ay was a brother of Queen Tiye (a son of Yuya an Thuya). When Akhenaton changed his name early in his reign, he also changed the name of his young wife to Nefer-Nefru-Aten, "Beautiful is the Beauty of Aten".
He was succeeded on the throne by the little known Smenkhkare and there is a strong suggestion that this Smenkhkare was in fact his wife, Nefertiti (or Nefernefruaten) who ruled after his death to extend the power of the new sun god.
After he died there was as systematic attempt to erase him from the history of Egypt. His monuments were demolished, his name erased, his statues smashed. Worship o the Aten died out immediately upon his death and the priests of Amun rose to their former power.
While a rock-cut tomb was carved in a valley in Amarna, it was never used. No tomb in Thebes contains his name and we do not know where he was buried. His officials and others were buried in the Northern Tombs of Amarna, which is where the remains of the Amarna style are easily seen.