Everyone knows King Tut -- fewer know of his predecessor, the "heretic" king Akhenaten who abandoned the worship of the Egyptian gods to begin what may be the first monotheistic religion in history: worship of the Aten, the sun disk. Most of us remember Akhenaten from the weirdly-shaped style of art from th eperiod of his reign. It is quite different from the angular, regular and almost mathematic styles of earlier Egyptian art -- it is fluid, people have sagging bellies and long faces.
When Akhenaten gained the throne, he abandoned not only the relgious beliefs of his ancestors, but also the central location for his government, moving from the traditional center in Thebes to a new city that he built, Akhtetaten, in Amarna.
menhotep 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.