Akhetaten – a religious cult centre, urban entity and a political capital?

To what extent was Akhetaten (el-Amarna) a religious cult centre rather than an urban entity and political capital?

Akenaten Wall in Egypt

The city of Akhetaten, with the modern name of Tell el-Amarna, which was built by the heretic pharoah Amenhotep IV, who is better known by the name of Akhenaten, was both a religious centre and political capital although for only a short period of time during one of the most interesting dynasties of ancient Egypt. As Matthew Dillon proposes el-Armarna could be considered a religious cult centre due to the temples, chapels and shrines decorated with scenes of Akhenaten, with and without his family, worshipping and offering to the Aten1 However with the discovery of the Amarna Letters it is obvious that it was a diplomatic capital as well. The Aten cult was a major shift in religious thought and practice2 that shattered centuries of tradition3 endangered the economic stability of the Empire, and undermined Egypt’s political status4

The well established and accepted state religion of Amun-Ra, with the temple complex at Karnak, was a major influence in both politics and economics that Akhenaten sought to limit, if not eliminate, its power5. The temple at Karnak was supported by vast agricultural estates, administered by an immense bureaucracy of serfs and slaves, and gradually grew to include mining, manufacturing and shipping6> With the seizure of divine estates and property and the limiting of temple activities, if not the closure of temple complexes, as well as the financial burden of establishing a new capital city and building new temples, threatened the stability of the economic system as a whole; added to this unstable economic climate was the financial burdens of constructing a new capital city and temples let alone the woes brought by the neglect of local government administration infrastructures and the increased levels of corruption7

The site of Heliopolis, the original centre of sun-worship, is thought to have had a major influence on the development of the Aten cult, for though few traces have been discovered in-situ, Akenaten built a temple there. This is evident by the re-use, and thus the preservation, of several relief blocks deriving from a temple complex in the building of a minaret for the Mosque of Hakim dating from the 11th centuary in northern Cario8.

During the reign of Amenhotep III the deity, Aten, a minor god in the Egyptian pantheon, had a gradual increase in popularity and dominance of the religious sphere9 Ultimately Aten was to become the one and only supreme deity, omnipotent, manifested in the sun’s disk and sunlight10with Akhenaten & Nefertiti as quasi-divine extensions from the deity also worthy of worship11. According to religious tradition the Pharoah acted as an intermediary, representing the deities before man and man before the deities12and as Akhenaten was the Aten’s sole representative he was considered to possess the same divine qualities13.

The site of Akhetaten/el-Armarna is a serendipious gift to Egyptologists for the city was built on virgin ground and once deserted never reinhabitated14, with the buildings either dismantled or simply left to crumble15. As recorded on the boundary stelae:

“…Now it is the Aten, my father, who adviced me concerning it…No official…adviced me…nor any people…to tell me to make Akhetaten in this distant place…so it could be made for him…Behold it is pharoah…who found it, when it did not belong to a god…goddness…male ruler, nor…female ruler…I found it abandoned…”16

Akenaten Name

Akenaten founded the city on the site in obedience to a personal divine message from the Aten17 on a semi-circular plain18 surrounded by limestone cliffs to the west and boundered by the Nile to the east without encroaching on the limited area of viable agricultural land19. The city ran for seven kilometres along the banks of the Nile River20 had an area of over 500 hectares21and possibly supported a population of 20,00022. The site for this new capital was not in a area of either political value23; nor was it an area associated with traditional religion24 for it was built half way between the twin capitals of Ancient Egypt25: south of Memphis was the administrative capital, and north of Thebes which was the economic26and religious capital27.

Fritz suggests that

“…In this way he {Akhenaten} could introduce the new cult of the Aten and form his own elite to rule the state, avoiding opposition from the priesthood and former state officials…”28

One of the unusual features of the foundation of the city were these formal declarations, marked by stelae, that set the limits of the metropolis, which Akhenaten promised to never breach29. Sites for the fourteen30stelae31 eleven on the eastern boundary line with three on the western line32, were carved into geographical features of the surrounding landscape such as cliff-faces33, although these were later significantly damaged when there was the return to the tradional religion of Egypt34.

The city had a central avenue known as the Royal Road, that ran between the residental palaces in the north to the administrative, ceremonial35and religious heart of the city. The central buildings included scribal offices, military barracks, storage facilities36, the Great Palace which had reception courts and halls for high officials and foreign envoys37 which was connected with a bridge that spanned the Royal Road to the King’s House38with the Window of Appearance and finally two temples dedicated to the Aten39.

Robert Vergnieux, from the University of Bordeaux, France, has said that

“…Since the Egyptians god was now the sunlight, they didn’t need statues in dark inner sanctums. So they built temples without roofs and performed their rituals directly under the sun…”40

Thus a new simplified temple architecture, open to the rays of the sun41was required42 The size of the Grt Temple, which had the dimensions of 229 X 731 metres43with it’s offering altars, two for each day of the year, one for Upper Egypt with the other for Lower Egypt44. These are often depicted in incompleted and unused tomb paintings of court officials piled high with offerings that included meat, pond-fowl, vegetables, loaves of bread, wine, beer, insense and flowers; all of which was later distributed to the religious priests and other members of the temple staff, the royal kitchens and those associated with the royal court45.

In temple decorations the Aten is depicted as a sun disk with extending rays which end with hands holding the ‘ankh’ (symbol of life) towards Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters if they were present46 Nefertiti played an equal role in the ceremonies and rites of the cult alongside Akhenaten47 and once they had reached an age of awareness and responsibility their daughters were also included in minor roles such as rattling a sistrum, carrying bouquets and offering insense48.

Being mindful of the fact that an individual seemingly could not have a personal relationship with the Aten49the only avenue for the individual’s expression of faith50or in seeking to obtain some divine grace of the Aten51 was through the personages of, to ‘worship’ the deity’s sole representative, Akhenaten and other members of the royal family52 This is evident through the construction of garden chapels and interior household shrines in private homes53. These mainly occur in medium to large houses, which probably belonged to court officials, not only to demonstrate their personal peity, but perhaps more importantly their loyalty to the regime of Akhenaten54.

The shrines within the house were simple with their perimetres being marked by a low wall with a small flight of shallow steps to a brick platform that may have had a stand for offerings55. Whereas the garden chapels, although evading the interest and study by earlier excavators56, were quite elaborate. The basic design was always the same: of a room, with or without a portico, built on a raised platform accessed by a sloping flight of stairs seperated from the main garden by a wall and surrounded by trees57 It is possible that some of these garden chapels may have had partial roofs as fragments of faience grape decorations have been found during excavations58, while decorations within the chapels proper show Akhenaten and members of the royal family adoring and making offerings to the Aten while being caressed by his rays59.

Insight into the diplomatic life of Akhetaten during the time of occupation was gained through the unexpected find in 188760of over three hundred Akkadian cuneiform61lay tablets, which was the script for international diplomatic correspondence62. This collection of tablets can be divided into three main categories: correspondence between rulers directly, letters from vassals and subject city-states and finally a few mythical texts, syllabaries and lexical documents used as reference material by the clerical staff63.

This diplomatic achive opens around Year Thirty of the reign of Amenhotep III, continues through the reign of Akhenaten, closing with the abandonment of the city under Tutankhamun64 It consists of nearly a complete record of correspondence between the Amarna Court65 with the kings, subject princes and cities66 that included the Assyrians, Cypriotes, Hittites, Kassites, Mitannians, and the peoples of the Levant that included Amurra, Askalon, Byblos, Gezer, Jerusalem, Kadesh, Sidon, Tyre and Ugarit67. As well as reports and dispatches from Egyptian envoys abroad68.

At this time Syria-Palestine consisted of a number of small city-states69 that were in political upheaval for they were either in conflict with each other as they sought to gain dominance of trade in the region70 or in rebellion against the authority of Egypt in a bid to win independence71. These rebellions would occur when a Pharoah died for the Egyptian military might be required ‘at home’ to consolidate the new Pharoah’s claim to the throne72 Added to this already viotile political climate was the increasing threat of conquest from the Hittites73.

The achives record Akhenaten’s apparent lack of interest in foriegn interests and the gradual decline of Egypt’s political status74, prestige and influence in the region as a major power, and ultimately cost Egypt its hold on these northern territories75 Undoubtingly the promotion of the Aten cult required the influence of a dynamic, charasmatic individual in a position of great power, such as that as Pharoah, for it to be followed by members of the Royal Court, but the degree of personal committment of the members must be questioned considering the collapse of the Aten cult within a few years of the death of Akhenaten76.

The military general Horemheb ultimately seized the throne at the end of the dynasty77 and set about restoring, re-establishing, the former religious deities, temples, shrines, priesthoods, rites and ceremonies of the Egyptian pantheon with a fervent passion78 As well as obliterating any reference to Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun and Ay, those pharoahs ‘tainted’ by the Amarna period79 from Egyptian records80 This was achieved to such a degree that their names were omitted from the King Lists of the Ramesside period, recording instead that the throne had passed from Amenhotep III to Horemheb directly81.

However a priceless historical source for the Aten cult82was preserved unintentionly by Horemheb, as he used some 12,000 talatat blocks from the destruction of the Aten temple, which was to the east of Karnak complex83, as fill for the second, third84 ninth and tenth pylons at the temple at Karnak85 While others were used as the foundations for the Hypostyle Hall, and in the pylon erected by Ramesses II at the Luxor Temple complex86

This is an episode of history that has interested Egyptologists, archaeologists, historians and several other fields of academia for centuries, and will for centuries to come as future discoveries and studies come to light, an example of which is the recent genetic studies which clarified the inter-relationships between several individuals from the Royal Family, and confirmed that Tutankhaten/Tutankamen was the son of Akhenaten, and that his Queen was a half-sister87.

  1. M.Dillion; Akhetaten: Capital City of Akhenaten, Egypt (1353-1337BC); HIST512 Study Guide; pg.5
  2. V.Fritz; Planning a Capital: Aket-Aten & Akhenaten; pg.120
  3. R.Gore; Pharoahs of the Sun; Journal of the National Geographic Society, April 2001; pg.38
  4. Dillon; Op.Cit.; pg.5
  5. W.W.Hallo & W.K.Simpson; The Ancient Near East: a History; pg.269
  6. N.Reeves; Egypt’s False Prophet: Akenaten; pg.45
  7. N.Grimal; A History of Ancient Egypt; pg.232
  8. I.Shaw; Balastrades, Stairs and Altars in the Cult of the Aten at el-Amarna; pg.119
  9. C.Aldred; Akhenaten: King of Egypt; pg.239
  10. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.268
  11. Gore; Op.Cit.; pg.40
  12. B.Ockinga; Amarna Kingship; pg.7
  13. Fritz; Op.Cit.; pg.120
  14. Ibid; pg.117
  15. Ibid; pg.121
  16. W.J.Murnane; Texts from the Armarna Period in Egypt; Atlanta; 1995; pg.75
  17. N.de Garis Davies; The Boundary Stelae; pg.21
  18. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.271
  19. Aldred; Op.Cit.; pg.269
  20. Dillon; Op.Cit.; pg.4
  21. Fritz; Op.Cit.; pg.119
  22. Gore; Op.Cit.; pg.46
  23. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.271
  24. Davies; Op.Cit.; pg.20
  25. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.271
  26. Reeves; Op.Cit.; pg.113
  27. Ibid; pg.103
  28. Fritz; Op.Cit.; pg.117
  29. Grimal; Op.Cit.; pg.234
  30. Reeves gives the figure of fifteen stelae, pg.107
  31. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.271
  32. Davies; Op.Cit.; pg.19
  33. W.J.Murnane & C.C.van Siclen; The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten; pg.147
  34. Ibid; pg.182
  35. Ibid; pg.173
  36. Fritz; Op.Cit.; pg.119
  37. Ibid; pg.121
  38. Ibid; pg.121
  39. Ibid; pg.119
  40. Gore; Op.Cit.; pg.42
  41. Aldred; Op.Cit.; pg.245
  42. Shaw; Op.Cit.; pg.115
  43. A.Kurht; The Ancient Near East, Vol.1: Imperial Egypt; pg.199
  44. Reeves; Op.Cit.; pg.107
  45. Aldred; Op.Cit.; pg.275
  46. Dillon; Op.Cit.; pg.2
  47. Aldred; Op.Cit.; pg.261
  48. Ibid; pg.276
  49. Ockinga; Op.Cit.; pg.10
  50. Ibid; pg.15
  51. S.Ikram; Domestic Shrines and the Cult of the Royal Family at el-Amarna; pg.101
  52. Ockinga; Op.Cit.; pg.13
  53. Ibid; pg.12
  54. Ikram; Op.Cit.; pg.100
  55. Ikram; Op.Cit.; pg.96
  56. Ibid; pg.89
  57. Ibid; pg.89
  58. Ibid; pg.97
  59. Shaw; Op.Cit.; pg.116
  60. Gore; Op.Cit.; pg.47
  61. Reeves; Op.Cit.; pg.63
  62. B.Mertz; Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt; pg.226
  63. Reeves; Op.Cit.; pg.63
  64. Ibid; pg.63
  65. Gore; Op.Cit.; pg.47
  66. Kurht; Op.Cit.; pg.187
  67. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.274
  68. Mertz; Op.Cit.; pg.226
  69. Ibid; pg.228
  70. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.274
  71. Mertz; Op.Cit.; pg.228
  72. Ibid; pg.228
  73. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.274
  74. Mertz; Op.Cit.; pg.231
  75. Reeves; Op.Cit.; pg.152
  76. Aldred; Op.Cit.; pg.245
  77. Kurht; Op.Cit.; pg.195
  78. Aldred; Op.Cit.; pg.245
  79. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.276
  80. Fritz; Op.Cit.; pg.121
  81. Hallo & Simpson; Op.Cit.; pg.276
  82. Grimal; Op.Cit.; pg.227I
  83. bid; pg.243
  84. Reeves; Op.Cit.; pg.93
  85. Grimal; Op.Cit.; pg.227
  86. Reeves; Op.Cit.; pg.97
  87. Z.Hawiss; Journal of the National Geographical Society; September 2010 (accessed through official web site)


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