Akhenaten! A revolutionary dreamer or a tyrannical heretic?
Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) was a king of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period of Egypt. His name is translated to mean 'the loyal to' the god Aten. Akhenaten chose this name for himself after his conversion to the cult of Aten.
Before this conversion, he was known as Amenhotep IV (or Amenophis IV). He was the son of Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE) and his wife Tiye, husband of Queen Nefertiti and father of both Tut Ankh Amun (by a lesser wife named Lady Kiya).
His reign as Amenhotep IV lasted five years during which he followed the policies of his father and the religious traditions of Egypt. However, in the fifth year, he underwent a dramatic religious transformation, changed his devotion from the cult of Amun to that of Aten, and, for the next twelve years, became famous as the 'heretic king' who abolished the traditional religious rites of Egypt and instituted the first known monotheistic state religion in the world and, according to some, monotheism itself.
His reign is known as the Amarna period because he moved the capital of Egypt from the traditional site at Luxor to the city he founded, Akhetaten, which is known as now (also Tell el-Amarna).
Akhenaten’s ideas were revolutionary, and from his statues, we can see that his looks were different as well. Instead of an idealized king with a perfectly proportioned body, images of Akhenaten show a long, thin face, slanted eyes, thick lips, pointed chin, and a scrawny neck. He had breasts, a swollen belly, wide hips, and spindly arms and legs. This highly unusual and perhaps realistic portrayal of the king became an artistic fashion as Egyptian art changed to a more realistic style under his reign.
The Aten was unlike any god the people had ever worshipped. Represented as a sun disk with rays of light reaching down and ending in hands holding an ANKH (the sign of life) and WAS SCEPTER (the sign of power), it bestowed light and warmth upon the king and his family. Unlike the traditional gods of Egypt, however, the Aten was an abstract god without personality.
It has been said that Akhenaten was a man born before his time, that his ideas were too revolutionary to be accepted in conservative Egypt. He changed his name, the art style, the religion, and the capital. In so doing, Akhenaten’s legacy to the world was monotheism, a new art style, and his beautiful prayer praising the Aten.
The great and living Aten . . . ordaining life, vigorously alive, my Father . . . , my reminder
of Eternity . . . who proclaims himself with his two hands, whom no craftsman has devised, who
is established in the rising and setting each day ceaselessly . . . He fills the land with his rays and
makes everyone to live . . .