Akhenaten was known as a “heretic” pharaoh due to the radical changes he made during his reign as an Egyptian pharaoh. The people of Egypt had been worshipping many different deities all the time and Akhenaten was the first pharaoh to break the tradition by introducing monotheism, which was the worship to only one god. Other than reforming the religious beliefs, he also introduced arts of different styles to worship the Sun god, Aten. The changes made during Akhenaten’s reign had no doubt brought some effects to the lives of the Egyptians and also people from other countries later on.
Life Akhenaten, formerly known as Amenhotep IV, was the pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. His period of reign was also known as the Amarna Period. He started his reign in Egypt around 1353 BC and it lasted for 18 years. His father, Amenhotep III, had a long and prosperous reign of about 37 years. Amenhotep III died and left Egypt under the hands of his son, Akhenaten, who was then crowned as Amenhotep IV.
Back then, Thebes was the religious capital of Egypt and the state god was Amen.
The name of Amenhotep IV literally means “Amen is content”. Within the first few years of Amenhotep IV’s reign, he introduced a religious conversion. He decided to eliminate all gods and worshipped only the sun-disk god, Aten. He built temples of Aten with different artistic styles. His actions led to the rebellion of Amen priesthood in the city of Thebes. During the fifth year of his reign, Amenhotep IV decided to leave Thebes because of the corrupting power of the priests. He found a virgin land on the east side of the Nile surrounded by high cliffs.
This land was religiously pristine and there he created the city of Akhetaten, which was also known as “Horizon of the Sun Disk”. The city was built very quickly and the royal family moved to Akhetaten, along with his fellow citizens. At the same time, Amenhotep IV officially changed his name to Akhenaten, which means “Effective Spirit of Aten”. To further reinforce the monotheistic worship of Aten, Akhenaten shut down temples worshipping other gods, scratched out the names of other gods from the inscriptions and even changed he word “gods” into “god”. Akhenaten did not reign for a long period of time.
He died in his eighteenth year of his reign due to unknown causes. However, the changes he made did not last long due to the sentiments of the strong Amen priesthood and the angry Egyptians whose traditions were destroyed by Akhenaten. His name and reign were erased from the royal records of the Egyptian Pharaohs. His city, Akhetaten, was dismantled by his successor and the stones were moved to Thebes for the building of other monuments.
His religious and governmental reformations were undone, and the religious capital was back to Thebes with polytheistic beliefs. To add salt to wound, his coffin was defaced and his royal nameplate was erased. It was believed to be an ultimate disgrace to a Pharaoh as this punishment was meant to keep his soul from recognizing his body in the Afterlife and his soul would wander around forever without being able to reincarnate. This showed that the Egyptian people were very patriotic but at the same time, very stubborn. They were satisfied and appreciated what they had in their lives.
From the way they treated Akhenaten’s corpse and abandoned monotheism after Akhenaten’s death, we can deduce that the Egyptian people were conservative people who refused to accept changes applied on them, even if it was for the sake of their own good. Religious ReformFor all of the years, Egyptians had been worshipping a pantheon of gods who were represented in many ways, such as in human form, animal form or animal headed human form. One of the most important gods was Amen and there was even a priesthood of Amen. During the first few years of Akhenaten’s reign, he introduced the worship of Aten, the sun disk which can be seen in the sky.
At that time, Thebes was the capital of Egypt and Amun was the state god. Aten was raised to the level of being the ‘supreme god’ by Akhenaten in Thebes. In his fifth year of reign, Akhenaten started constructing his new city, Akhetaten (also known as El-Amarna), and two years later, the capital of Egypt moved from Thebes to Akhetaten. Later on, he declared that Aten was not merely the ‘supreme god’, but the ‘one and only god’ to be worshipped. He forbade his people to worship other gods in order to reinforce monotheism in his city.
To make things worse, he even sent workmen to destroy temples of other gods and cut off their names and images from the inscriptions. His actions further deepened the hatred of the Egyptians and the Amen priesthood, which led to his downfall later on. However, Akhenaten’s idea of monotheism was not like what we have today. Akhenaten placed himself between Aten and the people of Egypt, like a representative of god. The people were supposed to worship Akhenaten and his royal family rather than Aten itself, and Akhenaten would in turn worship the sun disk god.
This eliminated the need of forming priesthood and thus preventing the formation of opposing power against the worship of Aten. Some historians believed that the reason behind Akhenaten introducing monotheism was to get rid of the Amen priesthood because the Amen priests were wealthier and together they held more power than the pharaoh alone. He forced his citizens to convert into worshipping Aten so that the power of the Amen priesthood could be reduced. In one way or another, Akhenaten was trying to eliminate his threats and secure his place as an absolute ruler of Egypt.
It was said that Akhenaten’s introduction of monotheism had a significant effect on other religions such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In fact, Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Aten actually bore resemblances to the Hebrew’s Pslam 104. It is true that Akhenaten was the first man to come out with this idea of worshipping only one god, but whether or not this has influenced other religions, it is still debatable. Art As for the works of arts, Akhenaten made artworks to focus more on Aten. Most of the creations, such as temples, statue and hymns, were made to worship the god Aten.
The main topic of traditional Egyptian arts was about eternal life, whereas arts during Akhenaten’s time made clear about the importance of the sun, which was also Aten. They believed the sun was the symbol of life force and that they existed because of the existence of the sun god. Aten, the sun disk god, was abstract, genderless, and was portrayed as a round circle with lines diverging out. Akhenaten and his family, on the other hand, were shown with weird, elongated skulls, pot-bellied, thick lips and big chins.
They were often portrayed in the arts, worshipping the sun or carrying out daily activities under the sun. From the physical human figures shown in these statues or artworks, we could distinguish between the royal family and ordinary people. The artworks also showed that only the royal family was permitted to worship the sun disk god. Moreover, Akhenaten also changed the traditional building architecture and building methods. Stone buildings and structures were built up using smaller stones with strong mortar, probably because smaller stones would be easier to be transported.
The traditional Amen temples were roofed and covered, whereas temples of Aten were open to the sun in order to allow the sun rays to shine into the temples. The area where the wealthy people lived was well planned with nice houses and a huge wall to separate the wealthy area away from the poor area. However, outside the walls were poor people living in shacks which were all crammed side by side. The mistreatment of the poor people was probably one of the reasons which led to the downfall of Akhenaten’s legacy. Akhenaten might have been too obsessed in his religion that he did not put his attention towards the welfare of his citizens.
Conclusion From my point of view, the reason why Akhenaten tried to change the old traditions was for the sake of his country. A country would not grow if all the people stick to their old thoughts and traditions. They would not know what was right and wrong, and they would just blindly follow what their ancestors had taught them to do. Some changes were essential to improve the lifestyle of the people, and they also made people think what was best for them. But at that time, it was clear that the Egyptians were not ready to accept changes.
It could be explained by the fact that the Egyptians had these traditions being passed down for thousands of years, and it was not easy for these people to abandon their traditions in such a short period of time. Needless to say, Akhenaten was no doubt the most revolutionary pharaoh in the whole Egyptian dynasty. It required a lot of courage and a strong determination to go against the will of the priesthood and the people. Nevertheless, Akhenaten still managed to create such radical changes and influences towards the people around the world.