Akhenaten: The First Monotheist

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When mankind first began to worship the divine, it put its faith in many deities. Each distinct society, culture and civilisation around the world produced its own unique pantheon, every member of which had its own clear specialisation. People did not rigidly worship all the gods all of the time, but prayed as circumstances dictated; for most of human history, it was customary to ask one god for wealth, another for health and a third for happiness. Compared to polytheism, monotheism is a relatively recent development. It has certainly been a successful one – today, billions of men and women pledge themselves to a single, universal god. Yet its genesis was far from auspicious. For the birth of monotheism is not a story of wise enlightenment, but of how a tyrant’s delusions terrorised his subjects, crippled his empire and led to one of history’s earliest cover-ups.

When Prince Amunhotep was born, around thirteen centuries before Christ, the Egyptian Empire stretched from modern Syria to South Sudan. Geography had dealt the land of the Nile an incredible hand; the Nubian goldmines made Egypt rich, the fertile river delta gave it an abundant supply of food and the surrounding deserts sheltered it from jealous rivals. These advantages had made Egypt the most prosperous region of the Near East, and allowed a sophisticated society and unique culture to develop. Even by polytheistic standards, the state pantheon was vast; the people who dwelt on the banks of the Nile worshipped thousands of distinct deities. Yet the Egyptian faith was not a structured or codified one, but was instead in an almost permanent state of flux. Myths were constantly being altered to include different figures, once important divinities could be forgotten and local idols could eventually develop a state-wide following. Gods were permanently rising and falling in popularity. 

While some deities, like Thoth and Osiris, managed to always remain significant, solar deities consistently dominated the Egyptian pantheon. For several centuries, the greatest of these gods was the falcon-headed Re, who supposedly led the Sun across the sky during the day and below the Earth at night. At some unknown point before Amunhotep’s birth, Re had become increasingly associated with another powerful god, Amun. A mysterious being with a complex history, Amun is best understood as an omnipresent deity of concealed things. Eventually Amun and Re were fused to create a new deity, Amun-Re, who was acclaimed as the King of the Gods, the Creator of the World and the Lord of Both the Visible and Invisible. Amun-Re immediately became the most important divinity in the Egyptian pantheon, and his priests grew astonishingly powerful as they enjoyed the earthly rewards of their patron’s popularity. 

Amunhotep was named for his father, Pharaoh Amunhotep III. The Pharaoh was more than a mere king or emperor; he was a divine being, whose sole duty was to preserve Ma’at – the cosmic order. Egypt was a rigidly conservative society, which viewed matters strictly in terms of structure and anarchy. It was not merely indifferent to innovation and change, but deeply hostile towards them. Ma’at was to be maintained at all costs, lest all fall into disorder, and so no risks could be taken that might upset the existing universal equilibrium. The Egyptians had developed a clear sense of exactly what a Pharaoh should do, and Amunhotep III had followed this formula to the letter; he had established a Pax Aegyptiaca in the Near East, erected colossal temples to honour Amun-Re and brought Egypt to the peak of its prosperity. 

The Crown Prince had originally been Amunhotep III’s eldest child, a boy named Thutmoses. Yet he had died unexpectedly, and so Amunhotep III was eventually succeeded by his namesake, the second son. At first Amunhotep IV followed tradition; he was crowned in the normal way at the capital of Thebes, he paid homage to the great gods of the state faith and completed his father’s unfinished projects in a display of filial piety. A year into his reign, however, Amunhotep’s behaviour changed. The Pharaoh ordered a massive construction project at the site of Ipetsut, near a temple of Amun-Re. Rather than extending the existing shrine, as would have been typical, Amunhotep built an entirely new monument of his own. Nor was this new temple built in the usual way; instead of creating a closed and concealed building as the Egyptians had for centuries, this new shrine was an open-air courtyard facing the horizon – a pointed rebuke of the invisibility of Amun.

Far more concerning than this temple’s new radical architectural style, however, was the colossal statue of the Pharaoh which Amunhotep placed outside Ipetsut. Egyptian art, like all aspects of Egyptian culture, was rigid and unchanging. Images were not supposed to reflect reality, but were symbolic representations based on strict geometric formulae; there was only one way to depict a serf, a soldier or a Pharaoh, regardless of what the specific serf, soldier or Pharaoh in question actually looked like. Depictions of Ptolemy XIII (Cleopatra’s brother) drawn in the 1st Century B.C. and Narmer (Egypt’s first Pharaoh) drawn in the 31st Century B.C are therefore eerily similar; both men wield the same symbols of power, possess the same physique and have nearly identical faces. They are effectively the same person, separated only by time. In the hundreds of years between Narmer and Amunhotep IV, art – and by extension the image of the Pharaoh – had remained constant.

Now, Amunhotep broke this precedent. Images from his reign emphasised realism and domesticity; leaders were not shown smiting their enemies underfoot, but playing with their families. Women – rarely seen before in royal artwork – appear increasingly frequently, and none more often than Nefertiti, the wife of Amunhotep. When it came to depicting the Pharaoh himself, the new style realism morphed into surrealism, creating an image radically different to that of every previous monarch. Amunhotep’s skull is shown as elongated, his face is long and thin and his limbs are extremely wiry. His belly sags, his hips are wide and he seems to have been sculpted with breasts. The image is so unusual that many scholars believe that he may have had a genetic illness, such as Fröhlich’s or Marfan syndrome, but there are problems with both hypotheses. Today, most simply insist that the artwork was symbolic, and that Amunhotep was deliberately depicting himself as androgynous as a way of linking the Pharaoh to his new favourite deity, the Aten.

This was the god worshipped in the open-air temple at Ipetsut. A divinity even more bizarre and complex than Amun, the Aten was the Egyptian sun-disc – not a solar deity, but the flaming orb itself. During his reign, Amunhotep III had emphasised his connection to the Aten, even referring to himself as “the dazzling Aten”, yet this had only ever been in the Aten’s role as a subservient aspect of Amun-Re. Now, Amunhotep took matters several steps further. Instead of being shown as part of the the falcon-headed Re, or of the ram-headed Amun-Re or even as an anthropomorphic deity in its own right, the Aten was drawn on temple walls as the literal Sun, hovering above the heads of other, lesser gods. 

When Amunhotep IV changed his name, any lingering doubts about the Pharaoh’s preference vanished. The previous pharaohs of Amunhotep’s dynasty had either been named Thutmoses or Amunhotep, which literally translate as ‘Thoth (the god of wisdom) is born’ and ‘Amun is content’. Now, Amunhotep IV ceased to be Amun’s source of joy and instead became known as Akhenaten – ‘the one who acts effectively for the Aten’. It was impossible to miss the message. For the Thebans, still devout followers of their deity, Amun-Re, this was too much to stomach. We have no records of unrest, or popular discontent, but something significant must have happened. For in the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten, having broken artistic and religious traditions, decided that he would now shatter political custom as well; he marched his followers out of Thebes.

The story itself is a familiar one: the prophet led the faithful out of the city corrupted by impious forces, and into the desert to build utopia. What was unique about Akhenaten’s exodus was that this new prophet was not some marginalised outsider, but the most powerful man in the known world, with the means to will his vision into reality. Akhenaten accordingly had the luxury of being able to choose where to build heaven on earth. He chose well. Between the great cities of Memphis and Thebes lay a strip of flat, uninhabited desert, surrounded on all sides by towering cliffs. The symbolism was powerful; Akhenaten knew that as the inhabitants of his future city would look to the dawn every morning, they would see the hieroglyph for ‘horizon’ – the Sun rising between two hills.

Construction began immediately, and within two years a new capital had appeared. Its name then was Akhetaten, but most today call it Amarna. Through the the city ran the long Royal Road, down which, in conscious imitation of the Sun’s daily voyage, Akhenaten would ride south in a chariot every morning. The city had its great monuments; palaces, barracks and housing quarters were duly erected as, of course, were open air temples to the Aten. The only notable structure absent from the ruins of Amarna is a cemetery complex, suggesting there may not have been an afterlife in Atenist theology. 

For it was around this time that Atenism became a distinct religion. Akhenaten constantly emphasised that the Aten was the creator of the cosmos, and argued that the world was renewed each day through it. Openness was central to the new faith, as was the illuminating power of the sun; the Pharaoh spent his days basking in the sun’s life-giving rays, and forcing those around him to do likewise. Akhenaten co-opted the concept of the triad (a set of three gods) from the old Egyptian religion, but his Amarna triad consisted of the Aten, Nefertiti and himself. Although a man named Merya was installed as the Aten’s high priest, only Akhenaten could commune with it and carry out its instructions effectively; the Aten was a transcendent divinity, personal only to the Pharaoh.

There was no place for the old gods in Amarna. Yet instead of the Aten absorbing their roles and becoming a universal deity, the responsibilities of the members of the previous pantheon simply ceased to matter. For Akhenaten, commerce, health and war were simply inconsequential trivialities when compared with the glory of the Sun. The strangeness of this religion has prompted some to speculate that Akhenaten might have been motivated as much by politics as by theology, and that his ultimate goal was to break the power of the priestly caste, especially the dominant clerics of Amun-Re.

Before Akhenaten, a select few societies had practised henotheism or monolatry, where a group believes that they should only worship a single god, but fully believes other deities exist, have real powers and have their own chosen peoples. Abraham, if he existed at all, was probably a henotheist. Monotheism is more than the worship of one deity; it is the belief that there is a single god, who should be worshipped by all peoples as the universal creator. In the Great Hymn of Aten (probably composed by the Pharaoh himself), Akhenaten proclaims “O living Aten, the creator of life … you fill every land with your beauty … sole god, apart from whom there is no other, you created the earth according to your desire.” There was no god but the Aten, and Akhenaten was his prophet. 

Yet the more Akhenaten stared at the Sun, the more blind he grew to the world around him. The lives of the people of Amarna were nasty, brutish and short. Archaeology has shown that their bones were twisted – revealing they endured considerable physical toil. Most were severely malnourished, countless suffered from anaemia and only half of those born made it to adulthood. Even as Akhenaten was insisting on the perfection of the Aten, his followers began to harbour statues of Thoth, Amun-Re and others in secret. Perhaps angered by this development, Akhenaten decided to pass judgement on all the old gods of Egypt; their temples were closed, their priests were left unemployed and monuments bearing the hieroglyph ‘gods’ were edited to read ‘god’. The hated Amun-Re received especially harsh treatment – his statues were defaced and his shrines sacked. The names of pharaohs with the word ‘amun’ in them, including Amunhotep III, were removed from the records.

Amarna began to host a large military garrison, and soldiers were increasingly used as the agents of the iconoclasm. They had little else to do; other than sending troops to quash a revolt in Nubia, Akhenaten organised no expeditions of note and conquered no new lands. The Pharaoh had little interest in ruling, only in worshipping the Aten. The Amarna Letters (the surviving correspondence between the leaders of the ancient Near Eastern great powers) reveal that Egypt was losing influence abroad. The King of Byblos wrote fifty times asking for help against invaders, yet he never received a response, let alone aid. Egypt’s influence in the Levant was slipping away. The Amarna years were a sad time, when the gods people had spent their lives worshipping were suppressed and the nation was ruled by an absent heretic.

The religious legacy of Akhenaten is debated. A handful of scholars, most prominently Freud, have argued that Moses was in some way influenced by Atenism during his years in Egypt. Freud even suggests that he served as a priest of the sun-disc, and posits that remnants of Akhenaten’s religion slipped into the Torah. Others point to the similarities between Psalm 104 and the Great Hymn of Aten as evidence of a link between the two religions. Some have even argued that Moses and Akhenaten were the same person, and that the Exodus is an allegory for Akhenaten’s struggles. We must note, however, that these views are extremely controversial, and the scholars who advocate them are in the minority. Ultimately, no definitive link between Akhenaten and later monotheistic religions has been clearly drawn. 

After seventeen long years as Pharaoh, Akhenaten died of natural causes. Shadowy figures emerged to rule the city of the sun-disc; we know rulers named Smenkhkare and Nefertauten ascended to the throne, yet nothing else. Some have suggest the two are actually the same person, while others claim that the latter was actually Nefertiti, now ruling in her own right. Before too long, Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhaten (‘the living image of Aten’), emerged as Pharaoh. At the age of eight, he rejected his father’s teachings, moved the capital back to Thebes and restored Amun-Re and his priests to power. To symbolise the heresy’s end, he changed his name to Tutankhamun (‘the living image of Amun’).

Tutankhamun himself died a decade later, yet the grateful priests of Amun-Re would fill his hastily built tomb with the magnificent treasures that have become the defining symbols of Egypt. Further chaos followed Tutankhamun’s death, from which the general Horemheb eventually rose to crown himself Pharaoh. Horemheb made it his mission to ensure that the chaos of Amarna never plagued Egypt again. The Pharaoh was supposed to conform to tradition, ensure Egypt remained strong internationally and preserve the social order at home. Akhenaten’s reign had spat on, shredded and set fire to that image of the Pharaoh; instead of preserving Ma’at, Akhenaten had upended it.

Horemheb backdated his reign, declaring that he had become ruler in the year 1353 B.C., when Amunhotep III had died. The monuments built by the post-Akhenaten rulers were edited to bear Horemheb’s name, and all of their tombs (except Tutankhamun’s) were sacked. Finally, a legion of workers was sent to rip Amarna apart stone by stone, and the capital was left to be swallowed by the desert. To cement his position, Horemheb declared himself the founder of a new dynasty and chose as his heir a man named Ramses. The Pharaohs would continue to rule for another thousand years, and the Amarna period faded from memory – a strange moment in Egypt’s three millennia history when the world turned upside down.

Dodson, A., 2009. Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation. American University Press

Freud, S., 1955. Moses and Monotheism. Random House.

Redford, D., 1987. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton University Press

Shaw, I., 2000. The Oxford Illustrated History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford

Wilkinson, T., 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Bloomsbury