King Tutankhamen might have gotten more press, but the most interesting ancient Egyptian ruler to me has always been his father, Akhenaten. (Sorry, Steve Martin.) Akhenaten ruled from 1379 to 1362 BC, and during that time he threw traditional Egyptian society a major curve ball through the institution of radical religious and cultural reforms.
Akhenaten was born Amenhotep the IV, but changed his name during the fifth year of his rule to reflect his newfound religious beliefs, namely that the people should worship the sun (“Aten”) instead of the traditional Egyptian deities. In accordance to his wishes, all of the temples to the old gods were closed, and any traces of the old gods’ names were obliterated. Akhenaten also disbanded their priesthoods and took their income to support Aten. Needless to say, Akhenaten’s attempted mass conversion to monotheism made him a few enemies, and the fact that he soon declared himself to be the son of Aten probably didn’t help smooth things over.
Akhenaten built a new capital city, Akhetaten, at a previously uninhabited site in Middle Egypt known today as Amarna. It was there he ruled with Queen Nefertiti, plus a few other wives, consorts and lovers (possibly of both sexes) including his sister (ew!) with whom he fathered Tutankhamen. Tut was one of several children born to Akhenaten, and sorting out who gave birth to who has been a bit of a puzzle for the experts.
Akhenaten’s reign also signaled a radical change in the style of Egyptian art. Most of us probably think of stiff, two dimensional figures painted on temple walls when we’re asked to imagine Egyptian art, but while Akhenaten was around, there was a shift in focus to more realistic but highly stylistic depictions of Egyptian life This was called the “Amarna Style”. Sculptures from this period have an elongated faces, spindly arms and large things and hips. Depictions of Akhenaten are described by many as “androgynous”, but I think “alien” might be more accurate. Some historians believe that this ornamental style developed as part of an attempt to wrest control of society from the priests of the old faith. Others still think that the sculptures weren’t stylized at all, and that he might have really looked that way as a result of incest-related genetic illness.
Akhenaten ruled for only 17 years and was succeeded by his son, Tutankhamen. After Ahkenaten’s death, his body was buried miles away from the city he founded and references to him were struck from royal records. His son, in short order, rolled back his father’s many changes and returned Egypt’s pantheon to its traditional place of power.
It is only within the last hundred-plus years that the facts of Akhenaten’s rule has come to light, but during that time, artists, thinkers, dreamers and oddballs of all sorts have been inspired by his story.
Plenty of “alternative historians” have theorized that Akhenaten was an alien on Earth, or perhaps the spawn of alien visitors. They’re probably getting this from his odd physical appearance, modern-looking art and radical religious agenda. Conspiracy theorists see him as a forefather of the “Illuminati.” Both are dubious propositions, to say the least.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Akhenaten has popped up in several works of fiction, including Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, Tom Holland’s The Sleeper in the Sands, and most recently, David Gibbin’s Pharaoh:
Perfect for fans of Clive Cussler and Dan Brown, Pharaoh is a pulse-pounding new adventure starring intrepid marine archaeologist Jack Howard, on the trail of a shattering revelation about an ancient secret buried deep under the Egyptian pyramids.
1351 BC: Akhenaten the Sun-Pharaoh rules supreme in Egypt . . . until the day he casts off his crown and mysteriously disappears into the desert, his legacy seemingly swallowed up by the remote sands beneath the Great Pyramids of Giza.
AD 1884: A British soldier serving in the Sudan stumbles upon an incredible discovery—a submerged temple containing evidence of a terrifying religion whose god was fed by human sacrifice. The soldier is on a mission to reach General Gordon before Khartoum falls. But he hides a secret of his own.
Present day: Jack Howard and his team are excavating one of the most amazing underwater sites they have ever encountered, but dark forces are watching to see what they will find. Diving into the Nile, they enter a world three thousand years back in history, inhabited by a people who have sworn to guard the greatest secret of all time.
Fiction, non-fiction, historical theories or wild-eyed conspiracies, one thing is sure: Akhenaten’s story is far from over.