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How Nefertiti’s husband fought with the gods, the traditional role of the pharaoh and the canon in art: 20 years of Akhenaten’s rebellion

How Nefertiti's husband fought with the gods, the traditional role of the pharaoh and the canon in art: 20 years of Akhenaten's rebellion 1

A reformer pharaoh, a seer, a guest from the past, or … an alien? The identity of the mysterious ruler of Egypt, the husband of the beautiful Nefertiti, is surrounded by many fantastic rumors. If you cut off the most incredible, there will be a story of a man who went against millennial traditions – in politics, religion and art. He rejected all canons, rejected all gods except one, and ruled Egypt along with a mysterious woman!

Portraits of Akhenaten in his youth and heyday.
Portraits of Akhenaten in his youth and heyday.

Akhenaten is best known for his religious reform – a monotheist pharaoh who challenged numerous priests. However, there are many more revolutions on his account than it seems.

Akhenaten initially turned out to be not the pharaoh whom the priests would like to see – it was all about his mother. Akhenaten (at birth he received the name Amenhotep) was the second son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiya, which in itself reduced his chances of succession to the throne. 

However, Amenhotep’s eldest son died too early. In addition, Tia was the beloved wife of Amenhotep – and this caused the displeasure of the priests. Tia was not of royal origin, some researchers suggest that she has Semitic roots. She was distinguished by a sharp mind, irrepressible energy – and sufficiently ignored the traditional role of women in the life of the court. 

She supervised the construction of temples and actively intervened in the political decisions of the pharaoh. Amenhotep consulted with her on every issue and kept a thorough correspondence in separation. Later, when Akhenaten ascended the throne,

Scribes.  An example of Amarna art - the role of the common man is growing.
Scribes. An example of Amarna art – the role of the common man is growing.

He began to rule in Thebes, the capital of Egypt, and at first nothing anticipated radical changes – except that the sun god was now paid more attention, but each pharaoh has his own quirks! The fact that the great sun deity Amon-Ra was replaced by some unknown god Aton, at first did not cause the alarm of the priests. 

Meanwhile, the divine service itself was no longer held in the temple – Amenhotep IV preferred to perform ceremonies in the open air, in public. In the fifth year of independent reign, the young pharaoh changed his name. The former meant “Amon is pleased”, and the new, Akhenaten, meant “Useful for Aton.” 

Pharaoh wanted to serve his god and was not going to stop for a second. He did not trust the priests and relied in his actions on the support of unborn “service people”.

On the right is a portrait of Nefertiti.
On the right is a portrait of Nefertiti.

At the same time, he began the accelerated construction of the city of Akhetatona. This was facilitated by the changed construction technology, instead of Cyclopean buildings from heavy blocks, temples are being erected from lighter slabs, which significantly speeds up construction and allows the main buildings of the new capital to be completed in record time. Pharaoh moves there with all his court, wife Nefertiti and children.

Now this territory is called Tel el-Amarna, and the period associated with the rule of Akhenaten in culture is Amarna.

Naturalistic images of plants and birds are evidence of the destruction of the canon.
Naturalistic images of plants and birds are evidence of the destruction of the canon.

The poorly preserved Amarna art demonstrates the incredible destruction of the ancient Egyptian canon. The images become softer, the plots – chamber, intimate. At the same time, realism increases.

 The sculptural portraits of Nefertiti look soulful, alive. Her joint pastime with Akhenaten was devoted to many works of Amarna art, and her figure was portrayed – again a violation of the canon! – the same size as the figure of a regal consort. This meant that the role of women at the court of the reformer pharaoh increased significantly.

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Portrait of the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
Portrait of the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

Now they would say that Akhenaten was fighting “toxic masculinity.” He himself appears before the viewer not in the form of a conqueror, a demigod, a warrior, as befits a great ruler. 

Akhenaten in sculptures and paintings is a gentle father, a loving husband, not at all the governor of the gods on earth, but a mere mortal enjoying everyday pleasures. He rests with his family, plays with children, sometimes there are images of family prayers.

Prayer scenes.  Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
Prayer scenes. Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

What Akhenaten looks like also sparked heated discussions. His image seems strange, pathological, although not repulsive. No proud turn of the shoulders and a stern look. The sculptures show a man with a sickly, rickety physique, with a disproportionately elongated face and roundness atypical for men. 

However, the allegedly identified remains of Akhenaten in 2010 do not indicate any significant abnormalities in bone structure. Possibly, Akhenaten wanted the sculptures to depict him as somewhat androgynous, combining male and female features – the god Aton was just as bisexual. Probably, an attempt to get closer to the image of God was the mysterious co-government of Akhenaten with a woman named Neferneferuaten – this is either one of his wives (Nefertiti was not the only one!), or a daughter.

A family scene and a funny animal.  The character of the sculpture is becoming more and more secular.
A family scene and a funny animal. The character of the sculpture is becoming more and more secular.

At first, the cults of the old gods continued to exist along with the development of the cult of Aten, but in the ninth year of his reign, Akhenaten decided to ban them, which actually destroyed the priestly power. Moreover, Akhenaten changed the very concept of God in Ancient Egypt!

 Previously, the gods were presented as individuals with their own life stories, virtues and vices. But Aton was in everything and everywhere, everything that exists came from him. The god Aton did not even have a canonical image – his power was symbolized by a solar disk with widely diverging rays, which are often called “Old Testament”. 

In the religious environment there is an opinion – though not particularly popular – that the idea of ​​a single god of the Abrahamic religions arose under the influence of the cult of Aton.

Tutankhamun with his wife.
Tutankhamun with his wife.

After the death of Akhenaten, the cult of Aten was canceled, the young Tutankhamun returned to the faith of his grandfather and announced that he would inherit the power of Amenhotep III. 

Akhetaton was destroyed and forgotten, but today the progressiveness and courage of the reformer pharaoh excites researchers, and the masterpieces of Amarna art fascinate museum visitors.


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