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Unlocking Tales From the Crypt

A Genetic Disorder Is Suspected as the Driving Force Behind a Pharaoh's Creation of a New Religion and Capital

April 23, 1998|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

He is called the Rebel Pharaoh.

Shunned by his parents as a child, he turned his back on their world and their 2,000-year-old religion when he became pharaoh, creating both a new religion and a new capital in the sunbaked desert of Egypt.

No pharaoh before or since broke so completely with Egyptian tradition and culture.

Husband of the beautiful Nefertiti, father of the golden boy-king Tutankhamen, he ruled for 17 years during a period in which Egypt was one of the most powerful empires on Earth. But when he died, his successors tore down his city, chiseled his name off monuments and eradicated his religion.

His name was Akhenaten, and his reign was one of the most intriguing interludes in the 3,000-year period during which Egypt dominated the world.

Now, researchers think they may have a reason for the behavior that made him so controversial.

A variety of evidence suggests that Akhenaten suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that alienated him from his family and may have warped his view of the world. "He was a very fascinating character," said archeologist Donald Redford of the University of Toronto, who has headed the Akhenaten Project for more than 30 years. "The self-indulgence he permitted himself combined with the imperial power of Egypt made for a very interesting combination."

Born Amenhotep IV (sometimes called Amenophis IV), he was the second son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. But unlike his brothers and sisters, he is not depicted in any sculptures or paintings dating from his father's reign.

Although he was educated in his father's court in the royal capital of Memphis, and later at the religious capital of Thebes, he most likely would have been relegated to the backwaters of history had not his elder brother died as a teenager, making him next in the line of succession.

He ascended to the throne in 1375 B.C. at the tender age of 18 and quickly wrought nothing less than a complete revolution in religion, art, construction and governance.

First, he did away with the old gods, which were generally portrayed as chimeras with human bodies and the heads of animals. In their place, he decreed that there was only one god, Aten, who was portrayed as the disc of the sun. He changed his name to Akhenaten, which means roughly, "He who is useful to the Sun Disc," and began obliterating the names of the earlier gods from temples and public buildings.

Akhenaten was the first influential person in the world to believe in the concept of one god, according to Egyptologist Donald P. Silverman of the University of Pennsylvania. His ideas may have influenced Moses, who lived only about 100 years later. And by calling himself the son of Aten, he prefigured the story of Jesus.

He also provoked a change in art--one that has proved very useful to archeologists trying to make sense of the period. In the long history of Egyptian art, pharaohs were generally presented as ideal figures, with athletic bodies and handsome faces.

But portraits and statues made during Akhenaten's rule were much more realistic in style, often showing the ruler and his queen in intimate, affectionate poses or dandling their children on their laps.

But more important is how Akhenaten himself was portrayed. He appears with a long, narrow face, wide hips on a somewhat deformed body, a small potbelly, and unusually long fingers and toes.

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Some scholars, such as art historian Gay Robins of Emory University, argue that the figures are symbolic. She believes he wanted to emphasize his relationship to the androgynous Aten by combining male and female elements in his image.

But others, such as Redford, think that the pictures are a true representation of his appearance. And those pictures--portraying an elongated face, unusually long fingers and toes and a bulging midriff--said Egyptologist Bob Brier of the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, strongly suggest that he suffered from Marfan syndrome. The connective tissue defect was also shared by Abraham Lincoln and some athletes, such as Olympic volleyball player Flo Hymen and Maryland basketball player Chris Patton, both of whom died from the condition.

Some researchers had long argued that Akhenaten suffered from another congenital disorder called Froehlich's syndrome, but that seems unlikely, Brier said. Froehlich's victims suffer from genital abnormalities and sterility, along with other physical maladies, and those conditions are unlikely in the king who married Nefertiti and sired Tutankhamen.

But his physical abnormalities do seem to match Marfan's.

Brier suggests that it was Akhenaten's unusual appearance as a result of the disease that caused his family to shun him, and that isolation, in turn, may have led to his rejection of organized religion. Marfan experts consulted by Brier agree that the images of Akhenaten are highly suggestive of the disorder, and Marfan sufferers he interviewed recall similar feelings of rejection and isolation in their childhoods.

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