YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Was Pharaoh a Reformer or a Cipher?


In 1824, Jean Francois Champollion, the first Egyptologist, observed the stone sculptures at the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna and was mildly puzzled by the pharaoh's strange physique: "King very fat and swollen, big belly. Feminine contours . . . considerable softness," he wrote in his journal.

This was the first but not the last time that someone would speculate that Akhenaten may have been a woman in disguise, an alien from another civilization or a man seriously deformed by disease. After all, the striking figure depicted in sculptures and rock tombs had an elongated head, a swan neck, wide hips, swelling breasts and large thighs. He seemed hardly different in form from his queen. Thirty years after Champollion, a German Egyptologist named Karl Lepsius speculated that the pharaoh's strange representations might be one aspect of a brief religious and cultural revolution.

Serious interest in Akhenaten developed in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, archeologists and anthropologists were describing him as one of the great men of history, forerunner of the Judeo-Christian tradition and martyr of an enlightened faith. In 1923, historian Arthur Weigall wrote that Akhenaten was "the first man to whom God revealed himself."

Akhenaten appears in Thomas Mann's 1922 novel "Joseph and His Brothers" as an enlightened pharaoh imparting wisdom to the exiled Joseph. In "Moses and Monotheism" (1939), Sigmund Freud argued that Akhenaten had been the first monotheist and the source of Moses' religious ideas. In a 1960 article, Immanuel Velikovsky wrote that Akhenaten's "criminal" status had less to do with religious heresy than with incest; the pharaoh was, he asserted, the true historic model of tragic King Oedipus.

These mythic interpretations have faded, but the extensive excavation at Amarna during the last 50 years hasn't settled the debate over Akhenaten.

Scholars agree on a few facts. When King Amenhotep III died around 1353 BC, his son and possible co-regent, Amenhotep IV, assumed the throne. At that moment, the polytheistic religion of Egypt all but disappeared and the only god anyone was permitted to worship was the Aten, the light of the sun, represented as a disk with long arm-like rays. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning "he who is effective for the Aten." He moved the capital of Egypt north from Thebes to Amarna, built a new city for 50,000 people and called it Akhetaten.

Devoted entirely to this new religion, Akhenaten focused little on foreign affairs, war or other typical matters of state. He ruled with his queen Nefertiti and had six daughters. He died around 1336 BC--scholars remain unsure of the circumstances--and was eventually succeeded by a 10-year-old, Tutankhamen. The old gods were restored and Amarna abandoned. Few further references are made to Akhenaten except as a heretic and an anathema.

How heretical was his religion? Certainly sun worship was not new in Egypt, but the exclusion and purification of all other gods had no precedent. Most of the evidence for Akhenaten's religious thought comes from his "Hymn to the Aten," a religious poem that bears comparison to Psalm 104 and St. Francis' "Hymn to Brother Sun." Akhenaten was less a sun worshiper than obedient to the transcendent idea of light, a new and strikingly clear religious principle. Less well known is Akhenaten's eradication of the cult of Osiris (god of the underworld) and de-emphasis on the idea of an afterlife.

Little evidence exists to explain what inspired Akhenaten or what became of his reforms. The condescending views of him as a forerunner of monotheism, Christianity or modernity have not held. There is no evidence that Akhenaten had any direct influence on Moses. Akhenaten's "monotheism" possesses an inhuman purity to a degree greater than anything in the Pentatuch or even in Job. Monotheism had long been a current of ancient Egyptian culture, and Akhenaten neither invented nor discovered it.

The tragedies of 20th century totalitarianism have led some scholars to ask whether Akhenaten's religious reforms produced a free-thinking monotheism or a stifling monomania. Some see Akhenaten as a despot who seized power from the priests. Others see him as a cult fanatic who projected a god into the skies and named himself its only son, rewarding his sycophants and possibly torturing dissenters. There is no sure way to know.

We are left with the phenomenon of a king who may well have been a religious free-thinker and visionary poet or a tyrant and madman. Either way, his vision found remarkable representation in the art and architecture of a new city. It lasted only 17 years. More than 3,500 years later, the ruins of his kingdom continue to be a mirror in which our own age sees some of its greatest hopes--and worst fears.


Robert Faggen is chair of the department of literature at Claremont McKenna College.

Los Angeles Times Articles