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Piecing Together Amarna

Short-lived Egyptian city is brought to life in new LACMA exhibition, 'Pharaohs of the Sun.'


The ancient Egyptians aren't really known as a radical bunch. They had a good thing going, and they stuck with it. Consistency. That's what built the pyramids, and that's what kept the Egyptian empire intact for the better part of 3,000 years.

Amarna, then, is a little episode that one suspects the Egyptians happily would have swept under the rug.

They did, in fact, until 100 years ago. That's when Egyptologists began piecing together the upheaval that led to the founding of the city of Amarna. The 250 artworks and artifacts included in "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen" shed some light on what scholars know. The exhibition opens Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, after drawing more than 200,000 visitors in Boston.

At the heart of the Amarna experiment is the pharaoh Akhenaten, who is still the subject of much debate (see story at right). But one thing is for certain: For the 17 years he was in charge, things were really different in Egypt.

Back around 1400 BC, Egypt was at the height of its imperial power. The religion was polytheistic; armchair Egyptologists may recall Osiris, Ra and Ptah, though local or household gods were worshiped as well. The god Amen had been elevated to a national deity and had a particularly powerful priesthood.

Change was brewing by about 1360 BC, when a pharaoh named Amenhotep III declared himself a god while he was still alive, even though pharaohs typically weren't deified until their death. Then, Amenhotep IV, around 1353 BC, decided everyone should worship Aten, a god represented as the sun's disk and the god most closely associated with the pharaohs.

Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, meaning "one who is effective for Aten." He outlawed Amen and banished Amen's high priest to the quarries. Then he moved 175 miles north and built a brand-new city on the Nile dedicated to Aten. Originally called Akhetaten ("Horizon of Aten"), it is now referred to as Amarna, the name of a nearby village.

"We don't have every bit of writing, so we have to piece the history together," said Egyptologist Nancy Thomas, LACMA's deputy director of curatorial affairs. "But indications are that Akhenaten chose to worship the Aten, and to achieve that he had to relocate everything. All the temples in Thebes were dedicated to other gods . . . so he needed to build new temples and start over."

In a very short time, Amarna housed an estimated 20,000 people or more.

"It's like GM moving to a new site," Thomas said. "Everyone sort of had to follow the royal court."

Earlier museum shows have explored facets of Amarna. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, curated "The Royal Women of Amarna" in 1997. Others have focused on Tutankhamen or Akhenaten specifically. "Pharaohs of the Sun," curated by Rita Freed of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, takes the largest possible view.

"It's very rare that you have an exhibition that tries to tell the whole story," said Yvonne Markowitz, a researcher at the Boston museum who worked on the exhibition. "We have these two big aspects: the personalities--which don't always stand out so uniquely in Egyptian history--and the city.

"We know a lot about the city because it was abandoned, and it wasn't a continued area of settlement. Usually people build on top and top and top," Markowitz said. "Excavators were able to go back to the city and look at the layout."

New Art for New Tombs, Temples and Palaces

Border markers were carved into the cliffs looming on either side of the Nile. Below lay a highly structured and symbolically designed city. On the eastern bank were the buildings, including the Great Temple, which covered 1.8 million square feet. "Pharaohs of the Sun" includes a scale model of Amarna and aerial photographs of the excavation. Barry Kemp, the archeologist currently working at the site, was a consultant on the model and provided details from discoveries made just last year.

The temples in Amarna were markedly different. Traditional temples had a series of chambers leading to a holy--and darkened--center where the carved statues of the gods were kept. Because the god Aten was the sun-disk, the temples dedicated to him had no roof, so the sun's rays could shine in.

All these new temples, tombs and palaces meant lots of new art. Concurrent with the religious changes--or perhaps, as with the temples, because of them--there was a dramatic shift in artistic style. The stiff, square-shouldered physiques became softened, in some cases even paunchy. Some facial features became more naturalistic--but also more stylized. Two colossal statues of Akhenaten, each about 7 feet tall, are particularly striking examples.

"You can't help but say this is a very odd physique," Markowitz said. "There's a tendency to say, 'What would make someone look this way?' . . . I think it's responding to some kind of inner psychological or spiritual motive, trying to express something different from the past. It's quite deliberate."

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