Amenhotep IV succeeded his father after Amenhotep III's death at the end of his 38-year reign, possibly after a short coregency lasting between either 1 to 2 years. Suggested dates for Akhenaten's reign (subject to the debates surrounding Egyptian chronology) are from 1353 BC-1336 BC or 1351 BC–1334 BC. Akhenaten's chief wife was Nefertiti, made world-famous by the discovery of her exquisitely moulded and painted bust, now displayed in the Altes Museum of Berlin, and among the most recognised works of art surviving from the ancient world.
After his death and the restoration of traditional religious practice, he and his immediate successors were ignored and excised from history by later rulers. Akhenaten himself is usually referred to as 'the enemy'.
The king's religious reformation may have begun with his decision to celebrate a Sed festival in his third regnal year – a highly unusual step, since a Sed-festival, a sort of royal jubilee intended to reinforce the Pharaoh's divine powers of kingship, was traditionally held in the thirtieth year of a Pharaoh's reign.
The relationship between Amenhotep IV and the priests of Amun-Re gradually deteriorated. In Year 5 of his reign, Amenhotep IV took decisive steps to establish the Aten as the exclusive, monotheistic god of Egypt: the pharaoh "disbanded the priesthoods of all the other gods...and diverted the income from these [other] cults to support the Aten. To emphasize his complete allegiance to the Aten, the king officially changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten or 'Servant of the Aten.' Akhenaten's fifth year also marked the beginning of construction on his new capital, Akhetaten or 'Horizon of Aten', at the site known today as Amarna. Very soon afterwards, he centralized Egyptian religious practices in Akhetaten, though construction of the city seems to have continued for several more years. In honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt. In these new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight, rather than in dark temple enclosures, as had been the previous custom. Akhenaten is also believed to have composed the Great Hymn to the Aten.
Initially, Akhenaten presented Aten as a variant of the familiar supreme deity Amun-Ra (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun becoming merged with the sun god Ra), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar Egyptian religious context. However, by Year 9 of his reign Akhenaten declared that Aten was not merely the supreme god, but the only god, and that he, Akhenaten, was the only intermediary between Aten and his people. He ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt, and in a number of instances, inscriptions of the plural 'gods' were also removed.
Aten's name is also written differently after Year 9, to emphasise the radicalism of the new regime, which included a ban on images, with the exception of a rayed solar disc, in which the rays (commonly depicted ending in hands) appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten, who by then was evidently considered not merely a sun god, but rather a universal deity. It is important to note, however, that representations of the Aten were always accompanied with a sort of "hieroglyphic footnote", stating that the representation of the sun as All-encompassing Creator was to be taken as just that: a representation of something that, by its very nature as something transcending creation, cannot be fully or adequately represented by any one part of that creation.
Early on in his reign, Akhenaten fell out with the king of Mitanni, Tushratta, who had been courting favor with his father against the Hittites. Tushratta complains in numerous letters that Akhenaten had sent him gold plated statues rather than statues made of solid gold; the statues formed part of the bride price which Tushratta received for letting his daughter Tadukhepa be married to Amenhotep III and then Akhenaten. Amarna letter EA 27 preserves a complaint by Tushratta to Akhenaten about the situation:
"I...asked your father, Mimmureya, for statues of solid cast gold, one of myself and a second statue, a statue of Tadu-Heba (Tadukhepa), my daughter, and your father said, "Don't talk of giving statues just of solid cast gold. I will give you ones made also of lapis lazuli. I will give you, too, along with the statues, much additional gold and (other) goods beyond measure." Every one of my messengers that were staying in Egypt saw the gold for the statues with their own eyes. Your father himself recast the statues [i]n the presence of my messengers, and he made them entirely of pure gold....He showed much additional gold, which was beyond measure and which he was sending to me. He said to my messengers, "See with your own eyes, here the statues, there much gold and goods beyond measure, which I am sending to my brother." And my messengers did see with their own eyes! But my brother (ie: Akhenaten) has not sent the solid (gold) statues that your father was going to send. You have sent plated ones of wood. Nor have you sent me the goods that your father was going to send me, but you have reduced (them) greatly. Yet there is nothing I know of in which I have failed my brother. Any day that I hear the greetings of my brother, that day I make a festive occasion...May my brother send me much gold. [At] the kim[ru fe]ast...[...with] many goods [may my] brother honor me. In my brother's country gold is as plentiful as dust. May my brother cause me no distress. May he send me much gold in order that my brother [with the gold and m]any [good]s, may honor me."(EA 27)
While Akhenaten was certainly not a close friend of Tushratta, he was evidently concerned at the expanding power of the Hittite Empire under its powerful ruler Suppiluliuma I. A successful Hittite attack on Mitanni and its ruler Tushratta would have disrupted the entire international balance of power in the Ancient Middle East at a time when Egypt had made peace with Mitanni; this would cause some of Egypt's vassals to switch their allegiances to the Hittites, as time would prove. A group of Egypt's allies who attempted to rebel against the Hittites were captured, and wrote letters begging Akhenaten for troops, but he did not respond to most of their pleas. Evidence suggests that the troubles on the northern frontier led to difficulties in Canaan, particularly in a struggle for power between Labaya of Shechem and Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem, which required the Pharaoh to intervene in the area by dispatching Medjay troops northwards. Akhenaten pointedly refused to save his vassal Rib-Hadda of Byblos whose kingdom was being besieged by the expanding state of Amurru under Abdi-Ashirta and later Aziru, son of Abdi-Ashirta, despite Rib-Hadda's numerous pleas for help from the pharaoh. Rib-Hadda wrote a total of 60 letters to Akhenaten pleading for aid from the pharaoh. Akhenaten wearied of Rib-Hadda's constant correspondences and once told Rib-Hadda: "You are the one that writes to me more than all the (other) mayors" or Egyptian vassals in EA 124. What Rib-Hadda did not comprehend was that the Egyptian king would not organize and dispatch an entire army north just to preserve the political status quo of several minor city states on the fringes of Egypt's Asiatic Empire. Rib-Hadda would pay the ultimate price; his exile from Byblos due to a coup led by his brother Ilirabih is mentioned in one letter. When Rib-Hadda appealed in vain for aid to Akhenaten and then turned to Aziru, his sworn enemy to place him back on the throne of his city, Aziru promptly had him dispatched to the king of Sidon where Rib-Hadda was almost certainly executed.
William L. Moran notes that the Amarna corpus of 380+ letters counters the conventional view that Akhenaten neglected Egypt's foreign territories in favour of his internal reforms. There are several letters from Egyptian vassals notifying Pharaoh that the king's instructions have been followed:
To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, the Sun from the sky: Message of Yapahu, the ruler of Gazru, your servant, the dirt at your feet. I indeed prostrate myself at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun...7 times and 7 times, on the stomach and on the back. I am indeed guarding the place of the king, my lord, the Sun of the sky, where I am, and all the things the king, my lord, has written me, I am indeed carrying out--everything! Who am I, a dog, and what is my house...and what is anything I have, that the orders of the king, my lord, the Sun from the sky, should not obey constantly? (EA 378)
When the loyal but unfortunate Rib-Hadda was killed at the instigation of Aziru, Akhenaten sent an angry letter to Aziru containing a barely veiled accusation of outright treachery on the latter's part. Akhenaten wrote:
Say to Aziru, ruler of Amurru: Thus the king, your lord (ie: Akhenaten), saying: The ruler of Gubla (ie: Byblos), whose brother had cast him away at the gate, said to you, "Take me and get me into the city. There is much silver, and I will give it to you. Indeed there is an abundance of everything, but not with me [here]." Thus did the ruler (Rib-Hadda) speak to you. Did you not write to the king, my lord saying, "I am your servant like all the previous mayors (ie: vassals) in his city"? Yet you acted delinquently by taking the mayor whose brother had cast him away at the gate, from his city.
He (Rib-Hadda) was residing in Sidon and, following your own judgment, you gave him to (some) mayors. Were you ignorant of the treacherousness of the men? If you really are the king's servant, why did you not denounce him before the king, your lord, saying, "This mayor has written to me saying, 'Take me to yourself and get me into my city'"? And if you did act loyally, still all the things you wrote were not true. In fact, the king has reflected on them as follows, "Everything you have said is not friendly."
Now the king has heard as follows, "You are at peace with the ruler of Qidsa. (Kadesh) The two of you take food and strong drink together." And it is true. Why do you act so? Why are you at peace with a ruler whom the king is fighting? And even if you did act loyally, you considered your own judgment, and his judgment did not count. You have paid no attention to the things that you did earlier. What happened to you among them that you are not on the side of the king, your lord? Consider the people that are training you for their own advantage. They want to throw you into the fire....If for any reason whatsoever you prefer to do evil, and if you plot evil, treacherous things, then you, together with your entire family, shall die by the axe of the king. So perform your service for the king, your lord, and you will live. You yourself know that the king does not fail when he rages against all of Canaan. And when you wrote saying, 'May the king, my Lord, give me leave this year, and then I will go next year to the king, my Lord. (ie: to Egypt) If this is impossible, I will send my son in my place'--the king, your Lord, let you off this year in accordance with what you said. Come yourself, or send your son [now], and you will see the king at whose sight all lands live."(EA 162)
This letter shows that Akhenaten paid close attention to the affairs of his vassals in Canaan and Syria. Akhenaten commanded Aziru to come to Egypt and proceeded to detain him there for at least one year. In the end, Akhenaten was forced to release Aziru back to his homeland when the Hittites advanced southwards into Amki thereby threatening Egypt's series of Asiatic vassal states including Amurru. Sometime after his return to Amurru, Aziru defected to the Hittite side with his kingdom. While it is known from an Amarna letter by Rib-Hadda that the Hittites "seized all the countries that were vassals of the king of Mitanni",EA75 Akhenaten managed to preserve Egypt's control over the core of her Near Eastern Empire which consisted of present day Palestine as well as the Phoenician coast while avoiding conflict with the increasingly powerful Hittite Empire of Suppiluliuma I. Only the Egyptian border province of Amurru in Syria around the Orontes river was permanently lost to the Hittites when its ruler Aziru defected to the Hittites. Finally, contrary to the conventional view of a ruler who neglected Egypt's international relations, Akhenaten is known to have initiated at least one campaign into Nubia in his regnal Year 12, where his campaign is mentioned in Amada stela CG 41806 and on a separate companion stela at Buhen.
This Amarna period is also associated with a serious outbreak of a pandemic, possibly the plague, or polio, or perhaps the world's first recorded outbreak of influenza, which came from Egypt and spread throughout the Middle East, killing Suppiluliuma I, the Hittite King. Influenza is a disease associated with the close proximity of water fowl, pigs and humans, and its origin as a pandemic disease may be due to the development of agricultural systems that allow the mixing of these animals and their wastes. Some of the first archaeological evidence for this agricultural system is during the Amarna period of Ancient Egypt, and the pandemic that followed this period throughout the Ancient Near East may have been the earliest recorded outbreak of influenza. However, the precise nature of this Egyptian plague remains unknown and Asia has also been suggested as a possible site of origin of pandemic influenza in humans. The prevalence of disease may help explain the rapidity with which the site of Akhetaten was subsequently abandoned. It may also explain why later generations considered the gods to have turned against the Amarna monarchs. The black death has also been suggested by Zahi Hawass because at Amarna the traces of the plague have been found.
Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art, bearing a variety of affectations, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, exaggerated ugliness and the beauty of Nefertiti. Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner, and they are clearly shown displaying affection for each other. Nefertiti also appears beside the king in actions usually reserved for a Pharaoh, suggesting that she attained unusual power for a queen. Artistic representations of Akhenaten give him a strikingly bizarre appearance, with an elongated face, slender limbs, a protruding belly, wide hips, and an overall pear-shaped body. It has been suggested that the pharaoh had himself depicted in this way for religious reasons, or that it exaggerates his distinctive physical traits. Until Akhenaten's mummy is located and identified, such theories remain speculative.
Following Akhenaten's death, a comprehensive political, religious and artistic reformation returned Egyptian life to the norms it had followed previously during his father's reign. Much of the art and building infrastructure that was created during Akhenaten's reign was defaced or destroyed in the period immediately following his death. Stone building blocks from his construction projects were later used as foundation stones for subsequent rulers' temples and tombs.
Amenhotep IV was married to Nefertiti at the very beginning of his reign, and the couple had six known daughters and possibly two sons (the sons with his other wife Kiya). This is a list with suggested years of birth:
His known consorts were:
Also suggested as his consorts were his daughters:
Both Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten apparently had children – Meritaten-ta-sherit and Ankhesenpaaten-ta-sherit, respectively –, but there are doubts not only regarding their parentage but their existence as well. Both appear only in texts which had belonged to Kiya, and were usurped by the princesses later, and it was suggested that they might have been the daughters of Kiya, or were fictional, replacing Kiya's daughter in those scenes.
Two other lovers have been suggested, but are not widely accepted:
Akhenaten planned to relocate Egyptian burials on the East side of the Nile (sunrise) rather than on the West side (sunset), in the Royal Wadi in Akhetaten. His body was probably removed after the court returned to Thebes, and reburied somewhere in the Valley of the Kings. His sarcophagus was destroyed but has since been reconstructed and now sits outside in the Cairo Museum.
There is much controversy around whether Amenhotep IV succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, Amenhotep III, or whether there was a coregency (lasting as long as 12 years according to some Egyptologists). Current literature by Eric Cline, Nicholas Reeves, Peter Dorman and other scholars comes out strongly against the establishment of a long coregency between the 2 rulers and in favour of either no coregency or a brief one lasting 1 to 2 years, at the most. Other literature by Donald Redford, William Murnane, Alan Gardiner and more recently by Lawrence Berman in 1998 contests the view of any coregency whatsoever between Akhenaten and his father.
Similarly, although it is accepted that Akhenaten himself died in Year 17 of his reign, the question of whether Smenkhkare became co-regent perhaps 2 or 3 years earlier or enjoyed a brief independent reign is unclear. If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten, and became sole Pharaoh, he likely ruled Egypt for less than a year. The next successor was either Neferneferuaten, possibly a female Pharaoh who reigned for perhaps 2 or three years , or Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), with the country perhaps being run by the chief vizier, and future Pharaoh, Ay. Tutankhamun is believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of Akhenaten, and possibly Kiya although one scholar has suggested that Tutankhamun may have been a son of Smenkhkare instead. It has also been suggested that after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti reigned with the name of Neferneferuaten. The so-called Coregency Stela, found in a tomb in Amarna possibly shows his queen Nefertiti as his coregent, ruling alongside him, but this is not certain as the names have been removed and recarved to show Ankhesenpaaten and Neferneferuaten.
With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded gradually fell out of favor. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in Year 2 of his reign (1332 BC) and abandoned the city of Akhetaten, which eventually fell into ruin. His successors Ay and Horemheb disassembled temples Akhenaten had built, including the temple at Thebes, using them as a source of easily available building materials and decorations for their own temples.
Finally, Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay were excised from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. This is thought to be part of an attempt by Horemheb to delete all trace of Atenism and the pharaohs associated with it from the historical record. Akhenaten's name never appeared on any of the king lists compiled by later Pharaohs and it was not until the late 19th century that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.
Other scholars and mainstream Egyptologists point out that there are direct connections between early Judaism and other Semitic religious traditions. They also state that two of the three principal Judaic terms for God, Yahweh, Elohim (meaning roughly "the lofty one", morphologically plural), and Adonai (meaning "our lord", also morphologically plural) have no connection to Aten. Freud commented on the connection between Adonai, the Egyptian Aten and the Syrian divine name of Adonis as a primeval unity of language between the factions; in this he was following the argument of Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, but the argument was groundless as 'Aten' and 'Adonai' are not, in fact, linguistically related.
Akhenaten appears in history almost two-centuries prior to the first archaeological and written evidence for Judaism and Israelite culture is found in the Levant. Abundant visual imagery of the Aten disk was central to Atenism, which celebrated the natural world, while such imagery is not a feature of early Israelite culture, Although pottery found throughout Judea dated to the end of the 8th century BC have seals resembling a winged sun disk burned on their handles, presumedly thought to be the royal seal of the Judean Kingdom.
He likely belonged to the local nobility of Akhmim. Egyptologists hold this view because Yuya had strong connections to the city of Akhmin in Upper Egypt. This makes it unlikely that he was a foreigner since most Asiatic settlers tended to cloister around the Nile Delta region of Lower Egypt. Some Egyptologists, however, give him a Mitannian origin. It is widely accepted that there are strong similarities between Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Aten and the Biblical Psalm 104, though this form is found widespread in ancient Near Eastern hymnology both before and after the period and whether this implies a direct influence or a common literary convention remains in dispute.
H.R. Hall even claimed that the pharaoh was the "first example of the scientific mind".
On the contrary, Nicholas Reeves in his book Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet portrays a totally different image of Pharaoh, seeing his religious reformations as mere attempts for centralizing power and solidify his role as "divine monarch".
In the same 1960 work, Oedipus and Akhnaton, Velikovsky not only saw Akhenaten as the origin of Oedipus, but also identified him with a Pharaoh mentioned only in Herodotus, "Anysis of the city of the same name" - Akhenaten of Akhetaten. Like Oedipus, Anysis was blinded, deposed and exiled. Some scholars have argued that Akhenaton went blind at the end of his life and was supported by his wife Nefertiti.
Another suggestion by Burridge is that Akhenaten may have suffered from Marfan's Syndrome. Marfan's syndrome, unlike Froelich's, does not result in any lack of intelligence or sterility. It is associated with a sunken chest, long curved spider-like fingers (arachnodactyly), occasional congenital heart difficuties, a high curved or slightly cleft palate, and a highly curved cornea or dislocated lens of the eye, with the requirement for bright light to see well. Marfan's sufferers tend towards being taller than average, with a long, thin face, and elongated skull, overgrown ribs, a funnel or pigeon chest, and larger pelvis, with enlarged thighs and spindly calves.. Marfan's syndrome is a dominant characteristic, and sufferers have a 50% chance of passing it on to their children. All of these symptoms appear in depictions of Akhenaten and of his children. Recent CT scans of Tutankhamun report a cleft palate and a fairly long head.
However, Dominic Montserrat in Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt argues that "there is now a broad consensus among Egyptologists that the exaggerated forms of Akhenaten's physical portrayal...are not to be read literally" Montserrat and others argue that the body-shape relates to some form of religious symbolism. Because the god Aten was referred to as "the mother and father of all humankind" it has been suggested that Akhenaten was made to look androgynous in artwork as a symbol of the androgyny of the god. This required "a symbolic gathering of all the attributes of the creator god into the physical body of the king himself", which will "display on earth the Aten's multiple life-giving functions". Akhenaten did refer to himself as "The Unique One of Re," and he may have used his control of artistic expression to distance himself from the common people, though such a radical departure from the idealised traditional representation of the image of the Pharaoh would be truly extraordinary. It should be observed that representations of other persons than Akhenaten in the 'Amarna style' are equally unflattering - for example, a carving of his father Amenhotep III as a languid, overweight figure; Nefertiti is shown in some statues as well past her prime, with a severe face and a stomach swollen by repeated pregnancies.
There has also been interest in the identity of the Pharaoh Smenkhkare who was the immediate successor to Akhenaten. In particular descriptions on a small box seemed to refer to Smenkhkare beloved of Akhenaten.
Smenkhkare was first thought to be a male, raising the idea that Akhenaten might have been what we now call bisexual. This theory seems to originate from objects found in the tomb of Tutankhamen in the 1920s. The Egyptologist Percy Newberrythen linked this to one of the stele exhibited in the Berlin Museum which pictured two rulers, naked and seated together – the older caressing the younger and the shoulder offering support. He identified these with the rulers Akhenaten and Smenkhkare. Coinciding with the disappearance of Nefertiti’s name from all records towards the end of Akhenaten’s reign.
It is now generally accepted that Smenkhkare was likely none other than his queen, Nefertiti. The issue seemed finally to have been resolved in the 1970s when John Harris identified the figure pictured alongside Akhenaten as Nefertiti. He argued that Nefertiti may have actually been elevated to co-regent alongside Akhenaten and perhaps even succeeded temporarily as an independent ruler; changing her name to Smenkhkare. Furthermore, other Egyptologists like Nicholas Reeves have contended that Smenkhkare was the same person as Neferneferuaten who ruled together with Akhenaten as co-regents for the final one or two years of Akhenaten's reign. Reeves contends that Smenkhkare shares some names with Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, and it is possible that Nefertiti was Smenkhkare, as it is not unheard of Ancient Egypt for women to become pharaoh (e.g., Hatshepsut). On several monuments, the two are shown seated side-by-side. Reeves' suggestions would give weight to the idea that switch in names at different times were to recognize changes in titles or positions for Nefertiti (e.g., Queen, and then Pharaoh). Some others believe Smenkhkare was likely to have been a half-brother or a son to Akhenaten.