Akhenaten and the Egyptian Reformation

It’s a little known fact that ancient Egypt, briefly, became monotheistic. It abandoned its famous gods in favour of one, mysterious deity. Sadly for the Egyptians, they hadn’t turned to the One God, but the sun. Re or Ra, the sun god, was re-named the Aten, and was magnified above all other gods. The Pharaoh who brought about these changes was Amenhotep IV, of the 18th dynasty, around 1350 BC. He was married to the beautiful Nefertiti, whose bust is remarkably preserved. This Pharaoh changed his name, removing Amun (Amun and Amen are interchangeable), the chief of the Egyptian pantheon, and becoming Akhenaten. He abandoned the old capitals of Luxor and Memphis, building a new, monotheistic city in the desert, Armana. Soon, Akhenaten forbade the worship of all other deities. Unlike the dark, eerie temples of other gods, Aten’s temples were colourful and open-roofed, allowing in the sun’s rays. No statues of Aten were allowed, as this was considered idolatry. Instead, stylised portraits of the royal family lined the walls.

Akhenaten composed a hymn to his new god, which goes:

 

How manifold it is, what thou hast made!

They are hidden from the face (of man).

O sole god, like whom there is no other!

Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,

Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,

Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,

And what is on high, flying with its wings.

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,

Thou settest every man in his place,

Thou suppliest their necessities:

Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.

Their tongues are separate in speech,

And their natures as well;

Their skins are distinguished,

As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.

Thou makest a Nile in the underworld,

Thou bringest forth as thou desirest

To maintain the people (of Egypt)

According as thou madest them for thyself,

The lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them,

The lord of every land, rising for them,

The Aton of the day, great of majesty.

You are in my heart,

There is no other who knows you,

Only your son, Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re [Akhenaten],

Whom you have taught your ways and your might.

[Those on] earth come from your hand as you made them.

When you have dawned they live.

When you set they die;

You yourself are lifetime, one lives by you.

All eyes are on [your] beauty until you set.

All labour ceases when you rest in the west;

When you rise you stir [everyone] for the King,

Every leg is on the move since you founded the earth.

You rouse them for your son who came from your body.

The King who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands,

Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re,

The Son of Re who lives by Maat. the Lord of crowns,

Akhenaten, great in his lifetime;

(And) the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,

Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti, living forever

(Translated by Pritchard and Lichtheim)

 

 C.S. Lewis compared it to the Jewish Psalms in its praise and style, and there is something truly pious about it, even though it is addressed to the sun and revels in the King's self-importance.

Egypt's montheistic king. Personal picture of Gérard Ducher

No-one seems able to account for this sudden change in religion. The Pharaoh’s son and heir, Tutankhaten, reverted to the old gods when he inherited the throne aged 13, and changed his name accordingly, exchanging the Aten for the chief of the old gods, Amun, thus becoming Tutankhamun. His tomb was famously discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, and is now the subject of an ITV drama.

I’m intrigued by all this. The introduction of monotheism happened around 90 years after the Hebrew Exodus. Could it be that Amenhotep was aware of a deity far greater than the native Egyptian ones? One that could turn even the mighty Nile into blood, summoning plagues of locusts and frogs? Although the king could not identify this great God, he knew that images of Him were forbidden and that He was not one god among many, but one God among no-others. The Hebrews had originally asked the then pharaoh to go out into the desert to offer sacrifices. Could this be the inspiration behind Akhenaten’s new desert capital, away from the other gods? This God was unknown to the king. Perhaps he simply knew him as ‘I AM’. In the absence of any revelation, Akhenaten instead worshipped the sun, the most powerful object in the galaxy that he could see.

Tutankhamun, the ‘heretic’s’ son, died mysteriously at the age of 18. His father Akenaten’s statues were defaced and destroyed, and the Aten was abolished. The old gods returned, and Egypt once more sank into the depths of polytheism.

Romans 1:20 says

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

Akhenaten was aware, I believe, of the one true God’s invisible attributes, though his fallen mind was unable to fully identify and know Him. Soon though, after his death, Egyptians returned to their bird-headed and animal-bodied gods. 

Top photograph: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France