Among the ancient ruins in Amarna, Egypt, lies a giant statue of Akhenaten. It's a fitting scene for this ancient pharaoh, who ruled the kingdom between 1352 and 1336 B.C. The son of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten attempted a cultural revolution in Egypt, only to bring it to near collapse. He instituted a new religion, abolished the priestly class, moved the seat of government, and introduced a new public arts style. Yet most of these changes met with resistance and had to be reversed after his death.
A New Religion
Akhenaten came to the throne as Amenhotep IV. At the time, Egypt was the world's most powerful nation, thanks largely to his father's political achievements. Early in his reign, the new pharaoh began to revise Egypt's religious system. The kingdom's broad pantheon of deities was now reduced to just one -- the sun god Aten. The worship of other deities would no longer be tolerated. To commemorate this new religion, Amenhotep IV took the name Akhenaten, which translated into "Living Spirit of the Aten."
Abolishing the Priesthood
Akhenaten's religious reforms were partially prompted by his frustrations with the priestly class. Not only did the priesthood command considerable wealth, but it also held power over the pharaohs. Priests were the sole interpreters of divine will, and Egypt's rulers were duty-bound to obey the gods. As part of his new solar religion, Akhenaten declared that he alone had the ability to speak with Aten. Suddenly the priesthood was obsolete. Akhenaten now controlled Egypt both politically and spiritually.
A New Capital
It was not enough to merely do away with the old religions. Akhenaten also decreed that Egypt needed a new divine city, a place uncontaminated by the worship of false gods. Soon a massive building project was underway at a desert site 200 miles north of Thebes. The resulting city, Akhetaten, was located in modern-day Amarna, near the river Nile. It featured numerous palaces, administrative buildings and royal workshops. The king also laid out a series of royal tombs and sites of worship in the surrounding desert. Finally, about 20,000 people were brought to live in the new capital.
New Visual Arts
Art in Egyptian society had long followed rules of strict formality, in which figures appeared in exaggerated poses. Akhenaten decreed that this, too, would have to change. Now the emphasis would be on creating more natural imagery. Human forms took on a rounded aspect that contrasted sharply with those of the past. Akhenaten also commissioned works of a personal nature, such as intimate scenes of his family life. These were also new to the Egyptians, who had only ever seen formal images of the pharaohs.
The End of an Era
Akhenaten's reforms cost the kingdom dearly. His projects nearly ruined Egypt's finances, even as he allowed the neighboring Assyrians and the Hittites to become a threat. The pharaoh was flooded with pleas to change course, but he refused. Then, suddenly, he died in 1336 B.C. His successor, Tutankhamen, declared Ankhenaten a heretic and reinstated both the priesthood and the old religions. Amarna once more became desolate, as its citizens packed up and moved out. Akhenaten's era of change ended as quickly as it had begun, and Egypt narrowly avoided a disastrous collapse.
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