Monotheism in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptian dynasties ruled the Nile Valley for thousands of years, worshipping a diverse pantheon of gods during most of that time. However, during one brief period Egypt adopted monotheism. The pharaoh Akhenaten worshiped only the sun god, Aten.
1 Akhenaten's Mission
Egypt’s religious transition happened under the rule of Akhenaten, who ruled from approximately 1350 to 1334 B.C., during the 18th dynasty. Akhenaten's father, Amunhotep III, had worked to counter the growing power of the polytheist priests. Soon after Akhenaten came to power, he brought his father’s work to conclusion with a sudden and radical restructuring of Egyptian religious life.
2 The Revolution of Akhenaten
Early in his reign, Akhenaten introduced a new system which made the sun god Aten the highest deity in the land, changing his own name from Amunhotep to Akhenaten, which meant “Servant of Aten.” He founded a new Egyptian capital city, Amarna. Though the worship of other gods was at first allowed to continue, Akhenaten made exclusive worship of Aten the official religion in Egypt. He placed himself as the sole intermediary between the people and the sun deity, solidifying his status and becoming the first Egyptian ruler to actually be called by the honorary title “pharaoh” in his own time.
3 Beliefs and Practices
In Amarna, new temples were built with raised altars and vaulted spaces under the sun's rays for worshipping Aten, and the traditional hymn of the sun god was completely reworked to exclude mention of any other gods. Most strikingly, the sun god was no longer depicted in art as a human-like deity, but instead represented only as the disk of the sun with rays extending down to the pharaoh and his people.
4 Religous Contention
Although many Egyptians continued worshipping the old gods, some in Akhenaten's court did publicly adopt the new religion, threatening the status of the traditionally powerful priestly caste. After Akhenaten’s death, many works of art and architecture from his controversial reign were damaged or destroyed, and some attempts were made to later write him out of Egyptian history.
5 Return to the Old Ways
The next pharaoh after Akhenaten was King Tutankhamun, the same “King Tut” now famous for his well-preserved burial chamber, which was rediscovered in 1922. Tutankhamun was Akhenaten’s son, but he departed sharply from his predecessor’s religious policies. Tutankhamun reinstated the temples of the old gods early in his reign. Worship of Aten did continue, but as part of the traditional polytheistic system.