Tutankhamun’s Family -chapter III: his father, Akhenaton

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Tutankhamun’s Family -chapter III: his father, Akhenaton

The son of King Amenhotep III and the Great Royal Wife Tiy, Amenhotep IV/Akhenaton—a reforming, visionary, or heretic Pharaoh, and the brilliant inventor of monotheism or simply a megalomaniac precursor—was one of the most enigmatic kings of the Pharaonic civilisation: ever since the discovery of his reign at the beginning of the twentieth century, different generations have viewed him either as an incredibly modern hero or as the ultimate symbol of a decadent dynasty.

From the outset of his reign, the young Amenhotep IV, who had not yet changed his name, decided to construct near the enclosure of Amon-Re at Karnak a group of temples devoted to a deity whose importance—since the reigns of his grandfather and father, Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III respectively—continued to grow. This sun god, who was soon depicted as a solar disc emitting rays terminating in human hands that dispensed life to the created world, bore the Egyptian name of Aton. In contrast with most of the other gods, he was soon given his own cartouches, a privilege that underscored his close link with the king.

Undoubtedly driven by opponents of the sudden promotion of a little-known god, compared, for example, with the illustrious Amon-Re of Thebes, Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaton (‘beneficial to Aton’), decided to devote a new territory to his god, to attest to his devotion to Aton: in Middle Egypt, not far from the city of Hermopolis, the king founded a new capital, Akhetaton (‘Horizon of Aton’). Present-day Amarna rose out of the sands ex-nihilo: in just a few years palaces, temples, villas, and economic and administrative buildings sprang up, along with royal and private necropolises to house the final resting places of Akhenaton’s family and his most important courtiers.

The Amarna reform was also an artistic revolution. To construct his temples, Akhenaton developed ‘talatates’, limestone or sandstone bricks that were smaller than previous building blocks, and which could be lifted by one or two men without too much difficulty: tens of thousands of these stones were extracted from the quarries of the Gebel el-Silsileh, which enabled the rapid construction of the temples devoted to Aton, whose cult had to be established as soon as possible. To distinguish the temples from other temples dedicated to the traditional cult, and in accordance with his own theological thinking, Akhenaton invented a new form of architecture for the temples of Aton: unusually, the temple did not become darker and spatially more restricted as one progressed towards the most sacred part of the sanctuary, but was comprised of large open courtyards, with offering tables devoted to the Disc—Aton benefitted directly from the offerings though his rays.

Amarnan art also introduced characteristic stylistic innovations: the figures became less rigid and the heads were lengthened, thereby moving away from the hieratic and traditional style of the preceding periods. The images of the king and those of the royal family adopted exaggerated forms, which sometimes veered towards the caricatural, but which embodied the Atonist ideology. Life, dispensed by the rays of the solar disc and celebrated in the Hymns to Aton, engraved in the tombs of Amarna, was also celebrated on the walls of the temples and tombs: speed, movement, a taste for anecdotes and details, and breaking with convention are characteristic of this unique Amarnan art, which extolled Aton as the source of all life, whether in relation to man or the fauna and flora.

Akhenaton’s reign lasted only seventeen years. The king’s death quickly led to the end of his ideology and the abandonment of the capital of Amarna, provoked by problems that arose with the succession. Several years later, Akhenaton’s only known son, who was still a child, ascended the throne and changed his name from Toutankhaton to Tutankhamun, thereby paying tribute to the god abandoned and persecuted by his father and initiating a revival of the traditional cults.

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