Egypt's First Monotheist: Akhenaten
By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer
When we think of the Egyptian Pantheon, we think of the gods of Ra, Isis, and Amun. We generally think of Ancient Egyptian society as polytheistic, worshiping the many gods of the Nile, the Sun, Death, Fertility, etc. However, there was one Egyptian Pharaoh who broke this trend. His name was Akhenaten, and he was the first ruler of Egypt to be a monotheist.
Akhenaten and his New Religion
During the New Kingdom of Egypt, the nation was prosperous and controlled a mighty empire stretching from the Levant to Nubia. In fact, this time period was considered the height of the Egyptian New Kingdom’s wealth and power. This time of Egyptian glory came during the reign of Amenhotep IV, son of Amenhotep III. The pharaoh ruled Egypt for 17 years from 1353 to 1335 C.E. However, in the sixth year of Amenhotep’s reign, he rejected the ancient Egyptian cult of polytheism and the power of the gods of Osiris and Amun. He chose to worship one god. This god was known as the Aten, depicted as a sun disc with rays of light ending with hands reaching out in all directions.
Aten was thought to be the life-giving and self-sustaining power of the Sun. Thus, he was an important god even before the reign of Amenhotep IV. However, it was under Amenhotep IV that Aten became the sole god of worship for all of Egypt. In fact, Amenhotep IV honored his new belief system by changing his to Akhenaten, which means One who is Effective for the Aten. Along with a name change, Akhenaten turned away from his and Egypt’s old belief system. This upset many in the kingdom, as the religion of Osiris was cast out, and temples belonging to the old gods were closed. The pharaoh even ordered the removal of any records or names belonging to any god other than Aten. Workers chiseled those names out from the walls of monuments.
Akhenaten also diverted funds from the cult of the old Egyptian gods towards the religion of the Aten. More importantly, he distributed the funds as blessings to the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, worship to Aten took place in daylight underneath the Sun, according to the new practices of his monotheistic religion. However, with the ascension of Akhenaten, there was not only the change of religion but also the change in Egypt’s center of power and its imperialistic ambitions in the wider Middle East.
Akhenaten’s New Capital and Lack in Foreign Relations
During Akhenaten’s reign, he abandoned the traditional capital of Thebes. Akhenaten built a new Egyptian capital on the east bank of the Nile: Amarna, meaning Horizon of the Aten. This city of Amarna had many temples in the honor of the Aten as well as open air altars providing their new god with gifts of bread, beer, cattle, wine, and fruit. Amara’s architecture contained monuments with many scenes and depictions of the natural world such as birds, calves, and various types of water plants from the Nile River.
Thus, a new artistic style was created by the patronage of Akhenaten’s new god. This featured a realistic style as well as an eccentric style decorated on the walls of the temples and monuments. Some of these impressive monuments and art styles survived Amara’s fall. Among them were the statues of Akhenaten and a bust of his wife, who is arguably one of the most famous women in Egyptian history, Nefertiti. However, under Akhenaten’s rule, the Kingdom of Egypt’s international prestige and power was in jeopardy.
Thanks to the letters of Amarna, we know that the international relations of the New Kingdom of Egypt were characterized by chaos. The Hittites became increasingly assertive due to the lack of interest in international affairs and expeditionary military campaigns of Akhenaten. The Hittites were Egypt’s sworn enemies based in Anatolia. They would use Akhenaten’s disinterest to launch military offensives against Egypt’s allies, such as the Mittani and their vassals in the Levant and Syria. By the time of Akhenten’s death, Egypt’s international might was weakened. Soon, his god of Aten and his capital of Amarna were abandoned.
In addition, Akhenaten was succeeded by arguably one of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs of them all, his son, Tutankhamun. He reverted the Kingdom of Egypt back to its old gods and religion. Subsequently, all references to Akenaten’s name and Aten were chiseled away and abandoned. It would not be until the times of the Roman Empire that the Egyptians would once again turn to monotheism. This started out in the name of Christianity and continues with Islam to the present day.
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