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Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Akhenaten

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Welcome back to the Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt listen through, and this time we’re looking at someone as different in his own way as Hatshepsut when it came to being a pharaoh: Akhenaten, who Dr. Brier calls the heretic pharaoh.

Dr. Brier begins by explaining how conservative a society Egypt was. Its art didn’t really change at all in its 3,000 year history, nor did its social or political institutions. When change happened – such as a female pharaoh – the Egyptians attempted to get back to traditional ways and erase that aberration from its collective memory – for example, by attempting to remove all references to Hatshepsut after her death.

This seems kind of crazy on its face, and I imagine – though have no evidence – that this is more about Egyptian perception than actual fact. It is honestly impossible for me to visualize a society not changing over 3,000 years. Maybe the institutions and roles of the elite may not have changed, but culture must have moved forward in some way. Language must have evolved. But Dr. Brier seems to assert that this is not the case. It seems implausible at best to me.

However, Dr. Brier does explain that there were moments in history where the membrane of Egyptian conservatism was stretched almost to the breaking point, and Hatshepsut was not even the worst culprit.

As explained, the pharaoh, the military, and the religious institutions were all linked in a cycle of foreign adventure bringing esteem and booty, donated to the clergy, who supported the pharaoh and military. Akhenaten threw this all into turmoil by rejecting the use of the army as a mechanism for aggrandizement and resource collection and by eliminating the cultural need for the clergy by creating a new religion.

Dr. Brier says that Akhenaten created the first monotheistic religion. Not only did Akhenaten assert the Aten – a Sun deity in the Egyptian pantheon, but not one anthropomorphised and presented as the solar disk – was the only god the Egyptians would worship, the Aten was the only god, and all others were false. I’m not a comparative religion scholar, but given that Akhenaten ruled around 1350 BCE, I can believe it. The general non-scholarly cultural conception of the Exodus is that it happened around the time of Rameses (don’t worry, we’re getting to him) who began his period of rulership around 1270. That’s not a huge span of time, so I would imagine Akhenaten and the Jewish culture both likely have a claim on first monotheists, but this isn’t really a race.

Akhenaten’s monotheism was not a cultural evolution, it seems more like one man’s epiphany enforced on a nation. The fact that he had to create a completely new capital – eschewing the two traditional capitals of Memphis and Thebes – and populated it with a new elite indicates that his religious views were not shared, and his disinterest in military adventurism probably not appreciated.

In discussing the move from the capitol, Dr. Brier repeats a piece of information I believe he stated before but which I haven’t mentioned. He says that for the Egyptians, the west bank of the Nile was the land of the dead while the east bank was the land of the living. This is in relation to Akhenaten’s new capital of Akhetaten (very similar to the pharaoh’s name, which may be why Dr. Brier glosses over the Egyptian name for the place, generally using the Arabic and more modern Tell el Amarna), where tombs are located on the east, at the city.

This distinction of the west and east bank as land of the dead and living respectively is a great little cultural note that can help bring alive the setting in an RPG. It’s interesting, because in researching Thebes for Nefertiti Overdrive, I learned that the palace at Malkata was on the west bank. This may be because the pharaoh was supposed to be Osiris on Earth and so can live on the west bank, but I’m wondering if maybe this is one of those rules that isn’t really a rule – kind of like women can’t be pharaohs or lead armies.

It’s important to note that Akhenaten’s wife was Nefertiti and his son was Tutankhamen. Considering how iconic those two are for the general populace’s perception of Ancient Egypt, it’s interesting that Akhenaten really isn’t known at all. Part of that is likely due to following rulers attempting to erase him from history. He was an anomaly, and the Egyptians didn’t like it. His son returned to the old religion, his capitol was abandoned, and his name was removed from monuments. He had changed the religion, ignored the army, and even tried to alter expectations of artistic representations.

In this case, the designation of great seems more for his impact on contemporary society than his impact on history. It is fascinating to consider how one individual with enough power can impose so much on a society, even facing almost complete opposition.