Akhenaten and Ancient Egyptian Religion

Changing his name and moving his capital from Thebes to Amarna, Amonhotep IV replaced traditional Egyptian gods with the worship of Aten, the great sun disk.

At the time Akhenaten became Egypt’s pharaoh during the XVIII Dynasty circa 1350 B.C., Thebes was the capital and its patron god, Amun, the most powerful of the Egyptian gods. Amun had delivered Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom, driving foreign occupiers out of the land. The priests that served Amun were powerful and held as much as 30% of the land. Known first as Amonhotep IV, the pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten during the fifth year of his reign, banishing the old gods and instituting what some scholars have called a “religious revolution.”

Akhenaten and the Cult of Aten

Rejecting the traditional Egyptian gods, Akhenaten took the extraordinary step of moving the capital to a new city, built from scratch on the east bank of the Nile at Amarna. It was called Akhetaten or the “horizon of the Aten,” and would stand for thirty years. Moving his court to the new city, Akhenaten vowed never to leave, a decision that would have negative implications.

Aten was the sun disk, the Re of old Egypt, personified in the pharaoh who was both the son and intermediary. According to Bob Brier, the idea of the sun disk first appeared “a thousand years earlier during the Old Kingdom.” Similarly, Nicolas Grimal argues that Akhenaten’s beliefs were not revolutionary or new, but could be traced back to old theological teachings coming out of Heliopolis in the Old Kingdom period.

Writing much of the liturgy himself, Akhenaten’s most well known poem of adoration was his Great Hymn to the Aten which has often been compared to the Old Testament Psalm 104. The notion that Aten somehow promoted monotheism is debated. Grimal points out that “Atenism” was a reflection of “the common ground of Semitic civilizations.”

Effects of Aten in Ancient Egypt

Because the cult of Aten was confined to Amarna, the everyday Egyptian remained largely unaffected. Additionally, many of the court and bureaucratic functionaries never fully accepted the cult, rejecting Atenism upon the death of Akhenaten. According to Sigrid Hodel-Hoenes, Akhenaten pursued the “persecution of the god Amun,” yet this did not take the form of persecution in the modern sense. While the pharaoh withheld temple donations, a significant loss of revenue, Amun was still revered by most Egyptians.

Part of the reason common Egyptians might have rejected the new theology was tied to what Bob Brier calls the “most fundamental change” tied to the new beliefs. Traditional Egyptian deities were “visual gods” while Atenism reflected an “abstract concept.”

Other scholars have noted marked deterioration of the Egyptian imperial frontiers, particularly in borders shared with the Hittites, because Akhenaten was too preoccupied with Atenism. Aloof from his people, Akhenaten never fulfilled the traditional roles associated with the pharaonic title. Renewed conflict broke out shortly after Akhenaten’s death and would continue for many years.

Return of the Traditional Deities

Full recovery of the traditional gods came when the nine-year old Tutankhamen became pharaoh in 1334 B.C. The cult of Aten was discontinued and Akhenaten’s new capital at Amarna razed to the ground, doomed to oblivion until discovered in the 19th century.

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