TELL EL-AMARNA is the commonly used name for the site where Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti founded a city dedicated to a revolutionary idea of God, which later rulers assailed as heretical. During their brief reign, Egyptian art cast off its preoccupation with death and the afterlife to revel in human concerns; bellicose imperialism gave way to pacifistic retrenchment; and the old gods were toppled from their pedestals. The interplay between personalities, beliefs and art anticipates the Renaissance – and for sheer drama their story beats Shakespeare.
The remains of Akhenaten’s city lie on the east bank of the Nile, spread across a desert plain girdled by an arc of cliffs. Away from the palm groves beside the Nile, the site is utterly desolate, a tawny expanse of low mounds and narrow trenches littered with potshards.
Because the city was created from scratch and deserted after Tutankhamun moved the court back to Thebes, its era of glory lasted only twelve years, and many buildings were never completed. Everything of value found during excavations has been removed to museums, leaving only the faintest outlines of the city and the desecrated tombs of Akhenaten and his courtiers to see – yet the site strikes some visitors as a place of mystery whose enchantment grows the more you know about it.One theory is that the site was chosen for its symbolism. The arc of cliffs on the eastern horizon has a cleft exactly where the sun rises each morning, having been reborn after a night battling through the underworld (so the Ancient Egyptians believed). By siting his tomb in line with the rising sun, at the epicentre of imaginary rays radiating to boundary stelae which intersected with the city’s palaces and temples, Akhenaten identified himself with the deity Aten, and his capital as a divine creation embodying sacred geometery.
Running south from the modern village of El-Till, a tarmac track follows the course of the old Royal Road that formed ancient Akhetaten’s main axis, known locally as Sikket es-Sultan, the Road of the Sultan. The track passes scores of mounds of sand and debris, partially excavated (and subsequently recovered by sand) since the 1920s, and more recently by the Armana Project, whose website features reconstructions of the city’s principal buildings. Many of these were made of talatat, small stone blocks whose length was three times their width (hence their Arabic name, “thirds”). These could be quarried faster than the large blocks hitherto used for temples and palaces, enabling Akenaten’s architects to build complexes that would have otherwise taken decades.
Great Aten Temple
The Great Aten Temple was a brick-walled enclosure 300m deep by 800m wide, bisected by a stone Long Temple with mud-brick pylons. Its northern wall incorporated the Hall of Foreign Tribute where emissaries proffered treasure (as depicted in tombs), while the southern wall was flanked by a field of 720 mud-brick offerings tables.
Unlike traditional temples, which got darker as one approached the sanctuary, Aten’s was roofless, exposing worshippers to the god’s rays during the searing heat of summer – an act of sadism on Akenaten’s part, critics maintain. The temple was destroyed after his death on Horemheb’s orders; Ramses II quarried its foundations for his temples at Hermopolis, across the Nile. Today, replicas of a complete and a partial lotus-bundle column (erected by the Amarna Project) tower incongruously above excavation trenches and foundation walls.
Foreign Office Archives
South of the Great Aten Temple (and hard to distinguish beneath shifting sands) are the remnants of the Foreign Office Archives, where the Amarna Letters were discovered. Written in the Akkadian script used for diplomatic correspondence with Asiatic states, these clay tablets have revealed much about the period. Over 360 letters have been found, but more were undoubtedly lost, leaving an incomplete puzzle for scholars to piece together and argue over.
Beyond the Archives come three excavated rectangles that were once the Royal Residence. Their private apartments were separated from the stately reception halls that ran through the centre of the huge palace compound. Across the Royal Road stood an even larger State Palace, with a dock for the royal barge.
Both palaces were connected by a covered “flyover” spanning the road (part of one pylon remains), into which was set the Window of Appearances, whence Nefertiti and Akhenaten showered favoured courtiers with gold collars and other rewards. Its orientation in line with the rising sun ensured that they appeared with the sun directly behind them, bathed in the glow of its rays – an effect frequently depicted in Amarna art.
Sanctuary of Aten and beyond
To the south of their residence lay the Sanctuary of Aten, probably used for private worship by the royal family, and the home of the High Priest, Panehsi. Beyond spread the city’s residential quarters: the richest homes beside the road, the poorest hovels backing onto desert.
Also in this quarter was the workshop of the sculptor Tuthmosis, where the famous limestone bust of Nefertiti was found in 1912 by Ludwig Borchardt. He deliberately mis-described it as a plaster-cast, so as to take advantage of an agreement that all such finds would be given to Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum. Egypt has long campaigned for its return, and Germany now acknowledges that it has no “moral claim” – but the iconic bust still remains in Berlin.
The best-preserved outline of an Amarna building is Nefertiti’s Northern Palace or summer residence, secluded 1500m north of El-Till. Low walls and hollows delineate rooms and courtyards grouped around a garden which once contained a pool that cooled the palace by evaporation. Like all Amarna residences, it was divided into public and private quarters, with north-facing doors to catch the prevailing wind. Rooms were plastered and painted, lit by oil lamps hung from pegs or set in niches, and warmed by braziers over winter. Fitted toilets and bathrooms also featured in the homes of the well-to-do. A magnificent painted floor depicting wildfowl and fish was found here, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Unlike traditional marsh scenes, Amarna tableaux rarely feature hunting, suggesting that Akhenaten abjured the sport of kings.
The Northern Tombs
Some visitors are content to see just the Northern Tombs, 4km from El-Till. Bring a torch to spotlight uneven floors and to study the reliefs and paintings (now less clear than the copies made by Norman de Garis Davies in the 1900s). Tombs #1 and #2 lack electric lighting and are only shown to visitors who insist. Photography is not allowed in any of the tombs.
Tomb of Huya (#1)
As Steward to Queen Tiy and Superintendent of the Royal Harem, Huya is shown praying at the entrance, with the text of the Hymn to Aten alongside. In the following banqueting scene, involving Tiy, the royal couple and two princesses, it may be significant that the dowager queen is merely drinking (which was acceptable by Theban standards of decorum), whereas the Amarna brood tuck in with gusto (an act never hitherto portrayed of royalty). Across the way they imbibe wine, sans princesses, and then make a royal procession to the Hall of Tribute, where emissaries from Kush and Syria await Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
On the rear wall, Akhenaten decorates Huya from the Window of Appearances (notice the sculptor’s studio, lower down), who displays his awards on the other side of the portal, the lintel of which portrays three generations of the royal family, including Amenhotep III. Along the east wall, Akhenaten leads Tiy to the temple built for his parents. Huya’s mummy was stashed in a burial shaft below the transverse hall, beyond which is a shrine painted with offerings, containing an unfinished statue of Huya.
Tomb of Mery-Re II (#2)
The last resting place of Mery-Re II, Overseer of the Two Treasuries, is similar in shape to Huya’s tomb, but was constructed late in Akhenaten’s reign, since his cartouches have been replaced by Smenkhkare’s, and Nefertiti’s by Meritaten’s. Beyond the entrance (whose adoration scene and Hymn to Aten are largely destroyed), the inner walls portray Nefertiti straining a drink for the king, who is seated beneath a sunshade (to the left); and Mery-Re receiving a golden crown, followed by a warm welcome from his household. The rear wall bears an unfinished scene of Mery-Re being rewarded by Smenkhkare and Meritaten, drawn in black ink.
Tomb of Ahmose (#3)
This battered tomb is one of the four that visitors usually see. The entrance walls show Ahmose, Akhenaten’s fan-bearer, praying to Aten, with a now-illegible inscription enjoining the deity to ensure “that there is sand on the shore, that fishes in the stream have scales, and cattle have hair. Let him sojourn here until the swan turns black and the raven white”. Inside, you can just discern Ahmose carrying an axe and a fan, his official regalia. On the left-hand wall are bas-reliefs of shield-bearers and pikemen, followed by an outsized horse and chariot outlined in red pigment (presumably intended to represent Akhenaten leading his army into battle, which never happened). In the transverse hall are two false doors, a deep vertical shaft, and a defaced, life-size statue of Ahmose in a niche.
Tomb of Mery-Re I (#4)
High Priest Mery-Re I (father of Mery-Re II) rated a superior tomb, with a coloured cornice around its entrance and false columns of painted flowers at the rear of the vestibule. Reliefs of Mery-Re and his wife, Tenro, at prayer flank the portal into the main chamber, which retains two of its original papyrus-bud columns. Proceeding clockwise round the room, you see Mery-Re’s investiture with a golden collar, the royal family leaving the palace, and Akhenaten in a chariot (his face and the Aten symbol have been chiselled out, as usual). Scenes of offerings and Aten-worship flank the left side of a doorway into the unfinished rear chamber, which lacks any decoration. More interesting is the eastern wall, depicting Akhenaten and the Great Temple (which has helped archeologists visualize the city’s appearance). Notice the sensitive relief of blind beggars awaiting alms, low down in the corner.
Tombs of Pentu (#5) and Panehsi (#6)
The third tomb in this cluster belongs to Pentu, the royal physician. Its papyrus-bundle columns retain traces of paint with chariots visible on the right-hand wall, but there’s little else to see. It’s better to head 300m south along the cliff path to the isolated tomb of Panehsi, overseer of the royal herds and granaries. Unlike most of the others, its decorative facade has remained intact, but the interior has been modified by Copts who used it as a chapel. To the left of the entrance, the royal family prays above their servants. The painted, apse-like recess in the main chamber is probably a Coptic addition – notice the angel’s wings.
The Royal Tomb
It’s an easy ten-minute drive to the subterranean Royal Tomb, in a desolate ravine 5.5km from the plain. A custodian will ride with you to unlock the tomb. Dug into the bed of the wadi, this tomb was the first from the XVIII Dynasty to run directly from a corridor to a burial chamber. Its burial scene and text were virtually obliterated by Amun’s priests, and no mummies were ever found there, but in a chamber off the first descending passage, fragmentary bas-reliefs (now clumsily “restored”) depict the funerary rites of one of the royal daughters (either Meketaten or Ankesbaten), and a granite sarcophagus bearing Tiy’s cartouche was found, suggesting this might have been a family vault. No one knows whether Akhenaten and Nefertiti were interred in the main burial chamber beyond a deep pit (and perhaps dragged out to rot a few years later) or in the Valley of the Kings. Some believe that the mysterious mummy found in tomb KV55 is Akhenaten’s, or that Nefertiti’s has been discovered in tomb KV35.
The Southern Tombs
From El-Hagg Qandil beyond the ancient Workmen’s Village, a spur road runs between palm groves to the Southern Tombs, scattered over seven low hills in two clusters: #7–15 and #16–25. Amarna notables buried here include Tutu, the foreign minister, and Ramose, Steward of Amenhotep III, but the ones to see are Ay and Mahu.
Tomb of Ay (#25)
Ay’s Tomb was never finished, since he built himself a new one at Thebes after the court returned there under Tutankhamun, but such carvings as were executed show the Amarna style at its apogee and the ceiling of its central aisle is painted with a fetching checkerboard pattern.
Both sides of the tomb’s vestibule are decorated. On the left, the king and queen, three princesses, Nefertiti’s sister Mutnedjmet and her dwarfs lead the court in the worship of Aten. Across the way is a superb relief of Ay and his wife Tey rendering homage and the most complete text of the Hymn to Aten; every fold of their skirts and braid in their hair are meticulously depicted. The really intriguing scenes, however, are in the main chamber. On the left side of the entrance wall, Ay and Tey are showered with decorations from the Window of Appearances, acclaimed by fan-bearers, scribes and guards. Palace life is depicted in ink or sunk-relief: a concubine has her hair done, while girls play the harp, dance, cook and sweep. The depth of bowing by courtiers is the most servile ever found in Egyptian art. Along the rear wall are a ruined door-shaped stele and a stairway leading to an unfinished burial shaft.
Ay and Tey are mysterious figures, honoured as “Divine Father and Mother”, but never directly identified as being royal. Some reckon Ay was a son of Yuya and Thuya, Akhenaten’s maternal grandparents; others that Tey was Nefertiti’s wet-nurse, or that both conceived Tutankhamun. Certainly, Ay was vizier to Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, and reigned briefly himself (c.1327–23 BC). He was ultimately buried in the Western Valley of the Theban Necropolis.
Tomb of Mahu (#9)
Ten minutes’ walk away, the Tomb of Mahu, Akhenaten’s chief of police and frontier security, opens with a rough-cut transverse hall featuring a scene of Mahu standing before the vizier with two intruders, whom he accuses of being “agitated by some foreign power”, as minions heat irons in a brazier for their torture (to the left as you enter). Further in are two more chambers at different levels, linked by a winding stairway. Mind your head on the low ceiling.
Boundary stele and quarries
Akhetaten’s periphery was defined by boundary stelae carved high up on the cliffs, erected over successive years; their inscriptions and family portraits have enabled archeologists to deduce many events during Akhenaten’s reign. The most accessible stele is on the clifftop above the Northern Tombs.
Fine alabaster for the temples and public buildings was dragged from the Hatnub Quarries, 10km southeast of the city. These had been used since the Old Kingdom, when they were established by the IV Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (as an inscription in Zone P attests). On the way up the wadi are the remains of workmen’s huts and pottery from diverse periods. The quarries can only be reached by 4WD.
Akhenaten and Nefertii
Akhenaten and Nefertii
Few figures from ancient history have inspired as much conjecture as Akhenaten and Nefertiti, as scholars dispute even fundamental aspects of their story – let alone the interpretation of the events. The tale begins with Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who flouted convention by making Tiy, his Nubian concubine, Great Wife, despite her lack of royal blood. Queen Tiy remained formidable long after Amenhotep entered his dotage and their eldest son ascended the throne as Amenhotep IV. Some believe this event followed his father’s death, others that mother and son ruled jointly for twelve years. To square the former theory with the period of his reign (c.1352–1336 BC) and his demise around the age of 30 would mean accepting that Amenhotep IV embarked on his religious reformation between the ages of 9 and 13, though a marriage at 13 is quite likely.
The origins of Amenhotep IV’s wife, Nefertiti, are obscure. Her name – meaning “A Beautiful Woman Has Come” – suits the romantic legend that she was a Mesopotamian princess originally betrothed to Amenhotep III. However, others identify her as Amenhotep III’s child by a secondary wife, or as the daughter of his vizier Ay, whose wife, Tey, was almost certainly Nefertiti’s wet nurse. The pharaonic custom of sister–brother and father–daughter marriages allows plenty of scope for speculation, but the fair-skinned bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum suggests that she wasn’t Tiy’s child, at any rate. (Amid all the fuss about Cleopatra being black, nobody seems to have noticed that Queen Tiy – and therefore her son, Amenhotep IV – were indubitably so.)
Early in his reign, Amenhotep IV began to espouse the worship of Aten, whose ascendancy threatened the priesthoods of other cults. The bureaucracy was equally alarmed by his decree that the spoken language should be used in official documents, contrary to all tradition. To escape their influence and realize his vision of a city dedicated to Aten, the pharaoh founded a new capital upon an empty plain beside the Nile, halfway between Memphis and Thebes, which he named Akhetaten, the “Horizon of the Aten”.
It was here that the royal couple settled in the fifth year of their reign and took Aten’s name in honour of their faith. He discarded Amenhotep IV for Akhenaten (Servant of the Aten) and vowed never to leave the city, while she took a forename meaning “Beautiful are the Beauties of the Aten”, styling herself Nefernefruaten-Nefertiti. Her status surpassed that of any previous Great Wife, approaching that of Akhenaten himself. Bas-reliefs and stelae show her participating in state festivals, and her own cartouche was coupled with Aten’s – an unprecedented association.
There’s no sign that their happiness was marred by his decision to take a second wife, Kiya, nor of the degenerative condition that supposedly afflicted Akhenaten in later life. However, the great ceremony held at Akhetaten in their twelfth regnal year marked a turning point.
Whether or not this was Akhenaten’s true coronation following his father’s death, he subsequently launched a purge against the old cults. From Kom Ombo in the south to Bubastis in the Delta, temples were closed and statues disfigured, causing public unrest. Although this was quelled by Akhenaten’s chief of police, Mahu, his foreign minister apparently ignored pleas from foreign vassals menaced by the Hittites and Habiru, and the army was less than zealous in defending Egypt’s frontiers. Akhenaten was consequently blamed for squandering the territorial gains of his forefathers.
What happened in the last years of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign is subject to various interpretations. The consensus is that Nefertiti and Akhenaten became estranged, and he took as co-regent Smenkhkare, a mysterious youth married to their eldest daughter, Meritaten. While Nefertiti withdrew to her Northern Palace, Akhenaten and his regent lived together at the other end of the city; the poses struck by them in mural scenes of the period have prompted suggestions of a homosexual relationship. Whatever the truth of this, it’s known that Smenkhkare ruled alone for some time after the death of Akhenaten (c.1336 BC), before dying himself (see Tomb of Ramses IX (#6)). Nefertiti’s fate is less certain, but it’s generally believed that she also died around the same time. To date, none of their mummies have been found (or, rather, definitely identified).
The genealogy of Smenkhkare’s successor – the boy-king known to posterity as Tutankhamun – is obscure. Some hold that his parents were Amenhotep III and his half-sister Sitamun; others favour Ay and Tey, or Akhenaten and Kiya, or even (based on DNA analysis) that he was of Hyksos or Jewish descent. About the only certainty is that he was originally raised to worship Aten, and named Tutankhaten.
By renouncing this name for one honouring Amun, he heralded a return to Thebes and the old gods, fronting a Theban counter-revolution executed by Vizier Ay and General Horemheb. Some think this was relatively benign while Tut and his successor Ay ruled Egypt, blaming Horemheb and Seti I for a later, ruthless extirpation of Atenism.
Seti plundered the abandoned city of Akhetaten for masonry to build new temples, ordered its site cursed by priests to deter reoccupation, and excised the cartouches of every ruler tainted with the “Amarna heresy” from their monuments and the List of Kings. So thorough was this cover-up that Akhenaten and Nefertiti remained unknown to history until the nineteenth century. Since then, they have inspired much scholarly and mystical conjecture, novels such as Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, and an opera by Philip Glass.
Aten-worship and Amarna art
Aten-worship and Amarna art
Many herald Aten-worship as a breakthrough in human spirituality and cultural evolution: the world’s first monotheistic religion. Aten was originally just an aspect of the sun-god (the “Globe” or “Disc” of the midday sun), ranking low in the Theban pantheon until Amenhotep III privately adopted it as a personal deity. Then Akhenaten publicly exalted Aten above other gods, subsuming all their attributes into this newly omnipotent being. Invocations to Maat (representing truth) were retained, but otherwise the whole cast of underworld and celestial deities was jettisoned. Morbid Osirian rites were also replaced by paeans to life in the joyous warmth of Aten’s rays (which are usually shown ending in a hand clasping an ankh), as in the famous Hymn to Aten.
Similarities between the Hymn and The Song of Solomon (supposedly written five hundred years later) have encouraged speculation about the influence of Atenism on early Jewish monotheism. Sigmund Freud argued that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman and the biblical Exodus a “pious fiction”, while Ahmed Osman advances the theory that Akhenaten’s deity derived from tales of the Jewish God related to him by his maternal grandfather Yuya, the Joseph of the Old Testament.
Equally intriguing is the artwork of the Amarna period and the questions it raises about Akhenaten. Amarna art focused on nature and human life rather than the netherworld and resurrection. Royal portraiture, previously impersonally formalized, was suffused by naturalism (a process which began late in the reign of Amenhotep III). While marshes and wildlife remained a popular subject, these scenes no longer implicitly associated birds and fish with the forces of chaos. The roofless Aten temples made new demands on sculptors and painters, who mixed sunk- and bas-relief carving to highlight features with shifting shadows and illumination.
Most striking is the rendering of human figures, especially Akhenaten’s, whose attenuated cranium, curvaceous spine and belly, and matronly pelvis and buttocks prompted speculation that the pharaoh may have suffered from Marfan’s syndrome – a rare genetic disorder that leads to feelings of alienation and a slight oddness in physical appearance – or was possibly a hermaphrodite: theories only disproved by DNA testing of royal mummies in 2009. Some argue that the Amarna style reflected Akhenaten’s physiognomy, others that such distortions were simply a device that could be eschewed, as in the exquisite bust of Nefertiti. Advocates of the “Akhenaten was sick” theory point out that this was the only time when vomiting was ever represented in Egyptian art; however, Amarna art also uniquely depicted royalty eating, yet nobody asserts that other pharaohs never ate.