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.

The City

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.

Royal Residence
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.

Northern Palace

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.

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