How did Akhenaten Radically Change Egyptian Religion and Culture?

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children

In 1353 or possibly 1351 BCE Amenhotep IV ascended to the throne of Egypt. In the fourth year of his reign he changed his name to Akhenaten to reflect his devotion to a single god he called the Aten. The pharaoh’s loyalty was not enough, however, and soon Akhenaten required that all of Egypt adopt his new god and abandon the old pantheon in favor of sun worship. His reign was consumed by this religion, and the changes he made were remarkable. The most notable effects of his conversion include an entirely new religious philosophy and style of artistic expression, the establishment of a new capital city and a ruinous disregard for foreign policy. His efforts would ultimately prove to be futile, as Akhenaten and his sun cult were all but forgotten in the years following his death.

Early Signs of Akhenaten’s Conversion

Akhenaten’s program was not launched immediately upon his accession, but there were early signs that Amenhotep IV intended to institute major religious changes in Egypt. An upright commemorative slab from his early reign, known as a stela, describes Akhenaten's plan to erect a building which would be dedicated to the deity he called “Ra-Horakhty in his name of Shu, who is the Aten”. This early version of Akhenaten’s god was a composite of the Aten and the Egyptian gods Ra and Horus, the sun god and sky god respectively. It was common in ancient Egypt for gods to merge identities and Akhenaten may have been attempting to ease Egyptians into the idea of sun worship by associating the Aten with gods that were already familiar.

An early representation of Amenhotep IV as king can be found on the walls of the tomb of a royal scribe named Kheruef (TT 192). The walls of the tomb contain inscriptions that feature the sun disk and other references to Amenhotep IV and the worship of the sun.[1] It was not uncommon for the pharaohs to choose a particular god as patron, and it stands to presume that Egyptians such as Kheruef could not have guessed the lengths to which his king would go to honor his chosen god.

In year four of his reign Amenhotep IV and his queen changed their names to reflect their devotion to the Aten. Amenhotep became Akhenaten, or “One Who Is Effective For the Aten” and his queen became Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, which means “Beautiful Are The Beauties of the Aten, The Beautiful One Has Come.” [2] One year later the king abandoned all pretense and officially did away with the old gods. Another stela from this time at Karnak Temple, located in modern day Luxor, contains an announcement that all deities save the Aten had “ceased to exist.” [3]

The Systematic Erasure of the Old Gods

Amun-Ra from Karnak Temple complex

In the same year Akhenaten began a widespread attempt to systematically remove any signs of the traditional Egyptian deities. It appears that Amen was the main focus of the king’s disapproval and a fleet of semi-literate workmen were dispatched to chisel away symbols and words that bore any passing resemblance to his name. [4] Even private tombs were defaced, including the tomb of Khereuf, where many of the images of Amen were chiseled off the walls. [5]

This may have been a political move as much as a religious one. In the decades leading up to his father’s reign the priests in the cult of Amen had attained a level of political clout that rivaled even that of the pharaoh. Akhenaten inoculated himself against this threat by declaring that there was only one god, the Aten, and that he was its son and only prophet. [6] Whereas the old deities were accessible to all Egyptians through worship, the only intercessor between the Aten and its people was Akhenaten himself (Ikram 101, Redford, “Akhenaten: New Theories and Old Facts”, 26). Soon he began taxing the temples of the old gods and redirecting the revenue to his own projects. [7]

Throughout his reign Akhenaten’s cult continued to depart from traditional religious philosophy. One such change was the Atenist focus on the visible and tangible as opposed to the traditional Egyptian worship of the abstract and the unknown. The old gods were conceived of in abstract ways with many roles and representations and a god could take on many forms, merge identities with other gods and represent abstract notions such as victory in battle. In contrast, the Aten was the visible sun in the sky and his works were the physical objects and people on Earth. Akhenaten and his followers worshiped the visible sun alone and eschewed the idols and emblems that were such an integral part of the old religion [8]

Art in the Amarna Period

It is difficult to discern the details of Akhenaten’s philosophy as there are very few official texts from his reign that pertain to religion. There is no “word of god”, no holy scripture and only a short few “Hymn to the Aten” prayers that appear on tomb walls [9] Due to the lack of written sources on Atenism, Egyptologists rely heavily on decorations in tombs and on temple walls. The style in which these decorations are rendered has come to be called the Amarna style, and it is unique in Egyptian history due to its dramatic departure from traditional artistic conventions.

The most obvious and notable divergence from typical Egyptian art is the Amarna portrayal of the human body, particularly the king himself. Traditionally the pharaoh had been presented as a young man with a muscular physique and proportionate features. Akhenaten is portrayed in a far less orthodox manner. His arms and shoulders are thin, his face is taut, he has a prominent belly, thick hips and fat thighs. This striking physique led early scholars to believe that Akhenaten was a woman. Artists from this period also included details that had previously been left out such as distinguishable toes, well defined ears and lobes and even wrinkles in the neck. [10]

Especially unusual was the nature of the scenes depicted in Amarna art. Earlier pharaohs were typically portrayed in an austere manner, engaging in activities such as official religious duties, hunting, or fighting in battle. The Amarna period is known for depicting Akhenaten and his family in a manner that is markedly intimate and informal by comparison. A famous example is a portrait of the royal family dated to approximately Year 8 of Akhenaten’s reign. The king and queen are seated facing each other and nearly equal in height. Akhenaten raises his daughter Meritaten to his lips, kissing her, and Maketaten and Ankhesenpaaten interact playfully with their mother, one seated in her lap and the other leaning up against her in a relaxed posture. Intimate scenes such as this were virtually unknown in Egyptian art up until this time.[11]. It is not known why Akhenaten required that he and his family be portrayed in this way, but the result would have been surprising to his contemporaries.

Akhenaten Orders the Relocation of the Capital

Akhenaten’s artistic and religious reforms were radical indeed, but they were not the most consequential aspect of his plan. In the fifth year of this reign, the pharaoh announced his intention to move the entire Egyptian court to a city he called “Akhetaten”, or “The Horizon of the Aten”, located at Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. Thebes was well established as the city of Amen, and Akhenaten claimed that his god required a capital built on virgin land. The foundation of the site was marked by sixteen ornate stelae, now known as the Boundary Stelae, whose inscriptions justify the move, establish strict geographical boundaries and proclaim that Akhenaten is the Aten’s only representative on Earth.[12]

It is hard to imagine how such a plan would have been received, yet it appears that most of the Theban elite did relocate to Tell el-Amarna. However there is evidence that they did not go quietly. Speeches recorded on the boundary stelae serve as responses to what appears to be derision from the elite toward Akhenaten’s religion and kingship.[13] However resistant they may have been, most of the court did relocate and some such as the king’s advisor Parennefer even invested in new tombs at the city’s necropolis. [14] Ultimately their commitment to his cause was fleeting. The site was abandoned shortly after his death c. 1332 BCE. [15].

After the move to Tell el-Amarna Akhenaten’s focus on religion intensified and his attention to other matters waned. His father, Amenhotep III, was a skilled diplomat who maintained peaceful borders and upheld good correspondence with foreign empires.[16] Akhenaten on the other hand was apathetic toward correspondence and seems to have been generally uninterested in foreign diplomatic relations. The Amarna letters, a collection of cuneiform tablets discovered at Tell el-Amarna, attest to this. Akhenaten repeatedly ignored pleas for help from foreign vassals, many of whom switched allegiances during his reign. [17] One such vassal, the prince Rib-adda of Byblos, repeatedly wrote to Akhenaten for assistance against the Hittite king. Akhenaten ignored his pleas and the Hittites gained much ground in Syria and Palestine. [18] Content to remain in Egypt and impose his new religion on his subjects, Akhenaten lost territory in the Middle East and Nubia and allowed foreign relations to measurably deteriorate.

For these reforms Akhenaten has been called “the world’s first idealist and the world’s first individual” [19] but he has also been called a heretic. [20] Whatever his intentions were it can be said that Akhenaten’s reforms were severe and extreme, but ultimately brief. The religion of Akhenaten was forgotten almost immediately after his death, his city abandoned, his name chiseled from temple walls and the Aten virtually erased from living memory [21] It would be three thousand years before Akhenaten’s story would spark public interest once again.


  1. ”The Tomb of Kheruef: Theban Tomb 192” The Epigraph Survey. The Oriental Institute of Chicago, 1980. Web. Nov. 5, 2015, p.12.
  2. Williamson, Jacquelyn. “Amarna Period.” UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. 24 June 2015. Web. 04 Nov. 2015, pg. 7
  3. Redford, Donald B. “Akhenaten: New Theories and Old Facts.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 269: 4-15
  4. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 8
  5. The Tomb of Kheruef, 17
  6. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 7
  7. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 6
  8. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 9
  9. Hornung, E. (1992). The Rediscovery of Akhenaten and His Place in Religion. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt: 48. Web. 05 November 2015.
  10. Hornung, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt: 43
  11. Davis, Whitney. “Two Compositional Tendencies in Amarna Relief”. American Journal of Archaeology 82.3 (1978): 388 Web. 05 November 2015
  12. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 8
  13. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 8
  14. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 8
  15. Parcak, Sarah. "The Panehsy Church Project, 2006". Amarna Project. Web. 5 November, 2015
  16. Hall, H. R.. “Egypt and the External World in the Time of Akhenaten” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 7.½ (1921): 42-44. Web. 05 November 2015
  17. Williamson, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: 9
  18. Hall, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 7.½: 44-45)
  19. Breasted, A History of Egypt, 392
  20. Redford, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 269: 1
  21. Hornung, 44.


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