Up until about 100 years ago, an obscure Egyptian pharaoh of the 18h Dynasty was just another pharaoh, not of great interest, lying peacefully in his tomb for 3,300 years. He would have remained relatively obscure except for the wave of interest in King Tutankhamun, whose intact tomb was discovered in 1922. King “Tut” continues to be of great interest to the scholars of Egyptian antiquities. In 2010, DNA testing was ordered to confirm Tut’s parentage. Testing confirmed Tut’s father as Amenhotep IV, the mummy in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings. Amenhotep IV had changed his name to “Akhenaten” when he attempted to change the state religion to the worship of Aten, the Sun God. King Tut’s mother was revealed to be the mummy in KV35, known as “The Younger Lady,” the daughter of Amenhotep III and Queen Tye. In other words, King Tut was the son of Akhenaten and his sister, The Younger Lady.”
Akhenaten governed Egypt for about 17 years, until he died in 1335 BCE, 360 years before King David governed Israel. Akhenaten was a better poet than pharaoh. An epic poem, his “Hymn to the Sun God,” was discovered in his tomb. It bears some similarities to Psalm 104, attributed to King David a few centuries later. In Akhenaten’s epic poem, he describes himself as “The only son of God, Aten. Thine only son, that came forth from thy body.” In establishing himself as the only true priest of Aten he was dismissing the current polytheistic religion, and rejecting contemporary ruling class of the priests of Amon – a ruling class not willing to concede power. Akhenaten was initially credited by scholars to be the main influence in the establishment of monotheism.
One of the more influential proponents of this theory was not an Egyptologist or theologian, but a Viennese Doctor, Sigmund Freud. In his book, Moses and Monotheism, he proposed that Moses was a priest of Aten who was banished from Egypt along with his band of followers, and that he was able to establish monotheism where Akhenaten had failed. However, modern scholarship minimizes the contribution of Akhenaten to monotheism. Nevertheless, Akhenaten is considered by Egyptologists to be a kind of religious revolutionary. He had established the worship of Aten, the Sun God.
Shortly after Akhenaten’s death, whatever revolutionary changes he had managed to achieve fell apart quite quickly. Akhenaten had ordered the construction of an extravagant temple at Amarna, to escape the resistance coming from the Priests of Amon in Thebes. He had foolishly squandered resources and bankrupted the economy with the staggering costs of moving the capital from Thebes to Amarna.
Akhenaten was also quite dictatorial, accumulating vast personal wealth, and then consolidating and centralizing power for himself and the military, at the expense of local governance. Predictably, this resulted in widespread corruption in power. A major stela documents the attempts of Horemheb (successor to King Tut) to deal with the legacy of corruption in high places. He threatened to cut off the noses of anyone involved in corrupt accumulation of wealth or power.
Akhenaten was assassinated by the same priests of Amon he had rejected. The temple at Amarna was destroyed by those who wanted to return to their traditional worship of the many gods of sun, moon and stars. However, the priests of Amon were conservationists. The stones of Aten’s temple were saved and repurposed to build many other temples and monuments of ancient Egypt. Thousands of these stones have survived, identified by their unique markings. As a result of these discoveries, Akhenaten’s spiritual quest survives today, unexpectedly, not as a single monument to monotheism at Amarna, but as a poly-architectural spiritual presence. Contrary to Akhenaten’s intent, symbolic stone fragments of the worship of Aten are spread around Egypt — monotheistic building blocks propping up a restored polytheism. Akhenaten might not like it, but he was partially responsible for these sacred reminders of how we humans have conceptualized our many gods.
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