Egypt can claim to be the archetypal enigma in the history of peoples and nations. From the semi-legendary Menes, who arose out of the mists of untold antiquity to unite the Two Lands, to the brilliant Cleopatra, who outmanoeuvred Rome to preserve some of the inner treasures of the Nile, Egypt has haunted the human imagination with its paradoxical sense of familiarity and utter alienation, its invocations of relaxed social settings and strange sinister powers, its shifting admixture of darkness and light as dramatic as the night and day that steal amongst its colossal ruins. Most of its magnificent heritage has been lost, and the little that remains – fallen buildings, desecrated tombs, literary fragments – survives from its almost interminable decline.
Born of the Atlanto-Aryan sub-races and subject to infusions from the north and east, Egypt enters mythic history with most of its complex past hidden from profane view. Whatever remained of its earliest history was secreted in the mystery-temples and has never been allowed into the light of secular scholarship. Within the fluorescent period of the XVIII Dynasty, heralded by the expulsion of the Hyksos invaders, marked by imperial successes, and destroyed by the resurgence of the Amen-Ra priesthood, the profound puzzle of Egypt deepens. It was not helped by the determined attempt of subsequent rulers to eradicate every suggestion that such a time had even existed. Despite systematic destruction, the XVIII Dynasty still fascinates many, and its greatest king, Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), inspires awe and reverence.
About 1684 B.C. a Semitic people known as the Hyksos invaded and conquered Lower Egypt. Ruling from Memphis and, later, Avaris in the eastern Delta, these worshippers of Seth and Apophis forced Upper Egypt to gather its strength in Thebes around the cosmology of Amen-Ra. Ramose, son of the pharaoh, forged a fighting force out of a populace unused to warfare, and though he died in battle, the tide for Egypt was turned. When his brother, Amosis, ascended the throne, the Hyksos were largely driven out of the Delta and pursued as far as Palestine. Though the Hyksos would cause trouble for a few more years, Amosis reunited the Two Lands and founded the XVIII Dynasty. Whilst purity of the royal line had long dictated the marriage of the pharaoh and his sister, so that the mighty benediction of the gods could be channelled to earth through the regal focus of the male and female principles, the XVIII Dynasty gave great importance to the Solar Princess. Unlike her half-sisters, whose mothers were from the royal harem, the Solar Princess could trace her parentage to the pharaoh and his Great Wife, a daughter of a pharaoh and a Great Wife in turn. When death swept away the pharaoh's sons, a minor relative could be raised to the throne and legitimize his rule by marrying a Solar Princess. So critical to the spiritual vitality of the kingdom and to the fecundity of the earth was the uninterrupted maintenance of pharaonic power, that a new pharaoh had to ascend the throne the day after his predecessor's death. To prevent disaster, a pharaoh usually appointed a co-regent, who was crowned and gradually assumed powers whilst the older king slowly withdrew, a cooperative scheme that worked effectively in the XVIII Dynasty.
Amenhotep I, son of Amosis, elevated the worship of Amen-Ra and pushed the boundaries of the growing kingdom into Nubia in the south, Libya in the west and Syria in the east. He made Thutmosis I his co-regent, and since Thutmosis was at best a distant relative, the co-regency was made respectable by marriage to the Solar Princess Ahmose. Thutmosis built a palace at Memphis, signifying a shift in cosmological thinking and in centres of worship. His son, Thutmosis II, married the Solar Princess Hatshepsut, and when he died of a lingering illness, the strong queen had herself proclaimed pharaoh, donning the masculine pharaonic dress and titles, demonstrating the power of the feminine principle in solar worship. Thutmosis III, nominal co-regent with Hatshepsut, learnt from her what he could. Over almost half a century he led seventeen armies into the Middle East and secured the lands reaching to Mesopotamia. In the first move to unify religious disintegration, he organized all the priestly colleges under one priest of Amen. Unfortunately, the promising result was inverted: rather than purging Egyptian culture of superstition and sacerdotalism, it consolidated priestly authority.
His son, Amenhotep II, met with the chief kings of the Mittanni, Aryans who were devoted to Mitra, Varuna, Indra and other Vedic gods, and he borrowed Mitra's winged sun disc for the solar gods of Egypt. Thutmosis IV was his son by Queen Tia, who may have been a Mittannian, and though he fought several battles, he died of a wasting disease when young. His son, Amenhotep III, married Queen Tiy, not a full Solar Princess but related to the pharaonic family and with possible Indo-European ancestry. Early in their reign, the spiritual failure of Thutmosis III's sacerdotal reforms were obvious. The priests had interposed themselves between men and gods, so that only these 'elect' could approach the Divine. With this religious tyranny the priests became custodians of right and wrong, issuing moral rules that governed every aspect of life. Thus, to maintain harmony with Deity, one had to remain on the right side of the priest. In a society that respected social classes without having absolutized them – even slaves (gained only through conquest) were paid and given specific working hours with some time off – this elitism was disturbing. The gods might be remote in their palpable transcendence, but they had never been placed beyond the reach of any citizen, for the pharaoh was seen as an earthly embodiment of the divine afflatus, radiating its beneficence to all.
Amenhotep III inherited a wealthy, peaceful and powerful empire. Freed of the need to divert thought, energy and resources to securing the kingdom, he could devote them to government, architecture and religious reform. His marriage to Tiy was unorthodox, and though Tiy bore him many children, he married his daughter, Sitamen, to ensure his status through a Solar Princess. The fragmentary evidence is sufficiently contradictory to admit two interpretations: Amenhotep the conservative who resisted all religious change, and Amenhotep the supporter of every reform. If one supposes that at least some of the pharaohs of the XVIII Dynasty saw the need for radical change and recognized that permanent alterations must be undertaken in stages, one can see why he was both conservative in his practices and wholly supportive of his famous son. Whilst the sun-worship at Thebes was parochial and sacerdotal, the great city of On, known to the Greeks and to history as Heliopolis – the City of the Sun – also worshipped the Divine in its solar form. Ra-Harakhte, the winged sun, had been portrayed in the great Sphinx. Its Eastern origins are obscure, but some scholars see connections with the Middle Eastern Aden, 'Lord' and 'Beautiful Youth', who was reduced to the Adonis of the Greeks.
In Heliopolis he was known as Atum-Harakhte, where he had an enormous college that has been called the world's first university. His worship was universal, embracing diverse rituals suited to various temperaments and cultures. His great symbol was Aten, the solar disc, mask for the invisible reality that manifests as life-giving radiance. When Amenhotep IV was born around 1394 B.C., his ancestors had already sung the praises of Aten for generations. Amenhotep I was said to have become one with Aten at death, "blended with him out of whom he had come". Thutmosis IV made a covenant with Ra-Harakhte-Aten in a dream as he slept in the shadow of the great Sphinx: in return for clearing the sacred precincts of drifting sand, the prince would be made pharaoh, a promise kept on both sides. Amenhotep III had named buildings, boats and an army regiment after the god. But perhaps it was the father's honoured sage who most impressed the son. The sage, named Amenhotep after the pharaoh, had said:
This spirit of gentle self-cultivation suggested an inner ethical awareness at variance with the statutory morality of Theban priests. Perhaps this sage who honoured Ra-Harakhte counselled the crown prince to become a priest, and perhaps he welcomed his accession to co-regency.
Whilst still very youthful, Amenhotep IV married the beautiful and mysterious Nefertiti, a woman as intelligent, sensitive and determined as her husband, and both shared a deep love for one another and an unwavering devotion to Aten. In 1379 B.C. Amenhotep IV (his Son of Ra name) assumed the co-regency with the coronation name Neferkheprure, but he built a great temple in Thebes, not to Ra or Amen, but to Ra-Harakhte-Aten. Rather than attempt further reforms through sacerdotal consolidation, he sought to replace the geographical polytheism of Egypt with the divinity of universal light, the all-embracing Deity who is at once the invisible source as the ancient, formless Atum and the visible solar orb who fructifies the earth. Although he built this great edifice in Thebes, already a more fundamental line of action had become clear to the royal couple. No doubt with the approval of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy, Amenhotep IV renounced his Son of Ra name for a Son of Aten name: Akhenaten, 'Aten is well pleased'. Nefertiti, whose name means 'the beautiful woman cometh', became Neferneferuaten, 'the beauty of all the beauties of Aten'. Their first two daughters likewise bore Aten names – Meritaten and Meketaten. Clean ground was chosen for a new capital in a crescent of hills that faced on the Nile. Now known as Tel el Amarna, the city was named Akhetaten, 'the Dawn of Aten'.
Within the stunningly brief period of four to six years, a thriving royal city rose out of the sands, beginning with an enormous Aten temple whose great bronze doors spanned eighteen feet. Unlike the temples of Amen, whose open courtyards led through increasing gloom to the darkness of the inner sanctuary, the Temple of Aten consisted of shaded colonnades that enclosed a large sanctuary open to the sky to receive the rays of the Lord. The spirit of Akhetaten was expressed on a boundary stela, composed by Akhenaten:
Even in the formal declarations of boundary stelae, the devotional quality of Akhenaten's spirituality shines through the eroded stone. Nothing in writing, however, survives that could convey the living faith of Akhetaten. Nonetheless, the fragments of palace murals and tomb paintings intimate many things. Living creatures, plant and animal, are not used for stylistic design, but are naturalistically depicted as manifestations and recipients of Aten's beneficence. The human family is portrayed in realistic terms, though the exaggerated features of Akhenaten may not indicate disease, as many scholars believe, but rather some esoteric meaning. The extended stomach may signify the compassionate gestation of secret wisdom in the human form, reminiscent of Chinese representations of the Buddha Maitreya. The rounded figure of the pharaoh may point to his androgynous nature as first priest of Aten. In Thebes his statues portrayed him nude, with distinctively masculine features but without genitalia, not unlike the androgynous forms of Krishna. Akhetaten was remarkably free of the moralizing influence of the Theban priesthood, not because of its 'easy living', but because every natural function and social activity was exalted and even measured by the light of Aten.
Life is a kind of divine play, for each being is a crystallized ray of sunlight, and since the human being knows it, each man and woman can be a pellucid mirror of the Divine. This is the root and inspiration of ethics, social order, government and leisure.
The pharaoh ruled as the incarnation of Aten on earth. His life was the archetype of human existence at every level. Great wall paintings depicted Akhenaten and Nefertiti in intimate family scenes, eating, worshipping, playing with their princesses. The royal couple together took vows never to leave the solar city, and though they did not permit temples to other gods, they did not impose restrictions on those conscripted to build the pharaonic capital. Whilst Ay, Akhenaten's chief adviser, was devoted to Aten, and Horemheb, his general, at least respected the deity, the workers who built the palaces and temples were allowed images of their gods and even chapels in their own model city.
The idyllic scenes sensitively drawn on tomb and temple masked impending doom from within and without. Through rapidly developing military power and cunning political deception, the Hittites invaded the Syrian holdings, and within a short time they fell, never to be recovered. The Theban priesthood revolted and Akhenaten or some follower with authority launched a campaign against the temples. Surviving fragments of correspondence – the famous Amarna letters – suggest that Akhenaten's foreign minister withheld reports of the seriousness of the situation. Whilst the power of Egypt crumbled under unavoidable external pressure and from internal intrigues, Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy came to Akhetaten. The old pharaoh died, and within a short time his queen followed him. The crises precipitated by Amenhotep's demise required immediate action. His son (and Akhenaten's brother) had accompanied the family to the City of Aten. The youthful Smenkhare, as handsome as Nefertiti was beautiful, was made co-regent. Whilst Tiy seems to have supported this choice, Nefertiti seems to have opposed it. Whether she discerned duplicity in Smenkhare's nature or whether there was a literal alienation of affection, Nefertiti withdrew to the isolated North Palace with the surviving princesses and with Tiy's youngest son, Tutankhaten. When Smenkhare emerged with Nefertiti's traditional name, Neferneferuaten, 'beauty of beauties of Aten', the tragic break was complete.
Suddenly the stage of this dramatic history was plunged in darkness. Smenkhare probably died shortly before the death of Akhenaten. When he did so, he was in Thebes, not Akhetaten. Nefertiti may not have lived long thereafter, for there is not another word about her in any surviving record. Tutankhaten is found on the throne in Thebes, having changed his name to Tutankhamen, about 1355 B.C. He married Ankhesenpaaten, the youngest daughter of Akhenaten, and ruled without real power for a few years. The faithful Ay was by his side and attempted to ease the transition away from the glorious dream almost realized in Akhetaten, whilst preserving as much of its spirit as possible. For reasons not understood, Ay seemed to hold Smenkhare responsible for the abandonment of Akhetaten. Had there been a rapid decline of the pharaonic family through sudden disease and death? Or had there been a bloody coup that swept away Akhenaten, Nefertiti and the princesses? Ay was kind to the powerless Tutankhamen, and when the youth died at about twenty years of age, Ay saw that he had a proper funeral. Curiously, he seems to have appropriated the furnishings from Smenkhare's tomb – which has been found almost empty but without the royal seal having been broken – for the modest tomb of Tutankhamen. His is the only tomb found largely untouched by time, and many of its treasures, perhaps even including the great golden mask, belonged originally to Smenkhare.
Akhetaten was abandoned. The royal bodies were moved to Thebes, where they have been lost. Perhaps they were destroyed by those who sought merciless vengeance in later years. Perhaps they lie in tombs as unimpressive – and therefore as safe – as that of Tutankhamen. With the death of the boy-king, Ay found himself on the throne. Within two years he too had died, and General Horemheb became pharaoh. Whilst he was moderately successful in restoring order to the shaken kingdom during three decades of rule, he eradicated every reference to Akhenaten on temple and monument. It was left to the XIX Dynasty, the Ramessids, to overturn every block and pillar of Akhetaten. When every royal building and temple had been levelled – the blocks being used to fill the pylons of later monumental architecture – clean sand was brought into Tel el Amarna to hide the very memory of the 'great experiment'. Names were stricken from the king-lists so successfully that even the priest-scholar Manetho, writing in the third century B.C., thought that Horemheb had directly succeeded Amenhotep III.
Yet the abandonment and subsequent oblivion of Akhetaten preserved much that would have otherwise perished. Thutmose, Akhenaten's chief sculptor, boarded up his home and workshop in Akhetaten and left within plaster models of the royal family, including the fabulous painted bust of Nefertiti. Scribes temporarily buried cuneiform tablets, thus preserving the Amarna letters. Once destroyed, robbers forgot the marvellous city, and thus painted floors, seal rings, casts, ground plans and coloured glass objects were left to reveal the delicacy and joy that reigned in the City of the Sun. As if by karmic decree, the dynasty repudiated for its universalist ideals and consigned to the dark waters of Lethe has emerged in this century as the most fascinating in Egypt's recorded history. Whilst Ramessid Egypt sank into the cruder splendour of imperial monumentalism and the torpor of increasing sacerdotal superstition, Akhenaten, Nefertiti and the City of Aten arose again to point to the golden age of Egypt, a time before all memory and record. Humanity may never recover the details of Akhenaten's vision, but it has been forever touched by the image of Aten, the glorious Sun, extending its rays towards every living creature, each ray ending in a hand of benediction and holding the ankh of regeneration and immortality.
When thou settest in the western horizon,