Pharaohs of the Sun

from On a morning in the year 1353 B.C. a young pharaoh of Egypt rose before dawn to greet the sun with a poem he loved and perhaps had written: “Beautifully you appear from the horizon of heaven,” he prayed as sunlight began to flood Egypt’s capital city of Thebes. To him the rays of the sun were the embodiment of an ancient god named Aten, whom he passionately revered. “Oh living Aten, who initiates life. . . . Oh sole god, without another beside him! You create the Earth according to your wish. . . . You are in my heart, and there is none who knows you except your son.”

This was no ordinary morning for the king—nor for ancient Egypt. Pharaoh Amenhotep III had died, and this teenage son now had the power to elevate Aten above all the other gods in Egypt’s pantheon, even above the all-powerful Amun, who for hundreds of years had ruled in Thebes as king of the gods.

Soon this enigmatic young man would change his name to Akhenaten, “he who is effective for Aten.” With his queen, the fabled Nefertiti, he would plunge Egypt into a religious revolution that shattered centuries of tradition. He would elevate Nefertiti to divine status, giving her more influence than perhaps any other queen had known. And he would abandon Thebes to build a huge new capital, today known as Amarna.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun—perhaps Akhenaten’s son born to a secondary wife—have been called the Pharaohs of the Sun. Their reign was brief. Akhenaten ruled just 17 years, and within a few years after his death in 1336 B.C., the old orthodoxy was restored. Akhenaten’s enemies soon smashed his statues, dismantled his temples, and set out to expunge all memory of him and Nefertiti from Egypt’s historical record.

But the controversy the couple created lives on. Egyptologists still struggle to piece together the story of this renegade pair. Swept up in religious passion, they brought the vast and powerful Egyptian empire to the brink of collapse.

“You’re never going to find two Egyptologists who agree on this period,” said Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist.

Barry Kemp, an archaeologist at Cambridge University, is even more pessimistic: “The minute you begin to write about those people you begin to write fiction.”

The same may be true of the likenesses left of them. Some of the finest ever made of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, excavated by German archaeologists between 1911 and 1914, reside in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

“See, she is as beautiful as ever,” says Rolf Krauss, a curator, as we enter a room dedicated to a painted bust of Nefertiti recognizable the world over. Spotlights in the darkened room set the queen’s long, graceful neck, flawlessly symmetrical face, and tall blue crown aglow.

Krauss and others debate whether Nefertiti actually looked like this bust—some think that it served mainly as a model for artists making other statues of the queen. But Nefertiti seldom looks the same in any of the numerous portraits of her. Krauss shows me one statue of her as an older woman. The face is lined, and the breasts sag. “We call this the ‘tired Nefertiti,’ ” he says.

In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are colossal statues—troubling and mesmerizing—of Akhenaten. His face is elongated and angular with a long chin. His eyes are mystical and brooding. His lips are huge and fleshy. Although he wears a pharaoh’s headdress and holds the traditional symbols of kingship, the crook and flail, across his chest, the chest is spindly, and the torso flows into a voluptuous belly and enormous feminine hips.

Because of the strangeness of these and so many other images of Akhenaten, scholars speculated for decades that the pharaoh had a deforming disease. But now many believe that the seeming bisexuality of the colossi might be rooted in Akhenaten’s new religion, for Aten had both male and female aspects. They also point out that in the early years of his reign, when Akhenaten was a young radical fighting an established religion, he had reasons for the exaggeration. He wanted to break down more than a thousand years of artistic tradition, so he instructed his artists to portray the world as it really was.

Instead of the standard static depictions of physically perfect pharaohs smiting enemies or making offerings to the gods, artists gave the new king a much more realistic appearance. “Akhenaten probably didn’t have the greatest physique by American standards,” says James Allen, a specialist on the period at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “He had the easy life in the palace.”

For the first time, artists routinely portrayed the pharaoh in informal situations—being affectionate with Nefertiti or playing with his children. They also painted scenes of life and nature—wheat rippling in the wind, farmers plowing, birds taking flight. In truth, Akhenaten unleashed a creative furor that gave rise to perhaps the finest era of Egyptian art.

“You could compare him to a cult leader,” says Rita Freed, an Egyptologist from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Experts continue to argue whether he was the world’s first monotheist. He insisted on one supreme god—an all-powerful creator who manifested himself in the sunlight. But he perceived himself and Nefertiti as extensions of that god—also deserving of worship.

Akhenaten’s rebellion began with his father, the strong-willed pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled for 37 years during a golden age of Egyptian empire. Amenhotep III tapped the wealth of that empire to build an unprecedented series of monuments. These included elaborate constructions at Karnak and Luxor, religious centers of the god Amun, patron of Thebes.

Amun became increasingly powerful after Thebes regained control of Egypt around 1520 B.C. His name means Hidden One, and he resided in the inner sanctum of his temple at Karnak, where his priests fed, washed, and clothed a statue of him. Amun soon merged with the ancient sun god Re and became Amun-Re. Pharaoh himself was regarded as the son of Amun-Re. His divine authority could be renewed only by the Hidden One each year in a festival called Opet.

Late in his reign, and perhaps chafing from political friction with the priests of Amun, Amenhotep III decided that he was not only the son of Amun but also the incarnation of Re—and thus at least equal to Amun. He began building monuments to his own divinity, including a vast funerary temple across the Nile from Thebes. This temple featured two 65-foot-high (20 meter), 720-ton (653 metric ton) quartzite statues of himself that he declared should gleam into people’s eyes like the rising Aten. The ruins of those statues are famed as the Colossi of Memnon.

The stage was thus set for the entrance of Akhenaten, who came to the throne as Amenhotep IV. Some scholars argue that Akhenaten and his father ruled together as co-regents for several years. Ray Johnson, a specialist at the University of Chicago, believes the father lived on for many years, yielding power to his son and accompanying him to Amarna. But most now contend that Akhenaten ruled without his father, perhaps driven to outdo him.

Akhenaten was probably already married to Nefertiti when he ascended the throne. Perhaps both were children when they wed, as Akhenaten’s father and mother, Queen Tiye, had been. No one knows where Nefertiti came from. Her name means “the beautiful one has come,” which once led scholars to assume she was foreign-born. Today many believe she was from a town now called Akhmim and belonged to the same influential family as Queen Tiye. Wherever Nefertiti was born, she was a part of Akhenaten’s revolution from the beginning.

“This is where he started,” says Rita Freed as we stand outside the towering gates, or pylons, of Karnak, which sprawls across some 250 acres (101.2 hectares) near the modern city of Luxor. The sun beats down on us as once it did on Akhenaten, an inescapable force that infuses the bricks and walls and statues and enervates the throngs of visitors who trudge between the pylons.

“By the time Akhenaten came to the throne, this was the greatest shrine in the land,” Freed says, explaining that each pharaoh was obliged to make an addition to the Karnak complex.

We walk to a 40-foot-high (12.2 meter) relief Akhenaten had carved on a wall of Amun-Re’s temple soon after taking power. It’s a traditional “smiting scene” for pharaohs. Akhenaten holds his enemies by their hair and is about to kill them. “This was a major project,” says Freed. “But it’s unfinished. At some point Akhenaten said, ‘Hold everything.'”

“His was a strange new vision,” says Robert Vergnieux of the University of Bordeaux in France. “Since the Egyptians’ god was now the sunlight, they didn’t need statues in dark inner sanctums. So they built temples without roofs and performed their rituals directly under the sun.”

“For a short time the Egyptians believed the sun god had come back to Earth in the form of the royal family,” says Ray Johnson. “There was a collective excitement that becomes tangible in the art and architecture. The whole country was in jubilee. It’s one of the most astonishing periods in world history.”

But no one can say how broad Akhenaten’s popular support actually was. Some scholars, including Sigmund Freud, have suggested Akhenaten was a visionary, a prophet whose form of monotheism somehow inspired Moses, who lived a century later. Others, such as Rolf Krauss, scoff at that. “He was a horrible tyrant who happened to have very good taste in art,” says Krauss.

Whether by faith or force Akhenaten turned Thebes upside down in his first four years as king, building four new temples to Aten around Amun’s temple at Karnak. Some believe that he may have been trying to merge the two gods into one.

To build great edifices quickly, Akhenaten’s engineers invented a new construction technique. Because the Aten temples had no roofs, their walls did not need to be as sturdy as before. Instead of hauling huge pieces of stone, the builders cut blocks light enough for one person to carry. Excavation workers in the early 20th century named these blocks—roughly 20 inches long by 10 inches (50.8 centimeters by 25.4 centimeters) wide and high—talatat, after talata, the Arabic word for three. Each talatat measured about three hands in length. Ancient stoneworkers used the talatat like bricks to build Akhenaten’s immense, open-air structures. Many bore colorful painted scenes from the lives of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Other talatat bore images of everyday life in Egypt—ordinary Egyptians feeding a cow, baking bread, making beer.

The cut blocks first came to light in the 1840s. Scattered here and there at Karnak, they gave Egyptologists some of the earliest clues to Akhenaten’s existence, so thoroughly had he been exorcised from ancient historical records.

The new pharaoh had enemies from the start—despite the excitement that surrounded him. Akhenaten spent lavishly on his early monuments to Aten and taxed Amun’s temples as he demoted the former king of the gods. By the fourth year of his reign tension was high. A turning point came in year five.

“Akhenaten can’t bring himself to say what actually occurred, but it really ticked him off,” says Bill Murnane, an Amarna specialist at the University of Memphis. “He rants about ‘it’ in an inscription at Amarna, saying ‘it’ was worse than anything he or his ancestors had experienced.

“I think the priests were fed up. They got together and drew a line in the sand. So he picked up his marbles and abandoned Thebes.”

The site Akhenaten chose for his new capital lay 180 miles (290 kilometers) to the north on the eastern bank of the Nile, sheltered by a ring of steep limestone cliffs in a desert valley. He had visited the place once, and the sun rising above the cliffs must have moved the young king. He named his new capital Akhetaten, meaning “horizon of Aten.” On decrees carved into stelae there, the king tells how Aten revealed this desolate land to him and told him it was the place where the creation of the world occurred. Within a year or two a huge new city with 20,000 or more residents sprouted along the river.

Today archaeologists call the area Amarna, after a modern village nearby. Despite the name change, sailing to Amarna remains a voyage into a realm of religious fervor. The site lies in a region where Islamic fundamentalists have waged terrorist warfare against Egypt’s government, sometimes attacking tourists. I traveled there with a group organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. We were escorted by two tanks and stern-faced soldiers with automatic rifles. When we pushed off from the river’s west bank in a ferry that would take us to the ruins, a police boat with sailors manning machine guns preceded us.

But at Amarna all was peaceful, the shore lined with date palms and mud-brick homes, many of them whitewashed and decorated with paints of many colors. A sign bearing stylized heads of Nefertiti and Akhenaten greeted us at the dock. “Welcome,” it read. “Civilization started here.”

Amarna does not overwhelm with dramatic monuments as Karnak does. “After the Amarna period was over, gangs of workmen were sent to remove and reuse the stone,” says Barry Kemp, who has worked the site since 1977. But in its prime Amarna stretched for about eight miles along the Nile and as much as three miles inland. A wide road ran parallel to the river, leading to the temples and palaces of the king. The royal family paraded down this road in chariots en route to rituals. The most spectacular of the temples was 2,500 feet (762 meters) long and 950 feet (260 meters) wide. Its vast, open courtyard was filled with offering tables and lined with statues of the king.

Amarna has been called the Pompeii of Egypt. Its monuments and houses are gone, but the foundations are largely intact. No one built new structures over its ruins, as in most ancient cities. So Amarna offers a time capsule look at how ancient Egyptians laid out their cities during the New Kingdom. “It’s the only place you can go and walk the streets of an ancient Egyptian city,” says Michael Mallinson, an architect working with the Egypt Exploration Society.

Barry Kemp’s research team has spent more than two decades exploring the economic life of the town. By painstakingly sifting through the sand and recovering potsherds, pieces of glass, resins, pollen, hog bristles, and insect remains, they have learned much about day-to-day life. They have located districts where textiles and glassware were made, where cattle were penned and hogs butchered. They have determined which incenses were burned and what fish were caught—even which beetles crawled through the grain the residents stored and used. Termites may have been a severe problem, undermining the timbers that held up many structures.

One of the most important finds at Amarna was a collection of about 350 diplomatic letters written on clay tablets, discovered around 1887 by peasants digging in the ruins of a building known as the House of Correspondence of Pharaoh. These so-called Amarna Letters give a nearly complete record of correspondence between Egypt’s court and various rulers of western Asia.

One of the most notable writers was Tushratta, king of the Mesopotamian state of Mitanni, a vital ally that regularly sent royal daughters to the pharaoh’s harem. A mysterious secondary wife of Akhenaten named Kiya may have been one of those daughters. Little is known about Kiya except that she earned the title Greatly Beloved. The pharaoh may have built a large building, known as the North Palace, to honor her. Some scholars believe she achieved such prominence because she gave birth to a male heir—Tut. Nefertiti, as far as we know, bore only daughters (although the pharaohs customarily did not mention their possible male successors).

Kiya disappears around year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign, and the name of Akhenaten’s oldest daughter, Meritaten, is inscribed over Kiya’s on stone fragments found at the North Palace. Kiya may have stolen Akhenaten’s affections and been done away with by a jealous Nefertiti. After Kiya disappears, Nefertiti rises to new power, perhaps as Akhenaten’s co-regent.

In one Amarna letter, written to Akhenaten’s mother, Tiye, the Mitannian king complains that Akhenaten has not sent gifts that his father had promised: “I had asked your husband for statues of solid cast gold. . . . But now . . . your son has [sent me] plated statues of wood. With gold being dirt in your son’s country, why have they been a source of such distress to your son that he has not given them to me? . . . Is this love?”

Why did Tushratta write to Tiye instead of to the pharaoh himself? Perhaps Akhenaten was so preoccupied with religion that he was neglecting foreign affairs. Tushratta’s pleas were not always greedy; in fact they gradually became desperate. Mitanni was besieged by the Hittites, who threatened Egypt’s empire in the north. Toward the end of his reign Akhenaten sent troops, but his response came too late. Tushratta was overthrown and murdered by his own son.

Meanwhile Akhenaten faced growing unrest at home. Around year nine of his reign the priests of Amun must have provoked him further. In a rage Akhenaten closed Amun’s temples, and all over Egypt the name and image of the former king of the gods was hacked out of tombs and monuments

Around year 12, about the same time Kiya disappeared, Akhenaten’s second daughter, Meketaten, died. Queen Tiye, two other daughters, and perhaps even Nefertiti died in the next few years. All those deaths in such a short time suggest to some scholars that Egypt was racked by plague, an affliction Akhenaten’s enemies could have used to fire political dissent, saying the gods were angry at this heretic pharaoh.

On the military front the Hittites were toppling Egypt’s allies. In the midst of growing chaos Akhenaten died. No one knows when or how, but inscriptions indicate that his 17th year as king was his last. He was buried in a lavish tomb cut into the cliffs east
of Amarna.

The years following Akhenaten’s death provoke enormous argument. The debate is confused by the Egyptian tradition of giving pharaohs a throne name and a personal name. Until recently scholars assumed that there was only one immediate successor, a pharaoh with the throne name of Ankhkheprure and the personal name Smenkhkare. He supposedly married Akhenaten’s eldest daughter, Meritaten. Now some suspect there were actually two pharaohs with the throne name Ankhkheprure. The other pharaoh’s personal name was Nefernefruaten, which is identical to a longer variation of Nefertiti’s name. Did Nefertiti survive and rule briefly as pharaoh?

Whoever Nefernefruaten was, she was a woman, according to inscriptions recently identified by a young French scholar, Marc Gabolde of the University of Montpellier. Gabolde also thinks this female pharaoh made an audacious political move.

Archives found in the Hittite capital of Hattusa in Anatolia indicate an Egyptian queen of that era wrote a desperate letter to the Hittite king saying her husband had died and begging him to send her one of his sons so that she would not have to wed a “servant.” The English scholar Nicholas Reeves argues that Nefertiti wrote that plea. Marc Gabolde believes it was her daughter Meritaten. Gabolde believes that the Hittite king sent his son Zannanza, who ruled briefly as Smenkhkare before dying.

Whoever the intermediate pharaohs were, Tut assumed power about four years after Akhenaten’s death. Most scholars suspect he was about ten at the time and was guided by two men: the general Horemheb and a courtier named Aye, perhaps Nefertiti’s father. Tut recognized Amun as the king of the gods and within two years moved the religious capital back to Thebes. Soon the names of Akhenaten and his god were eradicated and their temples torn down. Amarna was gradually abandoned.

Tut ruled for about ten years before he died in 1322 B.C. X-rays of his mummy have revealed a wound on his skull. Some scholars have suggested he was assassinated. Perhaps by the time he was in his late teens, Tut, like his father, was starting to have ideas of his own. His mentors could not tolerate another heretic. Aye succeeded Tut but died within three years in 1319. Horemheb followed Aye to the throne and ruled for 27 years, obliterating every record of Nefertiti and Akhenaten that he could.

What happened to the royal family after Akhenaten’s death continues to inspire serious archaeological dispute. Nicholas Reeves believes that Tut brought all the royal mummies from Amarna back to the Valley of the Kings, which lies across the Nile from Thebes, to be reburied. In the transfer it seems that Tut managed to confiscate some of their lavish funeral equipment for his own tomb. He was buried in a coffin that may have been originally intended for Nefertiti.

Reeves argues that a mummy found in a tomb very close to Tut’s own belongs to Akhenaten. The tomb was given the catalog name KV (Valley of the Kings) 55 early in the 20th century. Other specialists strongly reject that claim, contending that the body was too young—only around 20 according to x-ray analysis. They believe the mummy in KV 55 was Smenkhkare, one of Akhenaten’s successors before Tut. Yet Reeves is most interested in the whereabouts of another family member.

“Nefertiti is missing,” the archaeologist says, his eyes gleaming with the appetite of a detective tackling a complex murder mystery. We are peering down a 20-foot-deep (6 meter) shaft that leads into another ancient tomb—KV 56—across the valley from KV 55. The musty smell of the ages wafts from the dark tomb, which archaeologists discovered in 1908. About a dozen Egyptian workmen, some dressed in turbans and loose-fitting blue robes and others in baseball caps and T-shirts, dig with picks and hoes along the tourist path.

A principal goal of Reeves’s excavation, named the Amarna Tombs Project, is to determine the ancient level of the Valley of the Kings—before centuries of flash floods washed in many feet of sediment. Reeves is also hoping to find some new clue to the whereabouts of Nefertiti, whose mummy has never been found. KV 56 was first opened 14 years before King Tut’s tomb, but its discovery scarcely excited the world. Though the excavator, Edward Russell Ayrton, did find a cache of gold jewelry from a later dynasty, grave robbers had thoroughly looted the tomb’s original contents.

Although fueled by hope, archaeologists need evidence—and even a few scraps this season would make Reeves happy. Perhaps a fragment of a burial jar or an inscription etched into a tomb wall will prove Tut had Nefertiti reburied in KV 56. As I follow him down a ladder into the gloom of KV 56, Reeves tells me that the shaft itself gives a clue. The opening is surprisingly large—about 10 by 12 feet (3 by 3.7meters).

“I suspect they made it so big so they could get royal burial shrines down,” he says.

A royal mummy was usually encased in a series of highly decorated wooden shrines, one inside the next. At least three of the gold-covered shrines found in Tut’s tomb, the largest of which measured about 17 feet (5.2 meters) long, 11 feet (3.4 meters) wide, and 9 feet (2.7 meters) high, were perhaps originally made for Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

The inside of KV 56 is underwhelming—just diggers sorting through sediments for artifacts. But to Reeves this tomb is beautiful. “The cutting of the walls was meticulously done—fit for a queen,” he says. He suspects that the chamber was intended to be much larger but was left incomplete. The far corner looks unfinished, and Reeves believes the stoneworkers had been planning to cut a central column for a much larger tomb. Central columns are typical features of queenly tombs.

Weeks later I meet Reeves in London, and he remains excited about his theory that KV 56 was Nefertiti’s tomb. But he cautions that there are other queens who could have qualified. Compelling evidence remains to be found. “Nefertiti is still missing,” he says as we part.

His words linger later that night as I walk through London’s theater district. The marquee lights remind me how I got started on this quest. I first became interested in Nefertiti more than a dozen years ago. My late brother, a playwright, wrote a romantic musical about her that was mounted for Broadway in 1977. It never got there, closing in Chicago, but it left me wondering who this romantic woman really was. Was she the heroic spirit my brother portrayed? I had hoped the world’s leading experts would resolve that mystery for me, but as much as I have learned, she remains elusive. For me, too, Nefertiti is still missing.

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