Skip to content
  • Video
  • 15 mins

Timewatch: Explore The Pharaoh's Lost City: Meet King Amenhotep IV

Updated Tuesday, 18th December 2007

What little we know of King Amenhotep IV, told from the town he built.

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that the information provided on this page may be out of date, or otherwise inaccurate due to the passage of time. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy


Copyright BBC



Kate Spence: We know Akhenaten comes to the throne as the king Amenhotep and we call him Amenhotep the fourth em, we know early in the reign he was actually building at Karnack he celebrated a sen festival very early in his reign in a large building he constructed to the east of the temple. Thereafter we have very little in the way of historical records, the major record we have from his reign is the boundary stele which tells us about the foundation and construction of the city after that there 1 or 2 significant incidents we know of from the Amarna letters or from images in the tomb scenes, but remarkably little considering the length of his reign. We have 17 years with a handful of historical documents to actually flesh out what was going on.

Traditionally ancient Egyptians had worshipped many gods in many different forms and this was also the case under Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep the 3rd, we find that throughout his reign he’s building temples for many different gods and worshipping the different gods em, all around Egypt, some of these were locally based, they were gods of particular places and some of them had a place in the major sort of, the major Egyptian families of gods.

Now one particular god we find appearing just occasionally at the end of Amenhotep the 3rd’s reign is the god the Aton or the visible sun disk, this was not a new god at the time he was....
This was not a new god at the time the Aton was a god that had been around for many generations in Egypt but it had never been a particularly important god prior to the later 18th dynasty.

In the old kingdom the sun god Ra had emerged as the major god of kingship, this was the sun in the sky a distant god very appropriate for expressing the universal power and divinity of the Egyptian king but not a very approachable god and not an easy god to represent yourself as king actually interacting with the god within the temple sphere, and this seems to have been what the Egyptians were trying to do.

Akhenaten goes back to this idea of a distant god because he wants to promote the idea of himself as the mediator between human kind and all divine forces in the universe and this is done far more effectively by removing the human form of the god and having the god simply represented as an icon and Akhenaten himself can then become the focus of worship and of all ritual activity on earth. And this seems to me to be why he’s so interested in changing the whole nature of the representation of gods in Egypt and why he’s so interested in the Aton which seems to have been the god that suited this purpose best.

Akhenaten himself is often represented with the cartouches of the Aton on his body and this is one of the closest ways in ancient Egypt that you can actually associate an individual with a god because the name is an aspect of an individual, so if Akhenaten had the name Aton written all over him that means he is an aspect of the Aton.

Akhenaten’s presentation of his belief in the Aton has been described as a natural philosophy, the Aton is a life giving force that gives light and life to all humanity and all animals.

In his hymn to the Aton Akhenaten describes a chick in an egg and the fact that the chick speaks or it is given life within an egg which appears to be an inanimate object and this is the mystery of the Aton as a life giver to animals humans plants and everything within the natural world.

Traditionally Egyptian families were represented in very formal poses with the husband and wife sitting stock still side by side and the children standing straight by their legs and Akhenaten changes this entirely he and his wife are shown in very relaxed poses leaning back in their chairs touching hands and the children are shown climbing all over them. The king is shown kissing his children and his wives and the children play with their mother’s earring, there’s enormous sort of emotion and motion actually within these images and that in itself would have been hugely shocking for an Egyptian. As far as an Egyptian was concerned you make an image so that its going to last you for eternity you want to be represented in a formal pose as you will be seen forever.

The fact that Akhenaten should be trying to represent the momentary interaction of the family and the affection that they feel for each other would actually be completely outside the bounds of what you would normally find in Egyptian art.

One of the things that’s so interesting about this is that within normal families this doesn’t change husbands and wives are still shown very formally side by Nobody else is represented with this extreme level of informality or expressing this emotion and this seems to be one way Akhenaten chooses to set himself and his activities apart from those of the rest of humanity. He is so important and he’s such an important god that actually his everyday interaction with his family and the love that he feels for them becomes a manifestation of the Aton’s divine power and an image to be worshipped by the rest of the population.

I think what Akhenaten was trying to show with these naturalistic poses with his family was the fact that any aspect of life is given by the Aton and is therefore important and an object for worship. And we find throughout Akhenaten’s reign that there’s this emphasis on the everyday and the ordinary being elevated to objects worthy of representation for example in temples.

Akhenaten seems to have made the decision to build the city at Amarna in year 5 of his reign. We have a set of boundary inscriptions which were created at the site announcing his choice of the site and his arrival there and the initial dedicatory rites which were carried out at the site prior to the building of the new city

Akhenaten actually tells us in the boundary steely why he chose this particular site. And what he says is that, the Aton inspired him to make the choice but also that what was important about the site was that it hadn’t been dedicated previously to any god or goddess or male or female ruler and the fact that it was uninhabited.

And the fact that it was essentially uninhabited territory seems to have been essential to Akhenaten’s decision, he wanted a new place somewhere that wasn’t tainted by association with any previous ruler or god. And this explanation given by Akhenaten himself seems to be the best interpretation that we can come up with for why he chose this particular site.

It may seem strange to us that if a king decides to move the rest of the courts simply gets up and follows him to the new site at Amarna, but if you think about instances of absolute monarchies and court societies it becomes far less of a surprise.

Akhenaten was an absolute king and if courtiers wanted to maintain status, prestige, jobs and income they had to be near the king and so they simply followed him to the city in their 100s and along with them went all of the people who supported the institutions the food production the creators of luxury artefacts and all of the artists and all those people went along as well, and before long there was a city of many 1000s of people all centred around the royal court in the presence of the king and his family in the city itself.

The site of Amarna is not a sensible place to build a city, it’s basically a stretch of desert which would not naturally support human life, and the decision to build there must have seemed fairly strange to people who were used to building structures in Ancient Egypt. This has, incidentally, proved a massive boon for archaeology because it’s such a stupid place to build a city that no one’s ever built on it again, and that’s why we have a fabulously preserved site these days, whereas the majority of other Egyptian towns have simply been built over again and again by later cities, and this hasn’t happened at Amarna.

Akhenaten tells us in some detail in his boundary stele of his intentions for the new city. He tells us he, that.. He tells us that he will build temples for the Aton and palaces for the royal family along with burial places for himself and his wife and children in the valley to the east of the city.

Under Akhenaten, temples changed as did the ritual practice of worshipping the gods, and what we find is that the hidden, dark mysteries that took place within side...

What we find is that the mysteries that were conducted within traditional Egyptian temples, the offerings that were carried out in secret within dark spaces were transformed into open, light temples which were un-roofed, and multiple offering tables which were laid out within the temples and on which food produce was piled to be offered to the Aton. This image of sort of abundant offerings seems to be giving back to the Aton the produce and the goodness that the Aton himself creates.

In addition to the temples we have a number of palaces in the city, there are at least four palaces of very different ground plan, size and layout which are found at various points on the site, and these must have served different aspects of royal life. We also find institutional structures around the central city where, for example, the administration was carried out, where the police force was based, and then we find outlying religious structures around the boundaries of the site, structures for royal ritual and worship which were constructed on small locations in the desert outside the city.

The north palace is very interesting, it seems to be a ceremonial structure with a very strongly axial layout. It has some sort of sunken garden in the middle which aligns with the throne room, and there are stalls for keeping animals on one side of it, which, as far as I know, is unprecedented in Egyptian palace structures and is a very strange part of a palace set up.

One possibility is that the animals were kept there in order to show by their, their movement and their activity the power of the Aton to give life to animals as well as humans and the fact that animals also rejoice and appear happy when the sun rises.

Early in his reign Akhenaten seems to have tolerated other gods and their cults seem to have continued. Some time around year 9 there does seem to have been a fairly major change. We find, for example, that the name of the Aton has actually changed to exclude reference to any other gods, and the evidence that we have for the persecution and closing of other cults mainly seems to come later in the reign.

At some point during Akhenaten’s reign people seem to have been sent to temples around the land to actually chisel out images and names of other gods around the country. Although some solar gods seem to have escaped, this seems to have been fairly widespread destruction in the vast majority of temples throughout Egypt. So it was a pretty significant act.

Shortly before his death, Akhenaten had appointed a co-regent which is the shadowy ruler Smenkaray who rules for a couple of years after Akhenaten dies, and we know very little about this individual. When Smenkaray dies, Tutankhamen comes to the throne, so there’s no direct succession from Akhenaten to Tutankhamen. The identity of Tutankhamen himself is not certain, he’s most probably a son of Akhenaten but we’re not sure of the identity of the mother. Kia is one very likely possibility, but other people have suggested that Tutankhamen could have been a son of Akhenaten and Nefertiti who was simply kept out of the limelight as a royal son and as a potential threat to Akhenaten’s power.

Akhenaten’s vision was not continued during Tutankhamen’s reign, it’s not clear whether the impetus came from Tutankhamen who was actually a very young child at the time, or more likely whether it came from his courtiers. And there were a number of senior figures at the court at this time, names such as Ay and Horenheb who later went on to become kings in their own right who may well have been manipulating the king behind the scenes. But whoever was responsible for the change, at some point during Tutankhamen’s reign the court left Amarna and returned to Memphis, the traditional capital of Egypt, and from that point onwards, em, the Eighteenth Dynasty established itself back at Memphis, and Amarna itself was abandoned.

Akhenaten’s reign and his changes were viewed very negatively by later Egyptian rulers. We find that he simply removed from the king lists by later Egyptian kings very often taking Tutankhamen and Smenkaray, even Ay with him, so whole periods of history were simply removed in order to take away the stain from Egyptian history. In later texts he’s often referred to simply as the heretic. Em, he was not a popular ruler in the eyes of later Egyptians, and what he had done was viewed very negatively. Em, Tutankhamen leaves a very interesting inscription in which he says that the gods had abandoned Egypt because of what Akhenaten had done, and Tutankhamen went about restoring the cults to their traditional splendour and abandoning the Aton. And very much as Akhenaten had removed the names of the gods from existing temple buildings, Tutankhamen started to remove the names of the Aton, and over time the entire Amarna incident was removed from Egyptian history so that the kings were no longer recorded in king lists and the period was simply referred to with Akhenaten’s name as the heretic when it was referred to in later texts.

It’s easy to see why Akhenaten was hated, he undermined the values that Egyptians had held for many years and he attacked the traditional gods which were the mainstay of Egyptians’ understanding of the universe and, in particular, of the afterlife.

Because he’d shown such disrespect for everything Egyptians traditionally held dear, it’s very difficult to see how they could have gone back to traditional practices without some sort of backlash against what Akhenaten himself stood for and what he was trying to do. So I, I think it’s very easy to understand why he was such an unpopular figure.

Explore the Pharaoh's lost city




Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?