Akhenaten’s Akhetaten

A Day at Tell al-Amarna

By Garry Shaw

Akhenaten is for many Egyptians something of a hero, a rebel with a distinct religious vision. In his lifetime, however, he was reviled by many as a megalomaniac and troublemaker. We take a day trip to the king’s purpose-built capital city, Tell al-Amarna.

Article Piece
Article Gallery

Why are my messengers kept standing in the open sun?’ …

‘They will be killed in the open sun,’ wrote the Assyrian king Ashuruballit I to King Akhenaten, following the return of his sunburnt and weary envoys from the newly founded Egyptian city of Akhetaten, ‘the Horizon of the Sun Disc’ – better known today as Tell al-Amarna.

The main problem, it seems, was the new religion, instigated by the pharaoh himself – King Akhenaten. Thanks to Akhenaten’s particular beliefs, gone were the multitude of interestingly-headed gods, unusual netherworld beliefs, and dark secluded sanctuaries where Egypt’s deities were served by submissive priests during arcane ceremonies. Instead, everyone had to worship the sun disc, known as the Aten, through the king himself as intermediary.

Indeed, Akhenaten loved the Aten so much that he had changed his name from Amenhotep IV to honour the new state god. For visiting foreign envoys, such internal religious matters might not normally have preyed heavily on their minds; however, since the new pharaoh’s sun worship meant doing business standing out in the midday sun, in open courts, without any shade, for extended periods of time, things had become rather unbearable. Sweating while watching the young king perform his daily rituals, a visiting envoy would find it easy to pine for the good old days of the god Amun – the Hidden One, cool and fresh within his dark sanctuary – and wonder what in Aten’s name was going on.

Visiting Tell al-Amarna

Just as many ancient foreign envoys might have wanted to avoid visiting Tell al-Amarna, most modern tourists also skip seeing the site, despite its rich archaeological and historical significance. So, in order to highlight this touristic travesty, I decided to venture there myself. I stayed in Minya, a beautiful, clean city, about four hours from Cairo by train, bizarrely equipped with its own Hollywoodesque ‘El-Minya’ sign up in the surrounding hills; from here it’s an easy taxi ride to the ancient site. Well…except for the river getting in the way.

My taxi ground to a halt along the riverbank – one of many vehicles anxiously waiting for the ancient green ferry to putter its way across the Nile, pick us up, and deliver us to the village of al-Tell on the other side. From a distance the ferry looked like a home-made aircraft carrier, adapted to house an excessively large floating community of cars, trucks and about forty people. From my distant vantage point I could see five life-rings hanging from a wall, while a little further down the river a similar ferry looked to be slowly sinking; all in all, not good signs.

Still, all along the riverbank the local villagers were washing their clothes, while children played beside them in the shade of tall palm trees. Just another day in the village, I thought to myself: this boat’s been doing this journey for at least five hundred years; it would be unbelievable bad luck for it to sink today. Twenty minutes later, and on board, I decided to calm my fears further by making small talk with the captain, only to find that he immediately and quite happily passed over control of the boat to me. Bolstered by my sudden promotion, my fear of sinking was left behind and I steered us on a good course to the east bank of the river. I was going to enter Amarna in style – the captain of my own boat. The real captain took a cigarette break.

The City of Akhenaten

Visiting Amarna today, it is difficult to envision what sight greeted any diplomatic envoy who begrudgingly went there three thousand years ago – during the period of Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. The city today is a moonscape, with virtually nothing evident on the surface. However, from archaeological excavations, we know that it was planned from the outset as three major sections, today labelled the north suburb, the central quarter and the south suburb. These were connected by three roads, heading north-south. Altogether, it is thought that about thirty thousand people lived within this space, many probably wondering what they were doing there.

The Northern and Southern Tombs

The first major attraction at Amarna is the private tombs. The nobles and officials, who were presumably forced to move to Akhetaten in order to continue their careers, were also to be buried there. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to abandon your traditional beliefs for the sake of your career, you had to abandon them for eternity, too.

Obviously, Akhenaten couldn’t create an entire new capital city without the help of the government and military, and so it puts a nice spin on the common perception that the Egyptians were obsessed with religion, tradition and order, knowing that these ancient politicians (just like modern politicians) did whatever was best to further their careers. ‘You want to keep your jobs’, Akhenaten probably complained, ‘you’re moving to my boiling new city in the middle of nowhere and worshipping who I tell you! And bring the wife and kids.’ It must have been a bit like being forced to join one of those wacky cults that occasionally spring up in remote parts of the USA, except without the alien obsession and FBI surveillance and a lot more standing around in the sun.

The tombs are split into two groups, today known as the northern and southern tombs, cut into the cliffs to the east of the city. My first stop was the Northern Tombs, which lie up a steep, long slope. Panting and out of breath, I followed the rock-lined path to the top of the cliff; then I followed the tomb guardian along the ridge as he slowly opened the tombs one by one. Waiting for the tombs to be unlocked, and their heavy metal gates to be swung open, I walked to the edge of the escarpment and looked out over the desolate archaeological site. In the far distance was the cultivation, followed by the river; the yellow sand, green fields and blue water starkly contrasting with one another as they disappeared towards the horizon.

I entered six of the rock-cut tombs. One was the tomb of Huya, Overseer of the Royal Harem and Steward of the Great Royal Wife, Tiye – the mother of Akhenaten, who came to visit the new city in her old age. Other tombs belong to Akhenaten’s priestly staff: the High Priest of the Aten, and two Chief Servitors of the Aten. One of these tombs, that of Panehesy, had been adapted into a Coptic church in antiquity.

The Southern cluster of tombs is not as impressive as the northern group, and many were left unfinished when the city was abandoned. Still, of those that can be seen, one belonged to the God’s Father Aye, a man who would later become king after Tutankhamen’s premature death, while another was for the Chief of Police. Another tomb belonged to an Overseer of all the Works of the King, whose name has been erased throughout his tomb showing that he had fallen from favour. Throughout each tomb, images of the king’s life and family dominate the walls – the king’s journey from his palace to the temple; the king’s bestowal of office or reward, the royal family together – all executed in the unique, exaggerated style of the period.

The Royal Tomb

After visiting the rock-cut tombs of the nobles, I visited the tomb of the heretic king himself. Akhenaten’s tomb lies down an atmospheric wadi, empty and quiet except for the wind that occasionally rumbles past your ears as you stand in the shade of the surrounding cliffs. Although open for some time, lighting and walkways have recently been introduced into the tomb, making access much easier than before.

As I descended into the dim neon glow, and walked down the long straight axis of the tomb, it quickly became obvious that the decoration had everywhere been attacked by those wishing to extinguish Akhenaten from history, leaving only fragmentary remains behind. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the poor king when his tomb has been so completely decimated. To be honest though, most of the destruction in the tomb was probably done by those who had willingly followed him out there to Amarna, ‘I had to sell all my cows and my nice house in Thebes to move out here’, you can almost hear one of them yelling, ‘and then everything you said turned out to be garbage’, before taking another whack at a carving of Akhenaten’s flabby elongated face with his chisel.

Two separate suites of rooms branch off from the main tomb axis. The first, closest to the entrance, may have been for Queen Nefertiti, while the second was perhaps for Meketaten, one of Akhenaten’s daughters. Scenes in the three rooms here show the death of the princess, with Akhenaten and Nefertiti standing over the body of their daughter. Nearby a newborn baby is shown, which some scholars have taken as evidence of the young princess dying during childbirth.

The Small Temple to the Aten

Leaving the tombs behind, I ended my tour by visiting the Small Temple to the Aten, where the king would go to make offerings to the sun disc. The road that leads to the temple actually follows the original ‘royal road’ of Amarna, down which the king and his family would ride their chariots under heavy escort to the central quarter of the city. Knowing this, I felt rather regal as I, like Akhenaten three thousand years earlier, stepped down from my vehicle and entered the temple. It was probably a lot more impressive three thousand years ago, however, when there wasn’t a long row of electricity pylons and a flimsy barbwire fence next to it.

Unlike many of the famous temples of Upper Egypt, little is preserved of the temple; only its foundations and the modern reconstruction work betray its original size and layout. It no doubt looked a lot more impressive in Akhenaten’s day. I passed through the pylon gateway, and found a large reconstructed altar, originally reached by a few steps, upon which Akhenaten would offer food to the Aten. Then, as I continued along the central axis of the temple, the remains of many columns came into sight; these once stood at the rear of the temple in the sanctuary area. Today, however, only one modern column still stands, sadly and solitarily poking its head in the direction of its long-ignored solar deity.

Looking closely at the area around the temple, I could see mud-brick walls peeking out of the sand in all directions; some stood to a reasonable height, while others could barely be seen above the sand. These were once the great buildings of the central quarter, the pulsing heartbeat of Akhetaten, the storerooms and administrative buildings, all now reclaimed by the environment and slowly baked by the sun.

The End of the Line

After seventeen years of rule, Akhenaten died and his new regime quickly fell apart. The old traditions were resumed and every occurrence of Akhenaten’s name and image was attacked. From that moment on he would be known as the ‘enemy of Akhetaten’. His city was dismantled, piece by piece, leaving only its bare foundations, and his tomb was ransacked. Even Akhenaten’s sarcophagus was hacked to pieces and left scattered in his burial chamber. It was subsequently reconstructed, however, and can now be found around the west side of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Despite the good intentions of the conservators, it is completely unmarked and ignored by the thousands of tourists that go to the museum each day. It is ironic, though, that despite the destructive efforts of the ancient Egyptians, Akhenaten is today one of Egypt’s most famous kings.

In the end then, despite complaining to their king, I hope that the ancient foreign envoys, who once stood so long in the sun in this tragic civic experiment, left Amarna with the same feeling that I did as I was driving away in my taxi, back toward the aging ferry. They may have been hot and tired, and slightly concerned about the eccentric pharaoh’s mental health, but I’m sure they were happy they went, because Tell al-Amarna – the period it embodies, and the snapshot of history it represents – is unique. Being there to witness the physical result of Akhenaten’s great upheaval provides a glimpse into something special. For this reason alone, Akhenaten deserves his place in history, saved, like his city, from the annihilation of time.

Photos are courtesy of Christina Geisen, The Amarna Project & Sarah Fortune. I would also like to thank Dr. Barry Kemp for his kind assistance.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 1, 2010


Ancient Egypt

The God’s Father, Aye, offers a prayer, the frequently quoted Hymn to the Aten.

Shrine from the house of Panehesy.

A guardian opens the tomb of Mahu, Akhenaten’s Chief of Police

Akhenaten’s often-overlooked sarcophagus at the west side of the Egyptian Museum.

Small Aten Temple with columns in the background.

Garry Shaw

Garry Shaw

Garry Shaw is an Egyptologist, writer and editor. He holds a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool, where he studied the pharaoh’s role in day-to-day political affairs. This was also the subject of his first book, published in 2008. He has undertaken archaeological fieldwork in the UK, Turkey and Egypt; worked with various world museums; and has taught Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and the University of Liverpool.