21 April 2008

Social Movements: Religious Upheaval in Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

Ancient Egyptian's lives were ruled by the gods. They infused every part of Egyptian life. So imagine the upheaval when the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten, forbade the worship of all the gods who had nurtured Egyptians for about 2,000 years, in favor of his favorite god, Aten.

He had the temples of Amun and the pantheon of gods closed, and the estates of the priests of Amun confiscated. Temples were toppled and their names chiselled out in favor of his god.

The people of Egypt were left high and dry with no gods to worship other than a new god they barely knew. Egyptian religion and culture was thrown into chaos for seventeen years. He also moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a barren desert wasteland two hundred miles to the north, called Ahketaten (Horizon of the Aten).

This is the background of my upcoming romance ETERNAL HEARTS, due out this year from Highland Press.

Akhenaten reigned more than 3,500 years ago, in the eighteenth dynasty, and apart from making major, but rather short-lived, changes to various aspects of Egyptian culture, the most notable was his religious revolution. Akhenaten also made major changes in the ancient Egyptian art style, and presented himself in a very different manner from any of his predecessors. Some say he had a sense of humor, others that he had one of several diseases.

Akhenaten's strange appearance and mysterious behavior, as well as his connection with Nefertiti and with the "boy king" Tutankhamun, have made him the subject of much passion and controversy in the last century or so.

Akhenaten is all things to all people. To some he was a fanatical lunatic, to some he comes across as a strange, eccentric young man whose behavior was strongly influenced by his mother. To others he was a Christ-like visionary and a mentor of Moses. You must admit it poses interesting questions, especially since Moses was 500 years or so later.

Akhenaten's great royal wife was the very beautiful Nefertiti. Her name means "A Beautiful Woman Has Come". Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters who died very young, probably victims of a plague that was running rampant in Ahketaten at the time.

The nature of Akhenaten's religious revolution is well established--he overthrew Egyptian polytheism in favor of the worship of a single god, Aten--but the reason behind it is still unknown.

When historians first began to study Akhenaten in the late 1800s, the first thing that naturally came to everyone's mind was that Akhenaten was divinely inspired. Many disagree. Although Akhenaten's religion centered on one god, the physical sun disk, his major emphasis was on the Aten's visibility, tangibility, and undeniable "realness". Akhenaten placed no emphasis on faith.

Many believe Akhenaten's reasons for his religious reform were political. By the time of his reign, the god Amun had risen to such a high status that the priests of Amun had become even more wealthy and powerful than the pharaohs.

The reasons for Akhenaten's revolution still remain a mystery and probably always will. Until further evidence can be uncovered, it will be impossible to know just what motivated his unusual behavior.

In my book I've opted for the most popular belief. That Akhenaten was a madman, but not too mad. I wanted him to at least have some humanity with touch of madness around the edges. We'll never really know, but he was a great family man who loved his little daughters.

I hope he would approve of my depiction.