Pharaoh of Egypt, c.1400–c.1350 BCE. The second son of Amenhotep III of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, the future Pharaoh Akhenaten was originally named Amenhotep. There may have been ill feeling between father and son, as the young Amenhotep is never named or portrayed alongside his siblings on his father’s monuments, but he became crown prince after the death of his older brother Thothmes and took the throne a few years later as Amenhotep IV.
Shortly after his enthronement, he proclaimed that the gods of Egypt’s polytheism were lifeless and powerless, and the only real god was Aten, the physical sun. In the first four years of his reign he imposed a religious revolution on Egypt, abolishing the priests and temples of all gods but his own and changing his name from Amenhotep, meaning “Amen is satisfied,” to Akhenaten, “spirit of Aten.”
In the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten abandoned the capital city at Thebes and built a new capital for himself nearly a hundred miles down the Nile, at Tell el-Amarna, across the river from the ancient city of Hermopolis. Akhetaten, “Horizon of Aten,” contained a huge temple to Aten and a grandiose palace for Akhenaten himself, built and decorated in a style that flouted the traditional geometries of Egyptian art. Surrounded by his courtiers and favourites, the pharaoh pursued his religious vision and isolated himself from the world outside Akhetaten’s walls.
The last decade of his reign was a period of continual crisis, as the burden of rising taxes and forced labour for Akhenaten’s building programs crushed the Egyptian economy, and the rising power of the Hittite Empire in what is now Turkey challenged a military already stretched to the limit by Egypt’s own internal troubles. Meanwhile epidemic disease swept through Egypt, adding another strain to a crumbling society. Many Egyptians believed that the gods were abandoning Egypt because Egypt had abandoned the gods.
In the midst of these crises, Akhenaten died. Three shortlived successors – a shadowy figure named Smenkhare, the boy-king Tutankhamen, and Akhenaten’s elderly Prime Minister Ay – struggled with the situation without resolving it. Finally, on Ay’s death, the throne passed to Horemheb, commander of the army. Often tarred as the villain of Akhenaten’s story, Horemheb was a canny realist who understood that Akhenaten’s disastrous experiment had to be reversed if Egypt was to survive. During Horemheb’s 25-year reign, Egypt returned to peace and prosperity, but the price was the total destruction of Akhenaten’s legacy. Akhetaten was razed to the ground, the temples of Aten were torn down stone by stone to provide raw materials for new temples to the old gods of Egypt, and every trace of Akhenaten’s reign, his image, his name, and his god was obliterated.
The destruction was systematic enough that historians afterwards had only scattered references to “the accursed one of Akhetaten” and a confused legend of a time of troubles to suggest that something unusual had happened near the end of the 18th Dynasty. Not until the 1840s did the wall of silence raised by Horemheb break down, as European archeologists carried out the first surveys at Tell el-Amarna and found puzzling images of people worshipping the sun’s disk, carved in a style utterly unlike traditional Egyptian art. Curiosity about these so-called “disk worshippers” led to systematic digs at Tell el-Amarna and the gradual uncovering of the facts about Akhenaten.
The discovery of the tomb of Akhenaten’s son, the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, in 1922 finished the process and catapulted the “heretic pharaoh” into public awareness throughout the western world. Akhenaten’s monotheism guaranteed that most portrayals of his life and reign during the early twentieth century were strongly favourable, and this made him an easy target for retrospective recruitment. H. Spencer Lewis of AMORC and Savitri Devi, the first major theoretician of the neo-Nazi movement, were among the many who found a place for Akhenaten as a forerunner of their own ideas.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006