I know just what the King was looking for – a spot where the sandstone cliffs closed in to within half a mile of the river, and where the once-in-a-century flash floods had sliced a V-shaped notch in the canyon rim, carving a dry canyon or wadi opening toward the river. Perhaps the King already had such a location in mind, or perhaps Bek, his Chief of Works, knew just the spot where every morning the sun-god Aten would first dramatically peek into the life giving valley of the Nile. The spot they chose was 100 miles south of the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis, and 150 mile north of the New Kingdom capital of Thebes. Here, almost equal distance between the two historical power centers of Egypt, Amenhotep IV decided to begin his revolution.
The Pharaoh was able to build his new city of Aketaten almost at will because of a recent technological import, the shaduf (above). Wikipedia explains this was “an upright (tripod) frame on which is suspended a long pole... At the long end of this pole hangs a bucket, skin bag, or bitumen-coated reed basket. The short end carries a weight...When correctly balanced... some effort is used to pull an empty bucket down to the water, but only the same effort is needed to lift a full bucket...a shaduf can raise over 2,500 liters (of water) per day.” With this relative new tool, irrigation ditches and fields to grow enough coarse wheat, beans and lentils to feed a city could be established anywhere along the Nile.
But the King could have no secrets from his Grand Vizier, who was also the High Priest of Amun-Ra. And it was that priest, Huy, through his bureaucrats up and down the river, who assisted in planning and assembling for this assault upon the god Amun Ra. Only the power of the army would have kept Huy from striking back in defense of his god. Still, throughout 1347 and 1346 B.C.E. , as preparations continued, Thebes must have been a very tense place.
On the 13th of October of 1345 B.C.E., the fifth year of the Pharaoh’s reign, at the beginning of the cool winter months, they dedicated the start of construction of Aketaten, the "Horizon of the Aten". To the east of the 8 mile long construction site a walled village had been prepared for the artisans, foremen and skilled workers - some 64 simple mud brick row houses in a neat rectangle, with a guard house at the only exit. With 5 – 10 men per house, this would have contained over 600 men. In addition each region would have paid part of their yearly taxes with unskilled workers, who would sleep and eat in tents or in the open.
First to be built was the Chapel of the Great Temple to Aten - the rest of the temple would come in time. At the same time the royal palace and estates were started, barracks for soldiers and military headquarters, all to the north of the new temple. A ditch separated this section from the central city, with large houses for court officials and priests of Aten, each with their own grain storehouses, and, of course, more temples to Aten. Here, as well, were homes for the clerks and head servants, and the workshop of the highest ranking member of the division of Works who moved to Aketaten, Bek's assistant, Thutmose, the sculpture. As you moved southward through the city along the “Royal Road”, the homes got smaller, all white washed mud brick and built quickly. The western edge of the city was the High Priest Street, ending in the large temple granaries among the slums and workers' apartments of the southern section.
Carved into the crowding cliffs were to be the tombs of the priests and functionaries who had converted to the new faith. And up the canyon leading toward that V-shaped notch in the cliff, in what became the royal wadi, was to be carved the magnificent tomb of Nefertiti and her King, Amenhotep IV. It was at the dedication and ground breaking ceremony that the King took the next step in his revolution. He publically changed his name. The Pharaoh decreed that henceforth he would be known as Akhenaten, “The Spirit of Aten”. It was a declaration of war between the power of the King and his god Aten, and the power of Huy and his god Amun Ra.
“His Majesty mounted a great chariot of electrum, like the Aten when He rises on the horizon and fills the land with His love, and took a goodly road to Aketaten, the place of origin (where Aten's light first fell on the Nile each morning), which (the Aten) had created for Himself that he might be happy therein. It was His son Akhenaten (the Pharaoh), who founded it for Him...Heaven was joyful, the earth was glad (and) every heart was filled with delight when they beheld him.”
His new city had no walls, as if the King were defying Huy to move against him. But Huy could afford to be patient. The strength of Amun Ra (above) did not spring merely from the wealth of its most powerful acolytes such as Huy, but also from its appeal to the masses. They trusted the god “who hears the prayer, who comes at the cry of the poor and distressed..” Most Egyptians confessed their sins to the merciful and forgiving Lord of Thebes, Amun Ra. “Though it may be that the servant is normal in doing wrong, yet the Lord is normal in being merciful. The Lord of Thebes does not spend an entire day angry...As the Ka (soul) endures, thou will be merciful” And Huy knew the power of this simple idea, that the world was not created merely to please the kings and queens, but that they were created to serve the world. Amun Ra was the faith of the people. Aten was the faith of the King. And they both were moves toward monotheism.
While his new capital was being prepared, Akhenaten, who had been Amenhotep IV, returned to Thebes and step by step pushed his revolution. All donations to Amun Ra were temporarily diverted to the priesthood of Aten, to support construction of Aketaten . But over time that would become permanent. In 1343 B.C.E. the Pharaoh left Thebes for the last time, taking his dear wife, Nefertiti, his harem, his advisers and most of the government to his new city. None were allowed follow him to Aketaten, unless they had publicly renounced Amun Ra and the other old religions, and sacrificed to Aten. This meant that none could appeal their case directly to the king unless they had first converted. But a small statue of Osiris found within the site of Aketaten, shows that for many, this conversion was a matter of convenience only.
Next, the Pharaoh decreed that all other faiths were apostate, and illegal. He ordered the closure of all temples to Osiris, Isis, Ptah, Mut and Amun Ra,. Further he order the desecration of the images of all other Egyptian gods. The carved name of the gods, their “ren”, was to be scratched out of the blessings and oaths inscribed in all temples and tombs. It was an act of desecration under the old religion, for without a ren the gods could not assist the deceased to rise from the dead. In effect, it damned the Pharoah's own father, and all fathers and mothers of all of Egypt to the eternal cold night. The destruction was carried out in Thebes, but the absence of resistance to this royal decree seems to indicate it was carried out in few other places in Egypt. And, since Akhenaten had sworn to never leave Aketaten again, it was unlikely he would ever know of this defiance. The Pharaoh continued to issue edicts. And increasingly they were ignored. Either he was willing to be lied to, or he was unaware his self imposed isolation was depriving him of control of everything beyond the the walls of his new palace. Or he had lost his mind.
Nine years after he had ascended the twin thrones of Egypt, in 1341 B.C.E., the King's mother, Queen Tiji, arrived in Aketaten unannounced, and without conversion to Aten. She was delivering a message to the King, and he would have to listen to her. The relationship between divine kings and their mothers is always difficult for the King. It may be easy to convince strangers that you are a god, but your mother remembers how you came into the world, and it was aboard no chariot of electrum. It was Tiji who convinced her son to cool down his revolution. But whether she told him his decrees were being ignored, or warned him the army had reached the breaking point of support is unclear. But we know that after her visit the revolution abruptly came to a halt. There would be no more changes in Egypt. And we know that Tiji did not stay in Aketaten very long.
The king did not renounce his new faith. Nor did he leave Aketaten. But he restricted himself to rides on the Royal Road that went no where except to his daily absolution in the Great Temple of Aten,. His life became centered on his beloved main wife-sister, now called Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, “The Aten is radiant of radiance because the beautiful one has come.” And I think it was now she sat as a model for the sculptor Thutmose, as he created one of the most famous icons of art in the history of the world.
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