The sacred territory of Akhetaten comprised an arc of desert on the east of the Nile bounded by tall cliffs, a broad tract of agricultural land with villages across the river on the west, and a narrower strip of western desert in front of a low escarpment.
The whole tract of land measured around 20–25 kilometres across the valley by 13 kilometres from south to north. It was marked out by a series of tablets or stelae carved into the cliffs and escarpment on both sides. In modern times they have become known as the Amarna Boundary Stelae. Each one is a rectangle with a rounded top sculpted from the rock. The main rectangular part was carved with many horizontal lines of hieroglyphic text; a picture of the royal family worshipping the Aten filled the rounded top panel. Most of the stelae were accompanied by statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and some of their daughters, also carved from the rock.
The stelae were methodically sought out and noted in 1891/2 by the archaeologist W. Flinders Petrie. He designated each by means of an English capital letter, leaving gaps in the sequence to allow for future discoveries. His sequence ran A, B, F for the west bank; and J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, U and V for the east bank. Stela X was added to the list by N. de G. Davis in 1901, and H by H. Fenwick in 2006.
The site of Stela H is not currently open to visitors
The main text on each stela contains one or other of two proclamations made by Akhenaten, the first in the fifth year of his reign, the second in his sixth year (with an added reaffirmation in his eighth year). The first proclamation is found on stelae K, M and X; the second is found on stelae A, B, F (thus all three on the west side), J, N, P, Q, R, S, U and V. Stela L is a small rectangular tablet, beside stela M, without pictures or statues that seems to give an abbreviated version of one of the proclamations. Stela H, with a statue group, was carved into rock so poor that any hieroglyphic text is likely to have been cut into an added layer of gypsum plaster, now vanished. When freshly cut they would have been a dazzling white (perhaps muted somewhat by having been partially painted) and visible from afar. It was also intended that they would be visited, for broad paths made by clearing stones to each side ran up to several of them.
The texts of both proclamations are long, repetitive and also damaged and partially untranslatable as a result, especially towards the end. In the first proclamation Akhenaten sets out his intentions. It is dated to his regnal year 5, 4th month of winter, day 13:
‘On this day, when One (Pharaoh Akhenaten) was in Akhetaten, His Majesty [appeared] on the great chariot of electrum... Setting [off] on a good road [toward] Akhetaten, His place of creation, which He made for Himself that He might set within it every day... There was presented a great offering to the Father, The Aten, consisting of bread, beer, long- and short-horned cattle, calves, fowl, wine, fruits, incense, all kinds of fresh green plants, and everything good, in front of the mountain of Akhetaten...’
The king addresses his gathered courtiers:
‘As the Aten is beheld, the Aten desires that there be made for him [...] as a monument with an eternal and everlasting name. Now, it is the Aten, my father, who advised me concerning it, [namely] Akhetaten. No official has ever advised me concerning it, not any of the people who are in the entire land has ever advised me concerning it, to suggest making Akhetaten in this distant place. It was the Aten, my fath[er, who advised me] concerning it, so that it might be made for Him as Akhetaten... Behold, it is Pharaoh who has discovered it: not being the property of a god, not being the property of a goddess, not being the property of a ruler, not being the property of a female ruler, not being the property of any people to lay claim to it....’
‘I shall make Akhetaten for the Aten, my father, in this place. I shall not make Akhetaten for him to the south of it, to the north of it, to the west of it, to the east of it. I shall not expand beyond the southern stela of Akhetaten toward the south, nor shall I expand beyond the northern stela of Akhetaten toward the north, in order to make Akhetaten for him there. Nor shall I make (it) for him on the western side of Akhetaten, but I shall make Akhetaten for the Aten, my father, on the east of Akhetaten, the place which He Himself made to be enclosed for Him by the mountain...’
‘I shall make the “House of the Aten” for the Aten, my father, in Akhetaten in this place. I shall make the “Mansion of the Aten” for the Aten, my father, in Akhetaten in this place. I shall make the Sun Temple of the [Great King's] Wife [Nefernefruaten-Nefertiti] for the Aten, my father, in Akhetaten in this place. I shall make the “House of Rejoicing” for the Aten, my father, in the “Island of the Aten, Distinguished in Jubilees” in Akhetaten in this place... I shall make for myself the apartments of Pharaoh, I shall make the apartments of the Great King's Wife in Akhetaten in this place.’
‘Let a tomb be made for me in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten. Let my burial be made in it, in the millions of jubilees which the Aten, my father, has decreed for me. Let the burial of the Great King's Wife, Nefertiti, be made in it, in the millions of yea[rs which the Aten, my father, decreed for her. Let the burial of] the King's Daughter, Meritaten, [be made] in it, in these millions of years. If I die in any town downstream, to the south, to the west, to the east in these millions of years, let me be brought back, that I may be buried in Akhetaten. If the Great King's Wife, Nefertiti, dies in any town downstream, to the south, to the west, to the east in these millions of years, let her be brought back, that she may be buried in Akhetaten. If the King's Daughter, Meritaten, dies in any town downstream, to the south, to the west, to the east in the millions of years, let her be brought back, that she may be buried in Akhetaten. Let a cemetery for the Mnevis Bull [be made] in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten, that he may be buried in it. Let the tombs of the Chief of Seers, of the God's Fathers of the [Aten.......] be made in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten, that they may be buried in it. Let [the tombs] of the priests of the [Aten] be [made in the eastern mountain of Akhetaten] that they may b[e bur]ied in it’.
The second proclamation was mainly concerned with fixing even more securely the limits of Akhetaten and with dedicating all the enclosed land to the Aten. The stelae have sometimes been mistakenly interpreted as saying that Akhenaten himself intended never to leave Akhetaten, whereas the injunction is against extending the limits of the territory. The stated arrangements for his burial show that he envisaged travelling outside it.
The stelae and their accompanying statues have suffered various degrees of natural erosion and human damage, some of it quite recent. Davies noted in his 1908 publication (p. 25): ‘Stela P was blown to pieces by gunpowder a few years ago by Copts, who expected, as all Egyptians do, to find that the stela was a door to a hidden treasure-chamber’. The best preserved in his day was Stela S, on which he remarked (p. 26): ‘The sculptors chanced on a vein of limestone as hard as alabaster, so that the greater part of the monument is marvellously preserved, though spiteful attacks have been made upon it lately’. Most subsequent attacks on the stelae involved cutting deep and wide grooves across them to assist in the removal of irregular slabs which could then be sold to collectors and museums. Thus pieces of Stela R were bought in the 1940s by the Louvre in Paris. A 1984 photograph of Stela S shows the face of this most admired of stelae ravaged in this way. Early in 2004, however, the earlier manner of destruction was returned to, and the entire stela and its statues were blown out of the hillside with quarry explosives. Many of the pieces were subsequently collected by the local inspectorate of the Supreme Council of Antiquities with a view to restoring it.
For visitors, most of the stelae are difficult to get to. The most accessible one that is worth seeing is stela U, measuring 7.6 metres (25 feet) from top to bottom, and occupying part of the cliff face in a little bay to the north of the entrance to the Royal Wadi. At the base, on both sides, are the remains of groups of carved statues of the royal family. Stela U can be reached by an extension to the asphalt road which runs south from the North Tombs and continues on to the Royal tomb. Visitors to the site of Tuna el-Gebel across the river also pass very close to a well-preserved stela with remains of statues, stela A.
N. de G. Davies, The Rock Tombs of El Amarna. Part V. Smaller Tombs and Boundary Stelae. London, Egypt Exploration Fund 1908. Reprinted (along with Part VI) by the Egypt Exploration Society, 2004.
W.J. Murnane, Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt. Atlanta GA, Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press 1995, pp. 73–86.