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History and Nature

Tell el-Amarna (often abbreviated to Amarna) is a modern name that applies to an extensive archaeological site that is primarily the remains of an ephemeral capital city built and abandoned within about fifteen years during the late Eighteenth Dynasty (in the New Kingdom), between about 1347 and 1332 BCE.

It lies on the desert close to the east bank of the Nile in the province of el-Minia, roughly halfway between Cairo and Luxor (and thus in ancient times between Memphis and Thebes). It was the heart of a sacred tract of ground dedicated to the cult of the sun (the Aten) which Akhenaten promoted to the exclusion of other deities. Because much of it lies easily accessible beneath a thin cover and sand and rubble, and because of the excellent preservative properties of the dry desert soil, Amarna is a fundamental source of reference for the architecture and layout of cities in ancient Egypt and a source of evidence for aspects of the life of the times.

The outlines of the city were mapped in the nineteenth century. The first archaeological excavation took place in 1892. Thereafter, with intermittent gaps, excavation proceeded until 1936, by which time most of the royal buildings and about half of the residential area had been cleared. The current work of excavation, survey and preservation, under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Society, began in 1977.

Historical framework

Akhenaten belonged to the powerful line of kings, originating from Thebes,who ruled Egypt as the Eighteenth Dynasty, and were buried in the Valley of Kings. His father was Amenhetep (Amenophis) III, builder of the rear part of Luxor temple, of the Colossi of Memnon, and of the temple of Soleb in the Sudan. His mother was Queen Tiy, the daughter of a powerful provincial family. Using the great power and wealth at his disposal, Akhenaten made a bold departure from the traditional career of kings. He chose religious reform. He sought to replace the complex and colourful theology which had grown up over more than two thousand years with the cult of a single sun-god, the Aten. Its image was the disc from which many rays descended, each one ending in a little hand. Like a king, the Aten was given two names in cartouches. The Aten was seen as the universal creator of all life, and this was celebrated in hymns of which the longest occurs in the tomb of Ay, no. 25 at Amarna. Two short extracts will illustrate the style and sentiments:

You rise with beauty in the horizon of the sky,
O living Aten, creator of life.
When you rise in the eastern horizon,
You fill every land with your beauty.
You are beautiful, great, gleaming, high above every land.
Your rays, they embrace the lands
To the limits of all that you have made.
You are the sun-god (Ra) and conquer them all;
You subdue them for your beloved son.
You are distant, yet your rays are upon the land.
You are in the faces (of mankind), yet your ways are not known.

All flocks gambol on their feet,
The whole winged creation lives when you have risen for them.
Boats sail downstream and upstream.
Every path is opened at your shining.
The fish in the river leap in your presence.
Your rays are in the midst of the sea.

These sentiments were not new in Egypt. Akhenaten's originality lay in his perception of the simplicity of solar religion. The sun's disc became the only divine image in Akhenaten's new temples and in his own tomb. The elaborate depictions of a universe populated by almost numberless beings were banished. In place of the dark, cavernous interiors of traditional temples, the temples to the Aten were open courtyards filled with altars and platforms. It was not, however, Akhenaten's intention to diminish the power of Pharaoh. He and his queen, Nefertiti, presented themselves as the only ones fitted for the worship of the Aten, and in the prayers of others were invoked as gods alongside the Aten. For reasons that are not clear Akhenaten chose to be depicted in ways that exaggerated certain characteristics of his face and body, perhaps emphasising his separateness from common humanity. He also encouraged his artists to depict with detail and animation scenes of the life surrounding the king and his family. The first temples to the Aten were built at Karnak (one reconstructed wall is now in the Luxor Museum). But in the fifth year of his reign he chose Amarna as the site for an entirely new place of royal residence where temples to the Aten and palaces for the Royal Family could be built unchallenged by the works of the past.  He called the new place Akhetaten, "The horizon of the Aten".

Its boundaries were fixed by copies of his decrees carved on tablets in the cliffs on either side of the river. These show that Akhetaten, the place, included the fields and villages on the west bank as well as the city on the east. The city was built in great haste and occupied by a substantial population, which one can estimate at around 30, 000 or perhaps more. Tombs were begun for his courtiers in the adjacent cliffs, and a tomb for Akhenaten and other members of his family in what was intended to be a new Valley of the Kings.

The king died in his seventeenth year of reign. What happened immediately afterwards is obscure, although it involved an enigmatic person called Smenkhkara who appears as a consort to Akhenaten's eldest daughter, Meritaten. But within a short time the young king Tutankhamun had ascended the throne. Perhaps after only two years he had left Akhetaten to reign from Memphis, and Akhenaten's cult was abandoned utterly. For a city dependent upon the court for a large part of its existence this was a death blow. Apart from an area beside the waterfront at the southern end, the city appears to have been rapidly abandoned. In later reigns Akhenaten's temples and palaces were thoroughly demolished to provide cheap building stone. Many thousands from Amarna were shipped across the river for a new temple at Hermopolis. We must assume that Akhenaten incurred the hostility of the priests of the old cults, particularly the powerful priests of the god Amun at Thebes. But the last king of the Eighteenth Dynasty (Horemheb) and the kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty were men from military families in the north. Under their rule the old forms of religion prospered.

Many scenes in the Amarna tombs depict the Royal Family. This consisted of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and up to six daughters: the eldest was Meritaten, who became the consort of Smenkhkara, Akhenaten's intended but ephemeral successor; Meketaten, who died young and was buried in the Royal Tomb; Ankhsenpa-aten, who eventually married Tutankhamun and may even, in the end, have married the God's Father Ay who, as a courtier, prepared tomb no. 25 at Amarna and later had a brief reign after Tutankhamun; Nefernefruaten the Younger (Nefernefruaten being Nefertiti's first cartouche name); Nefernefrura; and Setepenra. Other important people depicted are Nefertiti's sister, Mutnedjmet, who may possibly have become a wife to Horemheb, king after Ay; Queen Tiy (Akhenaten's mother), who appears in tomb no. 1 and was likely buried, too, in Akhenaten's tomb at Amarna; the God's Father Ay, who owned tomb no. 25. Tutankhamun is never shown and his parentage is not stated clearly in the sources which we have, although he may have been a son of Akhenaten by a lesser wife. Akhenaten’s other wives, including Kiya, are also not shown.

sunrays over Amarna
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Akhenaten and Nefertiti worship the Aten (shrine of Panehsy, Egyptian Museum Cairo)
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The painted bust of queen Nefertiti, found at Amarna in 1912, is currently in the Berlin Museums
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