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Essay: Akhenaten: The Most Controversial Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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Akhenaten made an effective, positively significant contribution to his time. This is strongly portrayed when he became the Egyptian pharaoh in 1353 BCE, as Akhenaten took it upon himself to change the standards of art and culture. This was intended to devote his entire reign to the singular god Aten, as well as to separate the reign of Akhenaten from his predecessors. The effects and impacts of his reign spread across many aspects of Egyptian life and ranged from art to religion and politics. In contrast to the previous and following pharaohs of Akhenaten, he was a profound pharaoh and is now considered to be "ancient Egypt's most controversial ruler".

1. Artistic innovations

Akhenaten's reign had a very large impact on the artistic styles and forms of the period. There is evidence that his father had experimented with a 'realistic' style of portrait, however it was not until Akhenaten came to power that his famously unique artistic style and depictions came into being. This is when Egyptian art had entered a stage of complete renovation as archaeological evidence insinuated that artists were given more freedom to create more realistic images and include more natural environments. Faces were depicted with a hanging jaw and narrow, slitted eyes, while the body itself consisted of elongated necks, sloped shoulders and spindly legs. Other innovations include the portrayal of the royal family in less formal, intimate contexts, such as on a private offering stela found in Karnak, where Akhenaten and Nefertiti have their daughters on their laps, sharing kisses and showing affection in a way that was inexistent in previous Egyptian art. These artworks Changed the way him and his family were viewed. Before Akhenaten's time, the pharaoh in particular was usually depicted with wide, broad shoulders, a strong body, an emotionless face and the posture appeared to be firm and immovable. Although, depictions of Akhenaten give him distinctly feminine qualities such as large hips, prominent breasts, and a larger stomach and thighs. In almost every known depiction of Akhenaten, there is a solar disk shown above him, a representation of the sun god Aten. Though Aten existed in the Egyptian religion before the Amarna period, he soon rose to be known as the highest of all gods as Akhenaten attempted to erase all signs of the former pantheon and make Aten the only god. Pharaoh worship lessened tremendously in art, and was replaced by depictions of Akhenaten worshipping Aten, thereby displacing the idea that the pharaoh was a god in his own right. With this new belief, depictions of Akhenaten were further distanced from images of the past as his role became more submissive to the will of the god, and thus his depictions were less leadership based. This shows that Akhenaten had an active role in impacting on art in ancient Egypt as it is said that he himself taught the artists how to depict him and his family. Therefore, Akhenaten's reign had a huge impact on the visual arts as he introduced a new style of informality and freedom. This resulted in the king and his family being portrayed in realistic poses far removed from the traditional conventions of portraiture.

2. Political

Historians disagree on Akhenaten's role in maintaining the empire. Many argue that he dedicated himself exclusively to his religious duties and had no interest in military matters. It is also believed that he allowed the empire to disintegrate while he enjoyed his family life at Amarna. Archaeological evidence such as the German historian H Schologl makes evident that Akhenaten made a great positive significant contribution to foreign policies during his reign and didn't turn his back on all military matters. German historian H Schologl points out that many men in high positions at the Amarna court had links with the army. Scenes depicting the military and soldiers in the Amarna tombs are more frequent than in most other periods. There is further evidence of military campaigns during Akhenaten's reign. D Redford's The Akhenaten Temple Project has unearthed evidence from the talatat or blocks of stone from Akhenaten's early buildings at Karnak that indicate an early victory against Syrians and Hittites, before year 5. It also seems that around year 12, akhenaten's viceroy, Thutmose, led a campaign to Nubia where a victory Stela, set up in the temple of Buhen, announced the capture of 145 Nubians and 361 cattle. Thutmose was able to assure the king that: "There are no rebels in your time, your war cry is like a flame of fire in pursuit of all foreign lands!"

3. Religious

Akhenaten made a positively significant contribution to religion in his time.  Amenhotep IV dramatically altered society's social order when he successfully rendered the priesthood of Amun as powerless. He was one of the first to practice monotheism, the belief in just one god. Shortly after claiming the throne, he declared the god Aten, represented by the sun, was the only one true god. The hymns to the Aten found in Ay's tomb scenes and inscription found in five Amarna tombs at Akhenaten made vivid the nature of the Aten. The hymn stresses the power of Aten as a universal creator god. The hymn also portrays that only Akhenaten could worship the Aten; all prayers and offerings to the Aten had to be made through the pharaoh. To pay respect to his chosen god, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, he also changed his title 5 times to reflect that his priorities were to worship his god the Aten and not the Amun. He forcefully promoted Aten as the leading god and almost completely ridded of the other gods. He did this by getting rid of rival cults, closed the temples of Amun, including the temple of Amun at Karnak and started building his own temple instead. Such as the Gem-pa-Aten temple in East Karnak, which and a large open court with colossal statues of the king in an exaggerated style. This temple also contained scenes of the 'Heb-sed' festival being celebrated by the king and queen. Akhenaten was also reluctant to rule from an Amun-loyal city; therefore, he transferred his capital from Thebes to Amarna. There he built an entirely new city, named Akhentaten. Akhenaten marked out the new city himself, and on its borders, he set up stelae which now provides useful evidence of his intentions. He said he was building his new capital on new land which 'belonged to no god or goddess and no lord or mistress, and no other person has the right to tread upon it as the owner.'  Therefore, Akhenaten's reign had a big impact on religion, not only due to the sole worship of Aten, but also because the new state religion changed the social order of the priests and officials and a new state and religious capital was formed in Akhetaten.

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