Akhenaten: 7 Secrets of Egypt’s Heretic Pharaoh

Heretic, Prophet, Madman, King. This article explores 7 fascinating secrets about Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who turned Egypt on its head.

Nov 27, 2023By Nathan Hewitt, MA History, BA Ancient & Modern History

akhenaten egypt heretic pharaoh secrets


Akhenaten (r. 1354 – 1336 BCE) — the so-called heretic Pharaoh of Egypt — embarked on a radical religious reformation that abandoned Egypt’s traditional polytheism in favor of the worship of the solar deity Aten. His fame has been elevated by his association with his iconic Queen, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun, believed to be his son and eventual heir. Despite his fame, Akhenaten is frustratingly elusive. The heretic Pharaoh was wiped from the records after his reign, which left many gaps in the story of the man’s life. Also, the material we do have, such as his famously unique art and his vivid religious texts, do more to inspire speculation than to provide clear answers. Even in death, Akhenaten guards his secrets well, but the tireless work of historians has pierced the veil and unraveled some of the mysteries that surround one of the most intriguing figures in human history.


1. Akhenaten Was Never Supposed to Be Pharaoh

Relief of Akhenaten as a sphinx offering worship to the Aten, via Museum of Fine Arts of Boston


Akhenaten was never meant to be Pharaoh. His older brother Thutmose was the Crown Prince and was slated to become Thutmose V. Thutmose had prepared for his role by becoming High Priest of Ptah in Memphis, which introduced him to the demands of public life and rituals that would be an important part of a Pharaoh’s rule.


Meanwhile, Akhenaten, then still called Amenhotep, was all but absent. A single wine docket from his father’s palace in Thebes which mentions the “estate of the King’s son Amenhotep” is the only certain reference to him during Amenhotep III’s reign. None of the official monuments depict young Akhenaten, but this isn’t unusual for princes in this period.


However, Thutmose died suddenly in the final years of his father’s reign. The circumstances of his death are unknown, but his early demise paved the way for Egypt’s most controversial Pharaoh to take his place.

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2. Rebellion?

thutmose grain statuette
Statuette of Crown Prince Thutmose grinding grain, 14th Century BCE, currently in the Louvre, via Wikimedia Commons


At first, Amenhotep IV’s reign was stable and familiar. However, around year 3 or 4, he broke tradition by holding the sacred Sed festival in honor of the Aten, which was only supposed to be held upon a Pharaoh’s 30th year. He also built Aten temples inside Amun’s sacred temple complex in Thebes. By year 5, he had changed his name to Akhenaten and was openly professing a new religion.


These blatant displays of disrespect for tradition seem to have created enemies. This might be why Akhenaten abandoned the old capital of Thebes and chose to found his new city at Amarna.


The boundary stela, which marked out the Amarna site, carries intriguing inscriptions that suggest people were not pleased with their new Pharaoh. Akhenaten’s inscriptions describe how he heard things “worse than those I’d ever heard” and worse than anything “heard by any kings who had assumed the White Crown.”


amarna bounsary stela
Boundary Stela N at Amarna as it appeared in 1907 (top) and a reconstruction (bottom), via the Amarna Project


Some Egyptologists believe these inscriptions refer to a conspiracy, perhaps even a rebellion against Akhenaten. The Pharaoh would never admit such a thing openly, but these inscriptions hint at a secret that Akhenaten tried to bury. More than just a holy city, Amarna was a refuge from a resentful Egypt that opposed Akhenaten’s radical revolution.


Unrest continued throughout his reign. Tribes in Nubia rebelled in year 12 of his reign, and Egyptian vassals in Syria and Cannan slipped out of their grasp. Most notably, King Aziru of Amurru began raiding Egyptian allies in Canaan. Aziru was summoned to Egypt but was never punished and soon defected to ally himself with the rising Hittite Empire, which was beginning to rival Egypt’s power in the region.


At home and abroad, many people were eager to be rid of the power of the radical ruler.


3. Hidden Sickness?

akhenaten karnak statue
Colossal Statue of Akhenaten found at Karnak, now in the Berlin Museum, via Egypt Museum


Akhenaten’s unusual appearance has captivated scholars and artists alike. The exaggerated features — the slender face, elongated limbs, pronounced breasts, wide hips, and elongated skull, to name a few — have raised an obvious question: was this what he actually looked like? What secret health issues did Akhenaten have to give him his bizarre appearance?


Interpreting Amarna art is tricky. Egyptologists are divided on whether these depictions are intended to be accurate or are heavily stylized. The almost androgynous appearance has been claimed by some scholars as a symbolic representation of Pharaoh and his god’s universal dominion over all things, while the wide hips suggest fertility and life-giving power.


However, if these depictions are supposed to be lifelike, they hint at a number of potential health issues that could have plagued Akhenaten. Marfan Syndrome, which causes unusual deformations in skeletal structure, is one explanation for the overlong limbs, wide hips, and unusual facial shape in Akhenaten’s statues. Hormonal disorders like Aromatase Excess Syndrome or Frohlich’s Syndrome could explain the pronounced breasts and protruding belly, which contrast with the hard muscles and peak physical form that most Pharaohs were presented in.


One of the most controversial diagnoses is that Akhenaten had temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). One 2012 study proposed that Akhenaten’s religious schism, predicated upon the sun and light, could be the result of photosensitive seizures caused by TLE. Epilepsy has been proposed as a rational explanation for religious experiences for other figures such as Muhammad and Joseph Smith, and modern patients with TLE have sometimes reported that the seizures felt like a religious or spiritual experience.


Speculating about these illnesses is one thing, but confirming them is another. Assuming we have Akhenaten’s body — which is an entire debate in itself — DNA testing for health conditions such as these has been controversial. Attempts to find similar conditions in Tutankhamun have proved inconclusive and there’d be no way to confirm TLE through modern forensic techniques.


Still, there is a strong possibility that Akhenaten was not a healthy or physically well man.


4. Incest

nefertiti bust
Bust of Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife and possible cousin, via Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Some of those health problems might have come from incest in past generations of the royal family, something Akhenaten was no stranger to either.


One popular theory is that Nefertiti was actually Akhenaten’s cousin. Nefertiti may have been the daughter of the official Ay, who himself may have been Akhenaten’s uncle by being the younger brother of Queen Tiye. Both of these relationships are speculative or based on limited evidence, but they’ve enjoyed some popularity with historians.


offering aton akhenaten
Akhenathen, Nefertiti and Meritaton making a water’s offering to Aton (Re). Source: Istock


But Akhenaten’s incest only begins there. A 2010 DNA study asserted that Tutankhmaun’s parents were full-blooded siblings. Since Akhenaten is almost universally accepted as Tut’s father, that would make Tut’s mother one of Akhenaten’s own sisters. Akhenaten had at least 4 of them that could have given him a son. Perhaps, as Nefertiti kept producing daughters, Akhenaten tried for a son with a different member of his own family.


The worst was still to come. Not content with his cousin and his sister, Akhenaten went for his own daughters. Two princesses named Meritaten-Tasherit and Ankhesenpaaten-Tasherit (Meritaten the Younger and Ankhesenpaaten the Younger) appear in reliefs and inscriptions at Amarna. It has been proposed that these children were the offspring of an incestuous father-daughter marriage with his actual daughters of Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten. They appear late in his reign when both daughters would just barely be old enough to bear children.


louvre amarna princess
Statue of an Amarna Princess, usually believed to be Meritaten, via the Louvre


Other theories suggest these children were the offspring of another man, Smenkhkare, or the daughters of Akhenaten and another lesser wife called Kiya, but incest is the most common explanation for these two girls.


Until the remains of any of these Amarna princesses are found, we cannot know for certain who these young children were and whether they truly came from a union between a father and his own daughters.


5. Suffering People

amarna doherty
Reconstruction of the temples and palaces of Amarna, by Paul Docherty, via World History Encyclopedia


Amarna may have been a paradise to Akhenaten, but it was not so for its other residents.


To build his capital, Akhenaten employed thousands of laborers and filled the city with many residents. We don’t know how many people Akhenaten forcibly relocated to his new city and how many simply followed the Pharaoh by their own choice.


Amarna art depicts tranquil family scenes and other signs of splendor, but the reality wasn’t so rosy for those thousands who lived and worked there. Excavations have uncovered the graves of the common folk around the city and their remains paint a grim picture. The bodies show signs of damage from hard labor and many clearly died from injuries they sustained while building Akhenaten’s grand city.


Additionally, the bodies at Amarna are consistently smaller than remains found elsewhere in Egypt during this period. This suggests that the residents were malnourished and in poorer health than those outside of the city.


Rather than a paradise for the average citizen, Amarna was a place of grueling labor and limited food that must have made their lives difficult.


tawaret amarna
Lower body of Taweret, goddess of childbirth and protector of mothers, found at Amarna, via Liverpool Museums


It’s perhaps no surprise that archaeologists have found icons of other gods besides the Aten amid the remains of the common folk. The protective dwarf deity Bes and the hippo-goddess Taweret who protected women in childbirth are among the deities whose icons have been found hidden among the possessions of Amarna’s people. It seems the common folk were not eager to worship the god in whose name they suffered and starved, and in their desperation, they clung to the old gods who had protected their ancestors for centuries.


6. Akhenaten: Teacher of Moses?

sigmund freud
Photograph of Sigmund Freud, author of Moses and Monotheism, 1932, via Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme


Akhenaten’s profession of a single supreme deity in Egypt during the 14th century BCE has inevitably raised the question: did he have anything to do with another monotheistic religion that claims to have been in Egypt around this time?


The historicity of Moses and the Biblical Exodus has its adherents and its opponents. Few serious scholars argue that events played out exactly as described in the Book of Exodus, but many historians have been willing to accept that the story was based on some kernel of truth. Most estimates place the original event during the reign of Ramesses II, who took the throne about 50 years after Akhenaten’s death.


Since the re-discovery of Akhenaten and his Atenist religion, some have suggested that Judaism and Atenism were linked. The most famous advocate of this theory was famed psychologist Sigmund Freud, who argued in his 1938 Moses and Monotheism that Moses was an acolyte of Akhenaten who iterated upon the Atenist religion after Akhenaten’s death and turned it into the Abrahamic faith we know today.


Statues Pharaoh Ramses II
Ramses II, British Museum and Turin Museum.


Evidence for such a theory is almost non-existent. However, a number of interesting coincidences have kept the fires of the Atenist-Judaism theory alive. For example, the dating of the Exodus to about Year 20 of Ramesses II’s reign. Placing it just over 40 years before the first mention of Israel and around the time of the death of Ramesses’ firstborn puts Moses’ birth into the reign of Akhenaten. Moses might have grown up in the heady days of Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution. Furthermore, the Great Hymn to the Aten has distinct similarities with the Biblical Psalm 104. Almost identical lines and imagery led even C.S Lewis to acknowledge the similarities in his commentaries on the Psalms, where he accepted the possibility that Moses could have been influenced by the ideas of Akhenaten.


Was Moses an acolyte or follower of Akhenaten? Did Akhenaten’s religious experiment prefigure the Abrahamic faiths we know today? The question is unlikely to be settled any time soon, but that will not stop endless speculation.


7. Akhenaten — The Forgotten Heretic

akhenaten talat pylon
Reconstructed talatat relief from Akhenaten’s Temple of Aten in Karnak, discovered in the filling for the 9th Pylon of Karnak, via Luxor Museum


The underlying truth about Akhenaten is that, in a way, everything was a secret. At least, it was supposed to be.


After a controversial reign that sapped Egypt’s internal and external strength, his son pivoted back to the old religion. Amarna was abandoned, the new art style was phased out, and Prince Tutankhaten became King Tutankhamun, completing the restoration of the traditional gods of Egypt. Tut did not even mention his father during his reign and preferred to attach himself to his revered grandfather Amenhotep III instead.


After Tut’s premature death, this uncomfortable chapter in Egyptian history was torn out all together. Under Horemheb and the Ramessides, the heretic pharaoh who had attacked the gods was condemned to oblivion. The names of Akhenaten and his successors including Tut were struck from official records, all of Akhenaten’s temples were torn down and their bricks were used as filling for other buildings, and every image or mention of Akhenaten was destroyed or buried.


brunton akhenaten drawing
Akhenaten by Winifred Brunton, 1932. Source: Wellcome Collection


The traumatic experience of Akhenaten’s reign kept him alive in popular memory even if the official records refused to acknowledge him. Centuries after his death, when artifacts of the ‘criminal’ were discovered in the tomb KV55, the workers still knew to destroy all mentions of the heretic king.


However, Akhenaten’s enemies were not omnipotent. Some traces slipped through the cracks. Amarna itself was abandoned but not completely destroyed. From these scraps, modern scholars have reconstructed his fascinating reign. The man that Egypt wanted to erase is now one of its most well-known figures. Rather than causing history to forget, the erasure of Akhenaten has only made him more tempting. For archaeologists, theologians, psychologists, and more, the secrets Akhenaten still keeps are as fascinating as the ones he has already revealed to us.

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By Nathan HewittMA History, BA Ancient & Modern HistoryCurrently a DPhil student researching imperial hero culture in Wales during the 19th and early 20th century. Nathan is particularly interested in ideas of empire across place and time, whether that’s 20th century Britain or 1st century Rome - there isn’t a period or region of human history that he's not interested in. In his spare time, he is writing a historical fiction series set during Egypt’s Amarna Period, although at this rate he thinks he’ll be as ancient as the story by the time he finishes it…