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Akhenaten: The Forgotten Pioneer of Atenism and Monotheism

Intentionally erased from history until the 19th century, Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten established the first known monotheistic religion called Atenism, which was rediscovered in the late 18th century and integrated by 19th and 20th century religious philosophers into the histories of the three Abrahamic religions.

Relief of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Two Daughters Adoring the Aten, 1372-1350 BCE
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Relief of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Two Daughters Adoring the Aten, 1372-1350 BCE

 

Akhenaten Was a Visionary Before His Time

Akhenaten, Nefertiri and three daughters beneath the Aten, House Altar, Neues Museum, Berlin
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Akhenaten, Nefertiri and three daughters beneath the Aten, House Altar, Neues Museum, Berlin

 

Under King Akhenaten’s rule, Egypt moved to worship a single sun god, Aten, thus forming Atenism. Akhenaten’s institution of monotheism throughout 14th century BCE Africa, though brief and quickly overturned, bears striking similarities to the three Abrahamic religions of today. Because his successors destroyed tablets, temples, and other monuments to him after his empire was toppled, little is known about the methods by which Akhenaten established a new hierarchy within Egypt. 

 

Akhenaten’s Greatest Accomplishments

Relief of Akhenaten as a sphinx, Egyptian, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Akhenaten, 1349–1336 B.C., MFA, Boston
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Relief of Akhenaten as a sphinx, Egyptian, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Akhenaten, 1349–1336 B.C., MFA, Boston

 

It is believed by historians that Akhenaten’s greatest accomplishment, introducing the god Aten to worshipers throughout his nation, was designed to consolidate power around himself, rather than simply around a single god. As have many prophets from Abrahamic tradition, Akhenaten introduced the idea of the preeminence of his god to the Egyptian population by crafting a narrative and claiming to be the mouth of his god. Through several carefully crafted steps, including changing his own name (originally Amenhotep) to mirror Aten’s, Akhenaten manipulated the course of history and created new precedent, if for only just shy of a couple decades.

 

The Rise of the Cult of Aten

The Wilbour Plaque, limestone plaque, c. 1352–1336 BCE, Brooklyn Museum 
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The Wilbour Plaque, limestone plaque, c.1352–1336 BCE, Brooklyn Museum 

 

Step One of Akhenaten’s plan to refocus Egypt’s religious life began shortly after his rise to power in 1349 BCE, when Akhenaten instituted a cult to Aten and renamed himself to reflect this god (Akhenaten meaning “One is effective for the Aten”). 

Step Two was enacted when he sent his workers to remove all images and names of previously worshipped gods. This might remind today’s followers of Abrahamic religions of the commandment to “make unto thee no other graven image.” The king commissioned new monuments, depicting himself and his family in conversation with Aten.

 

Solidifying Public Dedication to Aten

Tell-el Amarna Excavation Site, Oxford Handbooks Online, "Palaces Built to Impress", Brown University
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Tell-el Amarna Excavation Site, Oxford Handbooks Online, “Palaces Built to Impress”, Brown University

 

Step Three was in full swing by the fifth year of his reign, during which Akhenaten devoted an entire new city along the Nile River to Atenism, erecting dozens of temples in his name, filling them with imagery of prosperous harvests to inspire worshippers. This ushered in the Amarna Period of art, the name of which comes from Tell-el-Amarna, the new capital established by Akhenaten. The capital was named “Akhetaten,” which means “Horizon of the Aten.”

Step Four changed the way the royal family was depicted in art of the period. Carvings of the royal family gave them elongated bodies, androgynous and much larger than other humans shown in art from the period. This step brought Akhenaten’s family closer to Aten in the minds of his people, setting them apart from the proletariat by giving himself and his relatives an otherworldly appearance. 

 

Akhenaten Exalts the Cult to Aten by Eliminating all Others

Hands Offering Aten Cartouches, ca. 1352–1336 B.C., found in the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple, Met Museum 
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Hands Offering Aten Cartouches, ca. 1352–1336 B.C., found in the Sanctuary of the Great Aten Temple, Met Museum 

 

Step Five was fully realized by the early 1340s BCE, by which time, Akhenaten had eliminated all other priesthoods within Egypt and made himself the sole connection between Egyptians and the realm of the gods.  All worship of Atenism, all sacrifices, and thereby all profit was suddenly diverted to Akhenaten and his family, removing the status of all other priests and demoting all prior pharaohs to a much lower position than the current king. 

 

Destruction of Atenism

South Wall in the Burial Chamber of Tutankhamun, from "See Stunning Photos of King Tut’s Tomb After a Major Restoration”, History.com 
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South Wall in the Burial Chamber of Tutankhamun, from “See Stunning Photos of King Tut’s Tomb After a Major Restoration”, History.com

 

After his death, Akhenaten was succeeded by child-king Tutankhamun, whose name has become more commonly known in the current vernacular than his predecessor’s. Tutankhamun, who rose to the throne at age nine in 1324 BCE, was overpowered by regents and hardly ruled as a monarch. During the final years of Akhenaten’s reign and throughout Tutankhamun’s, a sect of Egyptians who had remained faithful to the cults of prominent gods before Aten was forced upon them grew in influence. 

These followers eventually overturned Akhenaten’s cult to Aten and reestablished the polytheism of decades prior, denigrating the sun god and his king to a mere footnote in Egyptian history until thousands of years later when he would become of interest to historical scholars.  The above photo was taken of the south wall of King Tut’s tomb, which is covered in a wall painting of Tutankhamun standing with the gods Anubis and Hathor, demonstrating the removal of Aten as both the only god of Egypt and the most significant one. 

 

Similarities between Atenism and the Abrahamic Religions that 19th Century Scholars Drew On

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621–1624, Oil on Canvas, J. Paul Getty Museum
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Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621–1624, Oil on Canvas, J. Paul Getty Museum

 

“God the Father” in Christianity and Atenism

God the Father on a throne, with the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Westphalia, Germany, late 15th century, via Biblical Studies
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God the Father on a throne, with the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Westphalia, Germany, late 15th century, via Biblical Studies

One of the most interesting commonalities between the religion of Atenism and the religion of Christianity is that Akhenaten referred to himself as a son of Aten, providing himself with the most special relationship a king could have with the gods. This father and son paradigm is echoed in Christianity, where Jesus is the son of “God the Father.” In fact, just as Akhenaten proclaimed himself to be the only king of Egypt and the son of the only god of Egypt, Jesus is described in 1 Timothy 6:15 of the Christian New Testament as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

 

Destruction of Temples

Destruction of the Pagan Idols from Seven Scenes from the Legend of St. Stephen, Martino di Bartolomeo, 14th century
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Destruction of the Pagan Idols from Seven Scenes from the Legend of St. Stephen, Martino di Bartolomeo, 14th century, Städel Museum.

 

Akhenaten also engaged in the destruction of temples made to other Egyptian gods, emphasizing the preeminence of Aten. Similarly, each of the Abrahamic religions has stressed the importance of placing their God above all others and eliminating idols and altars to other gods. The Muslim faith proclaims, “God does not forgive idolatry, but He forgives lesser offenses for whomever He wills. Anyone who sets up idols beside God, has forged a horrendous offense” (4:48). 72:18 adds that “The places of worship belong to God; do not call on anyone else beside God.” The Jewish faith echoes this sentiment in the book of Leviticus, where it is written: “Do not turn toward false gods” (Lev. 19:4). In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the book of 1st Corinthians reestablishes this idea, with the command, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

 

The Gap in History and Inexplicable Similarities

Reconstructed Sarcophagus of Akhenaten, discovered in pieces in the Royal Tomb at Tell el-Amarna
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Reconstructed Sarcophagus of Akhenaten, discovered in pieces in the Royal Tomb at Tell el-Amarna, Cairo Museum, via Wikimedia

 

Despite the many connections we are now able to draw between Atenism and these three faiths, Akhenaten’s influence was forgotten within Egypt for thousands of years after his death. The pharaoh’s contributions were reintegrated into religious culture and musings when 19th century European archaeologists and amateur sleuths began sacking Egyptian relics. Thus, it is fascinating to comb through the similarities between Atenism, the first monotheistic religion, and the three Abrahamic religions, knowing that the founders of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam did not have access to this period of Egyptian history. 

 

Napoleon Bonaparte Ushers in Renewed European Obsession with Egypt

Photo of Fountain and Luxor Obelisk, taken from Luxor and placed in Place de la Concorde, Paris by King Louis-Phillipe on 25 October 1836
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Photo of Fountain and Luxor Obelisk, taken from Luxor and placed in Place de la Concorde, Paris by King Louis-Phillipe on 25 October 1836

 

During Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign in the late 18th century and early 19th century, several tombs and relics were raided by the French, resulting in scientific analysis of their contents and anthropological interest in the cultures related to them. These “discoveries” by the French in Egypt led to an obsession with Egyptian culture, art, architecture, history, and politics throughout Europe, referred to as “Egyptomania.” Egyptomania was the trend responsible for returning Akhenaten’s story and much of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt to the cultural zeitgeist, spurring a number of comparisons between the beliefs of Victorian English Christians and Atenism, as well as new thoughts throughout Europe on how Egypt and the three Abrahamic religions could relate to each other. 

 

The Enduring Legacy of Egyptomania

The Death of Cleopatra, ‘The stroke of death,’ Reginald Arthur, 1892, Christie’s
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The Death of Cleopatra, ‘The stroke of death,’ Reginald Arthur, 1892, Christie’s

 

Egyptomania ignited a new interest in the history of Egypt outside its classical bounds (rooted mostly in the decades leading up to the Common Era), which had been explored in literature, theater, and painting long before Napoleon’s campaigns. Though it was during the 19th century that Egyptomania was most fervent, the obsession has continued throughout Western history until today, marked by the many exhibitions, publications, and films lauding it. The 1994-95 exhibition “Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art” marked 1730-1930 as the two-century period in which Egyptomania was most prevalent in Europe and North America. The exhibition traveled from Paris to Canada and finished in Vienna, ironically where Sigmund Freud, the prominent psychotherapist who also shared a love of Egyptian culture and history, set up his psychiatry practice in 1886. 

 

Sigmund Freud Changes the Conversation

Sigmund Freud's Desk, with part of his vast art collection, The Independent 
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Sigmund Freud’s Desk, with part of his vast art collection, The Independent 

 

Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud, written in 1939 just before the author’s death and after many years of developing his own collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and more, marked a sort of culmination of Europe’s obsession with Egypt, most interestingly because the book was so poorly received at the time. The book describes an alternate narrative to the story of Moses recorded in the Torah and the Christian Bible, claiming that Moses was not born to a Hebrew woman who laid him in a basket in the river to later be found and adopted by an Egyptian woman, but was rather born an Egyptian. Freud set the time of Exodus (the book of the Torah and Christian Old Testament in which the Israelites are delivered to freedom from Egypt by Moses) as slightly after Akhenaten’s rule, claiming that Moses was a follower of the pharaoh’s religion who was unsettled by the return of Egyptian religious culture to polytheism. 

Only fifty-two years earlier, Tel-El-Amarna and evidence of the cult of Aten had been uncovered by the Europeans, leaving much analysis of this period still incomplete. Due to controversial details Freud created about the Israelites’ subsequent murder of Moses, the book was initially dismissed, even though his understanding of Akhenaten would later be adopted as the prevailing assumption among historians. Some of today’s researchers and scholars have gone even further, with Egyptian author Ahmed Osman going so far as to claim Moses and Akhenaten as the same figure in his book Moses and Akhenaten: The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus, which was published in 2002. 

Regardless, it is likely that Akhenaten and the birth of monotheism will be referenced by Abrahamic religious scholars and historians for quite some time to come.

 


Elizabeth Burton
About the Author

Elizabeth Burton

Elizabeth is a practicing paintings and preventive conservator from Los Angeles. She studied Art History at UCLA as an undergraduate and received her MA in Preventive Conservation from Northumbria University. Elizabeth has worked with many museums in California and currently teaches for the Northern States Conservation Center, through which she offers online courses for heritage preservation professionals.


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