Totalitarian fanaticism runs a long way back. We may believe that “social justice” warriors are a new phenomenon, but their ancestry is rich, and in a grim way, colorful.
Our eyes gloss over when we hear of Ancient Egypt. We have immense respect for the sheer antiquity of this civilization and, despite that, its monumental accomplishments. The Great Pyramid of Khufu rises high in the sky, still today. It had been the tallest man made structure in the world for well over 4,000 years. And yet, beneath the grandeur of antiquity, Egypt was always a dark place, ruled by ruthless men.
In these long line of ruthless rulers, one man is conspicuous among the rest. His was a theological, and by extension, political revolution that forcibly transformed Egypt from top to bottom. The man behind this, the first Year Zero movement in history, was Akhenaten, and he was a true pioneer, the originator of totalitarianism inspired by a fanatical ideology.
The following is a preview of the contents of my upcoming book, Year Zero. There will be a full reading of the actual chapter draft below.
Akhenaten’s Early Life:
Akhenaten was born in the 14th century B.C. He was the second son of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his Great Royal Wife, Queen Tiye.
Egypt at this time was at its most peaceful and prosperous. The campaigns of Thutmose III (Amenhotep III’s great-grandfather), had won Egypt a vast empire, with tribute pouring in from foreign lands. Egypt had the gold and it made the rules. With such wealth at home and security abroad, Amenhotep III engaged in a great building project, but he also adapted Egyptian royal ideology to fit the glamour of his time. As the country’s power peaked under his august forty-year reign, Amenhotep blurred the lines between royalty and divinity. He focused particularly on the solar cult and strongly associated himself with solar deities, taking the epithet “dazzling disc of the sun” for himself, and declaring himself to be a living demigod, the son of Amun.
All of these were things that his son, Prince Amenhotep watched as he grew up, and they had a strong impact on him. Now heir to the throne with the death of his brother, Prince Thutmose, Amenhotep watched his father as his father built magnificent open-air temples to adore the sun. Prince Amenhotep felt this same adoration too, and he would not forget it.
Amenhotep III died, evidently after many years of agonizing dental problems, and his son came to the throne around 1353 B.C. The new king at first appeared fairly conventional, finishing some of his father’s projects and strengthening Egyptian imperialism in Nubia. Another reign of golden prosperity seemed likely.
The new king however, began to display his intentions early on, only a year into his reign, when he began construction of a new temple complex near Karnak, but on virgin, undedicated land. This temple was dedicated not to one of the traditional deities of Egypt, but to the Aten, the deity associated with the disc of the sun itself.
The Aten was not unknown in Egypt, but it was an obscure god. Kings traditionally honored great gods like Amun, Ra, Ptah, and so on.
Things got stranger still when the king introduced a new art style. Throughout Egyptian history, art had changed little. Egyptians were concerned first and foremost with the eternal, and so their art was perfectionist. Kings were shown as muscular and virile, conquering Egypt’s enemies. Queens were lithe and graceful, youthful and fertile.
Amenhotep IV however, introduced a style that was at once a radical departure from the romantic ideal of its time and downright bizarre. He may be seen as the originator of realism, modern art, and even a “body acceptance” movement all at the same time. The art style, which has come to be called Amarna Art, emphasized realism, depicting the royal family’s home life, for instance, but also depicting them with imperfections. Even his wife Nefertiti, who, due to the discovery of her famous bust in the early 20th century, has become an icon of feminine beauty, was depicted with a sagging paunch later in the reign.
The king himself is most famously portrayed as elongated and deformed, with effeminate features, even childbearing hips. Some have speculated that these deformities were the result of a genetic abnormality like Marfan Syndrome, but the mummy in tomb KV55, now thought by most to be Akhenaten, did not show any such condition in DNA tests conducted in 2010, though its skull is indeed elongated, as the art of the period portrays.
It’s now thought by most that the bizarre statues were largely part of the theology of the new king’s regime, appropriating creation myths, fusing a male/female creator entity with the king. It is true indeed that the king’s statuary was meant to prove a theological point, as they contained cartouches of his name along with his co-regent…the Aten, the “dazzling disc of the sun.”
To add to this, Amenhotep IV celebrated his initial Heb Sed Festival, the traditional jubilee of an Egyptian monarch celebrated at the 30th year of a king’s reign, in his third. This however, would be on schedule for his father’s Heb Sed, as after the initial festival at Year 30, the Heb Sed recurred every three years in a monarch’s reign.
It was as if Amenhotep III, the “dazzling disc of the sun,” were still alive, but now ascended fully into godhood, and his son was co-regent with him.
This was unprecedented territory in Egypt, but the king was just getting started. He soon publicly changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten, signaling that he was rejecting the Amun cult.
Though it was certainly unprecedented, none of what Akhenaten had done so far straddled Year Zero territory, but that would soon change. The totalitarian nature of his regime would soon reveal itself.
Horizon of the Aten:
In the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten laid the foundations of a new capital city, which he called Akhetaten. Founded on land undedicated to any god, it seemed to the king a divine gift. The cliffs to the east created a sacred wadi that formed the hieroglyph for “horizon.” Akhenaten seems to have had a very profound experience, and epiphany as he founded the city, which he declared he would never leave. Construction began at a furious pace. By the seventh or eighth year of his reign, the city was ready for habitation, and the seat of government of Egypt was moved from the traditional center of Thebes to Akhetaten. It was here that the true totalitarian face of Akhenaten’s Atenist movement would reveal itself.
First, Akhenaten staged the ritual killing of Amun, the most prominent god in Egypt. This must have been a shocking and demoralizing spectacle for the Egyptian man to witness. Here was his king, who was supposed to honor and enrich the gods, staging the killing of the supreme god, the beloved Amun. The equivalent would be if our own political as well as religious figures took the image of Christ and desecrated it.
Now that Amun was “dead,” Akhenaten declared that the Aten, the sun disc, was not just the supreme god, but the only god, and the proscriptions began. The temples dedicated to the old gods were shuttered. Most of the priests, idol makers, and everyone in-between that had to do with the old religion was out of a job.
Akhenaten had made sure to put the priesthood in his pocket, and its conduct toward him was very indicative of the direction he was taking Egypt in. Normally, the cult statues of the gods would be brought from the deepest sanctums of the temples and onto the priests’ shoulders in procession. Even Amenhotep III, who blurred the line between god and king as never before, respected this custom. Akhenaten had other ideas. Instead of the old processions, where the priests would carry the cult images of the gods on their shoulders, the priests would now carry Akhenaten and Nefertiti on their shoulders in procession.
It was a sign indeed of things to come.
Akhenaten’s Revolutionary Doctrine:
In rejecting the old gods for the Aten, Akhenaten was pushing Egypt into uncharted territory. It now behooves the reader to understand more about Atenist theology so that he may see into the mind of this king and better understand why he did the things he did. You may also see chilling parallels with later Year Zero totalitarians, including modern social justice warriors.
Atenism was, or perhaps more accurately, evolved, into a monotheistic faith. In certain important respects, it resembled the later monotheistic Abrhamic tradition. First, the Aten was an abstract deity, removed from ordinary human understanding. Akhenaten had replaced the representation of the Aten in the form of a falcon-headed man with the solar disc itself, both dehumanizing and making the Aten ungraspable and unknowable. As we know already, he smashed idols and forced makers of idols out of business. Worship was done in a much more abstract manner. The Aten was the sole god, creator of the universe, there was no other truth but the Aten.
However, there was an important difference. Atenism was a very exclusive religion. Akhenaten repeatedly stressed that he, and he alone, was able to comprehend the true nature of the Aten. All artwork depicting the Aten was accompanied prominently by images of the royal family – and only the royal family. Only Akhenaten and Nefertiti were depicted as receiving the Ankh – the hieroglyph for life, from the Aten.
Though the Aten was the originator of all life, its direct blessings were rather selective.
Though there were two large open-air temples in Akhetaten for the king and a few select others to worship the Aten, the rest of the population would have to make due with a small chapel…containing Ahkenaten’s statue. Citizens also had cult statues of the king in their own homes.
The Aten was the only god, but only Akhenaten could discern the true nature of this god. The rest of the population could only access the Aten through the king. This meant in effect, worshiping the king. Cult images of the king, but not the old gods, were permitted, even mandated. As we saw, the priests carried Akhenaten and Nefertiti on their shoulders in procession instead of the old gods. Worship of the old gods was prohibited.
Even death was not immune. Prayers normally sent to Osiris were now sent to Akhenaten. According to Akhenaten, the Egyptian conception of the afterlife, too, was incorrect.
Most chillingly of all, Akhenaten appropriated the concept of maat. To the Ancient Egyptian man, maat was truth, justice, the revealed, natural order of the universe. Since the foundation of the Egyptian state in the First Dynasty some 1,600 or so years earlier, the pharaoh was charged with upholding the cosmic order, maat. In return, he would be rewarded with the loyalty of the people he ruled (often brutally). This can be seen as the first example of a social contract in history. It also implied that there was an order, a truth beyond the pharaoh that even he was answerable to. Now, instead of upholding maat, Akhenaten was seated upon it, as a god would be.
In short, truth, justice, and cosmic order was whatever Akhenaten wanted it to be.
It was all about him.
The Atenist Regime:
With these totalitarian, Year Zero underpinnings in place, Akhenaten set out on his revolution in earnest. The ninth year of his reign was the most decisive in terms of institutionalizing the revolution itself. The temples had been shuttered and the priesthood neutered, but none of this was good enough for Akhenaten. He now began an active campaign of erasure. The old gods would be erased from history. Akhenaten’s agents from the Delta to the cataracts desecrated temples, tombs, and monuments.
A telltale sign of a Year Zero totalitarian regime is the careful control and subjugation of language. George Orwell popularized this concept with 1984 , but Akhenaten invented the technique. Akhenaten erased the names of the gods on monuments, tombs, and temples. Amun was especially targeted. Akhenaten even had the plural form for “gods” carved out of public monuments.
Personal names were not immune either. Most names in Ancient Egypt contained reference to some god or another. “Amenhotep” meant “Amun is satisfied.” Akhenaten changed his own name as a very public rejection of Amun. Akhenaten had these names hacked out of public places and even tombs.
The personal names of the living did not escape the king’s proscriptions either. To placate Akhenaten, prominent Egyptians (and probably less prominent ones, too) changed their own names. They dropped references to other gods and took on names associated with the sun, like Ra/Re.
Like all Year Zero movements, there were collaborators looking out for their own personal gain. In addition to changing their names, they made a show of embracing the new art style, as the Vizier Ramose did with his tomb, a curious blend of the traditional and the radical new style associated with the period. He seemed to be rewarded for his efforts, as he depicted himself wearing golden ornaments which Akhenaten made a show of distributing to his loyal followers at Akhetaten beneath what was called the Window of Appearances in the city’s central palace.
Akhenaten made use of spectacle as well. He promoted his new city as a place where all could be happy, basking in the Aten’s generous light. The pharaoh made it a daily ritual to proceed through Akhetaten in procession with his chariot from his residence to the seat of government on a road designed specifically to mirror the path of the sun in the sky. Akhenaten, on his glittering golden chariot, must surely have made an impressive sight, truly, it seemed, in communion with the Aten, his “father.”
But with Akhenaten in each of these processions were swarms of soldiers. Akhenaten did his best to put a happy face on to his regime, but no one would be getting any funny ideas as long as he had something to say about it.
Yet, despite all the pretensions, the population of Egypt, and especially of Akhetaten, must have been miserable psychologically, forced to beg for the king’s scraps and believe, what must have been to them, 2 + 2 = 5.
They were in no better condition physically either. Akhetaten, modern Amarna, is a blessing to archaeologists because of how well-preserved it is. Human remains recovered from the location reveal what life must have been like there. It is not a pretty picture.
Life in Ancient Egypt was never easy, but Akhetaten appears to have been a particularly hard place to be alive. People were subjected to backbreaking labor that permanently damaged their spines. In the workshops and factories at Akhetaten (a city known for its glass making, as the sparkle of the material was thought to be symbolic of the Aten), workers were at times required to squat or kneel on mud floors all day. Anemia was very common. About half of Akhetaten’s residents died before they were 20, and almost all were dead by 35.
And while the populace went hungry, sumptuous feasts were sacrificed to the Aten daily.
Beneath the dazzling glow of the Aten, a dark side lurked indeed, and we can here discern the true nature of Akhenaten and his new city. Akhenaten devoted Akhetaten to the Aten, and was determined to impose his will on Egypt. The people of the country, bereft of their centuries-old traditions that soothed their psyche, were simply expendable.
Yet there was trouble in paradise. As it turns out, the people of Egypt, even at Akhetaten, had not forgotten the old gods. Right under the king’s nose, worship of the old gods was widespread. Ornaments honoring the traditional deities have been discovered throughout Akhetaten, even to the supreme enemy of the regime, Amun. The Aten may have shined down on Akhetaten, and Akhenaten might have been “the son of the Aten,” but even they were not all-seeing. Those found worshiping the old gods were persecuted, but they persisted anyway, a small comfort for a harsh life.
The Atenist revolution was failing to win the hearts and minds of Egypt. It failed in other ways too.
The Abdication of Responsibility:
The modern site of Akhetaten has blessed us in another way, by yielding hundreds of clay tablets now called the Amarna Letters. These tablets, the State Department archive of its day, give us a unique perspective on the international situation in the reign of Akhenaten, as well as parts of the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten’s successors up to to Tutankhamun. The tale is one of decline of Egyptian power and prestige.
Egypt’s power is generally seen to have peaked in the reign of Amenhotep III, but trouble was already brewing even before his death. Recovering from a series of terrible invasions under the reign of its greatest king, Suppiluliuma I, the Hittite Kingdom transformed itself into a mighty empire, conquering Thutmose III’s old enemy, the Kingdom of Mitanni, in a series of hard-fought campaigns. From there, Suppiluliuma looked south.
Akhenaten is famous for neglecting international affairs, as the Amarna Letters once famously stressed that he required foreign ambassadors to stand out all day in the sun, but behind these power plays, Egypt’s geopolitical fortunes faced bad prospects. Suppiluliuma was a man who Donald Trump would have called a “total killer,” and he took advantage of the chaos in Egypt, getting the Egyptian vassal in the state of Amurru in Syria to defect to his banner, then using him against other Egyptian vassals in the area.
Repeated requests for aid were sent to Akhenaten by his loyal vassals in the area, but all were ignored. At the same time, very intriguingly, Egypt’s southern vassals were attacked by groups called “Habiru,” which some have identified with early Hebrews, though this is hotly in dispute. No aid was forthcoming.
We can imagine Akhenaten sitting in Akhetaten, relaxing beside Nefertiti, worshiping the Aten, and promoting himself at the center of Egyptian life, preaching the happiness he wanted to instill. Yet, the people of Egypt, if they knew of it, must have watched with consternation the goings-on in the north.
During Akhenaten’s rule, Egypt lost much of what Thutmose III had gained for her, and a powerful new threat, far more serious than what that great king had faced, emerged in the form of the Hittite Empire, ruled by so capable a man as Suppiliuluma and then his immediate heirs, who were no pushovers either. Egypt was no longer the uncontested hegemon on the regional stage. When things returned to normal, Akhenaten’s successors in the late 18th and early 19th dynasties attempted to undo the damage that had been done, with some success, but they still could not recover all that Thutmose III had given Egypt, nor could they defeat the Hittites militarily. Ultimately, the threat only concluded around 1259 B.C., almost a century after Akhenaten’s accession, by the famous peace treaty between the Hittite King Hattusili III and Ramesses II.
This could have been the first time in history that a leader ignored a clear danger to his country in favor of an ideology. It certainly would not be the last.
The Setting of the Aten:
Perhaps unexpectedly, Akhenaten died after 17 years on the throne of Egypt, still a relatively young man. The stability of his Atenist revolution would now be put to the test. It did not perform admirably. He was succeeded by two mysterious pharaohs, first Smenkhkare, of whom almost nothing is known (though he may be the occupant of tomb KV55 and therefore Tutankhamun’s father). The second was Neferneferuaten, who, as you may have guessed, was probably Nefertiti. Despite their obvious closeness to Akhenaten, they seemed to display some compromises on the old religion. At any rate, they did not last long.
Akhenaten’s ultimate successor was his (likely) son, Prince Tutankhaten, a boy of only 9. As one may expect, he was carefully groomed by those around him, and went on to reject the cult of the Aten, change his name to Tutankhamun as a signal of such rejection, and move the capital back to Thebes.
The old religion was restored, Akhetaten was abandoned, and eventually the period was proscribed by later pharaohs, who engaged in a campaign of Damnatio memoriae quite successfully. The tables had been fully turned. Akhenaten, his beloved Aten, and the Year Zero revolution he pioneered disappeared into the sands of history, not to be spoken of again for 3,500 years.
Or had he?
Here’s where it gets tricky. What connection – if any, is there between Akhenaten’s Atenist faith, the first real instance of monotheism on record, and the later Abrahamic tradition? I talk about that more in the book. The connections are tantalizing (particularly the similarities between Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten and Psalm 104), and as we saw earlier, a people called the “Habiru” appear in Canaan at this time in history. Though no one takes seriously the idea that Hebrews were ever actually enslaved in Egypt, Egyptian influence in the Near East was nevertheless, as we may well know by now, very strong. Did Akhenaten’s ideas somehow manage to survive and influence later religions? There are so many tantalizing hints, but no smoking gun. That’s often the case when we talk about the Late Bronze Age. Homeric scholars will doubtlessly tell you the same thing.
While we can only say with certainty that the Aten cult was a “plausible” influence on faiths that came later, Akhenaten’s legacy lives on. His line of succession may be broken and muddled, but he was the originator of absolutist, doctrinaire thinking. He was the first Year Zero revolutionary, the first to impose his absolutist vision on every aspect of life in his society, whether that be public or private, the first to attempt to tear down a long-existing social order and replace it with his own doctrine and narcissism. He was right, and thousands of years of tradition that stretched back to pre-pharonic Egypt were wrong. The Aten was the sole god, and Akhenaten was the son of the Aten. Evidence contrary to this truth was both irrelevant and criminal. His was the first absolutist narrative. He was, after all, living on and the arbiter of maat.
Akhenaten’s line of succession may not be entirely clear, but his spirit, his ka, lives on. His monotheism, which lends itself more clearly to Year Zero revolutions, survived him to rise again, and with that new rise, a new Aten would shine down on future revolutionaries.
When confronting the anti-social little special snowflakes of today, remember to look back at their lineage. See in them the deformed, ugly face of this fanatical pharaoh, for they are all family.
Below: the recording of the second chapter of Year Zero, corresponding to this time period.
Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt
Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs
David P Silverman, Jennifer Houser Wegner, Joseph W. Wegner, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun: Revolution and Restoration
Eric Wells, Akhenaten – The Prophet of the Sun