Akhenaten's Early Years at Karnak

On Friday, November 2nd, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum presented a lecture by Dr. Donald Redford of Pennsylvania State University. He stated his talk was an overview of his 33 years studying the most fascinating figure in Ancient Egyptian history.

By way of background, Dr. Redford noted that Egypt was at the time the only superpower in the Middle East. Akhenaten's father, Amenhotep III had sat on the throne for 38 years, the head of an empire which stretched from modern-day Turkey to near Khartoum in the Sudan (comprising the whole or parts of seven modern nation states). Vast amounts of taxes and tribute flowed into the Nile Valley allowing for a sophisticated lifestyle and a flourishing arts and building program. Building was grandiose both in terms of the number of projects and the scale of his buildings and statuary. Manpower in the form of artisans and slaves were an integral part of the booty flowing into the empire. The walls of the temples are covered with lists of tributary cities depicted with emblems of the torso and heads of their natives in local garb. Large standing armies could be deployed wherever needed to keep order and impose the Pharaoh's will, often bolstered by foreign troops.

"Gold is as dust in Egypt" says one vassal in a letter to Amenhotep III. Gold was often sent in the form of foreign aid to his vassals and the region's other kings.

Amenhotep married, while still a boy, a woman whose family had Sudanese origins. The king and queen were frequently shown with their daughters but only infrequently were his sons depicted in any of the scenes of the royal couple.

The art of this period is stunning and sinuous; hardly a straight line appears in a composition except in the borders of art where texts occur. The art has a somewhat feminine quality about it compared to the styles popular in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The first appearances of the sun hymn are found in the tombs of the Theban nobles, in particular one of Amenhotep III's viziers.

The capital had been at Memphis for most of the reign due to its proximity to the cosmopolitan world of the Middle East and its strategic importance for maintenace of the empire. But perhaps due to his ill health, the king moved his court back to the Southern City and ordered a new mudbrick palace to be built at the site now know as Malqata on the western bank at Thebes near his mortuary temple. The heir apparent Tuthmose died, setting the stage for prince Amenhotep to succeed his father.

The earliest renderings of the prince do not hint at his later depictions with a strange physiognomy: spindly legs, backward bending knees, lanky body, short rib cage with protruding belly, sunken eyelids, and long drawn face. But he would herald these traits in his art through their exaggeration in a new style of art.

Perhaps even before the death of his father he began building projects using a new type of construction. Most Egyptian architecture was comprised of monumental blocks of stone which were very labor-intensive to move. He began construction of a sun-temple at Karnak using brick-like chunks of sandstone 22 centimeters wide by 52 centimeters long, known today as talatat and weighing about a hundred pounds each. They often had to be plastered before being carved and painted. The quarries at Gebel Silsila still indicate how these blocks were quarried below a defaced stela depicting the king and the god Amun. The poor quality of much of the stone did not seem to matter; speed of construction was foremost in the mind of Amenhotep IV.

The blocks of the Karnak structures built by Akhenaten (to which he changed his name to reflect his new religion) were dismantled by his immediate successors (in reverse order as it turns out) and used as fill for expansion of Amun's temple. The hypostyle hall built by Seti I and Ramesses II is supported by these blocks and they fill the IXth and Xth Pylons as well. The Xth Pylon in fact contains the earliest blocks, from Year 1 of Akhenaten's rule.These blocks depict his god as a falcon headed diety known as Re-Harakhte and contain part of an important inscription where the king proclaims the tenets of his new religion to his court. The vital clues are all here, but blocks above and below this important document have yet to be recovered.

Akhenaten reveals he has studied the books on how the images of the gods are to be rendered, but that these gods have stopped (i.e. ceased to be effective, function - except for one who keeps on going - the sun god, whose face is the aten). Dr. Redford noted that the aten (literally the sun disk) is incorrectly called his god and Atenism is also an incorrect or imprecise term applied to his religion which is simply a solar theology with long roots to the Egyptian past but now worshipped in the guise of a single diety. 

The French Egyptologist Chevrier who excavated much of the Karnak temple and stumbled upon the remains of Akhenaten's solar temples at Karnak outside the main temenos wall surrounding the complex did not fully comprehend what he had found and, unfortunately for later scholars, excavated blocks out of their order and stacked them in magazines in a rather jumbled state. When Dr. Redford and his associates began trying to piece the temple jigsaw puzzle together they were left with a rather daunting task. Further complicating matters was an incomplete knowledge of how the walls themselves were constucted from these talatat. Using brickwork constructions as their model they were soon able to piece together over 800 incomplete decoration scenes when it was discovered the walls had been built in the time honored header and stretcher scheme for building strong bricklike walls.

Six individual artists are discernable as the sculptors of these scenes. Dr. Redford showed many slides of both Akhenaten and Nefertiti done in the different styles. While the king had dictated the main points of the style, its final creation was at the hands of these individual sculptors. By the time the final scenes were cut, the falcon-headed form of Re-Harakhte had been replaced with the now familiar solar disk with radiating hands. This sun disk was the celestial king parallel to Akhenaten who was his earthly representative. This was a royal religion Dr. Redford noted and not really meant as one which would be proselytized to the masses. There is very little evidence for the religion being spread throughout the land; most of what is found comes either from Karnak or from his new capital at Akhetaten.

The cosmopolitan nature of his court are evidenced in these scenes. Nubian and Syrian soldiers are seen in the Pharaoh's bodyguard. A Mesopotamian harp and the accompanists (in rather effeminate clothing - eunuchs perhaps?) are shown performing at the god's sed festival. Priests and nobles are shown with shaven heads and a small tassle attached to the back of the head (by wax Dr. Redford speculates). The menus for the offerings during the sed festival are carved on the temple walls. Many inscriptions stop in mid-sentence, not because the blocks are missing, but rather from the haste in which these structures at Karnak were raised. Artists must have been shuttled from place to place, in some cases never to return to complete their work.

Nefertiti had her own temple at Karnak as well where she (with the aid of her daughters) worships the one god. She is depicted in many of the poses formerly reserved solely for the king. Her throne, for example, has depictions of the nine bows as women who she tramples under her feet. She is shown as a sphinx bashing out the brains of the nine bow prisoners whom she clutches by their hair.

Dr. Redford noted that Akhetaten was really a place not unlike Disneyland in concept - a dream city hastily constructed to go about the business of his religion. Public buildings and palaces were at the north side of the site where they could take advantage of the northern breezes. Temples were mudbrick constructions veneered with limestone talatat for quick erection and decoration. Less than one percent of the inscriptions exist for Akhetaten compared to about twenty-five percent for Karnak.

The southern tombs contain the last versions of Akhenaten's sun hymn, said by these courtiers to have been dictated by the king himself.

In 1975 Dr. Redford assembled a team to excavate the site where Chevrier had found the colossal statues of Akhenaten (located today in the Cairo Museum) in the 1920s. They had survived because during a fire which destroyed the temple a mudbrick wall had collapsed on them and buried them. The others, it may be assumed, were ruthlessly turned into stone chips. A magnetometer was brought onto the site and a survey was completed as well. The first thing found were villas built near the old temple wall about the 7th century B.C.E. Then below this level were found blocks for the piers which constituted the temple site. These piers are adjudged to be nine meters high and contain the 800 scenes found in the storage magazines and Pylons at Karnak. The piers were fronted with the strange androgynous statues of Akhenaten. There are hundreds of piers and Dr. Redford believes, hundreds of statues of the king. Blocks littering the site hinted at the placement of the individual scenes.

A two and a half ton block found overturned near one pier turned out to be a limestone offering table with the list of offerings and cartouche-enclosed names of the king, queen and the god on it. An inscription found in the remains of the temple stated that the King would take no more land from the Amun temple for his god.

In recent years Dr. Redford has turned his attention to the ancient westbank Theban necropolis where he identified what he thought were Akhenaten-era tombs of his earlier courtiers. One tomb turned out to be too early to be a contemporary of Akhenaten. Theban Tomb 188 (that of Parenefer - who has a tomb at Amarna as well) bore fruit in the form of the earliest version of the Aten Hymn yet discovered. It is a typical T-shaped Theban tomb of the late 18th Dynasty. Reward scenes figure prominently in the tomb, although the image of Akhentaen as well as the features of Parenefer have been hacked from the wall by Amun revisionists. Unfortunately he also discovered many intrusive burials and a robbers' tunnel leading to as many as five unexplored tombs. His concession obligates him to deal with all of these before moving on to his third Akhenaten era tomb.

By chance a nurse sitting in on a class taught by one of his graduate students in Toronto recognized the peculiarities depicted in the early art as symptoms of Marfans Syndrome (Abraham Lincoln's disease). Dr. Redford has been studying this possibility further as a solution to the early style exhibited in Akhenaten's art.

After 33 years of study Akhenaten continues to remain the most enigmatic figure in Egyptian history Dr. Redford noted.

- Al Berens

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