Akhenaten is probably the only hereditary leader in the history of the Earth who I can’t help liking. He was also a bit of an ineffectual merciless tyrant. But let’s start with the positives. He established the first monotheistic state on the planet, momentarily sweeping away the ridiculously well entrenched Egyptian polytheists. He built a new capital city, and he allowed a completely unique and innovative style of art to develop.
His reign was difficult, and it’s an open question how much of that was his fault. A century ago a great disaster had laid waste to Minoan Crete, and barbarians from Europe called the Sea Peoples were attacking the Bronze Age world. We have quite an extensive list of diplomatic letters from his reign which talk about financial problems, plague, and insurgency.
The surest sign that his reign was not successful was that after his death in the 1330s (before Christ, obviously) his name was removed from inscriptions and there seems to have been an attempt to delete him from history. His new religion “Atenism” seems to have totally disappeared.
In a very short time, he completely changed the basis of a civilisation. Even if in didn’t work, it raises questions that I think are well worth pondering. Unfortunately, I think they’re possibly unanswerable.
1. What motivated Akenaten?
By getting rid of the priesthood and taking their gold, Akhenaten got rid of a powerful rival and would have made big financial gains. Could his reforms have just been an attempt to make money?
But, if this was the case, why make such a radical change? And why build new, expensive temples with big open air areas for worship of the sun? It seems like the actions of a true believer.
Maybe his motivation wasn’t so much religious or selfish, but psychological and scientific? One commentator, James Henry Breasted, has suggested that he was “the first individual” trying to stamp his personality on the world and create a more accurate view of how the universe worked.
2. Where did Atenism come from?
The first reference we have to Aten, the God of Atenism, is from the Story of Sinuhe published some six hundred years before Akhenaten. In this, Aten, or the sun-disc, is referred to as a creator. We don’t really know for sure how Aten was interpreted by the layity.
The other contender for the title of “founder of monotheism” aside from Akhenaten is Zoroaster, he founded Zoroastrianism. Estimations for when he lived ranged from 1800 BC to 500 BC. I don’t really want to get into that, but it raises a lot of questions. Did monotheism come from Persia to Egypt? Or Egypt to Persia? Where did the ancient Hebrews fit into this?
3. Where did Atenism go?
Freud had a theory that Moses was a priest of Aten who was exiled to Israel, and therefore Judaism has Egyptian routes. There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to back this up. While the Great Hymn of Aten has been compared to Psalm 104, this similarity is shared with other more orthodox Egyptian religious hymns.
Religions are usually quite hardy, surviving practitioners turn up in all sorts of odd places. But after the death of Akhenaten, Aten seems to have been removed totally from the pantheon.
So how come monotheism popped up again in Israel, and in Persia? Was monotheism an idea whose time had come, and if so, why?
There are many theories on how various factors influence culture, but I doubts its the kind of question we can get a definitive answer to.