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miercuri, 8 august 2012

Mysteries of the Amarna Pharaohs

The Amarna period of Egyptian history is filled with romantic mysteries and puzzles for generations of archaeologists to debate.

Akhenaten, Smenkhare, and Tutankhamen were the only Eighteenth Dynasty kings of Egypt who lived for any time at Amarna (Akhetaten). Before and after, Egyptian pharaohs ruled from Luxor (Thebes), but even though the heyday of Amarna was fleeting, the period fascinates us because of an imagined connection between the theology of Akhenaten and the beliefs of Judaism, sexual scandal, and the mystery of the genealogy of the Amarna pharaohs. Such is the stuff of not only dreams and fiction, but also scholarly debates -- as recently examined by archaeologist Christine El Mahdy in Tutankhamen.

Akhenaten is known as "the heretic king," a monotheist, and a rebel, whose ephemeral cause succeeding Egyptian kings obliterated. However, lest Akhenaten's beliefs be clothed too readily in Judaeo-Christian raiment, note that Akhenaten's deity was not just a nameless, faceless supreme being, but a sun god, Aten.

Akhenaten was born Amenhotep, son of the pharaoh Amenhotep III (Nebmaatre) who, like all pharaohs since the fifth dynasty, was also called the Son of Re (another sun god who represented a different solar phase). The seat of worship for Re, was Heliopolis (literally, the city of the sun). After the fifth dynasty, the cult of Re became secondary in Egypt, although Heliopolis continued to be an influential center for learning. Sent to Heliopolis for instruction, Akhenaten's older brother and the presumed heir to the throne disappeared, leaving in his stead, a deformed younger brother who was to shun palace life at Luxor (Thebes) and retreat to a new city at Amarna (Akhetaten) where he worshiped Aten.

Throughout the day, the sun changes its aspect. It's not always the clear solar disk of Aten. In the morning (Khepri) and evening (Amen), the sun radiates more widely. Christine El Mahdy (p. 200, Tutankhamen) says worship of the noonday sun as the solar disc wielding god Aten was common during the reign of the heretic king's father, Amenhotep III Nebmaatre. However, what Amenhotep IV Neferkheprure Waenre (soon to be Akhenaten) meant by Aten was different from the previously accepted icon. Akhenaten called Aten father of all creation.

El Mahdy compares two hymns written to different gods, Aten and Amen, both of which appear monotheistic, although the one to Amen was written three generations before the heretic king. The later hymn to Aten, from Amarna, begins, "Father of the gods who created Mankind, who made the animals... and all the plants that sustain the cattle... Lord of the rays of the sun that give light...." The earlier hymn to Amen says "Holy god who created himself, who made every land, created what is in it, all people, herds and flocks, all trees that grow from the soil."

Both hymns fit the monotheistic theology of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But the hymns fail to show Akhenaten's Aten worship as a unique deviation from traditional Egyptian beliefs, presumed by many to be pagan polytheism.

If Akhenaten weren't so different from his predecessors in his religious beliefs, his lifestyle might still have been alarming. He did set up his own capital apart from that of his co-ruling father, but we don't know whether he engaged in a homosexual incestuous relationship with Smenkhare. There are images of the two embracing, but there's also speculation that Smenkhare was really Nefertiti in disguise. Akhenaten and Nefertiti appeared deeply in love for many years before her sudden unremarked disappearance at the very moment of Smenkhare's appearance. While Tutankhamen could have been Smenkhare's son, he could also have been his brother, and both of them could have been Akhenaten's half brothers.

Soon, perhaps, testing will confirm which theories fit the DNA.

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