The earliest form of monotheism may have developed in Egypt about 3300 years ago. During the reign of Amenophis III (1390 to 1352 BCE; also spelled Amenhotep III), references to Aten were included in hymns which glorified the sun as the creator and sustainer of life. It is possible that this was promoted by Queen Tiye, his main wife. With the death of Amenophis III in 1352 BCE, Amenophis IV (the son of Amenophis III and Queen Tiye) became king and then changed his name to Akhenaten: "He who benefits Aten."
In Thebes, Akhenaten (Amenophis IV) and his wife Nefertiti began to establish the primacy of the Aten cult. He built a new and completely original temple for Aten very close to the temple of Amon-Re at Karnak. In design this new temple was quite unlike the normal Egyptian temples. In its decoration, in its reliefs and sculptures, it departed from what was conventional both in style and in content. The construction of this temple was a very provocative act, and it brought the royal family into direct opposition with the traditional priestly colleges, and also the established bureaucracy, which itself was closely integrated into the religious establishment. The formal suppression of the old cults followed.
In later years of Akhenaten’s regime, royal scouts scoured the countryside and destroyed the visible inscriptions of the old gods, particularly Amun. As far as Akhenaten was concerned, nothing but a complete break with the past—religiously, politically and territorially—would do. His own beliefs in the Aten, the divine and sole creator of the universe, had developed in these early years, and, as he claimed himself, the full practice of life under the Aten would have to be continued in a place unsullied by the old religions. Therefore, he ordered a new town to be built. The new town was laid out 350 km to the north and was one of the earliest examples of conscious town-planning. The great Aten temple was the focal point with many altars for offering to the god.
In moving the Egyptian capital to el-Amarna, Akhenaten closed all of the temples to the other gods. By closing these temples, he put the priests to these gods out of work. In addition, by closing the temples, he deprived the ordinary craftspeople and laborers of their traditional festivals and ceremonies. These ceremonies had functioned as a mechanism for redistributing the vast food wealth of the gods to the people. They also served to reinforce Egyptian cultural norms.
Atenism was monotheistic, perhaps the first monotheistic religion in the world. There is an exclusive focus on worship and emphasis was placed on Akhenaten as the conduit for the delivery of the divine power of the Aten to the Egyptian people. Atenism was therefore wholly identified with Akhenaten and his family. It looks as though the new creed was tailor-made for them.
Unlike the older religions, in the new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight. Initially, Aten was presented as a variant of the supreme deity Amun-Ra. However, in the ninth year of his reign, Akhenaten declared that Aten was not the supreme god of Egypt, but was, in fact, the only god. Akehaten declared that he was to be the only intermediary between the Egyptian people and Aten. In the temples throughout Egypt, inscriptions indicating plural "gods" were removed.
With the death of Akhenaten, Tutankaten became the new pharaoh. He reversed the revolution started by his father. He changed his name to Tutankhamen, removing the –aten from his name. The old gods were returned and Amen (Amun) was restored as the most important deity. Tutankhamen’s successors, Ay and Horemheb, disassembled the temples Akhenaten had built and used them for building materials and decorations in their own temples.
The city of el-Amarna was abandoned. The scribes then did their best to remove Akhenaten from Egyptian histories and from Egyptian memories. Akhenaten was removed from the list of pharaohs and was almost lost to history.
Some people have suggested that Akhenaten’s monotheism later became Judaism. One of the proponents of this idea was Sigmund Freud. In his book Moses and Monotheism, Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest who had been forced to leave Egypt following Akhenaten’s death. Many other scholars, however, disagree with this hypothesis.
In summarizing the many images that modern people have of
Akhenaten, Megaera Lorentz writes:
Akhenaten is all things to all people--to some he was a fanatical lunatic, to some he comes across as a strange, eccentric young man whose behavior was strongly influenced by his mother, to others he was a Christ-like visionary and a mentor of Moses, and to still others he was simply someone who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and who really had nothing to do with the dramatic reformations that went on during his reign.
This diary was originally posted on Street Prophets.