The Historical Background: Revolution and Counter Revolution
The Temple of the gods at Karnak, near Luxor, was Ancient Egypt’s religious center from roughly 2100 BC until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC. A vast complex covering hundreds of acres and dedicated to the worship of a pantheon of god, chief among them the main deity Amun-Ra, the priests of Karnak grew so powerful that they alarmed the pharaohs. One of them, Amenhotep III (reigned 1388 – 1351 BC), tried to check them by appointing his own relatives to serve in the temple in order to guarantee the priests’ loyalty. His successor Akhenaten (reigned 1351 – 1334 BC) hit upon a more radical solution: he invented a new religion, and built a new temple complex to rival and replace Karnak.
Akhenaten and his wife-sister (Egyptian pharaohs tended to keep it in the family) Nefertiti set up the world’s first monotheistic religion, centered around the worship of the sun deity, Aten. At first, Akhenaten added an extension to the Karnak Temple, dedicated to his god Aten, but when he encountered resistance from the established priesthood, he decided upon radical and wholesale reforms. The pharaoh began dismantling his realm’s traditional religious pantheon, and replaced its many gods with a single one: Aten.
As is often the case with recent converts, Akhenaten became a zealot, and radically altered the way in which worship was to be conducted. Until then, and for centuries prior, the conduit between Egyptians and their gods was the priesthood, who acted as middlemen between mortals and deities. Akhenaten displaced the priesthood, and made himself and his sister-wife, Nefertiti, the main conduit through which divine blessings could flow. When the priests objected, the royal couple closed Karnak’s temple, fired its priests, and seized its treasury. They then moved their entire court about 300 miles to the north, and built a new city and temple complex at Amarna, dedicated to Aten.
Egypt, whose religion and religious establishment were overturned and displaced seemingly overnight, was plunged into spiritual and political turmoil, and when Akhenaten finally died after a 17 year reign, Egypt was bankrupt. His sister-wife, Nefertiti, tried to continue on his path, acting as regent for her stepson and nephew, Akhenaten’s 7 year old son with another sister. However, she ended up losing a political struggle at court, and power went instead to a Grand Vizier named Ay, who became the child pharaoh’s chief adviser.
The new ruler had been named Tutankhaten at birth, meaning “Living Image of Aten” – after the Sun god whom his father Akhenaten had ordered worshipped instead of Amun. After his ascension to the throne as a child, he changed his name – or had it changed for him by his advisers – to Tutankhamen, meaning “Living Image of Amun”. It heralded a rejection of his father’s religious revolution, and a counter revolution that restored Egypt’s old gods and traditional ways of worship, starting with the abandonment, and eventual destruction, of Akhenaten’s reilgious center at Amarna.