Tel el-Amarna, lost city of Egypt

Aten Temple, Tel el-Amarna, Egypt

Aten Temple, Tel el-Amarna, Egypt

In the middle 14th-century BCE, the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep IV broke with many centuries of tradition, when he proclaimed the sun disk Aten to be the god of gods. (This is sometimes referred to as the first instance of monotheism, but it’s more likely that lesser deities continued to be worshipped.) The pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten to reflect his devotion and moved his capital from Thebes (modern Luxor) to a previously unsettled site 250 miles to the north.This social-cultural-political blip in the timeline of ancient Egypt is known as the Amarna period (named for a later regional tribe).

The city, named Akhetaten, was built and abandoned in little more than a decade.
After Akhenaten’s death around 1334 BCE, his son Tutankhamen moved the royal court back to Thebes and reinstated the traditional religion. Subsequent pharaohs did their best to destroy the memory of Akhenaten and his reforms by defacing royal tombs and scrubbing records of his reign. He was lost to history until the late 19th century, when archaeologists discovered the city at Tel el-Amarna.

The distinctive art of the Amarna period is a tantalizing window on the time but may raise more questions than it answers. In general, it’s more naturalistic than the formal conventions of earlier and later Egyptian art. However, portraits of the royal family, with elongated, pronounced features have caused a lot of speculation. Were they actually deformed or were their figures symbolically stylized? DNA testing on Akhenaten’s remains did not find evidence of any genetic disorder.

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum

Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum

stele of the royal family touched by the rays of the Aten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

stele of the royal family touched by the rays of the Aten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

famous bust of Nefertiti, queen of Akhenaten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

famous bust of Nefertiti, queen of Akhenaten (Egyptian Museum in Berlin)

Tel el-Amarna is way off the standard tourist track (about 200 miles south of Cairo and 250 north of Luxor) and is really for those with a strong interest in Egyptology. Much of the city was carted off and recycled as building materials in other places, leaving foundations and some mud brick walls. Despite vandalization, the most vivid remains are royal and noble tombs in the cliffs at the north and south ends of the city. The site is quite spread out, about 6 miles from one end to the other, and not particularly well-marked. A licensed guide is recommended.

 

 

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