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Akhenaten: The Most Hated Pharaoh of Egypt

Updated on October 30, 2014
Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten
Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten | Source
Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye - Amenhotep IV's Parents
Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye - Amenhotep IV's Parents | Source

Amenhotep IV

Amenhotep IV, whose name means Amun is Satisfied, lived during the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt and probably had a very nice life. His father, Amenhotep III, was pharaoh. His mother Tiye was his father's Great Royal Wife, as opposed to being the son of a lesser consort, as his own father had been. He had an older brother, Thutmose, who died before their father, leaving Amenhotep IV in line for the throne when their father died in what Egyptologists believe was his 39th year of reign, 1353 or 1351 BC. Little else is known of his youth, but enough is known about his adult life to be sure Amun was anything but satisfied with this young man.

Small section of wall from Gempaaten after reconstruction.
Small section of wall from Gempaaten after reconstruction. | Source

Big Changes Ahead

His reign started normally. He began building projects in Thebes, modern day Luxor. He had the temple of Amun-Re updated. Then he had a temple, called Gempaaten, built for the Aten. Little did anyone know, however, what this would lead to. We know little about this temple other than it was huge and oriented to the east, the direction of the rising sun. In the small section of wall that was salvaged, we can clearly see a glimpse of what was to come - the pharaoh worshiping the sun disc.

In the fifth year of his reign, he changed his name, moved the capital city out to the middle of nowhere and started a campaign that would result in the destruction of everything he built shortly after his death.

Amun-Ra (god Amun with sun disc in front of his plumes)
Amun-Ra (god Amun with sun disc in front of his plumes) | Source

Exactly why Amenhotep IV changed not only his own religious beliefs but also those of his entire kingdom, may never be fully known, but many scholars believe that suggestions from his father led to the change. While the sun was always extremely important to the Egyptians, with the sun god Ra being the main national deity and father of the gods, an upstart local god from Thebes had started to grow in importance. During the rule of Ahmose I in the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty, however, Amun became blended with Ra and the combined god Amun-Ra was really taking hold of the country.

The Hyksos, foreigners, probably from Canaan, had controlled portions of Egypt during the Seventeenth dynasty, and it was leaders from Thebes that removed them from the country. As a result, Thebes became the new capital city and Amum a new national god. Nine pharaohs and approximately 180 years later, the priests of Amun-Ra were wielding so much power that Amenhotep III warned his son that he would need to somehow lessen their authority or the pharaoh would eventually have no power at all.

One way Amenhotep IV could have reduced the power of the Amun-Ra priests would be to reduce the power of the god himself. In the end, he not only reduced the power of Amun-Ra, he eliminated him, along with all other gods, all together.

The pharaoh still believed in the power of the sun as the supreme life giving force, and his father had worshiped the Aten during his own reign. This is most likely the reason Amenhotep IV chose this god to focus his attention. Ra-Horakhty, Ra who is Horus in the Horizons, was now the number one god and would quickly become the only god to be worshiped.

So who or what exactly was Ra-Horakhty? The god Ra had taken many forms during his worship. A longtime understanding of Ra was that he existed in three parts. Khepri-Ra was the morning sun, Khnum-Ra was the setting sun and Ra was the afternoon sun. Ra-Horakhty took all three of these and put them together as one. Joining Ra, the sun god, and Horus, the sky god, Ra-Horakhty (Ra-Horus-Aten) represented the sun during its entire trek across the sky. It was usually represented as a sun disc with rays of light shining down.

The Aten
The Aten | Source
Bes (protector god of children) and Taweret (goddess of childbirth)
Bes (protector god of children) and Taweret (goddess of childbirth)

Amenhotep IV could no longer have a name that reflected a god he did not worship. For this reason, he changed four of his five official names to reflect his new beliefs. He now became Akhenaten, meaning Effective for the Aten. He also moved the capital city to Amarna, known as Akhetaten at the time. By taking the capital away from Thebes, essentially the home of Amun and a place with many temples to the other gods, he lessened the affect those gods would have on the daily life of his advisors. His new city, would become completely dedicated to the Aten, and moving the capital also removed the Amun-Ra priests from the seat of power, which is exactly what Akhenaten wanted to do.

Does this mean that Aknenaten forbid the worship of the old gods? Despite the common perception that this was the case, there were no writings to support the idea that anyone was executed for worshiping any god other than Aten. It seems that Akhenaten understood that it would take time to change something so ingrained in people as their religion, but the worship of the Aten was the only state sanctioned religion, and the only one practiced in public by Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. To further support this theory, many of the advisors to Akhenaten maintained their original names that referenced other gods like Thoth, and artifacts for other gods like Horus, Bes and Taweret have been found in Amarna.

Toward the end of his life, Akhenaten did become more extreme with his beliefs. He claimed himself to be the son of the Aten. It was his contention that as Aten's son, only he could communicate with the god, and only he could translate the word for his people. In the end, he would worship the Aten, and everyone else would worship him. Many have compared this relationship to that of God and Jesus Christ.

Nefertiti | Source
Akhenaten | Source
Skull of Akhenaten
Skull of Akhenaten | Source

The Family of Akhenaten

More than any pharaoh before him, Akhenaten's family was prominently displayed in the images of his time, and his great royal wife, Nefertiti, is by his side through everything. Some historians even went so far as to offer that she became a co-regent late in her husband's reign, but that has become considered unlikely, though she did change her name to Neferneferuaten Nefertiti to indication her devotion to the Aten like her husband. It is still believed that she served as co-regent under the name Neferneferuaten during the beginning of her stepson, Tutankhaten's, reign. In fact, some historians believe that her death in the young pharaoh's third year of reign was the catalyst for the pharaoh's own name change to Tutankhamun and the move of the capital back to Thebes.

One thing to note about the artistic work done during Akhenaten's reign is that it had more realism to it than any other period before or after. The pharaoh himself is always portrayed having an elongated head, a protruding chin, a potbelly and wide hips. He certainly did not have the perfect physique of say a Ramesses II or Thutmose III. His wife, too, had a more realistic looking, though extremely beautiful, face.

Many historians could not figure out why the pharaoh and his children, who were also shown with elongated heads, would be depicted this way. Some thought it was a way to show them in a connection to the Aten while others thought it might truly be the way they looked. Egyptologists were beginning to wonder if they would ever figure it out, as a specific tomb for Akhenaten was never found. In 2012, however, a mummy found in tomb KV55, was proven through DNA to be that of Akhenaten. The answer as to why the images appeared as they did was obvious. He truly did look that way.

Speculation as to medical issues that would result in this appearance have been considered with Marfan's Syndrome coming the closest to explaining the deformations, however, DNA tests on Tutankhamun ruled out this disorder. Another good possibility would be homocystinuria in which the person has a genetic deformation resulting in amino acid issues.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their children
Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their children | Source
Tutankhaten/Tutankhamun | Source
Younger Lady of KV35 Sister of Akhenaten and mother of Tutankhamun
Younger Lady of KV35 Sister of Akhenaten and mother of Tutankhamun | Source

Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters, Meritaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuaten Tasherit, Neferneferure and Setepenre. The pharaoh also had one son, Tutankhaten.

Based on DNA testing, it has been proven that Tut's mother was a full sister to Akhenaten of which he had four. Her mummy has been located, but her name has not. Given the options of Sitamun, Henuttaneb, Isis and Nebetha my personal speculation would be Henuttaneb. This is because both Sitamun and Isis were raised to the status of Great Royal Wife to their father Amenhotep III, and it is speculated that Nebetah died young. In addition to this, Henuttaneb's name has been found inside of a cartouche, which was reserved for only kings and queens. If she was a queen to her brother Akhenaten, this would not have been unusual.

If you refer back to the picture of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye at the beginning of the article, that is Henuttaneb standing between her parent's legs.

Ankhesenpaaten, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti would become the Great Royal Wife of her half-brother Tutankhaten. Both would change their names to Ankhesenpamun and Tutankhamun respectively after the death of Nefertiti when they returned the country to the religious practices widely held before their father's rule. Their only two children would result in stillborn daughters.

Tutankhamun and Ankhsenamun (notice change back to idealized representation)
Tutankhamun and Ankhsenamun (notice change back to idealized representation) | Source
Smenkhkare | Source
Tutankhamun | Source
Ay | Source
Horemheb | Source

Following the Death of Akhenaten

After Akhenaten's death, everything he tried to create began to fail. The first to rule was a man named Smenkhkare. Exactly who this was in relation to Akhenaten is not clear. He might have been a son, but this is not known for certain. He was married to Meritaten, Akhenaten and Nefertiti's oldest daughter. He ruled for no more than one year.

Following Smenkhakare, Neferneferuaten ruled for two years and many believe this was Nefertiti herself. It is known for certain that this pharaoh was female. One epithet for this ruler was Anket-en-hyes which translates to Effective for her husband. As we also know that Nefertiti changed her name to include Neferneferuaten, it stands to reason that this was the wife of Akhenaten.

When Tutankhaten/Tutankhamun was old enough, he took the throne, but by all accounts he was young and sickly. Much of the control of Egypt fell to Nefertiti and/or two men who were high members of Akhenaten's council, Ay and Horemheb. It may have been Tutankhamun's weaknesses that led him to return the country to its former religious beliefs, as he may have been pressured by his council or feared it was the only way for him to survive. Tut managed to rule for nine years before his death in 1323 BC.

With the death of Tutankhamun, there was no male heir. Ay then became pharaoh. Many believe that he had been the driving force for Egypt since the death of Akhenaten. He was the son of Yuya, an influential member of Amenhotep III's court and father of Queen Tiye. In addition to being the brother of Queen Tiye, Ay was the father of Nefertiti and, therefore, father-in-law of Akhenaten. He ruled for four years.

With the death of Ay, Horemheb took the throne. Horemheb had been the commander of the Egyptian military for both Tut and Ay, but now that he was pharaoh he set about changing things he had not approved of from the time of Amenhotep III's death. Not only did Horemheb try to eliminate all traces of the time in Amarna, he also tried to eliminate all traces of the rule of Tut and Ay. It was his intention to have his rule begin at the time of Tutankhamun's rule. Horemheb ruled for 14 years, but as he too had no male heir, he set about to select a replacement that would ensure a strong ruling family for generations to come. His choice was Ramesses I. With his death and the ascent of Ramesses I to the throne, the Eighteenth dynasty came to an end and the Nineteenth dynasty began.


The time of one god was over. Egypt went back to worshiping its many gods. The capital was back in Thebes, until Ramesses II moved it to Pi-Ramesses, and Amarna was just a bad dream that never really existed and no one in the future would ever know about. Except we do know all about it. We have been able to piece enough of what was destroyed back together and read between the lines. We can read the hieroglyphs and use DNA to determine relationships. We can also understand that many people of the time did not approve of the move Akhenaten made, especially Horemheb, but we can also see that if the heretical pharaoh had not made a move, it is quite possible that Horemheb himself never would have been pharaoh, as the position might have been eliminated by the priests of Amun. In the end, Egypt was none the worse for Akhenaten's experiment, and it ensured that we would eventually see Ramesses the Great rule, though little of the thousand years of pharaoh after him would live up to the standards of the New Kingdom of Egypt.


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    • profile image

      mason bray 

      8 months ago

      How do we know he was hated when we dont have research.

    • PinoyWitch profile image

      Ian Spike 

      3 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Akhenaten was really an interesting figure. People tried to eliminate his existence in history after his death. His statues were destroyed, he was erased from the historical heiroglyphs with an exception of the remaining few. I read once Barrack Obama said "that looks like me" after seeing that bust of Akhenaten from the top. Weird. I think the incest and intermarriages were the reasons why they have so much genetic deformities and ailments. Great hub.

    • Healthyannie profile image

      Annie Messeri 

      6 years ago from Spain

      I am not aware of any proof that the Hebrews were enslaved by the Egyptians.

    • Medical-Reference profile image

      Imtiaz Ibne Alam 

      6 years ago from Dhaka, Bangladesh

      I was talking about the time of Moses! Hope, now you should agree with me! For your information:

      According to the Book of Exodus, Moses was born in a time when his people, the Children of Israel, were increasing in numbers and the Egyptian Pharaoh was worried that they might ally with Egypt's enemies. Moses' Hebrew mother, Jochebed, secretly hid him when the Pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew boys to be killed upon the circulating prophecy among Egyptian priests of a messianic deliverer among the Hebrew slaves. (Source: wikipedia)

    • Healthyannie profile image

      Annie Messeri 

      6 years ago from Spain

      There is no evidence the Jews were ever slaves in Egypt. There were many guest workers in Egypt from various countries but no slaves. They came to Egypt because they were well paid and good crafts people were always appreciated in Egypt. I know that historians are trying to make a connection between Yuya and the Biblical Joseph but there is still so much to learn and even more hidden in the sands of this amazing country.

    • Medical-Reference profile image

      Imtiaz Ibne Alam 

      6 years ago from Dhaka, Bangladesh

      @Healthyannie according to Bible, Joseph was the character who influenced Akhenaten to adopt monotheism, and he was the second in command in Egypt after Akhenaten. Maybe, during the 400 years of slavery of Jews, most of the recorded evidence about him was deleted. So, Bible became the only documented source about Joseph later :)

      History is really amazing!

    • Healthyannie profile image

      Annie Messeri 

      6 years ago from Spain

      Yes you are right. Yuya could well have been the Biblical Joseph. There is a certain amount of evidence for that.

    • Medical-Reference profile image

      Imtiaz Ibne Alam 

      6 years ago from Dhaka, Bangladesh

      @Healthyannie, I agree! Akhenaten was successful in eliminating paganism from Egypt, that's why, maybe, Historians don't like him. Anyway, I didn't find the history of Joseph in here, a bit surprised though!

    • Healthyannie profile image

      Annie Messeri 

      6 years ago from Spain

      Really interesting but I do not think Akhenaten was hated by the people, there is no evidence for that. He was probably hated by the priesthood as many of them found themselves out of a job during his reign.


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