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Egypt's religious revolutionary; Akhenaten - Egypt's False Prophet. By Nicholas Reeves (Thames & Hudson, pounds 18.95). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Nicholas Reeves is a romantic - a quality that is necessary for any archeologist investigating the complex history of Ancient Egypt. In the prologue to his fine study of the mysterious god-king Akhenaten, he tells of an old Egyptian peasant woman in 1887 digging up (with great disappointment it must be said) a cache of clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform script. She had hoped for gold.

But these things were more precious than gold and they turned out to be the famous 'Amarna Letters', tablets found at Tel El Amarna and connected specifically to the reigns of Akhenaten and his father, Amenophis III, a man who Akhenaten loathed to the point that when he became ruler he ritually defaced all monuments bearing his father's name and titles.

But there is a special significance of such an act of vengeful vandalism. By destroying a person's name his ka or soul in the afterlife was delivered to destruction and obliteration.

Should you happen to have seen the statue of Akhenaten in the British Museum, you will recall a freakish figure with a distended womanish belly and an elongated effete facial structure with an extraordinary mouth which is both sensual and petulant.

Ancient Egypt was a land with a huge pantheon of gods, each one powerful and potentially destructive. Through the priest culture that opposed the reforms Akhenaten brought in, he instituted the worship of one god. Monarchy and theocracy collided therefore with disastrous consequences. Huge temple complexes were shut down overnight and Thebes, the mighty city of cities, was emptied as Akhenaten moved south to build a new city of his own which he called El Amarna (where the old woman found the tablets) and where the worship of Aten, the sun disc, the bringer of life, was the only religion that could be contemplated.

Human sacrifice, a common practice with all earlier Pharaohs, was totally banned and animals were forbidden to be hunted for pleasure (we have much to learn in this context today).

No known carving depicts Akhenaten the hunter or the executioner. Instead he instituted a religion of love and self-adoration, though not everyone agreed with him.

The new iconography instituted in tomb sculpture cut out images of the old gods and simply showed the sun-god Aten showering rays of light on Akhenaten, who saw himself as the son of Aten and his sole representative on earth.

Akhenaten (who some scholars have compared to Christ) simplified life. He believed in the present. The morning birth of the sun and the death in the evening became the only recognised ritual for the people. Everything else - cat-headed gods and dog-headed gods - were abandoned. But love for the old gods did not desert many of the populace although their depiction of even such simple things as a cosmetic box or a ring was forbidden.

After Akhenaten's death, his son, Tutankhamun, inherited a very troubled kingdom, although Reeves claims that the boy king effected a rapprochement with the displaced priesthood, restoring images destroyed by his father.

In this engrossing book which brings factional division in ancient Egypt so vividly to life, the possibility of Tutankhamun's murder is debated. One of the reasons given here is that he was subversively attempting to re-establish his father's religion at the same time as placating the priests. Thus, the boy king is described as 'a monster in waiting'.

An intriguing concept which makes the book a tremendous read.


The mysterious god-king Akhenaten - visionary or tyrant?
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Title Annotation:Books
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 9, 2001
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