Friday, February 20, 2015

Amarna: An Egyptian City

Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) offers an unusually full view of an ancient Egyptian city. Planned as the new capital by the pharaoh Akhenaten (ruled c. 1353- 1337 BC), the city, rapidly built on previously undeveloped land, was inhabited for a short time only. Not long after Akhenaten's death, the city was abandoned in favor of Thebes and Memphis, the previously established royal centers of New Kingdom Egypt. Two factors have helped preserve this site. First, much of the city lies just inland from the flood zone of the Nile, and thus was neither covered with silt nor destroyed by farmers' ploughs. Second, the site was never rebuilt. For its short life and good preservation, Amarna is unusual among ancient Egyptian cities. Air-dried mud brick, with stone or wood for columns and certain details, was the standard building material. Walls have melted or eroded away, with much cut building stone carried off even in New Kingdom times, but nonetheless many ground plans have been recovered. Excavations conducted from the late nineteenth century until 1936, and again since 1977, have revealed much about this city, especially about its overall layout, its city center with palaces and temples, and its suburban houses. Additional evidence for the appearance of the city comes from pictures that decorated tombs.

The city proper lay on the east bank of the Nile, its various sectors linked by a north-south road (the Royal Road) c. 8km long. The territory of the city was much larger, however (an area measuring 16 x 13km2, marked by 14 inscribed boundary `stelai'), that extended across the river to the western desert and included farmlands and small villages. The city was not walled. Desert cliffs to the east were used for rock-cut tombs, including, in a remote valley, that of Akhenaten himself. The population of Akhetaten has been estimated at 20 000-50 000.

The architecture documents social distinctions. First, the great social difference between ruler and ruled is clearly expressed in the contrast between the grandiose royal palaces and the houses used by everyone else. The king resided in a fortified palace in the extreme north end of the city, but the city center contained two additional palaces. The first, the Great Palace, is a huge complex used for receptions and ceremonies. Its plan consists of flat-roofed buildings, courts - notably a large court lined with colossal statues of Akhenaten - and gardens, and larger columned reception halls. Decorations included wall paintings with images of the royal family. A covered bridge across the Royal Road connected the Great Palace with the King's House, a smaller palace in which the king met with officials and dealt with day-to-day affairs. This building contained the Window of Appearances, from which the king, accompanied by his family, could address the people.

Near the palace was the Great Temple, for worship of Akhenaten's preferreddeity, the Aten (life force depicted as a sun disk). Much of this large (730 x 229m2) compound was open to the sun - a contrast with the usual temple residence of Egyptian gods, a small, dark room. The open area contained several hundred offering tables. A butcher's yard and a large bakery complex located nearby contributed to the supply of offerings.

The city center also contained, in fairly symmetrical arrangement, storehouses, police barracks, and administrative buildings, including the Records Office in which the important Amarna Letters were found, clay tablets recording correspondence with foreign states in western Asia.

In outlying districts to the north and south of the city center, excavations of private houses have given a good idea of the lives of Amarnans of all social levels. Here overall planning was much looser than in the city center; Kemp has compared these districts to collections of villages or neighborhoods, with walled house compounds randomly arranged, interspersed with streets and garbage dumps. Houses of both rich and poor resembled each other in design, differing mainly in size. The typical house was built on a low platform inside its walled compound. The focus of the ground plan was a main hall with an adjacent twostory loggia, both with a higher roofline, held up by columns, with windows. The main room might contain a low brick platform where the owner and his wife would sit, a plastered stone washing place for water jars, and a shrine. Off this main room lay smaller rooms, bedrooms, toilets and bathrooms (from which liquid wastes drained into the ground outside), storage rooms, and stairs up to the flat roof. Outside the house, the compound would contain a garden, a well for water, servants' quarters, kitchens (with circular clay ovens for baking bread, open fires for the rest), storage areas, a shelter for animals, and a shrine to the Aten. These compounds served as economic centers, collecting food products from lands leased or owned, either near (in Amarna) or further away in the owner's home region, and for crafts or manufacturing. An example of this last is the house of the sculptor Thutmose; in his workshop was found the well-known painted bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Although Egyptian cities are otherwise poorly preserved, because of the silt covering brought by the Nile flood or subsequent rebuilding, our knowledge of the daily life of the ancient Egyptians is highly detailed. This we owe to Egyptian burial practices - in which tomb decorations and grave offerings reproduce the elements of the deceased person's material world as faithfully as possible - and to the preserving qualities of the dry climate (and burials were placed in the desert areas, beyond the fertile farm lands nourished by the annual rising of the Nile). In addition, the long life of this civilization ensured that these burial concepts continued to be practiced for over 3000 years, leaving us a wealth of examples to study.


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