It is probably some kind of record (and perverse in the extreme) to have come this close to the end of a general book on Egyptology without having provided any detailed discussion of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, or Cleopatra – clearly among the most popular icons of ancient Egypt (the fourth member of this select group being of course Tutankhamun). These ancient individuals, apart from being the most fascinating aspects of the subject for many modern enthusiasts, have been foremost in the transformation of Egyptology into a vibrant part of 21st-century popular culture. The ways in which these icons have been exploited can therefore give a general sense of the absorption of Egypt into the mass media.
In obedience to chronological order, we should deal with Akhenaten and Nefertiti first. Undoubtedly, Akhenaten’s reign, in the mid-14th century bc, was the most unusual religious and artistic phase of the Egyptian New Kingdom (1550–1069), if not the entire pharaonic period. During the first few years of his reign he appears to have developed an obsession with the cult of the Aten (literally the ‘sun-disc’), a considerably more abstract deity than the traditional Egyptian pantheon. He built religious monuments to the Aten at a number of sites, but primarily at eastern Karnak and at Akhetaten (‘horizon of the Aten’), the latter being a new capital city established by him on supposedly virgin ground at the site now known as Amarna in Middle Egypt. It is Amarna that has given its name to the period encompassing the reigns of Akhenaten and his brief successors. Because Akhenaten and his activities were reviled soon after his death, virtually all of his monuments were dismantled and his name was erased from those that remained. Consequently, it was not until the work of 19th-century archaeologists that the history of the Amarna period began to be reconstructed from the many surviving fragments. As Erik Hornung puts it,
Akhenaten himself, forgotten for so long, now appears before us as one of the great founders of religion, and the first one whom we can grasp. ‘Hero’ or ‘Heretic’ – he definitely belongs not just to Ancient Egypt, but to human history.
It is interesting to trace views of Akhenaten from the early 20th century onwards. Initially his stock is high, and Arthur Weigall’s ‘biography’ of the king paints him as the founder of a ‘religion so pure that one must compare it with Christianity to discover its faults’, while Thomas Mann makes him the hero of his romantic novel Joseph, but by the 1950s Eberhard Otto was describing him as egocentric, ugly, and despotic, and in the 1980s Donald Redford argued that ‘Akhenaten destroyed much, he created little . . . Akhenaten, whatever else he may have been, was no intellectual heavyweight’.
The high profile of Akhenaten in modern times is not so much because of any particularly detailed awareness of the architecture of his temples or his iconoclastic religious ideas (although these have had a significant impact on some more recent faiths and philosophies, such as Rosicrucianism), but because of the very striking and unusual appearance of much of the art of his reign. The king himself is shown as a long-faced, bulbous-chinned, thick-lipped, and fat-bellied figure, apparently with female breasts and swollen thighs, rather than being idealized as a youthful paragon of manhood as was usually the case with Egyptian kings (and according to the chief royal sculptor Bak, it was the king himself who had authorized this style of art). As in other periods, both the royal family and the elite officials surrounding the king were depicted in a similar way, thus ensuring that all those Amarna-period works of art that include human figures are fairly easy to recognize. This has also led to the production of a large number of fakes and forgeries of Amarna sculptures, since the exaggerated style is relatively easy to copy (and also very popular with the buyers of antiquities). In the case of the Mansoor private collection of antiquities, a very large group of Amarna pieces have been subject to intense dispute concerning their authenticity. There is also said to have been a stronger sense of freedom and creativity in Amarna art, although this perception is no doubt partly the result of the changes in religious subject matter and the survival of an unusual number of paintings from within houses and palaces as opposed to temples and tombs.
It is not clear whether the artistic distortions of Amarna ‘portraits’ constitute a realistic record of Akhenaten’s appearance (which would imply that he suffered from some form of disease) or whether there is a more symbolic reason for his androgynous appearance, perhaps relating to an attempt to personify both male and female aspects of fecundity. Some Egyptologists have suggested, for instance, that the bisexual appearance of the Amarna-style human figures might echo the form of Hapy, the god of the Nile inundation whose body was deliberately intended to convey the idea of both male and female fertility.
The first full-blown attempt to explain Akhenaten’s appearance medically was the proposal by the ubiquitous Sir Grafton Elliot Smith that the king may have suffered from Froehlich’s Syndrome, an endocrine disorder which can have similar effects on the body. The disadvantage of this solution is that sufferers from this syndrome are also usually not only mentally retarded but incapable of producing children, neither of which could be applied to Akhenaten, with at least six girls by Nefertiti (and two other girls who seem to have resulted from incestuous relationships between the king and his own daughters). An alternative suggestion, first put forward by the Canadian Alwyn Burridge, is that Akhenaten might instead have suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome. Quite a good case can be made for the latter (which is a severe disorder caused by a single abnormal gene), given that the symptoms include a pigeon chest, a wide pelvic area, elongated skull, spidery fingers and a long face with protruding chin, and it would be additionally applicable given that sufferers and their children were susceptible to sudden death (through weakness of the cardiovascular system). Symptoms also include likely blindness, which might possibly tie in with his obsession with the sun-disc, given that it may have been the only phenomenon that he could perceive. There are still, however, many Egyptologists who argue that such physical and medical theories take the appearance of the art far too literally, and that the peculiarities of the representations of the Amarna royal family might have lain much more within the realm of symbol and metaphor. The likelihood that we are dealing with a chosen style rather than a physical condition is backed up by surviving depictions of Akhenaten in the early part of his reign (before he had fully espoused Atenism and changed his name from Amenhotep), which show him with the standard idealized features more reminiscent of his father.
All of the above factors have the effect of making Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and the Amarna period over which they presided endlessly fascinating to the modern observer. There are any number of ‘mysteries’ about the period, and constant opportunities for speculation on such topics as why Nefertiti disappears from the records before the end of Akhenaten’s reign, or whether she perhaps reinvented herself as the ostensibly male ruler Smenkhkare, who enjoyed a very brief period of joint rule with Akhenaten at the end of the Amarna period. One of the other burning questions concerns the fate of the corpses of the entire Amarna family: where were they initially buried and where are they now? Then there are the barrage of questions about Akhenaten’s ideology and personality: was he a saintly monotheist who anticipated (or even precipitated) the rise of the Jewish faith, or was he an unreasonable tyrant who almost ran the Egyptian economy into the ground (or all of the above at the same time!)?
It was not until the late 19th century that Egyptologists became fully aware of Akhenaten and the Amarna period, but, as John Ray has pointed out, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek assessment, the timing of Akhenaten’s emergence from the shadows could not have been better:
the 20th century turned out to be made for him: he could be seen as a tortured genius who took on a sclerotic establishment, a loving husband and father, an exceptional visionary and artist, a pacifist who believed in human brotherhood and a master of religious symbolism.
One of the tantalizing aspects of the Amarna period is that we have an enormous quantity of artistic, monumental, and textual data, and yet we still do not seem to have enough evidence to reconstruct anything like the full picture of this remarkable but relatively brief phase in Egyptian history. As the British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves has put it, ‘the real problem with Amarna is not so much a shortage of good evidence as a superabundance of speculation misrepresented as fact’.
Given Reeves’s statement, it is perhaps appropriate that there have been numerous fictional rewritings of the Amarna episode, including a Noel-Coward style play by Agatha Christie (Akhnaten) in which one of the characters says, ‘Akhenaten and I would never have got on. I don’t believe he’s got any sense of humour. He’s so frightfully religious too.’ There has been an Amarna opera: first performed in 1984, Philip Glass’s Akhnaten used his non-Western-influenced minimalist musical style, together with a libretto including ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, and Hebrew, to conjure up a poignant picture of Akhenaten and Nefertiti as tragic figures, whose spirits eventually haunt the ruins of their abandoned city at Amarna. We can add to this one of the most famous Hollywood forays into ancient Egypt with The Egyptian, directed by Michael Curtiz in 1954; based on Mika Waltari’s novel, it is set in Akhenaten’s court and starred Victor Mature as Horemheb. Each of these renditions of Amarna is as idiosyncratic as the last, and the one thing they have in common is their tendency to cast Akhenaten as a revolutionary dreamer and visionary.
Perhaps the most sensible thing that anyone has said about the Amarna period is Margaret Murray’s comment in 1949 (ironically even before the Akhenaten-industry had fully built up steam) that
The Tell el-Amarna period has had more nonsense written about it than any other period in Egyptian history . . . In the case of Akhenaten, the facts do not bear the construction often put on them.