Akhenaten and his New City, Akhet Aten

From the Lecture Series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

After Akhenaten introduced the Aten as Egypt’s only god, he had to leave Thebes and build an entirely new city in the desert. He continued to introduce fundamental changes, and built a city with different features from traditional ones. But it didn’t lead to the results he wanted.

A "house altars" depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters.
Akhenaten built a new city with revolutionary features. (Image: Egyptian Museum of Berlin/Public domain)

Akhenaten established a new city in the middle of the desert after moving away from the traditional capital city of Thebes. In his new city, Akeht Aten, he introduced many new things. The beautiful town was constructed with artists at full liberty to create unique shapes and concepts. For example, the pavements were painted with birds flying out of rushes. 

Learn more about practicing Egyptian religion.

Art in the New City of Akhet Aten

Picture of the Nefertiti bust in Neues Museum, Berlin.
Artistic productions depicted Akhenaten and his family, including his wife Nefertiti (shown above) with deformed shapes. (Image:Philip Pikart/CC BY-SA 3.0 /Public domain )

Akhenaten and his six daughters are depicted with deformed bodies and elongated heads, to the point that it looks like they had hydrocephalus. Nobody knows if the family suffered from a condition or was it merely a new style of art. Even Nefertiti, his iconic, beautiful wife, is depicted on some carvings like Akhenaten. She is so similar to him that many have mistaken her for him.

Another unique and unprecedented aspect of arts during his time is the way he and his family are depicted, doing everyday things with his family. In one of the paintings, his two little daughters are sitting on his lap, and one of them is eating a duck with her sticky fingers. These kinds of pictures never existed before. He was depicted as a family man, demonstrating family values.

The city was so big that it had suburbs—northern and southern. The temples were open to the sun. It was an entire city built at one time to the glory of one god.

One interesting aspect of the city is the way the tombs of the nobles were built. Unlike the traditional beliefs associating west with the world of the dead, the monuments were built on the east bank. But since they did not worship Osiris anymore, it wasn’t that significant. But another curious thing is that those tombs were not completed, which is another baffling sight for archaeologists. They don’t even know if Akhenaten believed in the afterlife because there is no mention of it in his records.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Akhenaten, a Religious Leader

Akhenaten lived in the city of Akhet Aten for 17 years, and not as the pharaoh but as a religious leader. He put the boards in charge of dealing with political issues and engaged himself with writing prayers, which were impressive like powerful poetry.

In one of his poems, called the “Hymn to the Aten”, he wrote:

Sculptures of Akhenaten and Nefertiti at Louvre Museum, Paris.
In his new city, Akhenaten turned into a religious leader. (Image: Rama/CC BY-SA 3.0 FR/Public domain)

“When you fill the two lands with your love, august god who fashioned himself, who made every land, created what is in it, all peoples, all herds and flocks, all trees that grow from soil, they live when you dawn for them.”

The poem is significant since it changes another thing in the Egyptian culture: the divine order. Egypt is not leading the divine order as the Aten is the god of everyone. The Aten is the solar disk that shines on all people.

The new god was confusing for common Egyptians, not merely because it was one and only. The nature of this god was also confusing. It was an abstract god with no physical representation. It was just the rays of the sun, not a god like Osiris, whose statues could be made.

Learn more about the beginning of the new kingdom-the fabulous XVIIIth dynasty

Decline of Akhenaten’s Power and His End

Akhenaten’s fundamental changes had destructive influences on the country. The pharaoh, who was supposed to be leading the country, had turned into a religious mystic. There are actual records that show Egypt had lost its international influence and respect during this time.

Akhenaten’s diplomats wrote to him several times, begging him to send the army because they were not respected anymore. One of them, Ribbadi, wrote 10 letters imploring him to save him, who was “like a bird in a net”. But he did not answer any of those letters.

After 17 years of coming to power and establishing a new city and new order, Akhenaten died. He was buried in a royal tomb at some distance from the city. The wadi where he is buried looks like the Valley of the Kings.

It is not clear what happened to the religion of the country after his death. It is unknown whether the Egyptians decided to continue following the new religion or went back to the old ways.

Akhenaten was a religious visionary. Although he wanted to preach the religion of love in which everyone loved each other, he didn’t gain much in this regard. But he has a real legacy: monotheism. His religious cult marked the first instance of monotheism in the history of the world. And as James Henry Breasted put it, he was “the first individual in the history of the world.” It means he was the first real individual who changed the world with his ideas.

However, some people have a different viewpoint. For them, he was kind of a loser. The great excavator Donald Redford, who spent his life excavating the monuments of Akhenaten, views him as a lazy guy. He says, “if we characterize his reign, it’s characterized by sloth.” Others view him as just kind of crazy. All said, we can’t take away the fact that he was a religious visionary—his biggest, real legacy. But, you know, he did leave one more legacy, probably the most famous—his son, Tutankhamen. But that’s another story for another time.

Common Questions about Akhenaten and his New City, Akhet Aten

Q: How long did Akhenaten live in Akhet Aten?

Akhenaten lived in the holy city of Akhet Aten for 17 years. He lived in the city as a religious leader and shifted the responsibilities of ruling to the boards.

Q: Where is Akhenaten buried?

Akhenaten is buried in the royal tomb miles away from the city of Akhet Aten. It is located in a wadi, a valley, which looks like the Valley of the Kings.

Q: Did Egypt thrive during the Akhenaten’s reign?

Akhenaten’s religious changes had tragic effects on the whole status of Egypt in the world. His diplomats wrote to him several times, begging him to send the army because they were not respected anymore. But he wouldn’t answer those letters.

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