Amenhotep IV: A Revolutionary King

From the Lecture Series: History of Ancient Egypt

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

Amenhotep III ruled Egypt at the height of the 18th Dynasty and established a wide variety of trades that helped the Egyptian economy thrive. He gave Egypt unprecedented prosperity in all aspects of life, including art and international influence. When he died, his son, who had already been his co-regent, took his place. Amenhotep VI made changes in the Egyptian society that nobody had ever imagined.

Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari, 13th century BC.
Ancient Egyptians resisted change. They had worshiped the same gods for 2,000 years. (Image: Maler der Grabkammer der Nefertari/Public domain)

A Rigid, Conservative Egyptian Society

Egypt was the most conservative and change-resisting region throughout the history of the world. Change was not welcome there, which was partly due to the geography of the region. Egypt is a dry country where it doesn’t rain, the sky is always clear, and the weather just does not change.  

But it is not the only reason. The same resistance to change was also present in the field of arts. Art was supposed to remain unchanged and last for eternity. They practically reduced tomb painting to paint by numbers—you put down a grid, you fill it in. So, even in a field like arts that is intertwined with creativity, change was not a virtue.

In the field of politics, the resistance to change was manifested in the central role of the pharaoh in the society. The never-changing position of the pharaoh as the center of the whole system determined the fate of the country. If the pharaoh was powerful, the country thrived, and if the pharaoh wasn’t dominant, the country faced troubles until a powerful pharaoh replaced him. So, the political structure of the country was also a rigid one that didn’t welcome change.

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

Rigid Religious Structure

Amenhotep III wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Amenhotep III, the pharaoh at the height of the 18th Dynasty. (Image: ArchaiOptix/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Another unchanging institution in ancient Egypt was religion. The Egyptians had worshiped the same gods for 2,000 years. Amun, Ra, and Osiris were the only gods worshiped for two millennia. Although at specific points, one god gained more importance than the others, there were just three of them.

The Divine Order, or maat, was also unchangeable. For Egyptians, it meant the status quo, with Egypt on top of the order, it wasn’t supposed to change.

With this firmly established conservative background, a pharaoh took over who turned the country and its never-changing pillars upside down.

Learn more about practicing Egyptian religion.

A Little-known King

Amenhotep III had two sons and four daughters with the great wife, Queen Tiye. When the older son died, the younger brother, who had never been mentioned before, became the king. Before that, there were no records of him on any official inscriptions or any titles referring to him. Yet, he became the king.

The Reign of Amenhotep IV Starts

Part of a dual statue, isolating the portion with Queen Tiye.
Queen Tiye, Amenhotep IV’s mother. (Image: Jon Bodsworth/Public domain)

This second son of Amenhotep III, who wasn’t supposed to be the king, was Amenhotep IV. After the death of his father, he gained power and became the new pharaoh. By this time, he had already ruled with his father as the co-regent for four or five years.

After the death of his father, Amenhotep IV did what was expected of him. He built monuments for his father, got married, and continued ruling as his father had. His wife was the famous icon of ancient Egypt, Nefertiti, who was a commoner.

After five years of conventional Egyptian-style ruling, he suddenly decided to change his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten. This change in name had significant implications, as a pharaohs’ names made a statement about his political and religious stands. “Amenhotep” meant “Amun is pleased”. Now, he changed it to Akhenaten, which had Aten in it. Aten was the disk of the sun, which had already gained importance when Queen Tiye named her boat “The Aten Gleams”. So, Akhenaten means, “It is beneficial to the Aten”.

Learn more about the beginning of the new kingdom-the fabulous 18th dynasty.

Amenhotep IV’s Reign: Dramatic Change in Arts

But his name is not the only thing that Amenhotep IV changed. In the field of arts, he made changes to the sculptures of his face and body. His face is elongated, his hips are wide, and there are hints of breasts on his statues. There are colossal statues of him in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that show him as a somewhat deformed figure. Even to the young people with no education in Egyptology, these figures look different from the rest of the statues. It is quite strange that Akhenaten, who had strong muscles and was robust, made sculptors depict him as deformed.

Amenhotep IV’s Reign: Women’s Status in Egypt

Another curious thing depicted in the paintings during the rule of Amenhotep IV is the role of women. She had her own temple, and on the walls of the temple, only she and her daughters are represented. Nefertiti is depicted making offerings to the Aten, which was the duty of the pharaoh. It is another example that shows Egyptian women were more powerful than other places in the Old Kingdom.

Common Questions about Amenhotep IV: A Revolutionary King

Q: Why did Amenhotep IV become king?

Amenhotep IV became king because he only had one older brother who died at a young age. So, his father chose him as the co-regent and became king after the death of his father.

Q: Who was Amenhotep IV’s wife?

Amenhotep IV’s wife was Nefertiti. She is the most famous ancient Egyptian queen and an icon among the powerful Egyptian women.

Q: Why did Amenhotep IV change his name?

Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten as a tribute to the Aten, the disc of the sun.

Keep Reading
Religious Order of Ancient Egypt
Religion and Deities of Ancient Egypt
Private Religion and Monotheism in Ancient Egypt