The Religious Transformations of Amenhotep IV

From the Lecture Series History of Ancient Egypt

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

When Amenhotep IV came to power, he created a series of changes nobody had seen before for thousands of years. He even changed his own name to Akhenaten, which was representative of his political and religious affiliations. But more change was underway that revolutionized the belief system in the Egyptian Empire.

Akhenaten depicted as a sphinx at Amarna.
Akhenaten introduced the Aten as the only god. (Image: Hans Ollermann/CC BY 2.0/Public domain)

Monotheism, Akhenaten’s New Religion

A few years into his reign, Amenhotep IV brought about a series of changes that shook the conservative and rigid society. In addition to changes in arts, Amenhotep IV transformed another firmly established pillar of the Egyptian society—he shattered the foundations of religion. The polytheistic culture of Egypt was a conservative one that, like any other country at that time, had never heard of monotheism.

In a revolutionary gesture, he declared that there was only one god and introduced monotheism for the first time in the history of the world. By introducing the Aten as the one and only god, he shattered the foundations of the religious society built around temples, priests and gods.

Learn more about practicing Egyptian religion.

New Religion, New Temples

Wooden standing statue of Akhenaten, currently in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
Besides a new religion, Akhenaten also introduced a new design of the temples. (Image: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Amenhotep IV built temples at Karnak, the traditional religious place for Egyptians. But the temples were not like the regular ones. Traditional temples in Egypt were enclosed spaces that started with a huge pylon. It was like a doorway carved inside a massive wall to serve as an entrance and a large surface for the pharaoh to carve his great deeds. After the doorway, the temple got smaller, and the floor became higher. It gives the visitors a feeling of attending a truly sacred place as the floor went up, and the ceiling got lower. This is what the traditional Egyptian temples looked like.

But the temples that Akhenaten built were different. He named them Gem-pa-Aten, which means “The Aten is found”. Entirely in contrast with the traditional temples, they were open to the sun and had nothing more than the pillars.

On one of these buildings, a scene from the festival of heb-sed is shown. This festival involved the pharaoh wrestling with young men, shooting arrows, and demonstrating his vigor to be reinvigorated. To be rejuvenated, statues of gods were brought from all over the country. But for Akhenaten, the Aten was the only god. So, the paintings on the walls only showed Akhenaten, and no other gods were represented. However, it is still unclear if the pictures represent a festival that really took place or if they are just paintings on walls.

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Repercussions of Akhenaten’s Religious Changes

The changes that Akhenaten made in the religious structure of Egypt had widespread effects on many levels. All temples to different gods were shut down. The priests were out of business, which made them dissatisfied with the pharaoh, who used to support them with his donations.

Understandably, this dissatisfaction must have spread to other social classes and ordinary people, too. For thousands of years, they were worshiping several gods, but suddenly, they were told to stop praying them because those gods didn’t exist. For a conservative society like Egypt, it wasn’t something easy to do and accept.

Akhenaten Leaves the City

Akhenaten had to leave Thebes and build a new city. (Image: CC BY SA 2.5/Public domain)

Then, the next change came along, which might have been out of force. Akhenaten moved the capital from Thebes to 200 miles north, in barren land that is called Tell el-Amarna today. Scholars don’t know the real motivation behind this move. Some scholars believe that the dissatisfaction among the wealthy and powerful priests made Akhenaten leave the city.

He moved to an isolated spot in the middle of nowhere. It is also one of the decisions that baffle Egyptologists till today. It could be because there were no temples and gods in that barren land. Maybe he wanted a fresh start with people, most of whom didn’t have the right place in society and wanted a fresh start, too.

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Akhenaten Establishes a New Capital

According to the records, when Akhenaten moved to the new city, people had to live in tents. They built a new city that he called Akhet Aten, meaning the horizon of the Aten.

One of the prominent features of the newly built city was the boundary stelae, used as boundary markers of the town. He gathered people around one of these stelae and told them how the Aten had shown him the place.

The carvings of the boundary stelae show that during his “Sermon on the Mount”, he told his followers that Aten was not to be represented in any way, neither paintings nor statues. So, he depicted the Aten as an abstract god with no physical representation.

He also mentioned that he wouldn’t leave the city, which had enormous impacts on the society. He was the pharaoh, the head of the military, and the most important political figure in the country. So, the military would have to march out without his leadership. It was another fundamental change that he made to the third pillar of society.

Common Questions about the Religious Transformations of Amenhotep IV

Q: What is Gem-pa-Aten?

Gem-pa-Aten is the temple that Akhenaten built in Karnak after he introduced his new monotheist religion. Unlike the traditional temples, Gem-pa-Aten was open to the sun as a sign of respect to the Aten.

Q: What city did Akhenaten build?

Akhenaten built the city of Akhet Aten 200 miles away from Thebes in the desert. The city is called Amarna today.

Q: What god did Akhenaten worship?

Akhenaten worshiped the Aten, the disc of the sun. He introduced the Aten as the only god and shattered the foundations of polytheism for the first time in history.

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