In his latest book, historian and Egyptologist Sherif Shaaban PhD tackled one of the most interesting characters in ancient Egyptian history, Akhenaten, or Amenheteb IV.
The title ‘The Lost Prophet Akhenaten’ gives the impression that Akhenaten might be one of the bible’s prophets. The idea is not new, many archeologists, researchers, Egyptologists and historians have introduced the notion that Akhenaten might have been Ibrahim, Joseph or Moses, but none of them was able to prove their theories beyond a reasonable doubt.
Even Freud in his famous book ‘Moses and Monotheism’ theorised that Moses was one of Akhenaten’s followers and led the Israelites out of Egypt; just writing about Akhenaten by a figure like Freud (though religion and history were not his areas of expertise) tells us about the value of the former.
But tying Akhenaten to the biblical prophets contradicts the philosophy that he believed in. First, he decided that the sun was the source of power and revelation, not just a symbol. Second, he believed that the true God was embodied in him personally, hence he couldn’t have been a prophet. And third, he denied the concept of the afterlife and the judgement that humans will face according to what they did in their lives.
The book presents an account of Akhenaten’s reign and philosophy in a clever style. Shaaban was able to summarise the political and social conditions which Egypt in before and during Akhenaten’s time in power.
His father Amenheteb III inherited a vast, wealthy, and strong kingdom, and he made his son a partner in ruling Egypt to train him for the job. The wealth that Egypt enjoyed during the 18th Dynasty meant that the priests of Amon – as the main God of Egypt – also enjoyed wealth and the political power that came with it. The father started bringing out an old God from the past, Aten, to balance the Amon priests’ power. The son inherited the respect for Aten along with the wish to limit the power of Amon’s priests.
The main idea that Akhenaten called on his followers to believe in was that there was only one true God and the rest were not real. This was the first time in Egyptian history that excluding other Gods became a sanctioned policy by the king himself.
That was the revolutionary concept that Akhenaten introduced and practiced. He built his own capital, left Thebes deserted and the priests of Amon marginalised and poor. The nobles followed their king to his new capital Tal El-Amarna. Without coming out and saying it frankly, the writer gives the impression that they were just pragmatic, and would follow the ruler no matter who he was as long as it was in their best interest.
The details of Akhenaten’s rule are revealed throughout the book and the writer keeps the reader curious about the beginning and the end of this heretical king, or that philosopher who paved the way for monotheism in its modern form.
The book has many details about Akhenaten, starting with his strange bodily form. He insisted that artists depict him as he was, from his lifestyle in his capital to the many elements that were newly practiced at the royal palace. For instance, showing the king playing with his daughters on walls in temples was never done before him.
The equality in size between the king and queen was a revolutionary way in depicting the royal family, and depicting the queen in the “Warrior King” picture was a strong indication of her position in the palace: they were both ruling the empire.
The fall of the empire under his reign was described as confirming the information that resided in the collective memory about Akhenaten: He was a strong king internally and persecuted his opponents, and refused to fight for the vast empire he inherited. The writer revealed that there was a traitor in the palace who stopped the SOS messages that came from the rulers of the various regions asking for help. But again, the Akhenaten character was not the warrior type.
There is a contemporary part in the book that is most interesting and important for the Egyptian government; it is about Nefertiti’s head, or “The Stolen Jewel” of Egypt. Shabaan describes the discovery and how it was smuggled out of Egypt by the German thief, archaeologist and explorer L Burghardt.
This person managed to fool the Egyptian antiquities department when he discovered Nefertiti’s head in 1912. He managed to send the head via mail to Germany and it is still there. He managed to keep it hidden until 1923. The writer detailed the various attempts to get Nefertiti’s head back to Egypt.
A very near successful attempt was during the Nazis’ rule; Hitler wanted to gain Egypt’s friendship and thought that returning Nefertiti’s head would grant him that wish. Then the führer visited the museum and saw the head; he literally fell in love with the statue and giving it up became an impossibility. Many other attempts were made to get the head back until as recently as 2009, but the result so far is that viewers can see Nefertiti in Berlin’s museum.
The writer’s final chapter is about Akhenaten in the literature and drama. Egypt’s famous novelist Naguib Mahfouz wrote in 1985 – three years before winning the Nobel Prize in literature – his novel ‘Dweller in Truth’ (Al-Aesh fi Al-Haqiqa).
The novel’s name is one of Akhenaten titles; he gave it to himself through Aten. Mahfouz sums up all the arguments for and against Akhenaten, ranging from a heretic inventing a new religion and destroying the vastest empire that Egypt had seen in its history, to considering him a renovating philosopher who reviewed and refused the “official” religion and art, among other things.
The play Akhenaton by Agatha Christie was written in 1937 but published 40 years later. She followed the historical events according to the various sources and painted the different characters accordingly, but she also added her crime touch in setting a plot to kill the king. This was just a hint of Akhenaten’s influence on the world.
We can safely say that history and the world differed before and after Akhenaten: was his existence a blessing or was it a curse? Each reader can formulate his or her own opinion.