There often seems to be a pendulum type rhythm to historical reconstruction. Our grandfathers’ heroes tend to become our villains or vice versa. Julius Caesar from cool, efficient savior of his country to ruthless dictator; Alexander the Great , from a visionary embued with thoughts of an international brotherhood to a bloody conqueror. So it has been with the mysterious pharaoh Akhenaten. In more recent reconstructions of his life and career, we find a figure that is a far cry from an inspired religious reformer or a standard bearer for the oppressed.
John A. Wilson gave a reconstruction of Akhenaten’s reign that emphasized its connections with the mainstream of Egyptian history. As he saw it, Akhenaten was independent minded and avant-garde, sensitively responsive to the new currents that had been generated by Egypt’s transformation to an international power. A freer, more naturalistic movement in art had already begun during the years of his grandfather and father, and he favored it. A movement was also underway to modernize the rigidly formal, traditional language, incorporating into it foreign and even colloquial phrases. He favored that too. But above all, he favored a new religion.
This religion was by no means novel; indeed many of its ideas and modes of expression had existed before his time and would live on for centuries after his death, ultimately affecting Hebrew literature. His particular version, however, definitely put him at odds with the powerful clerical establishment of the prevailing sect. His religious bent may well have been connected with his unusual physique; though by no means the result of any illness, it probably did close off certain areas to him and send him along intellectual paths.
Cyril Aldred, the English Egyptologist constructed a different picture; one based on the notion that Amenhotep III did not die in 1378 B.C., the year that Akhenaten’s reign began. Rather, he suggests, that was the year his father made his son co-regent, a step that certain pharaohs took to ensure a smooth succession. What is more, argued Alred, the old pharaoh did not die until practically a dozen years later, in about 1367. And, though he and his queen continued to worhip Amon, they were by no means opposed to their son’s new religion; they actually accompanied him to the new capital, living there the rest of their lives.
It was, in other words, during the queen’s residence, and not on any short visit, that a local sculptor portrayed her. The bitterness between the priesthoods of Amon and Akhenaten lasted only until the former were won over; any great conflict is a fiction of historians whose thinking has been colored by the long chapters of conflict between Church and State in European history. In ancient Egypt, after all, the pharaoh was the church. Indeed, Akhenaten may very well have transferred the bulk of the priesthood of Amun ( Amon) to his new city and put them all to work in the service of Aten.