News from the Trenches

John Romer

  • Akhenaten: The Heretic King by Donald Redford
    Princeton, 255 pp, £29.60, August 1984, ISBN 0 691 03567 9

For some twenty years a group of Egyptologists has been studying and excavating the remains of a strange group of buildings erected during the reign of the outrageous so-called ‘heretic pharaoh’ Akhenaten, amongst the temples of Karnak in Upper Egypt. Professor Redford, who has long led this work, brings to this new study of Akhenaten and his age a mass of fresh fact to aid our understanding of this remarkable period of ancient history. His most practical approach sends a reviving breeze through a field of study more than usually bedevilled by interminably circuitous debates. Egyptologists can recognise the signs of Akhenaten’s brief challenge to ancient orthodoxy in almost every hieroglyph and drawing of his reign, but such high dramas are not always immediately apparent to laymen. After all, this so-called Amarnan art still shares a basic ‘Egyptianess’ with the more orthodox manners of that civilisation. So whilst the records of Akhenaten’s times show a vivid alternative to the usual ancient Egyptian style, they also help us to understand something of the essence of ancient Egypt – heresy and orthodoxy alike.

For the general public, it is the beautiful products of Akhenaten’s painters and sculptors that lend this strange age its special aura. Such typically Amarnan objects as Tutankhamun’s golden throne, with its wonderful repoussé relief, and the painted life-sized limestone head of Queen Nefertiti, so modern in her thinness and her hard cosmetics, are central icons of the popular image of ancient Egypt. Akhenaten, too, has been invested with a most particular modern personality, some authorities seeing him as a solitary precursor of the morality and monotheism of the Judeo-Christian faiths. A rich portrait is conjured up of a fey young man in a flower-filled palace married to a beautiful queen – a loving father, a sensitive poet: ‘You rise beautifully, o living sun disk, lord of eternity, you are glittering, beautiful, strong, your love great and mighty ...’ Some modern sensibilities have also detected that the bright style of the Amarnan artists represents a group of ancient impressionists who had taken over the King’s academies to send new life running through the vapid excellences of orthodox state art. Others, however, seeing mere glandular disorders at the bottom of such extravagant visions (one wonders what such critics would make of Francis Bacon’s subjects), have dubbed him as a diseased megalomaniac, or as a homosexual attempting to block off the normal intercourse between men and their gods, placing himself in the position of sole mediator between earth and heaven.

Such speculations derive from the marvellous contemporary portraits of the King, often brilliantly-composed rococco variations on the standard Egyptian canon and its forms. Though Redford is convinced that these works of art reflect physical abnormalities in Akhenaten himself, one would dearly like to see the new style subjected to careful analysis that could establish once and for all how it had been built from the age-old harmonic systems that underlie all of ancient Egyptian art. But what about the man himself behind this strange mask? Should we even speak of individuals in the modern sense? Yet here, perhaps, in all of ancient Egypt’s history, the stamp of an individual will is at its strongest: how else could such radical transformations have been achieved in so conservative a state in such a short space of time?

In 1372 BC Akhenaten set out, a prophet leading his courtiers and his army, to build a brand-new city on virgin ground at the centre of Egypt. During the previous six years the young King had ruled from Thebes, the great southern city where his father Amenhotep III had overseen an era of such refinement that historians are often tempted to dub him ‘the Magnificent’ or, as the author of this book has done, ‘the Sun King’. In fact his mysterious son might more fairly claim the latter title from King Louis and Miss Mitford, for Akhenaten gave his life to the service of an elaborate cult of his own invention dedicated to a personal sun god – the Aten, the sun’s disk. Redford’s team has been working with the remains of the first Aten Temples that were made, built by the Temple of Amun-re at Karnak before the move away from Thebes. The very construction of these temples was odd, for instead of using the usual huge monoliths, of a ton or more’s weight, Akhenaten’s temples were made of small regularly-sized blocks of sandstone that would later provide his vengeful successors with an easily transported supply of good quarried stone for use in their own buildings. Inside the Amun-re temple, for example, in the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak and one of its mighty pylons, more than twenty thousand of Akhenaten’s handy little blocks were built into the foundations and walls. Other monuments at Thebes, and some of its outlying temples as well, were stuffed full of them, all neatly stacked in rows, sometimes covered over with rush mats and sand which have served to protect the painted reliefs with which so many of the blocks had been decorated.

Unknown quantities of these blocks still support or are enclosed in many of the Theban monuments: to date, more than forty-five thousand of them have been removed by engineers engaged in stabilising and rebuilding the shattered temples. At Karnak and Luxor enormous storerooms, usually long dusty asbestos sheds standing alongside the temples, are filled with them; stacked high in rough walls of stone that run on for hundreds upon hundreds of yards. With their minds on other things, their excavators had seldom recorded the provenance of these blocks, and the enormous problem of re-assembling these vast three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles, re-building the temples’ wall scenes by first piecing together the rectangular fragments of their relief on each separate block, has long hung over the study of Akhenaten’s reign – a big black cloud of unknowing. Earlier books on Akhenaten have carried brief and usually incorrect references to the ‘Theban Phase’ of the heretic’s progress. Occasionally articles in specialist journals published titbits of information about the blocks, or would attempt stabs at a general understanding of their original purposes.

It was this daunting open-ended task that, in 1966, Redford’s team had taken on itself, first photographing to scale every block still at Thebes, then tracking down the hundreds of odd blocks that had been stolen from Egypt and avidly collected, in both Europe and the Americas, as works of art. Reconstruction first began with a complex mathematical analysis employing computers to match the relief decoration block to block, though Redford’s team soon realised that the simpler processes of sorting by hand and eye easily outmatched this much trumpeted ‘breakthrough’ of ‘computer archaeology’. By 1975, they had built up hundreds of individual wall scenes from their photographs, and, from the blocks’ inscriptions, identified a minimum of four differently-named buildings which had once stood at Karnak: but, there were no known ground plans on which to rest their paper walls. From the meagre evidence of earlier excavations in which the colossal statues of Akhenaten had been recovered, Redford now started to excavate an area to the north of Karnak temple that eventually proved to be the site of the largest of all Akhenaten’s Theban temples. Perhaps no archaeological expedition has ever been more thoroughly prepared for their task, and Redford’s chapters describing this work, the final fitting-together of fragments of information gathered over years of paperwork, are the most gripping in the book.

Strange to say, the culminating chapter of this story rejoices under the title of ‘The Gm·(t)-p3-itn’, a phrase that hardly sits lightly on the mind. All four of Akhenaten’s temples have been christened with similar scholarly obscurities, though the other ancient terms in the book are familiarly rendered – Amun, Aten, Akhenaten. This clunking title is actually a modern transliteration of the ancient name of the temple whose foundations Redford excavated, and is usually referred to in the conversations of Egyptologists as the ‘Gem-paa-aten’ or the like. Once alerted to the awesome inaccuracies inherent in this method of vocalisation, as elaborated in detail in the book’s preface, the reader would have greatly benefited by being allowed to share this simple convention with the specialists.

In a book which aims to provide a rounded history of Akhenaten and his life and times, the detailed description of the work at Karnak takes up a disproportionate amount of space. The remarkable city, for example, which Akhenaten founded in Middle Egypt, and which is again under excavation by British archaeologists, is afforded a mere thirty pages. Similarly, several historical hot potatoes (and old chestnuts) of the reign are ignored. Many other books, of course, have dealt at length with these topics – a fact that strengthens the impression that Redford’s book may serve best as an addition and often a valuable updating, in relation to these older non-specialist works. British readers may be irritated by the author’s North American brand of popularese; he has suffered, too, from bad editing. The bizarre numbering of the plates and plans should have been avoided (as, indeed, should some of the photographs). The glossary could have been woven into the text to obvious advantage. Italics are used quite randomly.

But this is small beer. What we really want to know, surely, is what this twenty-year period of research can do for our understanding of Akhenaten and his age. What, for example, does Redford now think of Akhenaten’s new religion? Not much, is the answer. Yet to claim that Akhenaten’s attempt to make himself the sole conduit between man and god was ‘totalitarian’ seems partisan: Jesus Christ, after all, would later make much the same claim. But Redford makes a good point with his observation that ‘no text of Akhenaten’s tells us that he hears the cry of the poor man, or succours the sick, or forgives the sinner,’ and in this respect the Pharoah and his sun disk faith stands lower, on most modern scales of values, than orthodox ancient Egyptian religion. On the other hand, Redford’s admiration for Horemheb, the Pharoah who closed the Aten temples and returned Egypt to the old faith, has surely led him into interpreting the famous ‘Restoration Stela’ rather literally. Such boasts of restoring peace, order and the temples of the gods were also made by other Pharaohs. Above all, such monuments reflect a society that saw the regular, the normal, as best, and all change as undesirable. The reappearance of these conventional sentiments, after the gymnastics of the Amarnan interlude, is perhaps more significant than the details of their texts.

The ancient Near East that Redford has created for us – his description of Akhenaten’s foreign policy is especially good – incorporates a thoroughly modern and completely informed view of the ancient politics. The price, however, of such a high degree of specialisation has been the acceptance of a broad view of ancient society that has hardly changed in its essentials from the benign, rather parochial visions of earlier generations of Egyptologists – J.H. Breasted and Sir Alan Gardiner. For Redford, too, the ancient Near East is an ‘oriental’ world, one ‘at an earlier stage of intellectual development’, where Akhenaten’s palace is peopled by ‘gloating lackeys’ serving a ‘weakly simpering king’; Akhenaten, we discover, suffered from ‘inbreeding and sophisticated living’.