The Rise And Fall Of The Aten Religion

The Egyptian solar god Aten is most well known as the focus of the so-called Amarna revolution which occurred during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaton in the mid 14th century BCE. Less well known is the gods rise to power which took place over several generations as the royal family sought to balance the power of the cult of Amun.

The Amun Priesthood

For centuries Egypt’s many gods and goddesses rivaled each other for privileged place as patron deity of the royal family. With the rise of the New Kingdom, during the late 16th century BCE, one of the gods of the ruling dynasty’s hometown of Wasat/Thebes rose to prominence. Known as Amun, the Hidden One, this cult’s priesthood grew in wealth and influence until they had the power to successfully back a controversial claimant to the throne.

Ancient architectural scenery at the Precinct of Amun-Re in Egypt (Africa)

Ancient architectural scenery at the Precinct of Amun-Re in Egypt (Africa)

This pharaoh who rose to power with the help of the Amun priesthood was Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BCE), one of the few women to ever rule Egypt. The backlash against this decision to allow Hatshepsut to rule as king manifested over the coming generations as successive pharaohs each sponsored the growth of a solar cult which stemmed the power of the Amun priesthood.

The solar cult had its beginning centuries before during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (ca. 2066-1650 BCE). During this era the mythologies of various deities had begun to synchronize. Notable was the fusion of the creation myth from Yunu/Heliopolis, which featured Re-Atum, the sun god as creator deity, with other creation myths.

Obelisk at Heliopolis

Obelisk at Heliopolis

By the time of the 18th Dynasty the concept of eternal life and the ever after was coupled with the daily course of the sun. When a pharaoh died he could look forward to being born again each day to cross the sky with the sun god in his divine barque (boat). Each night the pharaoh, now as an aspect of Osiris, would travel across the underworld and battle with such creatures as the serpent Apophis. During the New Kingdom the cult of Amun adapted to the synchronicity and took on an increasingly solar aspect with the revised deity, Amun-Ra.

The Solar Cult

By the reign of Tuthmose III (1479-1424 BCE) the Amun priesthood had successfully used the religious synchronicity to come to dominate all aspects of Egyptian governance. The high priest of Amun became the chief priest in all of Egypt and very little could be done without the cult’s blessing. Tuthmose III set about changing this arrangement by appointing some of his own stalwarts to positions of importance.

However it was during the reign of Tuthmose III’s son, Amenhotep II (1424-1398) that the first evidence of a real program of change can be seen. It was perhaps with a desire to redirect some of the wealth flowing into the coffers of the Amun priesthood that Amenhotep II began to acknowledge an aspect of the sun god Re known as the Aten. Not to be confused with the solar disc itself, the Aten represented the life giving light that flowed from the sun rather than the actual sun. This new cult would be personally sponsored by the pharaoh.

Subsequently Amenhotep II died without leaving a clearly appointed heir. While there is no evidence of a struggle for the throne a clue to the dilemma of establishing legitimate succession is found on the famous Sphinx stele of Amenhotep II’s son, Tuthmose IV (1398-1388 BCE). On the stele new pharaoh proclaims the sponsorship of the sun god thereby establishing his right to rule.

A replica of the Tuthmoses IV Sphinx Stele.

A replica of the Tuthmoses IV Sphinx Stele.

The Sphinx was seen by ancient Egyptians as a representation of an ancient aspect of the sun god, Horemakhet, which means Horus in the Horizon. On this stele Tuthmose IV makes it clear that he owes his throne to the intercession of Horemakhet and no mention is made of Amun. In part the stele reads;

“Look at me, observe me, my son Thutmose. I am your father Horemakhet-Khepri-Ra-Atum. I shall give to you the kingship [upon the land before the living]….[Behold, my condition is like one in illness], all [my limbs being ruined]. The sand of the desert, upon which I used to be, (now) confronts me; and it is in order to cause that you do what is in my heart that I have waited.” (Stele of Tuthmose IV)

Tuthmose IV

Subtle promotion of the Aten can begin to be found in the records from this period. Most of the deity’s increase in status is due to the fact that promotion of the Aten cult was synonymous with promoting the king’s own cult since the Aten had become an aspect of the undying pharaoh. The Aten quickly became a useful symbol of imperial control as all the world was illuminated by its light. “Everything which the eye of the lord of all illuminates will be yours.” (Stele of Tuthmose IV)

Tuthmose IV also began a tradition of propaganda scarabs that was followed by his son Amenhotep III (1388-1348 BCE ). These scarabs were indeed molded to look like the sacred beetles, however the scarab was placed on a flat base and on the bottom of that base were inscribed announcements and proclamations. One of the scarabs that survived from Tuthmose IV’s reign proclaims that all foreign lands are forever subject to the rule of the Aten, an idea that would form the foundation of the deity’s power over the coming decades.

This symbol of limitless power coincides with a time that saw Egypt emerging as a cosmopolitan empire. Whereas Egypt had once had serious misgivings about foreigners residing in the land of the pharaoh such attitudes had changed in a world where far-flung trade networks brought not only goods but people into the Nile Valley.

Along with the rise of the Aten as part of the royal cult the overall fortunes of the sun god flourished and the city of the sun god, Heliopolis, rose in influence. Tuthmose IV also erected an obelisk, the archetypal solar symbol, at Amun’s temple of Ipet-isut/Karnak in Thebes. Showing that for the moment the mythological synchronizations once embraced by the Amun priesthood had backfired.

Then king then made a bold transition and actually had himself shown in inscriptions wearing the regalia of the sun god. This image of the pharaoh wearing the shebyu-collar and golden armlets would become common decades later during Akhenaton’s reign but at the time it portrayed a radical shift in pharaonic imagery.

Tuthmose IV ended his reign early with an unexpected death. Even with his patronage of the solar cult his funeral was traditional and his son Amenhotep III would proclaim himself as a worthy king on the grounds that he was a pious son of Amun. Moreover, the young Amenhotep III declared he was literally the son of Amun who, according to the standard story, seduced his mother in the royal chapel. This story was depicted on the walls of ipet resyt /Luxor Temple south of Thebes. However even as the young Amenhotep was making claims of direct descent of the Hidden One he remodeled the same temple to include a large solar court, which survives to this day.

The Solar Court at Karnak.

The Solar Court at Karnak.

Amenhotep III

Even though the new pharaoh claimed to be a son of Amun the Amun priesthood was so to be diminished. Within the first decades of Amenhotep’s reign members of the Amun priesthood had lost the rights to several powerful posts such as “overseer of all priests of Upper and Lower Egypt” and Amenhotep’s own loyal appointee, Ptahmose, was “First Prophet” (high priest) of Amun. This effectively gave the crown the control over the cult of Amun’s hierarchy.  However even with the loss of political power by the Amun priesthood the city of Thebes had become the cosmological center of the Egyptian universe and so the power of its god endured.

It was perhaps the rise of a powerful family in Egypt that eventually caused Atenism to approach its final phase. The importance of this family is witnessed by scarabs produced during the reign of Amenhotep III where his wife Tiye and her parents Yuya and Tuya are mentioned. These scarabs, along with Yuya and Tuya’s tomb being found in the prestigious location of the Valley of the Kings, indicates individuals who held exceptional influence at the royal court. The significance of Yuya’s influence spurs from the possibility that he was of foreign origin and may have sponsored the idea of a universal sun-god which had broad appeal in the Near East at this time. Together with other foreign notables who would come to power, such as the Vizier Aper-el, immigrants, who settled in the north of Egypt, began to hold considerable influence in the administration.

Whether or not he was influenced by foreign ideas is ultimately uncertain, yet Amenhotep III surely embarked on a course of religious reform that reshaped the final decades of the 18th Dynasty. Since the most ancient pharaohs had ruled as gods rather than just becoming a god upon death a move to restore this practice could be seen as a conservative move by the tradition bound Egyptians and it was in this guise that the religious changes took place.

When Amenhotep III built a temple in Nubia he ensconced himself as the solar god and Queen Tiye was worshiped as the solar god’s consort, Hathor. Buried in the courtyard of Luxur temple where he inscribed scenes of his divine birth as a son of Amun a statue of Amenhotep III was discovered portraying him in full solar regalia as the rejuvenated sun god.

The Rise of the Aten

When Amenhotep III built his famous palace across the river from Thebes he named it “House of Nebmaatre – splendor of Aten”. The military’s crack unit was named after the Aten as was the navy’s flagship. In spectacular fashion when a visitor approached the pharaoh’s massive mortuary temple the colossal statues known today as the Colossi of Memnon, were said to cast their own light which would “fall on the face like Aten when he shines at dawn.”

Even with this increased status of the Aten the pharaoh was careful to include all the well-known deities in such works as his mortuary temple which contained an unknown number of divine statues. It was near the end of Amenhotep III’s reign when the new royal Aten cult really began to take control. In his thirtieth year the pharaoh celebrated his heb-sed (jubilee) festival, which traditionally saw the pharaoh symbolically rejuvenated, Amenhotep III instead transformed himself into the deity, Aten the Dazzling Sun Disc; a living god.

After this transformation inscriptions of the pharaoh show the familiar shebyu-collar and gold armbands. However a new threshold is crossed when the pharaoh changed the way his throne name, Nebmaatre (possessor of the truth of the sun god), was written. For the final years of his reign the hieroglyphic inscription of Amenhotep III’s throne name was shown occupying the sun’s place in the magical barque which traveled across the sky each day.

Akhenaten and the Aten.

Akhenaten and family with the Aten.

When Akhenaten succeeded to his father’s throne it was with the name Amenhotep IV and like his father he gave all the early signs that he would keep up the charade with the priesthood of Amun. Then something (what exactly is open to debate) changed and the new pharaoh decided he had to make a clean break with tradition. So clean in fact that a new capital had to be constructed on ground that had never before been consecrated to any god. Here he ordered a new city be built. It was to be Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten” replete with several palace compounds and massive solar temples it was to become the new capital of the empire. Today the ruins of this city are known as Amarna.

Wealth previously directed to temple cult’s throughout the realm was then directed to the new city. Although contrary to common belief all of the other temples were not simply shut down. However a particular focus was made to literally carve out the influence of the god Amun. For over a decade all the wealth of Egypt was focused on making this new religious transformation work. Then with the death of Akhenaten the Aten movement unraveled. The new pharaoh was named Tutankhaten, literally “living image of the Aten” however within a few years the newly built capital was abandoned, the wealth and influence of the Amun priesthood was restored and the pharaoh changed his name to Tutankhamun just to be safe.


Dodson, Aidan, Monarchs of the Nile, The Rubicon Press, London, 1995.

Reeves, Nicholas, Egypt’s False Prophet Akhenaten, Thames and Hudson, New York, 2001.

Redford, Donald, Akhenaten, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984.

Silverman, Wegner and Wegner, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun; Revolution and Restoration, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.