Akhenaton’s rule had not been the idyll that was conjured up in art. Reality lay in the hunger, suffering, and death beyond the borders of Aton’s Horizon. In the eyes of all but the elite around him, pharaoh had wrecked society. As troops made up of foreign soldiers policed the land prohibiting the worship of every god but Aton, the Egyptian empire was being shaken to its foundations. The uneasy feeling that his revolution had failed probably plagued the last years of pharaoh’s life. He died in year seventeen. By then Kiya had disappeared, as had Nefertiti.
Following pharaoh’s death, Aton’s Horizon was abandoned and avoided as a place of unspeakable heresy. The last of the inhabitants fled hastily and never looked behind them. Eating and drinking vessels were left on tables, children’s playthings lay abandoned in the empty halls. Desert winds tore open the shutters, sand drifted over the floors, fish pools dried up, and fruit trees withered. The whole city decayed into ruins. It perished as rapidly as pharaoh had brought it to life.
Smenkara had passed away after a brief reign. The boy Tutankhaton was taken to Thebes and his name changed to Tutankhamun. Deep scars and a sense of shaken confidence pervaded Egypt. Superficially, the country returned to the traditional religion that had prevailed before Akhenaton, but in reality nothing could ever be the same again. On the good side, the new freedom in art lived on. In writing, the use of the vernacular had spread. It led to the development of new literary styles in the Ramesside Period. However, a dark, brooding mood hung in the air.
Unlike the other boy-kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty for whom their mothers acted as regents, Tutankhamun (1336–1327 bc) had no elder queen to look after him. The courtier Ay was appointed to act in his name as God’s Father. Ay’s policy was one of thorough and non-violent restoration. The young king was married to his half-sister Ankesenpa-aton, renamed Ankhesenamun. The residence was moved to Memphis, but Thebes remained a religious center, “the southern Heliopolis,” to satisfy the High Priest of Amun. It remained the burial ground for kings until the end of the New Kingdom.
General Horemhab continued to command the army. Maya, the “overseer of the king’s treasury,” was sent on a mission to demolish the temples and palaces of the former regime. Maya probably organized the transfer of the mortal remains of the royal family from Aton’s Horizon to Thebes. From Memphis, Tutankhamun issued the Restoration Decree that reinstated all the traditional cults.
The people could now return to their faith. A major campaign to rebuild the temples and reorganize the clerical administration was set in motion. The army resumed its forays to Syria, encountering the Hittites, the new military power from Anatolia. These skirmishes had failed to establish a new balance of power. On the other hand, reasserting Egyptian authority in Nubia was more successful. With Horemhab, Egypt was back in the military arena.
The events surrounding the death of young Tutankhamun are far from clear. The king died unexpectedly in his tenth regnal year. The same year Horemhab led a military expedition against the Hittites at Amqa in Syria that ended in Egyptian defeat. By the time news of this disaster reached Egypt, Tutankhamun was dead. The funeral was conducted by the aged Ay, who also assumed the throne (1327–1323 bc). He had appropriated the royal tomb for himself, hastily burying Tutankhamun in a small, makeshift grave that could barely contain the quantities of goods customary to a king. Sheer chance preserved this improvised burial for posterity.
Since Ay had no male heir, he designated general Horemhab as his successor. It may have been at this point that the widowed Ankhesenamun, Akhenaton’s daughter, took the bold step of writing to the Hittite king, prompted by fear, as she said in her letter. She asked him to make one of his sons her husband in order that “Egypt and Hatti become one country.” This extraordinary step met with suspicion in the Hittite capital and the king hesitated. In the end, he decided to dispatch his son Zananza to Egypt, but the unfortunate prince was murdered on the way. The result was prolonged warfare with the Hittites.
Who was Ankhesenamun afraid of? A fragmentary cuneiform letter from Ay suggests that he tried to make amends with the Hittites, denying all responsibility for the death of the prince. Backtracking on his earlier decision, he also made an effort to prevent Horemhab from becoming king after his own death, appointing the army commander Nakhtmin (possibly a grandson) as heir. Shortly thereafter, he died. Despite Ay’s efforts, Horemhab succeeded in mounting the Egyptian throne and despoiling the tombs of both Ay and Nakhmin. Ankhesenamun and her sisters were heard of no more. Though riddled with difficulties, the general’s path to the throne could not be stopped. In his salient Coronation Stele, Horemhab claimed kingship through the divine oracle of Horus of Hutnesu (probably his birthplace) in the tradition of the Thutmoside kings.
By comparison to his dramatic rise to the throne, Horemhab’s reign (1323– 1295 bc) appears uneventful. Even its exact length is not clear; in inscriptions, he counted his predecessor’s rule as his own. His highest attested regnal year in Egypt is thirteen; Babylonian chronology, as well as two posthumous texts, indicated that he ruled longer.
Horemhab had been married to Mutnedjmet, whose only known title was the ordinary “songstress of Amun,” but the couple had no children. As heir he chose Paramessu, the commander of the fortress at Sile on the land bridge to Syria, possibly preoccupied with reorganizing the army in the north.
Paramessu’s family came from Avaris, the former capital of the Hyksos. When Horemhab died, Paramessu became king Ramses I (1295–1294 bc). The throne of Egypt was firmly in the hands of the army. With the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty history had come full circle. Avaris rose up from the ashes while Thebes was never to be the capital of Egypt again. The divine ancestor of the Ramesside kings was Seth. Avaris became the new residence of the Ramesside rulers.
Ramses I was probably old when he was made king, with a son and grandson already born to him. His reign lasted for barely a year, during which his son Sety was appointed commander of Sile, vizier and High Priest of Seth. In a few months, he was king (1294–1279 bc).
If Ay can be called the architect of the restoration, Sety was undoubtedly its master builder. His entire reign epitomized a commitment to the recovery of the faith lost in the censorship and iconoclasm of Akhenaton. Everywhere, inscriptions and images hacked out by Akhenaton’s agents were re-carved. At Thebes, the festival of Amun, the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, was reinstated. At Abydos, a magnificent new temple complex recreated the mythical burial of Osiris. Sety’s dedicatory inscription listed all the former kings of Egypt; the list had Horemhab directly succeeding Amenhotep III. Akhenaton, Ay, and Tutankhamun were left out.
Most impressive of all were Sety’s attempts to resolve the crisis in religious thinking that was a direct result of Akhenaton’s monotheism. Steeped as we are in centuries of monotheistic thinking we might easily underrate the theological achievement of Akhenaton. He was a true reformer. He has been called “the first individual in history.” His single creed introduced a semblance of order into an otherwise chaotic religious legacy. His historical importance is incontestable; centuries later, his thought and poetry would continue to inspire religions that were to follow.
The polytheistic religion of Egypt had come from many different sources. There were several creator-gods and creation myths. Temple establishments had maintained their independence, taken care of their own traditions, and looked after their own interests. Depending on the political climate, their influence rose and fell. Religious life relied on ritual and cult rather than on ordered religious thought. Faith was often manipulated to suit the purpose of the rulers, superstition and magic reigned unfettered, and priests had the sole authority to define truths. Tombs were granted only to those who were obedient to the king and papyri sold to the credulous like papal indulgences to exonerate them in the next world. In the midst of this, Akhenaton had raised the question of the One True and Living God. He had obliterated the social and religious hierarchy, at least in theory, and placed all people in humility before the sole creator. In fact, it had become impossible to relapse into the old familiar beliefs without attempting a religious reformation.
Sety tried to reconcile the contradictions that now glared at everyone. He encouraged theologians to probe more deeply into ancient dogmas and unite them into a single, respectable system of beliefs. The results of this rethinking were evident both in the temple complex at Abydos and in Sety’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The former made the attempt to transform the religion of Osiris into a universal creed. The latter contained the most complete rendition of all the existing Books of the Afterlife. Their layout within the tomb reflected the attempt to treat them as a distinct body of religious texts. These two monuments presented new religious ideas that united the old with the new, the One with the Many. Sety’s monuments became blueprints. The theological reconciliation offered by the religious thinkers of his time was scrupulously followed until the end of the New Kingdom.
It was possibly from Akhenaton’s verse – “you are one, yet a million lives are in you” – that the Ramesside designation of a new all-god, “the one who made himself into millions,” was coined. This formula was probably the precursor of the Hermetic hen kai pan, the concept of god as one and all, developed in Greco-Roman Egypt. Akhenaton’s ideas lived on. Through Hermetic philosophy they eventually influenced much of early Christian thought.