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The Amarna Era

Akhenaton turned ancient Egypt upside down. When he came to the throne around 1353 BC, he took the name Amenhotep IV, but in the fifth year of his reign he underwent an epiphany. He declared that all the Egyptian gods—including Amun—were to be usurped by Aten (a minor God once worshipped in the Old Kingdom era), represented by a sun disk with rays emanating from it and an ankh symbol depicting the gift of life. The reason for this major religious change is unclear. The pharaoh was the only person allowed to have close contact with the god, a regulation that highlighted the pharaoh's divinity and reduced the power of the priesthood. Akhenaton moved the royal residence and capital of Egypt to the brand-new city Tel el Amarna (Akhetaten), thus effectively crippling the towns of Memphis and Thebes and putting distance between the seat of power and the priests at Karnak.

Ahkenaton revolutionized art in this era by introducing the so-called real style—with scenes of the royal family in very relaxed poses with the pharaoh kissing his children and sharing affection. Statues and carvings show the pharaoh as a long-skulled, long-chinned individual with an androgenous body form—wide hips, drooping belly, protruding breasts, and long fingers. Modern scientists have theorized that Ahkenaton suffered from Marfan syndrome (a genetic disorder of the connective tissue), but Dr. Zahi Hawass, head of Egyptian antiquities, put that speculation to rest in February 2010. Extensive DNA testing conducted to identify Tutankhamun's family showed that a previously unidentified—and perfectly normal—mummy from Tomb KV 55 in the Valley of the Kings is most likely that of Akhenaton, and that Akhenaton was Tut's father. As initial evidence showed no genetic disorders that would explain the unusual depictions of the "heretic" king's face and body, Dr. Hawass concluded that Akhenaton may have chosen the distinctive artistic style for religious or political reasons.

As pharaoh, Ahkenaton had little concern for the well-being of his lands. Sensing weakness, Egypt's neighbors raided the borders, taking territory and instilling fear in the Egyptian people. Ahkenaton reigned for 18 years, and immediately upon his death the priests of Amun moved to reinstate Thebes and its temple to Amun as the true heart of Egypt. In addition, they systematically wiped Ahkenaton's reign from the history books. His capital was destroyed, and not only Akhenaton but also his successors, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay, were excised from the official records (this is one of the reasons the Tomb of Tutankhamun lay untouched throughout history, because there was so little evidence of his rule).

It wasn't until the 19th century that archaeologists began to piece together this missing segment in the Egyptian timeline, though many details are mysteries that still await answers. The last of the Amarna bloodline, Tutankhamun was christened Tutankhaten. His change of name indicates a final victory of Amun over Aten and a return to the old ways for the people of Egypt.

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