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Sunday 17 April 2011

The Alien Pharaoh

"Our world is still secretly ruled by the race descended from Ikhnaton"... or at least, that's what Philip K. Dick says in his paranoid masterpiece Valis. In Dick's world, Ikhnaton is supposedly an alien who "emanated from a planet in the star-system Sirius". In the world where sane people live, however, Ikhnaton is simply a variant spelling of Akhenaten -- who was an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty.

Akhenaten (seen on the left in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology) was originally known as Amenhotep IV, in honour of the god Amun-Ra. But a few years into his reign he prohibited worship of Amun-Ra and the rest of the traditional gods and goddesses, and replaced them all with the "Aten", or sun-disk. For this reason Akhenaten is often hailed as a hero of enlightened religious reform, although his motivation was more likely political --more power for himself and less power for the priests!

Akhenaten's religious revolution only lasted as long as his own reign, but that fact hasn't deterred the theorists. Although the Aten had almost nothing in common with the "one God" of the Israelites, many people assume it was one and the same... Akhenaten is often identified as Joseph's dreaming Pharaoh from the Book of Genesis, and he has even been credited as the author of Psalm 104!

A lot of the mystique surrounding Akhenaten stems from the fact that for three thousand years very little was known about him. During his reign he moved the whole Egyptian court from Thebes to an obscure place named Amarna... which was lost when his successors moved the court back to Thebes, and was only rediscovered in the 19th century. Amarna is an anomaly in the history of Egypt, quite different from anything that came before or after. Its oddly stylized artistic representations, which account in part for the "Akhenaten was an alien" theories, were boosted into popular awareness by the notorious Amarna Princess statue -- the most ambitious of the forgeries produced by the Greenhalgh family of "artful codgers".

Although Akhenaten crops up here and there (for example in Agatha Christie's play Akhnaton, and Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten), his fame is largely overshadowed by that of his son Tutankhamun (his dad called him Tutankhaten, obviously) and his wife Nefertiti. Besides her amusing name, the latter is chiefly famous for the rather attractive limestone bust (now in Berlin's Neues Museum) reputedly discovered in Amarna in 1912. The style of that particular bust, however, is more in keeping with the Art Nouveau of 1912 than with anything else from the Amarna period. A more typical Amarna representation of Nefertiti is shown on the left (again from the Petrie Museum)... she looks as much like an alien as Akhenaten himself!


LT said...

Akhenaten alien or not is certainly the oddest of all the pharaohs. Pick any aspect whether its behavior, ideas, or appearance they are all odd and strange. It’s no surprise his name often appears in discussions about ancient aliens.

Andrew May said...

A very good point. For more than a thousand years, over many different dynasties, Egyptian art and sculpture has a remarkably consistent look... except for the brief period of Akhenaten which sticks out like a sore thumb! Another thing that interests me is that no-one really knows what motives lay behind all his upheavals. I've seen one TV documentary that portrayed him as a kind of authoritarian Fascist dictator, and another which portrayed him as a benevolent and enlightened champion of democracy!