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El-Amarna and the story of Akhenaten
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 19 - 03 - 2012

Cairo museum is too big for just one visit. Trying to see everything in one go is sure to leave the visitor bewildered and exhausted. The best plan is to choose one section of the museum for your visit and then return another day to see something else.
Behind a colossal group of limestone statues of King Amenophis III, his wife Tyi and three of their daughters, from the temple of Medinat Habu on the West Bank at Luxor, there is a small section of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities dedicated to Pharaoh Amenhoptep IV.
Even the lighting in this section of the museum is different, suggesting to us something special about this Pharaoh.
Who on earth was Amenhotep IV? Well, this Pharaoh, who ruled Egypt from 1351 to 1334 BC and abolished the worship of many gods and replaced them with the worship of one god only, is better known to Egyptians as Akhenaten. Surrounded even to this day by mystery, Akhenaten's strange reign is represented in this part of the museum by unusual objects.
A large coloured photo on the back wall cleverly sets the scene. It is of a panel showing the king worshipping the sun. There are four large carved statues of the Pharaoh, some of them from a lined row of colossi at Karnak, showing the king with an elongated body, protruding stomach and extended face and jaw.
Scholars' speculation has worked on overdrive here, ranging from suggestions that Akhenaten suffered from different illnesses to the idea that the exaggerated artistic style is thought to have a religious significance.
The remarkable story of this Pharaoh's reign is the story of a man who single-handedly tried to destroy the worship of numerous deities which had existed in Egypt for centuries, as well as sweeping away the power of its priesthood and converting many of its temples.
Five years into his reign he moved from Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt, and created a new capital city, Akhetaten, providing it with palaces, temples, government buildings and homes for its citizens. For a brief time, Egypt was ruled from here.
Within twenty years, the city was empty, the old religion had been re-established and the name of Akhenaten wiped off every tablet and monument, as if he had never existed. So cleverly had his successors air-brushed him off the face of history that Egyptologists knew nothing about him or his family until relatively recently.
The ruins of Akhenaten today stand eerily at El-Amarna on the East bank of the Nile, near to El-Minya, about 312 kilometres south of Cairo. There are no vast crowds of tourists here or coaches lining up for visits. What remains of the city is laid out roughly north to south along a 'Royal Road.' The city was built in a hurry, so whitewashed mud-brick was used for many of its buildings.
Most of these buildings, ravaged by time, have now returned to the clay of the earth they came from, so that the city has a ghost-like feel to it, more a collection of mounds and broken walls than the fantastic centre of a great empire. If visitors came here, what would they come to see?
The city was in a valley between steep cliffs on the east bank of the Nile. The sun rises in the east, unlike the Valley of the Kings, for example, which is on the west bank, where the sun goes down. It was more fitting to celebrate the rising of the Aten, the one god represented to men as a sun-disc, than to worship the sun's setting.
The city was divided into three sections. The private residence of the Pharaoh and his family were in the North. The administrative buildings and the ceremonial areas were in the central district. Here was the Great Royal Palace and the official Royal Residence. Across a bridge from these was the Great Temple of the Aten, unlike the other temples in Egypt.
The sacrifices to this god were not carried out in dark, secret chambers, but in the open air, on altars in view of everyone. A great obelisk was all there was to focus attention.
In what are the windswept remains of the city today there is a narrow valley to the east, hidden in the cliffs. It was here that the royal tombs were to be located. Only one was completed, perhaps for a royal wife, and also a tomb for Akhenaten himself, who was hastily buried here, before being removed back to Thebes by his successors and then lost to public memory.
Back in the Egyptian Museum, there are two statues which seem to sum up the fragile beauty of this period of Egypt's history. The first is a bust of Nefertiti, one of Akhenaten's wives. Unlike the more famous statue now on view in Berlin, this statue is unfinished. It is only partly carved and even has lines drawn on it to show where the sculptor would finish his work. “Nefer,” in the language of the Ancient Egyptians, means beauty.
This statue shows the queen as not only very beautiful, but also very peaceful. In this and other statues, both she and her husband-king are both serene and youthful.
The other small object in this part of the museum which sums up the reign of Akhenaten is an unfinished limestone statuette depicting the Pharaoh embracing and kissing one of his daughters, who sits on his knee, in the style of family intimacy so unique to this period.
Time alone may one day unravel the mystery of this remarkable Pharaoh. Covered up and brushed aside for centuries by those wishing to maintain the status quo, he has an extraordinary appeal to our modern age, not least to those who worship One God.
Muslims read in the Holy Qur'an in Surat Al-Ikhlas:
Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; he begetteth not, nor is He begotten; and there is none like unto Him.
Holy Qur'an 112:1-4
This is the central belief of Muslims. In Akhenaten, they see an image, all of those thousands of years ago, of the message revealed to mankind by countless Prophets. It is a touching idea that Akhenaten, who countless Pharaohs tried to silence and write out of history, is now a precursor of something believed in by billions of people. In viewing those small statues of him in the museum in Cairo, we come to realise that the truth can never be silenced, and that goodness will always prevail.
British Muslim writer, Idris Tawfiq, is a lecturer at Al-Azhar University. The author of eight books about Islam, he divides his time between Egypt and the UK as a speaker, writer and broadcaster. You can visit his website at

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