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Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet Hardcover – 1 Apr 2001
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"Makes abundant use of both archaeological and textual evidence ... For those interested in ancient Egypt, this highly informative book is required reading." --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Nicholas Reeves is the bestselling author of The Complete Tutankhamun and, with Richard Wilkinson, The Complete Valley of the Kings. He is currently Director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, Valley of the Kings.
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Yet, it's immensely controversial. Just read some of the other customer reviews!
The reason isn't hard to fathom. Akhenaten (who ruled Egypt for about 20 years around 1340 BC) was a heretical pharaoh who attempted to abolish traditional Egyptian religion in favour of something that looks like monotheism. If this interpretation of Akhenaten's agenda is true, his cult of the Aten (the deified light of the sun) could very well be the world's first monotheist religion. Add to this a curiously naturalistic art, an emphasis on the "here and now", and a seeming rejection of a real afterlife, and you almost wonder whether Akhenaten might have been an Epicurean atheist in disguise!
Since Western culture considers monotheism or atheism as more advanced than polytheism, many have seen Akhenaten as something of an ancient hero. His beautiful queen Nefertiti, weird statues showing Akhenaten with a grotesque body, and the heretical pharaoh's family connections to Tutankhamen, have all added to the mystery and speculations. I suspect the general public still see Akhenaten and Nefertiti in a positive light. There are even New Age cults which consider the man as something of a prophet.
But are we to believe Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten was a false prophet...
Reeves argues that Akhenaten simply wanted to centralize all power in Egypt into his own hands. Since the priesthood of Amen (and other polytheist priesthoods) owned vast amounts of land, piled up riches in their temples and hence wielded indirect political influence, Akhenaten decided to attack them by launching a fake "monotheist" cult nominally dedicated to Aten but really centred around himself. Akhenaten was the only person who could interpret the will of Aten, and hence became the sole religious power in Egypt. He then unleashed a reign of terror against the traditional priesthoods, all the while confiscating their property. That the cult of Aten was really a cult of Akhenaten is proven, according to the author, by the imposition of house altars showing the royal family. To further his agenda, Akhenaten had a new capital city, Akhetaten, built on a previously empty spot in the desert, thus isolating himself from the traditional capitals of Memphis and Thebes.
Reeves further claims that Akhenaten attempted to isolate Egypt from the outside world, neglected to keep control of Egypt's foreign vassals in Syria, and experimented with economic autarchy. Together with the terror, this supposedly brought Egypt to the brink of disaster.
Reeves also indulges in some strange speculations himself, including the claim that Akhenaten's male successor Smenkhare was really none other than...Nefertiti assuming a fake male identity! He also claims that the treasonous letter from an Egyptian lady of high standing to the Hittites was written by Nefertiti. And yes, he believes that Tutankhamen was murdered.
Personally, I don't know enough about Akhenaten to form an informed opinion about him. What strikes me as curious are his "Epicurean" tendencies, admitted even by Reeves. Why would an ancient Egyptian pharaoh adopt such? Doesn't this show that Akhenaten's new religion (or philosophy) actually was a real belief on his part, and not simply a manoeuvre? Then he tried to impose it on the superstitious people of Egypt, with disastrous results...
One also wonders how Akhenaten could have ruled Egypt for almost two decades, if he was such an unmitigated disaster? Why didn't somebody stage an uprising? Why wasn't he murdered by his own retinue?
There is something here that doesn't meet the eye...
Be that as it may, I nevertheless give "Akhenaten: Egypt's false prophet" three stars and advice everyone to continue pondering the problem of Egypt's most revolutionary pharaoh...
The book is carefully researched and the general argument that Akhenaten used his religious beliefs to legitimate his power is well supported by the evidence quoted. This does not of course preclude the notion that Akhenaten was sincere in his beliefs and Reeves does not suggest this. In fact it seems far from illogical that a ruler of ancient Egypt could have believed he was the son of god.
Many of the conundrums of Amarna history are argued in a very balanced way in the book. Reeves effectively debunks the theories that Akhenaten was homosexual or that his appearance in statuary was due to Froehlich's syndrome. He provides interesting evidence in relation to suggestions that Akhenaten may or may not have suffered from Marfan's syndrome and that Nerfertiti may or may not have been promoted to the status of co-regent. At times, however, Reeves takes fairly extreme positions based on somewhat flimsy evidence. He claims that Akhenaten's 'dictatorial rule' led Egypt to the 'brink of disaster', that Akhenaten's rule involved 'wanton destruction' and 'deliberate neglect'. He describes the later years of Amarna as a 'terror' and suggests that Pharaoh's lover Kiya had an evil personality and may have been pulling strings behind the scene. These extreme positions are supported with arguments based on evidence where the author and purpose of the documents quoted is often ignored. One document marshalled in favor of the sorry state Egypt had descended into was written by a priest of Amun, who would obviously have had a significantly biased agenda.
Overall though, the book is extremely readable and paints a fascinating picture of power politics in Egypt, where priests, generals and the Pharoah himself vie for power and influence in a manner so typical of politics throughout the history of mankind that it certainly rings true.
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