Akhetaten at el-Amarna

Akhetaten was the capital city of the Dynasty XVIII king, Akhenaten, called by some ‘the heretic king’. Akhenaten, formerly Amenhotep IV, built his city in a bay of cliffs on the east bank of the Nile as a centre for the worship of his ‘new’ religion, Atenism. The ancient city has become a pilgrimage for those of us who have been captivated by this unique period of Egyptian history. The vast site is now only accessible by ferry to el-Till, the modern village built on the narrow strip of cultivation along the river bank towards the northern end of Akhetaten. The archaeology of the city is defined by low excavated or reconstructed walls and in some cases only bare outlines of the structures can be made out on the sand-covered plain, since most of the stonework was removed in ancient times and any remaining mudbrick is badly decayed. Only one generation after Akhenaten’s death, there were few physical remains of his superb innovative structures, for a short moment in history one of the greatest cities of ancient Egypt.

The el-Till ferry to Tell el-Amarna

It was during his 5th year of reign that Amenhotep IV changed his names and titulature, becoming the king we now know as Akhenaten. The cult of the Aten had become so uncompromising that there was a complete break with the state god Amun and his temple at Karnak was formally closed, followed by a thorough defacement of the shrines of major gods. People close to the king who bore names compounded with Amun were obliged to change their names.

Texts tell us that the king, with his queen Nefertiti, was directed to the new site in the Hermopolitan nome by his god and in a foundation ceremony in year 5, day 13 of the 8th month of his reign, proclaimed that a new city be dedicated to the worship of the Aten. The city was to be called Akhetaten, ‘Horizon of the Aten’. The dedication ceremony is recorded on three boundary stelae (known as stelae X, M and K) carved into the limestone cliffs at the northern and southern extremities of the new city. A further eleven stelae were subsequently cut on both banks of the river to define the boundaries with greater precision – a unique form of delimiting a town not found elsewhere in Egypt. The most northerly stela (stela A) can be seen at Tuna el-Gebel on the west bank. The most accessible boundary stela at Akhetaten is stela U, cut into the cliff near the entrance to the royal wadi. The stela measures 7.6m high and remains of carved statues of the royal family can still be seen at the base.

The city was surrounded by encircling hills with the deep cleft at the entrance to the royal wadi in the centre. Near the base of the southern cliffs a new walled village was built for the workmen, similar to that at Thebes (excavated in 1979 and revealing important archaeological information, but is now re-covered by sand). From the village, a settlement of 64 houses, the craftsmen began work on the more important of the tombs, including the royal tomb in the wadi. By year 8 most of the work at Akhetaten was underway. During the foundation ceremony the king proposed a number of buildings, namely, the ‘House (or Estate) of the Aten’, the Mansion (or Temple) of the Aten’, a sunshade temple for the queen, a ‘House of Rejoicing’ and royal apartments, as well as the necropolis.

Akenaten drives his chariot on the Royal Road

The building work was hastily done using mudbrick, sandstone talatat (small sandstone blocks) and a limestone plaster in which to cut reliefs. There were lotiform and palm-trunk columns of wood and stone which were piers for roofs. Internal and external walls were decorated with blue faience tiles and painted scenes. The whole city was based around a wide thoroughfare extending from north to south – a ‘royal road’ over eight kilometres in length and on which Akhenaten and his family are seen riding in chariots in many reliefs. The modern track which today extends along the edge of the site follows the ancient royal road, the northern end of this was the focus for the city’s administrative area.

To the west of the royal road were the royal apartments, the magnificent Great Palace (the ‘House of Rejoicing in Akhetaten’) which excavations have revealed as consisting of an open court surrounded by a colonnade and colossal statues of the king. A ‘Window of Appearances’ (shown in the tomb reliefs) from which the royal family bestowed gold collars and other gifts to their loyal courtiers, was probably situated in a bridge which connected the Great Palace to the King’s House on the eastern side of the road. The foundations of the bridge can still be seen spanning the royal road. The palace, being built from mudbrick, has long gone, but when Petrie excavated the area in 1891 he uncovered beautiful painted pavements which were later destroyed. An annex to the Great Palace was built by Akhenaten’s successor, Smenkare, which contained many columns and walls covered in coloured faience tiles. The King’s House, on the opposite side of the road was a more practical residence containing a small palace with a courtyard and magazines. Here Petrie found fragments of a superb fresco painting depicting the image of the youngest royal princesses.

The main buildings in the central city include store-rooms, barracks and administration offices, such as the Per-Ankh (House of Life), the domain of the scribes. The ‘House of Correspondence of the Pharaoh’ was the records office in which the first of the Amarna letters were found in 1887. The main residential area was located on the southern side of the city.

Reconstructed columns in the Small Aten Temple

In the central city to the south of the palace, on the eastern side of the road, was a small Aten temple called the ‘Mansion of the Aten in Akhetaten’, whose purpose is unknown. It has been suggested that this may have been built as a mortuary temple for the king as it contained a sanctuary which is oriented in line with the royal wadi. In recent years there has been a great deal of reconstruction and consolidation carried out here, including a replica column which is one of the few structures easily photographed and has become a modern landmark of the ancient city. The plan of the small temple is now clear within its mudbrick enclosure wall and remains of entrance pylons and from this viewpoint the axis of the temple does indeed appear to line up with the entrance to the royal wadi. The remaining walls of the sanctuary area at the rear of the temple have been recovered with sand and modern walls have been constructed over them to denote the outline.

To the north of the small Aten Temple was the Gm-Aten (House of the Aten), the Great Aten Temple, the outline of which can be seen from the top of the surrounding mound of sand. The Great Temple was enclosed by huge walls, extending east from the road for around 750m and consisted of several cultic structures including a series of open-air courts and a vast number of offering tables – 365 on each of two sides representing Upper and Lower Egypt. The whole temple complex at Akhetaten seems to have been dominated by offerings of large quantities of food dedicated to the Aten before being distributed among the priests and populace of the city. Details of the temples can be seen in many reliefs on the walls of the nobles tombs at Amarna. Within the precinct of the Great Temple there was also a ben-ben stone – in this case focused on a round-topped stela. A similar stela, found at Heliopolis, depicts the king and queen in a rare attitude of prostration before the Aten. Unlike the Karnak temples of Akhenaten, there is no evidence of additional jubilee festivals celebrated in the new city.

The North Palace

At the far north of the archaeological area lies the North City where a large fortified villa can be seen, the North Riverside Palace, locally known as the ‘Qasr’. Barry Kemp, who has directed the site’s most recent excavations, suggests that this was the site of the main royal residence of Akhetaten. Remains of thick mudbrick enclosure walls and gateway can still be seen here, as well as scattered blocks and column bases. This structure is badly dilapidated and has had an old disused excavation house built over much of the site, once occupied by John Pendlebury and his team who undertook excavations at Amarna for the Egypt Exploration Society during the 1930s.

Mudbrick walls of the North Riverside Palace - 'The Qasr'

The southern suburb of Akhetaten has not yet been thoroughly excavated, but is known to have been a dormitory settlement containing many large houses belonging to high officials of the city. Here the visitor can climb onto a raised platform which overlooks the house of Panehesy with its accompanying granaries and have a good view over the area to the south and east to the houses of the sculptor Djutmose, the vizier Nakht and General Ramose. The platform also provides an elevated view over the southern side of the small Aten Temple.

Panehesy's House at Akhetaten

Excavations at the southern end of the main city of Akhetaten, close to the modern settlement of el-Hagg Qandil have recently revealed possibly another large stone temple of Amarna date in an area called Kom el-Nana. The Egypt Exploration Society have so far uncovered an enclosure containing brick ceremonial buildings and the foundations of two stone shrines and surrounded by gardens and service buildings. The religious structure, which was previously thought to have been a Roman camp, was unknown until 1988.

In the most southerly part of the city was a building anciently known as the Maru-Aten, or ‘viewing temple’ which appears to be a religious structure containing gardens, pools, open-air kiosks and sunshades, or solar altars. Substantial portions of painted pavements have been recovered during excavations, but nothing remains of this structure, which is now lost beneath modern cultivation. The few surviving stone blocks which were found here however, are of great interest in revealing the usurpation by the king’s daughter Meritaten, of texts originally inscribed for Akhenaten’s consort Kiya and not Nefertiti as was originally thought.

Looking down over the Amarna plain from the tombs dug into the high cliffs of the bay, a criss-cross network of ancient paths can be seen covering the desert linking the outlying sites which would have been patrolled by guards during the occupation of Akhetaten. A series of desert altars can be seen below the northern tombs, which were perhaps constructed for the reception of foreign tribute during the great celebrations in year 12 of the king’s reign.

For more information on el-Amarna see the Amarna Project website.

How to get there

El-Amarna is to the south of Mallawi, on the east bank of the Nile. Tourist police at present must escort all visitors to the site and access is currently via the vehicle ferry from the west bank to el-Till. A ticket office is located by the ferry on the east bank and tourist police and local inspectors will accompany visitors around the site. Tickets currently cost EGP 30 with an additional EGP 25 for the Royal Tomb. At least half a day is required here or more usefully a whole day as the city and tombs cover a large area. Transport around the site must be pre-arranged. A small privately run cafeteria and toilets are situated near the north tombs. Photography inside all of the tombs at Amarna is strictly forbidden.

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