I have always been infatuated with history thinking that its study adds nothing to our today. However, the more I observe human interaction, the more I realize it actually got countless lessons for us. History is not an abstract but it is the stories of people and their lives. And one enticing story for me is that of the reformist or heretic Pharaoh, Akhenaten. I don’t write this as a historian but as an individual inspired by the legacy of an ancient King and his lessons to the world.
Forgotten and overlooked for centuries, the story of Akhenaten was buried with his city Tel el Amarna until the 19th century. And still most of the attention that Akhenaten received came from his relation to the famous boy King, Tutankhamun, who was likely his son. But Akhenaten is way more than King Tut’s father, he is a mind of his own, a thinker to us, and a rebel to a deeply rooted and solid tradition.
In the 5th year of his reign, Akhenaten- then Amenhotep IV- changed his name and moved his capital from Thebes, the imperial power center for centuries to Tel el Amarna, located on the east bank of the Nile River (312 km south of the Egyptian capital Cairo and 402 km north of Luxor). He built his city Tel el Amarna in dedication to Aten, a sole god while abandoning long established deities and an entire tradition of worship. The reforms were not welcomed by all, especially the strongly rooted priesthood. Shortly after his death his cult and city were abandoned and older traditions quickly resumed. The excavations in the 19th century uncovered his mummy and the city of Aten along with his revolutionary, and perhaps even spiritual ideas.
Physical deformity can inspire the mind
For the previous 2000 years Pharaohs had to appear flawless in shape, vigorous and young. Many might be familiar with the peculiar representation of figures on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples. Kings particularly, are broad in shoulders, chest always front facing, while the face is usually in a profile view with a full eye. The Pharaoh, in particular was ageless and in perfect physical form.
Akhenaten was deformed: elongated skull, protruding belly, wide female hips and tapering fingers and toes. Scientists now think he likely suffered from Marfan Syndrome, “a genetic disorder that affects connective tissues”, giving the person peculiar features. Akhenaten embraced and depicted even in exaggeration, as some would argue, every aspect of his deformed figure.
Even his royal wife Nefertiti, a renowned world beauty, famous by her bust at the Berlin’s Neues Museum, was depicted later in life with the features of an aging body- wider hips, bigger belly and sagging breasts. This was the first time in ancient Egyptian history that the royalty looked life-like in art.
Existing in a form far from perfect and quite removed from the perfectionist notions of art then, Akhenaten decided to find beauty in realism, celebrate it, even if it were grotesque; and by this he revolutionized ancient Egyptian art. As his depictions on the temples reflected him rather than ‘what he should have looked like’, Akhenaten must have journeyed into self-acceptance.
We are extensions of the divine
As the hands of Aten reach down towards Akhenaten he articulates this extension of life from source in a most compelling way. A notion completely new to the world then. Akhenaten was the first to introduce this abstract of an absent god and harbor a faith in something intangible. He believes in the power of those rays and occasionally transforms under them, taking godly poses himself. While some historians would argue that his adoption of a monotheistic faith was to assume a role as a god himself, I believe that what he was showing is that faith aligns us to the divine within us.
Faith roots us stronger into ourselves, connects us to us and what is beyond us, from which we come and in which our true value lies.
We live in a world that lacks faith, despite a strong presence of religions. Monotheistic religions are an undeniable part of our lives today, and most of us are compelled to define ourselves against it. Some believe and follow ardently while others reject altogether. Most believers are really following an institution of preconceived ideas and practices that they tag as ‘godly’, while atheists tend to rely heavily on the rational mind assuming full responsibility for their lives. In both cases, there is an inherent sense of control that disrupts faith in one’s self.
The belief in something beyond us- from which this life, that is us, extends- is really a belief in ourselves, in our own existence in all that it takes. Being an extension of the divine entails faith in our intellectual processes, emotional intelligence and abilities. Within us is the source of love, life and creation. Perhaps it took a deformed body and a heretical mind to be the first to discern this.
Tapping into inspiration….becoming a heretic
There is much speculation as to what incited Akhenaten to abandon the traditional gods and give in completely to the calling of Aten. His faith in Aten may have been a calling or an act of rebellion, but in all cases it allowed him an existence beyond the physical form. Whether he was deformed and accepted it or was physically normal (one theory) and opted for his physical misrepresentation, Akhenaten knew that there is another dimension to existence beyond what we call this time-space physical reality. And he attempted to commemorate that message for us on the walls of the temples of Aten.
But really, the biggest lesson from Akhenaten for us today, lies in the very value of his heresy. Etymologically, “heresy” comes from Greek, meaning “choice” or “thing chosen”; but in practice it is often a long intellectual and emotional process that leads to a full experience of awareness. I’m not saying that every heretic must be celebrated but the reality is that more often than not, it took heretics to inspire humanity, develop thought and make history worth its stories.