Where’s a maverick pharaoh when you need one? A monotheist and worshiper of the sun god Aten, Akhenaten created a religious revolution. Was he an idealist, a reformer, a visionary, or a megalomaniac? …If we fast forward, the so called liberating Spring of 2010 has given way to Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and an army no longer in power. Are a gang of church burning terrorists now in command of the second largest army in the Middle East? Should President Obama be giving them advanced weaponry in this new war on terror in the Sinai? Is a thirty year peace treaty with Israel about to be torn up? …
Imagine a museum wall lined with royal portraits in the formal, traditional manner of Vandyke or Velasquez- and right in the center a portrait that looks as if it had been done by Picasso or Rouault. Imagine a wall lined with old fashioned, ceremonious court scenes, a king in full regalia seated in majesty on his throne, graciously receiving courtiers, or solemnly leading a procession- and right in the center, a picture of him munching on a chop or cooing over a baby. This is the effect of the portraits and court scenes of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten, to use the name he preferred, who ruled Egypt from about 1378 to 1362 B.C. None of his predecessors had ever commissioned their like;no successor ever would.
He belonged to the Eighteenth Dynasty, a family of vigorous and able rulers who took over the throne in about 1600 B.C. and made Egypt into a might empire with boundaries that extended deep into the Sudan on the south and almost as far as Asia Minor to the north. His great-grandfather, Thutmose III, warrior par excellence, had founded the empire; his great-grandfather, Amenhotep II, stalwart athlete and army commander, had consolidated it; and his own father, Amenhotep III, enjoyed all its fruits in a lush, splendid court. But one glance at the son’s portraits clearly shows that the path he chose to follow was none of these.
Behind the Middle Ages, besides a few narratives, was an age that offered neither narratives nor documents, except for a fitful gleam here and there in early books of the Old Testament. The darkness was almost total. The situation began to brighten in the opening decades of the nineteenth century when Jean Francois Champollion first deciphered the hieroglyphic code, unlocked the door to what the archaeologists had found, and let the first light into the history of ancient Egypt.
But the rays, as it turns out, have hardly been dazzling. Since most Egyptian writing of historical significance occurs on the walls of tombs, palaces and temples, or on certain public monuments, the sum total of what has been found no extensive unified corpus but instead a skimpy and utterly haphazard miscellany. As much or more light is often shed by the plentiful pictures portraying pharaohs and their officials. Reconstructing Egypt’s past from such materials is not so much composing history as putting together a jigsaw puzzle, the majority of whose pieces have been lost, and those preserved mostly bent or broken or worn beyond recognition. Even today, after almost two centuries of Egyptological blood, sweat and tears, are are sure of little beyond a skeletal outline of events and the general trend of Egyptian thought.
As a result, there are discouragingly few aspects of Egyptian history that are well known or understood. Except that of the pharaohs since the ancient Egyptians were a nation dedicated to the proposition that their pharaoh was a colleague of the multitudinous deities this god loving people worshiped, and directly responsible for the welfare of themselves and their land. So, the pharaoh appears with the features, poses and gestures appropriate to a monarch whose rule was absolute, and whose being was divine.
All pharaohs, that is, except Akhenaten. He had himself depicted not as a traditional pharaoh but almost as a caricature of one. As if to underline his almost feminine depictions, his nude statues actually show him without genitalia. Why the sudden switch from heroic god-man to downright anti-hero? What lay behind such flouting of Egypt’s time-honored ways? …. ( to be continued)