The pharaonic rule of ancient Egypt can be defined by words like tradition, constancy and continuation. Of course, certain personalities left their mark, but in many ways not a lot changed – from the worship of the gods to the visual style of the monuments – for several millennia. That is except for an extraordinary reign in the 14th century BC, when one man caused the needle to jump.


In 17 years, this pharaoh uprooted religion and disposed of the pantheon, built a new capital and changed architectural methods, and introduced a wholly unique form of artistic expression.

He has been variously labelled a heretic and a revolutionary, a despot and the world’s first ‘individual’, and his reign – known as the Amarna period – is vigorously studied and debated. His name was Akhenaten.

Who was Akhenaten?

Akhenaten was a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. Before he gave himself that name, however, he had been Amenhotep IV, son of the great Amenhotep III, who – along with the female pharaoh Hatshepsut a century earlier – made this period a golden age for Egypt.

Other famous Egyptian names associated with Akhenaten are his wife Nefertiti (best known for being the subject of a famous bust in Berlin’s Neues Museum), and the boy king thought to be his son, Tutankhamun.

When did Akhenaten reign?

Akhenaten reigned from 1353 to 1336 BC, although there is some uncertainty about his dates.

There’s also a question about whether he ruled alongside his father for a while. As the second son of Amenhotep III, he had not been expected to rule, but he became heir with his brother’s early death.

Initially, his rule followed Egypt’s established traditions and practices: he continued his father’s building projects, worshipped the usual gods, got married (to Nefertiti) and had children.

Yet there were early signs of non-conformity. After only a few years on the throne, Amenhotep IV celebrated his sed festival, a form of jubilee normally reserved for a pharaoh’s 30th year onwards.

Why was Akhenaten known as the ‘heretic king’?

In his fifth year, he rejected the chief deity of the pantheon, Amun, in favour of the Aten. Unlike the other gods, the Aten was not anthropomorphic, but depicted as a solar disk shining down rays with hands at the ends.

Although it wasn’t new, its cult was far from widespread. Meanwhile, the priesthood of Amun held vast power, wealth and land, second only to the pharaoh.

To show his loyalty to the Aten, Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten (meaning some variation of ‘beneficial to the Aten’) and announced his intention to build a new capital, and so move the religious centre of Egypt from Thebes, and its cultural centre from Memphis.

By his ninth year, Akhenaten made unprecedented radical steps to establish his religion: he proscribed the old gods entirely, declaring the Aten to be the only god.

For this, he has sometimes been described as one of the first ever to institute monotheism. References to Amun and the plural ‘gods’ were chiselled from monuments, temples were closed, and festivals that long held significant places in Egyptian social life no longer took place.

Why did Akhenaten change Egypt’s religion to Atenism?

Akhenaten’s motives remain unknown, due to scant evidence. The beliefs of Atenism have to be surmised from the surviving iconography and the words of the Great Hymn to the Aten, a poem written by Akhenaten or one of his courtiers and found in inscriptions in a number of tombs.

A key tenet of the religion was that Akhenaten alone knew the Aten and acted as the sole intermediary between the god and the people. Was this a sign of his piety or a cynical attempt to wrest power from the priests? That debate rages on.

What was art like under Akhenaten?

Removing the old gods meant that Egyptians’ connection with the spiritual world, most importantly the afterlife, had been lost. Instead, Atenist art focused on the pharaoh, the royal family and the solar disk only. And that art looked wildly different to anything that came before.

People were given exaggerated features, such as elongated heads on thin necks, thick lips, angular eyes and protruding chins. Akhenaten was shown in wholly uncharacteristic fashion, with breasts, a paunch, wide hips and thighs, and spindly legs. Egyptologists of the past theorised that he may have had a physical condition, but his depiction is almost certainly an aesthetic style.

The art underwent substantial thematic changes, too. Rather than depicting the pharaoh as all-powerful in battle or in communication with the gods, Akhenaten was shown in scenes of domesticity, of intimate personal life, sat with his wife and hugging their children or eating.

What was Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti’s relationship like?

Thought to have been married around the time that Akhenaten came to the throne, Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters. He also had at least three sons with his other wife, Kiya.

Nefertiti, however, was undoubtedly his favourite – his Great Royal Wife – and shown in art to be of equal stature to the pharaoh and in positions of power, smiting Egypt’s enemies herself.

Relief showing Nefertiti and Akhenaten, along with Aten, the sun's disc
Relief showing Nefertiti and Akhenaten, along with Aten, the sun's disc, which they worshipped (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Where did Akhenaten build his new capital?

The city of Akhetaten, which is now known as Amarna, was built on less-than ideal ground, an uninhabited desert plateau surrounded by cliffs.

Yet according to its boundary stelae (a series of carved monuments at the perimeter of the city), the location had been selected by the Aten.

Within a few years, construction had progressed enough for Akhenaten and his court to move to the city. The speed of the building was down to a new architectural method of using smaller and uniform-sized blocks of stone, known as talatat, rather than huge chunks of sandstone. The main features of Akhetaten were huge palaces and open-air temples, which made a change from the enclosed temples usually built to the gods.

What else happened in Akhenaten’s reign?

Discovered in the ruins of Amarna in the 19th and 20th centuries were hundreds of clay tablets, collectively called the Amarna letters, written in cuneiform and relaying diplomatic relations between Egypt and its neighbours. They seemed to suggest that Akhenaten had little interest in foreign affairs, since he ignored numerous pleas for aid from the rulers of vassal states.

When did Akhenaten die?

There is a lot of uncertainty about what occurred after Akhenaten’s 17th year. Presuming that he died, he was apparently followed by a mysterious figure called Smenkhare, and then Neferneferuaten – though this sequence of succession is unlcear. One, or both, of these figures which could have been Nefertiti.

Eventually, Tutankhaten – most likely Akhenaten’s son – became pharaoh, and he set about restoring the old gods and distancing himself from the religious revolution. He changed his name to Tutankhamun, establishing the association with Amun once more.

Under his successors, the purge of the Aten intensified. All earthly evidence of Akhenaten and his heresy was expunged: Horemheb tore down temples and reused the stones, defaced the images of Akhenaten, and altered the lists of pharaohs to name himself as the successor of Amenhotep III, with no one in between.

How do we know about Akhenaten?

With the discovery of the ruins of Amarna in the 18th century and the first of the Amarna letters in 1887, Akhenaten survived the attempts to remove him from history.

In the years after his death, his body had been removed from his capital, but the current belief is that it was taken to the Valley of the Kings and reburied in the tomb today known as KV55, which was discovered in 1907.


Interest in Akhenaten soared in the 20th century, thanks in part to the uniqueness of his artistic style. Amidst the millennia of conformity and continuation in ancient Egypt, here was something completely different. For that, the American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted dubbed Akhenaten as “the first individual in human history”.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.