Akhenaten is famous as the king who brought about a major change in Egyptian religion - which lasted only as long as he lived. He was the son of the great king Amenhotep III, and was himself born as Amenhotep IV. In the sixth year of his reign, however, he decided that the king of the gods, Amun, would be replaced by Aten. At the same time he changed his own name to Akhenaten - 'Servant of Aten'.
Aten was the name given to the disc of the sun (that is, the round shape of the sun). Akhenaten's trick was to make Aten the supreme god. Aten was shown as the sun with rays ending in hands, sometimes holding the ankh (the sign for life). Akhenaten proclaimed himself the Aten's only priest. The temples of Amun were closed, and Amun's name was chiselled out of temple walls. New temples to Aten were built in Thebes, and an entire new city was built for the Aten, known as Akhetaten - 'the Horizon of the Aten'.
Akhetaten was Egypt's new capital. It was built next to the Nile about half way between Memphis and Thebes, with a great new temple for Aten and a palace for Akhenaten. It is now known as Amarna, and this period of Egyptian history is known as the Amarna period. Soon after Akhenaten's death, however, the city was abandoned. The Egyptians did not want to give up their gods. Amun was reinstated as king of the gods and eventually life went back to normal. There is evidence that even in Akhetaten, the common people worshipped the same gods as before.
Akhenaten's wife was Nefertiti. A famous bust of her shows her beauty, her long neck and her blue crown (see right). She seems to have been a powerful figure, and is often shown in pictures with her husband. In one picture she is even shown grabbing the enemies of Egypt by the hair and smiting them - usually a pose reserved only for pharaohs.
The art of this period is especially fine - very naturalistic and beautiful. Akhenaten himself was show with a very odd-shaped body (see the carving above). He has a narrow waist and wide hips, like a woman, and his face is very thin. Other people were also shown in this way, perhaps as a way of honouring the king.
Scenes of nature are the most lovely forms of art of the Amarna Period. A wonderful example is shown right, of a kingfisher darting among papyrus plants surrounding a garden pool.
It is possible that Tutankhamun was Akhenaten's son. His mother was probably Kiya, another of Akhenaten's wives. He was born with the name Tutankhaten, which can be seen on his throne. A few years into his reign, however, the priests of Amun overthrew Aten and the boy king's name was changed to Tutankhamun.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti offering to Aten and receiving life from him.
Amarna art: a kingfisher amid papyrus plants