By Ben J.N. Harrison
The first religion to embrace monotheism was not Judaism, but rather a short-lived religion during the early eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, with the heretic Pharaoh Ikhnaton as its most fervent proponent.
After a life of hedonic pleasures and luxury, Amenhotep III died in 1380 B.C., leaving his legacy as a bringer of architectural prosperity and general stability. With his reign over, it was time for his son, Amenhotep IV, soon to be known as Ikhnaton, to take the throne and initiate one of the most troubling and outrageous periods of Egyptian history.
Much controversy exists amongst Egyptologists as to whether Amenhotep IV began his reign when Amenhotep III died, or if they ruled together in co-regency before the latter’s death. Certain Egyptologists believe Amenhotep IV unequivocally ruled for eight to twelve years in co-regency with his father, but others remain dubious. For the sake of this paper, it shall be asserted that Amenhotep IV and his father co-reigned for at least eight years, an assertion based on the findings from The Egyptian Ministry for Antiquities in February 2014.
When coming to power alone, Amenhotep IV began to abhor the religion of the god Amon and its practices. This ardent disliking was exacerbated by the large harem in the great Karnak temple, supposedly of Amon’s many concubines. A strong adherent to fidelity, Amenhotep IV was outraged.
It wasn’t, however, until Amenhotep IV’s fifth year of ruling when he decided to take action on the prevalent religious conservatism of Egypt. It all began with a mere name change, from Amenhotep IV to Ikhnaton, a title that translates roughly into ‘Aton is satisfied’. This unprecedented change of name was indicative of revolution. Shortly after, Ikhnaton declared that all other gods were mere trivialities, and there was but one god – Aton.
The nation of Egypt was experiencing a turning point in world history - the first monotheist. Before Moses, before Isaiah, there was Ikhnaton. In a region as conservative and polytheistic as Egypt, this was confounding.
But Ikhnaton found great delight in Aton, god of the sun. He found divinity above all else in the great shining solar disk, the source of all earthly life. During his reign, he composed zealous hymns, passionate songs, and elegant poetry, all dedicated to Aton. Of his poems, Great Hymn to the Aton is one of the most beautiful and splendid pieces of surviving Ancient Egyptian literature. In it, Ikhnaton eulogizes Aton ardently, stating that he is not merely god of the Egyptian peoples, but god of every nation equally. In a time when each nation had their respective tribal deities, this was radical. Moreover, he states that ‘there is no other that knoweth thee’, asserting that he understands better than anyone else the love and glory that Aton intends to bring for all to enjoy. Ideas such as these solidified Ikhnaton’s position as a true revolutionary.
Not only was Ikhnaton’s introduction of monotheism radical, but the type of god he praised was itself radical. In a nation where most gods could simply be erected as statues, Aton was more abstract. In an almost pantheistic fashion, Aton is to be found in all forms of life and growth. Furthermore, Aton is not limited to human form; rather, the ultimate power of Aton lay within the heat of the sun; the setting and rising orb is merely an asset of Aton’s true divinity.
While Ikhnaton may have been a visionary, and apparently desired unity, he was not satisfied with a slow integration of his religion. He supposedly – and there is much debate about this - gave orders that all names of gods except Aton be effaced and chiseled from every public inscription in Egypt. Furthermore, he shut down all the old temples worshipping other, lesser gods such as Osiris, Maat, Isis, Ptah, et cetera. While Ikhnaton certainly desired his people to love Aton as much as he, happiness could simply not be obtained with no god existent but Aton. Artists tried to participate in the love of Aton by building him statues, but Ikhnaton forbade this on the grounds that Aton was formless.
Ikhnaton moved from Thebes, the religious capital of Egypt, to a place known today as Tel el-Amarna. So not only did Ikhnaton disrupt religion, he disrupted the very tradition of kinghood by moving the capital of Egypt two hundred miles north to a barren, lonely stretch of desert. There, he built his beautiful new capital of Akhet Aton, which translates into ‘horizon of the Aton’. In this newly built city, Ikhnaton neglected his domestic and foreign duties and instead focused on fulfilling his role of high priest. This neglect led to domestic taxation being at an all-time low, invasion of the Hittites, cessation of mine working, and an empty Egyptian treasury. Needless to say, Egypt was quickly going to ruins. The nation was disgusted and slowly awaited Ikhnaton’s death.
Two years after Ikhnaton’s death at thirty years old in 1362 B.C., his son Tutankhamen ascended the throne and brought Egypt back to its traditional form. He returned to Thebes, abandoning Akhet Aton, made his peace with the church and announced a restoration of the ancient gods. He commanded the words Ikhnaton and Aton to be erased from all monuments. It was illegal to utter Ikhnaton’s name, and he was instead understood generally as ‘The Great Criminal’.
While mass hatred towards Ikhnaton was prevalent, his legacy as the first ever monotheist echoes still today. Egyptologist James Henry Breasted has deemed him the first ever individual, meaning the first person to ever leave such a large impact on the present-day world. Before Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and other Abrahamic faiths, there was that which Ikhnaton preached. While it may not have been a successful faith, it shall remain ever present on the sands of time.