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Chapter III

Rising Sun

ueen Tiy was anxious to get her son married. The king’s health was sinking, and it was good that the prince, his heir, should have a wife. Tiy fixed her choice on a beautiful princess named Nefertiti, and with all the customary royal pomp and splendour, the bride and bridegroom were wedded.

The prince was a little more than ten years old. He loved little girls because they were mild and gentle, like himself; but he would surely take a long time to understand how one of them could become, for him, more than only a playmate or even a friend. Nefertiti, who was nine, was sweet and shy; she was afraid of boys. Yet the newly married children soon grew tenderly attached to each other. The princess loved her husband because his voice was soft and his manners gentle; he never used to tease her; nor would he, when she talked of some game she played, say that it was “good enough for girls,” and laugh;


nor would he frighten her with stories of awe. She felt happy when his large dreamy eyes rested upon her, and she showed him so. She would not play without him. She told him her favourite tales. If anyone gave her anything beautiful or precious, she would not be pleased until he had seen it and admired it. And as he liked flowers, she often used to go and pluck lotuses in the ponds around the palace, and bring them to him, all fresh and sparkling with drops of water. The prince’s sensitive nature responded to her affection; he grew more and more fond of her, not only because she was prettier than all the other girls he had seen, but because he felt that he had a place in her heart.

The skill of physicians had been of no avail; nor did the gods of Egypt seem willing to prolong the king’s life by a miracle. At last, at the request of the Pharaoh’s brother-in-law and faithful ally, Dushratta, king of Mitanni, the powerful goddess Ishtar had left her shrine and travelled all the way from Nineveh to Thebes. Stirred with hope and curiosity, people had flocked to see her pass in her precious litter carried by the priests. But she could do no more than the other gods had done and as his hour had come, King. Amenhotep died. He was embalmed and buried, with unprecedented magnificence, in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, where


his ancestors lay. And the prince, his son, became Amenhotep the Fourth, King of Egypt, Emperor of all the lands from the Upper Euphrates to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile.

He was merely twelve years old and Queen Tiy, for some time, kept on ruling the Empire as she had done before. But she helped her son to take more and more interest in the exercise of his power. When messengers from distant countries brought him clay tablets written in Babylonian — letters addressed to him by foreign kings — she saw to it that he read them out carefully, and she discussed their contents with him; she told him what her long experience had taught her about the character of their writers. “Just see,” she would say, pointing to the last lines of a dispatch from Dushratta, the king of Mitanni, “even while congratulating you on your accession, he cannot forget to ask for gold. Still, I like him. From the days of your grandfather, his family has been connected with ours. His grief for your father is sincere. He loved him, and he loves you too.”

“So does the king of Babylon love me, does not he?”

“Of course,” answered Tiy, with a little irony; “he is busy building some new temple every time he writes and needs gold to complete it. But he is harmless.” And she added, reminding him of the king of Asia Minor whose envoy was waiting for an audience: “As for the Hittite, he is like a crafty old spider in his web. Don’t


believe half what he says. It is not your friendship but your territories that he wants.”

The child soon got accustomed to be the “good god” of Egypt, as all Pharaohs were called, and took his exalted duties seriously. It was as if everything, in the palace and outside, were regulated to impress upon him the consciousness of his divine origin. High officials, ministers and generals, delegates from the provinces and foreign envoys would bow to the ground as soon as he appeared and address him as one of the immortals. If he went out, a number of heralds would precede him and announce him, and people would lie flat on their belly, with their face in the dust, while he passed by in his gorgeous litter, on a dais inlaid with gems. In fact, when on those grand occasions he was seated with the glittering royal tiara upon his head, wearing his most beautiful jewels, he really did shine like a young god.

He was also less free than before. A long tradition fixed the succession of his daily occupations. But both the etiquette and the pomp of the court were things too well-known and too natural for him to be either bored or over-pleased. He accepted the bondage of royal life with simplicity, and took his own divinity as a matter of course.

Only at times, when he was allowed to relax, he enjoyed all the more the company of his own soul. In the hot hours of the afternoon, as he reclined on his ivory


couch, he often used to gaze at the sky, as he had done years before. And just as then, it seemed to him as though he were himself melting away in the distant abyss of nothingness and light; as though the painted walls of his room and the whole world had vanished, and there were nothing left but the fathomless sky and himself — light and soul — and the two were one. Through the narrow window above, the rays of the almighty Sun reached straight down into the half-dark chamber. They caressed the young king’s naked body. And it was as if, through their glowing touch, subtle like that of love, he felt the thrill of life that sustains the whole world, the stars and the Milky Way. And he was happy.

For years already — ever since that day his heart had revolted against the cruelty of Amon — the young king had ceased loving the great god of Thebes. He worshipped the Sun under the different names under which he was known in the sacred city of On, where stood his most ancient altar; and he refused to believe that Amon was but another name for the Sun.

On his accession he had insisted that instead of being called like other Pharaohs “high-priest of Amon,” he should be called “high priest of Aton” — the Sun-disk — in the succession of titles that were, henceforth, to follow his official designation. But his mother, though herself


a worshipper of the Disk, had found it better to use, in the official list, a more popular and less simple name of the god of On; and the sentence ran: “High-priest of Ra-Horakhti-of-the-Two-Horizons, rejoicing in his horizon in his name: ‘Heat-which-is-in-the-Disk’.” Queen Tiy had even added to the many titles of her son that of “beloved of Amon,” to please the priests of Thebes, for she was a worldly-wise woman who knew the art of governing. The young king had protested, but it was too late. The official list of his titles had already been dispatched in letters written in his name to provincial governors and to vassals, and all the Empire knew it.

The king had built a beautiful temple to Aton. On its walls, at his command, he had been pictured lifting his arms in prayer while, from the Sun-disk above his head, long rays ending in hands — Aton’s arms — stretched down to him, holding the looped-cross “ankh,” the hieroglyphic sign that meant: life. A part of the revenues appointed by former Pharaohs to the temples of Amon had been transferred to the new shrine. And everybody knew that Aton was the god of the king. The priests of On were pleased; but the priests of Thebes, the servants of Amon, were angry. They did not yet openly show their displeasure; they had merely started murmuring and spreading rumours against the king. But hardly anyone paid heed to them, for the people loved the king and did not care which god enioved his offerings as long as corn


was plentiful and life easy. Moreover the king, though he favoured Aton, did not deny or persecute the other gods.

At court, from the days of the king’s father, religious discussions had become fashionable. Queen Tiy liked to hear priests of different gods explain old myths in the light of far-fetched allegories and foreigners relate strange religious customs and legends of their different countries. She was fond of novelties. But the young Pharaoh hardly ever spoke about religion even if pressed to do so. “Words nothing but words,” he would say of the courtiers’ discussions. “They prattle about that of which they have no knowledge, just to pass time.” And in the solitude of his chamber he thought of his God — the almighty Sun.

The glorious Disk shone above him, far away in the cloudless sky, so brilliant that one could not set one’s eyes upon it. And its rays poured into the room, straight down upon the king. It was these rays that he had wished to picture on the many-coloured reliefs that decorated the walls of the temple of Aton, though no work of man could express their beauty.

“They may say what they like,” thought the king, remembering the idle talks of the priests, “but Aton is not like those gods that dwell in a particular place. He is honoured in On, but all the world sees His light and lives by His touch. His abode is the sky; His rays


embrace the whole world as they do me. Aton is the God of all the world.”

And as he thought this, it was as if the expanse of the world were before him. He knew that, past the boundaries of his empire, there were other countries: Babylonia and Mitanni, the land of the Hittites and Crete, and the Isles in the midst of the sea and unknown countries beyond the desert and beyond the Waterfalls. Their people had different gods; but the sky spread over them all and it was the same sky; and above them all, the Sun shone in His glory, and it was the same Sun — Aton. They knew their local sun-gods, but knew Him not. Somewhere perhaps, further than Babylon, among the nations Of Dawn from whose lands He rises, there were men who knew Him. It was difficult to say. But whether in ignorance or in knowledge, all people were seeking to worship Him.

The young king felt a thrill of enthusiasm run through his body, as if he could already behold, beyond time and space, the vision of that which nobody had dreamt before: one God — the Sun; and one people — the human race — united in the love of Him.

And he composed a hymn to the universal God:

Glorious is Thy dawning in the horizon of heaven,
Living Aton, Lord and beginning of life.
When Thou risest in the East,
Thou fillest every land with Thy beauty
. . .


It was but fair that the God of all the world should have, in the hearts of men, a greater place than those gods whose realm was limited to a city, a kingdom, or even an empire. So the king decided to honour Aton above all the gods of Egypt. And he drafted two decrees one by which an extra portion of the revenues formerly ascribed to the temples of Amon was to be used for the glorification of the universal Sun; and another saying that it was his will that Thebes the city of Amon should henceforth be called “City-of-the-brightness-of-Aton.”

Queen Tiy listened with sympathetic interest to all what her son told her about his conception of Aton, but she opposed the decrees.

“Perhaps you are right,” she said to him, though his idea of a God, Who, was the God of all nations seemed rather strange, even to her; “but religion is one thing, and government is another. You will only provoke the priests by your decrees. And they, in turn, will stir up the mob.”

“Then what am I to do?”

“Let things be as they are. Let the priests make money, as they are used to, and let the people worship their many gods according to age-old customs. One cannot make a camel drink when it is not thirsty; nor can one force knowledge unto people who do not seek it.”


“But,” said the king, “I know that Aton, my Father, is the God of all the world, as far above all other gods as heaven is above the earth. Am I to neglect Him and deceive my people in order to please the priests? No. I shall check the arrogance of the priests, preach the truth and teach the people to worship the God of gods, all over the Empire and beyond.” He spoke with such vehemence that Tiy understood that he was determined to carry out his plans to the bitter end. Still, she made a last appeal, and said, summarising the experience of her whole life:

“Men don’t want truth; they want peace. You will learn that one day, provided the priests let you rule long enough.”

“It is not peace they want, but slumber of the soul,” said the king; “I shall awaken them.” And he added, expressing in simple words the ultimate experience of man in all ages: “There can be no real peace apart from Truth.”

His mother gazed at him in surprise. The king was a mere boy of fifteen; where had he learnt his strange wisdom, so different from hers and from everybody’s? Tiy remembered the prophecy that had been made about him at the time of his birth: “He will show the world the true face of his Father.” Now, she understood: this meant not the late Pharaoh, Amenhotep the Third, but the eternal Sun, the ancestor of his race.


Perhaps the boy’s strange wisdom was His. Tiy, as she thought of this, did not say anything more. And the decrees were announced throughout the Empire.

The priests of Amon, this time, did not hide their displeasure. They sent the king long petitions in which the sacredness of the national religion was mentioned several times. But the king did not revoke his decrees. Now, for nearly two years they were in force. And as time passed, the priests made new outbursts of anger. Men who had received gold from them went about the city, whispering that the Pharaoh was possessed by an evil spirit, hostile to the land of Egypt, and that he was about to wage war on all the gods. Others said that Aton, his God, was not in reality the venerable old Sun-god of On — whom the people called also Ra — but a foreign god, in the eyes of whom the Syrians were the equals of the Egyptians.

One day a man was caught, who had tried to set fire to the temple of Aton. He was brought before the king who asked him gently why he had done it. “The high-priest of Amon paid me to destroy the temple,” the man said; “I am a poor Man; so I took the money. Had I succeeded, the priests would have told the people that Amon himself had done it.”

“Quite like them,” said the king; “They have grown


fat on the people’s sweat and now they pay them the interest of the spoils as the wages of crime.” And he sent the man home unharmed.

The courtiers seemed to be on the king’s side. Yet, as the sovereign was still a very young man, without experience, some of them tried to urge him to compromise with the priests who, they said, represented an old tradition

“No tradition however old and sacred, can be older and more sacred than truth, which is of all times,” replied the king; “and I tell you: there is no other God but Aton, my Father. Before the world existed, He was; and after All things have perished, He shall still be. If tradition helps the people to know Him and to worship Him, then I say it is good. But if, instead, it turns them away from Him, then it is bad, and I must destroy it; I must destroy whatever leads to idolatry.”

One of the courtiers begged to speak and said: “What is idolatry?”

The king was thoughtful for a minute, and replied: “Idolatrous is anyone who worships a symbol, instead of God whom it symbolises. Idolatrous is he, also, who puts undue stress upon ceremonies and sacrifices, theological controversies, and all such things which are not essential, while he neglects the one essential thing which is to realise that God is, and that there is no other god but Him.”


But used as they were to vain subtleties, this was too simple for the courtiers to understand. Some praised the king’s words, but in such a way that he could at once see how little they grasped of their meaning. Most of them kept respectfully silent. One or two ventured to ask for an explanation. How could it be, they said, that Aton — the Sun — was the sole God? Were there not also the Moon-god, the Nile-god, and a number of others? Was not all Nature peopled with gods and goddesses? No doubt, the Sun was by far the greatest of them all; but did the king. really mean that he denied the existence of the others?

The king did not answer at once.

Ever since he had had the strange intuition that his God was the God of all the world, he had been thinking more and more about Him. Long ago, he had put to himself the very question that the courtiers were now asking him. And he had answered it; and he knew his answer was the right one; it was as clear to him as a visible reality. But would he be able to make his knowledge clear to others? His mother herself — from whom he had once received the first glimpse of Aton’s glory — had not understood him when he had told her that the real Aton was invisible. Would the courtiers understand him better? But he could neither avoid their question nor hide the truth. And at length he spoke.

“If the living Aton, Whom I worship,” he said,


“were but the visible Sun-disk, then your remarks would be justified. But He is something different. I call Him Aton because His glory shines through the visible Disk better than through any other thing. But He has no shape. He is the invisible Essence of all being; not ‘a’ god, but God. That is why Egypt and the Empire and the whole world should bow down to Him alone.”

Soon after, the will of the king was again proclaimed. The court, the priests, the people, all were to recognise the sole Lord of the Universe, Aton, as their only God, and to worship none but Him. The traditional cults were abolished. The temples of Amon and of the thousand gods of Egypt were closed. And the name of Amon and the word “gods” were to be erased from the monuments and even from the tombs, throughout the land. The king even changed his own name from Amenhotep — “pleasing to Amon” — to Akhnaton, “Joy of the Sun,” the name by which he is now known in history.

“I shall efface all trace of the false gods, those empty symbols through which the people are led astray and made to ignore the real God; I shall uproot the vain mummery that men call ‘religion,’ and give them the religion of Truth,” he said. Yet, he did not wish to teach the people through fear, but through love. And though many remained attached to their familiar deities,


none were persecuted. Only the haughty priests of Amon — “deceivers of the people, and source of all mischief,” as the king called them — were dispossessed of their wealth for disobeying the royal decrees.

They took up the challenge, and openly denounced Akhnaton as a heretic, a criminal, an enemy of Egypt and of the gods. With what they had managed to conceal of their treasures, they stirred up riots in Thebes, and even paid scoundrels to attempt the king’s life. Along with many old conventions, Akhnaton had discarded his former aloofness from his people. He used to appear unguarded in his chariot, by the side of his young queen, in the streets of Thebes. And it was easy to approach him. Still, the attempt failed, and the henchmen of the priests were arrested. There was great indignation among the courtiers and all expected the assailants to die. But the Pharaoh ordered them to be set free. “I wish not to return evil for evil,” he said; “nothing comes of violence.”

And he continued to preach the glory and the love of Aton, the only God, in spite of all opposition. Many listened to him, but few could grasp the meaning of his teaching.

Thebes was the stronghold of Amon; his spirit was present in the very air one breathed there. From the topmost terrace


of his palace, as he rose to greet the rising Sun, King Akhnaton could see across the river the towering pylons of the temple of the god he was struggling to overthrow. He could see its outer enclosure, stretching over miles: the halls, the avenues, the open court-yards, the chapels erected to his glory, the glittering obelisks inscribed with hymns of praise to him. From the deserted monuments of his forefathers, closed by his orders, it was as if a cry of defiance reached the king — the cry of Thebes: “Amon shall remain our god forever.”

And Akhnaton decided to leave Thebes, once and for all, and build himself a new capital.