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THE WORLD’S FIRST INDIVIDUAL
Akhnaton was born in Thebes, in about 1395 B.C.1 in a world already as old, as civilised and as sophisticated as our own. And he was the son of the greatest monarch of that world; the last offspring, in direct descent, of a long and glorious line of warriors over-loaded with the spoils of conquest; the heir of an empire that stretched, in modern words, from the Sudan to the borders of Armenia, and of a culture more than four thousand years old.
When he was a child, the famous Pyramids of Gizeh were nearly as ancient as the Roman remains in England are today, and the first empire-builder of whom we know something definite — Sargon of Agade — was already as remote in time as Nebuchadnezzar is now. 2 And beyond the glories of which the oldest monuments bore witness, and beyond the mighty shadows of half-forgotten heroes and king-gods lost in the midst of legend, a still remoter antiquity, with its immemorial art and wisdom, extended over centuries, down to the dim beginnings of the Neolithic Age, and further still. Crete and the Ægean Isles had flourished for over two thousand years, and Babylonia and Elam for several millenniums more, while, unaware of each other and of the rest of mankind, distant India and China counted long centuries of polished life.
If, indeed, instead of letting ourselves be over-impressed
1 According to Sir Flinders Petrie, who places his accession in 1383 B.C. (History of Egypt, Vol. II, p. 205). L. W. King and H. R. Hall (Egypt and Western Asia, p. 365) place his reign half a century earlier, and Arthur Weigall places it from 1375 to 1358 (Life and Times of Akhnaton, new and revised edit., 1922, p. I; Tutankhamen and Other Essays, p. 80).
2 According to Nabonidus. See Cambridge Ancient History (Edit. 1924), Vol. I, p. 155. Sir C. Leonard Woolley, however, believes him to be of a much later period. (See Ur of the Chaldees, A Record of Seven Years of Excavation (Edit. 1929), pp. 160 and 203; or Pelican Books Edit., 1937, pp. 76, 112, 142).
by the few hundreds of years that separate us from him, we stop to consider the endless length of time that separates both Akhnaton and ourselves from the mysterious origins of civilisation, we might well look upon him as a man of yesterday, almost as one of our contemporaries.
He was the tenth Pharaoh of that glorious Eighteenth Dynasty which opens the period known in history as the “New Kingdom.”
His ancestors, the kings of Thebes, had freed Egypt from foreign domination; his great-great-grandfather had made her the head of an empire; his father had made her the abode of unprecedented splendour.
Sporadic revolts in Nubia and in Syria had been utterly crushed, and peace had at last succeeded the unceasing struggles of the former reigns. From all parts of the immense empire, tribute in gold and silver, in ivory and slaves and cedar wood, poured in regularly. King Amenhotep the Third, whom some modern writers have rightly called Amenhotep the Magnificent, lived a life of pleasure in the midst of every kind of luxury, with a number of beautiful wives and concubines collected from every country of the known world.
The granaries were full and the people content. Thousands of foreign slaves — the prize of war — were toiling for the welfare of Egypt: tilling the fields, digging or repairing canals, extracting gold from the Nubian mines, dragging down the Nile huge barges loaded with granite, building temples and palaces and keeping the highways in good condition. And the faraway kings of Babylon and of Mitanni — the Pharaoh’s brothers-in-law — and the king of the Hittites and the king of barbaric Assyria wrote with equal greedy envy, in their despatches to Amenhotep the Third: “Verily, in thy land, gold is as common as dust.”
Every refinement in pleasure, every treasure of art, every subtlety of thought, every comfort, every delicacy, every brilliancy was to be found in Thebes. Nothing equalled the beauty of its monuments, the pomp of its festivities, the wealth of its priests who enjoyed throughout the world a reputation of mysterious powers and of hidden wisdom. Its
temples, of which the gigantic ruins still stir the admiration of travellers, stood then in all their glory. Their half-dark halls inspired something of that sacred awe that one feels in the cave-temples of medieval India; and their rows of mighty pillars with lotus-shaped capitals displayed already that harmony of proportions, that grace blended with majesty, that perfect elegance that was one day to distinguish the art of Periclean Greece.
Thebes was not merely the metropolis of the greatest empire then existing, not merely one of the largest and most sumptuous cities that the world had ever seen; it was the masterpiece in which the genius of the Near and Middle East had finally expressed itself, after having groped for centuries in quest of perfection. It seemed as though nothing could be added to its beauty.
It seemed, also, as though nothing could be added to its glory.
Along with the words of praise to all the gods, that covered the walls and columns, the crowds of worshippers that thronged the halls of the temple of Karnak could read in golden hieroglyphics, on a slab of black granite, the song of war and triumph of King Thotmose the Third, the words of the Theban god to the maker of Egypt’s greatness:
“I have come; I have granted thee to trample over the great ones of Syria;
I have hurled them beneath thy sandals in their lands...”
It is one of the most beautiful hymns of victory of all times. Its echo had run through the world from the Nile Valley to the Black Sea and to the Persian Gulf, from the Libyan Desert to the boundaries of India. And as he beheld the solemn words, the Egyptian pilgrim was filled with national pride. What song would ever efface the glory of that one?
Thus, in wealth, in splendour and in warrior-like fame stood Thebes, the capital of the first nation of the earth, the seat of divine royalty, the proud City of Amon, the mighty god. Millenniums of culture had created it; the skill of all known lands had adorned it. And the sword of its kings had
spread far and wide the glory of its name and the terror of its local deity whom the priests had boldly identified with Ra, the immemorial Sun-god of the Egyptians.
It is then that he came.
* * *
On the western bank of the Nile, upon a site which to this day retains its loveliness, was built the Charuk palace, the residence of the Pharaoh Amenhotep the Third.
It was a light but beautiful structure of brick and precious wood, decorated with exquisite paintings and surrounded by immense gardens full of shade and full of peace.
From the terraces of the palace one beheld to the east, beyond the Nile and its palm-groves, white walls contrasted with dark shadows, flat roofs of different levels, flights of steps, broad avenues and gardens and monumental gates: all that glory that was Thebes. In the foreground, the towering pylons of the great temple of Amon emerged above the outer walls of the sacred enclosure that stretched over miles. And the gilded tops of innumerable obelisks glittered in the dazzling light or glowed like red-hot embers in the purple of sunset. One could distinguish many other temples dedicated to all the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt, temples with doors of bronze and gates of granite, of which the humblest would have been the pride of any other city.
To the west, the eye wandered over the vastness of the desert.
It is in that palace that Akhnaton was born.
His mother, Queen Tiy, was the chief wife of Amenhotep the Third, and one of the ablest women of all times. While her weary lord, after experiencing in his long life of pleasure the vanity of all pursuits, had gradually brushed aside the tiresome duties of kingship, it was she who received the foreign ambassadors, gave orders to provincial governors and drafted the despatches that messengers were to carry to Babylon or to the faraway capital of the Hittites. It was she who, through a well-organised network of informers, kept an eye on the restless vassal princelings of Syria as well as on
the movements of the unconquered tribes below the Fourth Cataract of the Nile; she who saw to it that the public officers did their work well, and that the taxes came in without delay.
Consort of the mightiest monarch, and the virtual ruler of his empire no less than the head of his “house of women,” she had enjoyed all through her twenty-six years of married life every pleasure, every luxury and every glory that a woman can imagine in her wildest dreams. For her the gardens around the Charuk palace had been extended and adorned at great cost with an artificial lake. For her the priests of the oldest Sun-god, Ra — which they also called Aton, the Disk, in the sacred city of On, his abode — enjoyed favour at court in spite of the secret jealousy of the powerful priests of Amon, for the god of On was Tiy’s favourite god. In pomp and power the queen’s years had drifted away. She was fairly past thirty-five, and perhaps not far from forty, when at last she bore the little prince, her only son.
The babe’s coming into the world was greeted by the joy of a whole nation. Sacrifices of thanksgiving were offered to the gods of Egypt; distant vassals from North and South welcomed through their messengers the child who was one day to be their lord, and allied monarchs congratulated the king, his father, in friendly despatches.
But the birth of Akhnaton was a greater event than anyone in his days could realise. The world was already old, as we have said — as old as it is now. Men had already invented many arts and many gods, and built up many kingdoms. The infant who, in the Charuk palace, now smiled for the first time to the Sun, was, in a few years, to transcend the very idea of nation, to preach the oneness and universality of the Principle of all existence, and to show men the way of life in truth, which is also life in beauty — life divine upon earth. That he was to proclaim — less by his words than by his deeds, less by his deeds than by his attitude towards things — which the weary world had dimly sought, age after age; which those who know him not are still seeking: the synthesis of total knowledge and perfect love.
His life, which had just begun, was to last very little
indeed: less than three decades. Yet, in that short span of time, he was to be what neither the victories of his fathers, nor the wealth and wisdom of his country, nor the arts and glories of all the ancient kingdoms had succeeded in producing: a perfect Individual of equal genius and sanctity — a divine Man.
His mother, who had grown-up daughters but no male child, may well have looked upon his birth as the fulfilment of her long, active and sumptuous life. It was, in no less manner, the culmination of a long evolution towards the rational and the beautiful, the ultimate achievement of the oldest cultures of the world, already so fruitful in outstanding creations. Like unto the cactus-tree which, so they say, blooms after a hundred years into one resplendent flower that lasts less than a day,1 Egypt had lived and dreamt and toiled four thousand years — and mankind perhaps fifty times longer — in order to produce him whose life was to remain in history only a flash — but a flash of unsurpassed beauty.
1 “Et le grand aloès à la fleur écarlate,
Pour l’hymen ignoré qu’a rêvé son amour,
Ayant vécu cent ans, n’a fleuri qu’un seul jour.”
José-Maria de Hérédia, in “Fleur Séculaire” (Les Trophées).