67 – 68
THE RELIGION OF THE DISK
THE CITY OF GOD
In the sixth year of his reign — that is to say, when he was about seventeen or eighteen — Akhnaton sailed down the Nile to a place some 190 miles from the site of modern Cairo, and he laid there the foundations of his new capital, Akhetaton — the City of the Horizon of Aton — of which the ruins are known to-day by the name of Tell-el-Amarna.
He selected, on the eastern bank of the river, a spot where the limestone hills of the desert suddenly recede, enclosing a beautiful crescent-shaped bay, some three miles wide and five miles long. There is a little island in the middle of the Nile, just opposite. The place was lovely. Moreover, it was entirely free from religious or historic associations. In the very words of the king, it belonged “neither to a god nor to a goddess; neither to a prince nor to a princess.”1 And he decided to build upon that virgin soil the City of his dreams.
The City was to occupy part of a sacred territory extending on both sides of the Nile “from the eastern hills to the western hills,” an area measuring roughly eight miles on seventeen. According to an inscription, the king appeared in stately pomp upon a great chariot of electrum drawn by a span of horses. “He was like Aton when He rises from the eastern horizon and fills the Two Lands with His love. And he started a goodly course to the City of the Horizon of Aton on this, the first occasion . . . to dedicate it as a monument to Aton, even as his Father, Ra-Horakhti-Aton, had given command. And he caused a great sacrifice to be offered.”2
After the customary offerings of food and drink, gold, incense and sweet-smelling flowers, Akhnaton proceeded
1 “First foundation inscription,” quoted by Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 84.
2 From the “Second foundation inscription,” quoted by Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 88.
successively to the south and to the north, and halted at the limits of the territory he wished to consecrate. And he swore a great oath that he would not extend the territory of the City beyond those limits.
“And His Majesty went southwards and halted on his chariot before his Father Ra-Horakhti Aton, at the (foot of the) southern hills, and Aton shone upon him in life and length of days, invigorating his body every day. Now this is the oath pronounced by the king:
“‘As my Father Aton liveth and as my heart is happy in the Queen and her children . . . this is my oath of truth which it is my desire to pronounce and of which I will not say: “It is false,” eternally, forever:
“‘The southern boundary-stone, which is on the eastern hills, is the boundary-stone of Akhetaton, namely the one by which I have made halt. I will not pass beyond it southwards forever and ever. Make the south-west boundary-stone opposite it on the western hills of Akhetaton exactly. The middle boundary-stone which is on the eastern hills is the boundary-stone of Akhetaton, namely that by which I have made halt on the eastern hills. I will not pass beyond it eastwards forever and ever. Make the middle boundary-stone which is to be on the western hills opposite it exactly. The northern boundary-stone which is on the eastern hills is the boundary-stone of Akhetaton, namely that by which I have made halt. I will not pass beyond it downstream (northwards) forever and ever. Make the northern boundary-stone which is to be on the western hills opposite it exactly.
“‘And Akhetaton extends from the southern boundary-stone as far as the northern boundary-stone measured between boundary-stone and boundary-stone on the eastern hills, (which measurement) amounts to 6 aters, ¾ khe, and 4 cubits. Likewise, from the southern boundary-stone to the northern boundary-stone on the western hills the measurement amounts to 6 aters, ¾ khe, and 4 cubits, exactly. And the area between those boundary-stones from the eastern hills to the western hills is the City of the Aton; mountains, deserts, meadows, islands, high-grounds, low-grounds, land, water, villages, embankments, men, beasts, groves, and all things which Aton my Father will bring into existence, forever and ever. . .’”1
Akhetaton was not only to be the new capital of Egypt, but the main centre from which the cult of Aton would
1 “Second foundation inscription,” quoted by Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edition, 1922), pp. 89-90.
radiate far and wide — to the four ever-receding horizons north, south, east and west — and the model, on a small scale, of what the world at large would be if only the spirit of the new rational solar religion would prevail; an ideal abode of peace, beauty, of truth — the City of God. Akhnaton would make it as splendid as he could in the short time it would take him to build it, and continue to adorn it afterwards as long as he lived. And he founded at least two other cities, of lesser proportions and less sumptuous than Akhetaton, but destined in his mind to be, like it, radiating “seats of truth”: one in Syria, of which the name and exact location are unknown1; and one in Nubia, on the eastern bank of the Nile, somewhere near the Third Cataract,2 which he named Gem-Aton, like the temple he had first built in Thebes.
This fact is sufficient to show that, at least as early as the foundation of the City of the Horizon of Aton, in the sixth year of his reign, Akhnaton consciously endeavoured to spread the lofty cult of Cosmic Energy to all his empire, if he did not already dream of preaching it beyond the limits of Egyptian civilisation. The domain of a universal God could logically admit of no boundaries. And the solemn consecration of the territory of Akhetaton with all it contained and would ever contain from cliff to cliff, and of at least two similar holy cities, one at each end of his dominions, may be taken as a ritual act symbolising the Pharaoh’s ultimate intention of consecrating the whole earth to the life-giving Sun, its Father and Sustainer.
* * *
According to the inscriptions upon the boundary-stones, the demarcation of the territory of Akhetaton took place “on the 13th day of the 4th month of the 2nd season,” in the sixth year of Akhnaton’s reign.
The king then returned to Thebes, where he lived until
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 166.
2 James Baikie: The Amarna Age (Edit. 1926), p. 263. Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 166.
his new capital was inhabitable. It is however probable that he came more than once to inspect the works that were now being carried on with feverish speed on the site of the sacred City. A tablet states that the oath and words of consecration pronounced by him in the sixth year of his reign were repeated in the eighth year “on the 8th day of the 1st month of the second season” . . . “And the breadth of Akhetaton,” said the king, “is from cliff to cliff; from the eastern horizon of heaven to the western horizon of heaven. It shall be for Aton, my Father; its hills, its deserts, all its fowl, all its people, all its cattle, all things which Aton produces, on which His rays shine, all things which are in Akhetaton, they will be for my Father, the living Aton, unto the temple of Aton in the City, forever and ever. They are all offered to His spirit. And may His rays be beauteous when they receive them.”1
The time between the sixth and the eighth year was spent in preparations. At the Pharaoh’s command, hundreds of diggers and bricklayers, masons, carpenters, painters, sculptors, craftsman and artists of all sorts flocked to the site of the new capital. Stone quarries were opened in the neighbourhood, while Bek, “Chief of the sculptors on the great monuments of the king,” was sent to the south for red granite. Marble and alabaster, granite of different colours, ivory, gold and lapis lazuli, and cedar and various kinds of precious woods were brought from Upper Egypt and from Nubia, from Sinai and Syria, and even further still. The whole empire — nay, the whole of the known world — contributed to the great work undertaken for the glory of the universal God.
And the miracle took place. Within two years or so, temples, palaces, villas, cottages, gardens, lakes full of lotus-flowers, avenues bordered with lofty palm-trees sprang forth from the barren sands. Limited on the east by the desert and on the west by a strip of cultivated land, a mile wide, along the Nile, the town was generally about three-quarters of a mile (and, in some places, not more than eleven hundred yards) in breadth, though it stretched over a distance of five
1 Quoted by Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 93.
miles from north to south. It was, therefore, definitely smaller than Thebes. But it was lovely. It had broad streets, “parks in which were kiosks, colonnaded pavillions and artificial lakes,”1 and plenty of open spaces, shady groves and flowers. Its great temple of Aton was a magnificent building; its lesser temples, its shrines erected to the memory of the Pharaoh’s ancestors, could stand in parallel with any of the most beautiful religious monuments of Egypt; and the king’s new palace exceeded in splendour that of his parents in Thebes. And not only were the most costly materials thrown lavishly into the construction of the sacred capital, but “the whole place was planned with delicate taste and supreme elegance.”2
The main temple of Aton and the king’s palace lay in the northern part of the City. Beautiful pleasure-gardens with several artificial lakes — the “Precincts of Aton” — lay to the south. In the white cliffs of the desert that closed the landscape towards the east, were soon to be hewn tombs of the king, royal family and courtiers.
We have already alluded to the existence in architecture, sculpture, painting, and every form of art, of a new style of which the canons, as far as we can infer, may have influenced the decoration even of the earliest temple of Aton, in Thebes. That art, inspired and encouraged by Akhnaton himself,3 found its everlasting expression in the monuments, the wall-paintings, the statues of Akhetaton; especially in the great temple of Aton, in the decoration of the king’s palace and of the tombs in the eastern hills, and in the beautiful portrait-busts of the Pharaoh and of his queen which rank among the masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture.
In architecture, the break from tradition was perhaps less apparent at first sight than in the other arts. The temples, in Akhetaton, seen from outside, looked much like the classical Egyptian shrines of the time. When, for instance, after crossing its walled enclosure, one beheld the imposing facade of the great temple of Aton — a pillared portico behind which
1 Arthur Weigall: Short History of Ancient Egypt (Edit. 1934), p. 151.
2 Arthur Weigall: Short History of Ancient Egypt (Edit. 1934), p. 151.
3 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 180-181.
towered two huge pylons — one had probably the impression of entering a sacred building not much different from those erected in honour of the old gods in the City of Amon. The same five tall flag-staves, from the tops of which fluttered long crimson pennons, shot up against the deep blue sky above each pylon. The same monumental gateway formed the entrance of the temple proper. It was only after its shining doors had been flung open that the difference became evident. One found oneself in a broad paved courtyard flooded with sunshine, in the midst of which stood a high altar on a flight of steps. On either side there was a series of small chapels, brightly decorated. Then, a second gateway led into a second open court, from which one passed into a third, and then into a fourth one, half-filled with a magnificent pillared gallery. The columns were tall and thick enough to give that impression of greatness enduring for ever that one had in Karnak, but from their midst the open part of the court and the blazing sky above could always be seen. The rays of the Disk fell directly upon the golden hieroglyphics in praise of divine light and heat; the cool airy shade made the outer wall appear, by contrast, more luminous and the coloured paintings more bright under the dazzling midday Sun. From there, one passed into a fifth, a sixth, and finally a seventh court — all opened to the sky. The two last ones, surrounded by small chapels, had, like the first, an altar in their centre.
There was there nothing of the mystery and sacred awe that generally filled the temples of the traditional gods. There were no dimly-lit lamps hanging from gloomy ceilings; no precious images buried in the depth of pitch-dark sanctuaries like stolen treasures in a cave. There was no gradual passage from sunshine to shade, from shade to gloom, from gloom to complete darkness — the abode of an awe-inspiring hidden god. But a visit to the temple, even to the innermost altar, was but a natural transition from the all-pervading radiance of the fiery Disk, from the blazing heat of the world vivified by His beams, to the worship of the unknown invisible Essence behind that light, behind that heat — of the Power, of the Soul of the Sun.
At different times of the day, bread and wine and frankincense and beautiful flowers were offered upon the altars to that invisible God whose only image and symbol — the Sun — shone far above, the same in the temple and outside. And clouds of perfume, and waves of music went up to Him and disappeared, dissolved in the golden light of heaven. One was in presence of an entirely new cult; of an entirely new spirit.
Behind the great temple and within the same enclosure there was a smaller one, also faced by a pillared portico. On either side of its entrance, in front of each row of columns, stood a statue of the king and queen. There were shrines all over the City, among which four at least were dedicated to the Pharaoh’s ancestors — one to his father, one to his grandfather, Thotmose the Fourth, one to his great-grandfather, Amenhotep the Second,1 and one to the father of the latter, Thotmose the Third. We may suppose that there were more. For it is difficult to believe that Akhnaton would have honoured those particular ancestors of his without giving a place in his veneration to his remote predecessors of the IVth and Vth Dynasties, the Pyramid builders, in whose days the antique god Ra, and the usurper Amon, was the supreme god of Egypt and the sole patron of its divine kings, and whose contemporary art, as we shall soon see, seems to have influenced many of the traits of his own “new style,” otherwise hard to account for.
As time passed new temples were built. Two, we know — one for the use of the king’s mother and one for that of his young sister, Princess Baketaton — were erected some time before the visit of Queen Tiy to Akhetaton. There were minor shrines in diverse beauty-spots and also in the gardens that lay to the south of the capital, shrines with names evocative of joy and peace. One stood in the small island of “Aton-illustrious-in-festivals,” in the midst of the Nile, and was called the “House-of-Rejoicing.” Another, specially
1 “An official named Any held the office of Steward of the House of Amenophis II and there is a representation of Akhnaton offering to Aton in ‘the House of Thotmose IV in the City of the Horizon.’” Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 171. See also Wilkinson’s Modern Egypt, Vol. II, p. 69; and Davies’ El Amarna.
designed for the worship of God in the glory of sunset, and in which Queen Nefertiti presided over the sacred rites, was called the “House-of-putting-the-Disk-to-rest.” Big or small, they were all built in the same manner, with bright open courtyards and altars covered only by the sky. They were beautifully adorned with paintings and reliefs and statues, generally representing the royal couple (often the royal family) in the act of worship. They had nothing of the ostentatious austerity of a presbyterian church. But there was in them no idol of any sort to be considered as the receptacle of God. The one Symbol of the Religion of the Disk — the Sun, with downward rays ending in hands — appeared repeatedly in the pictures and on the reliefs. But it was there only to remind the worshipper that none but the unseen Power within the Sun, the Force symbolised by those “hands,” was worthy of adoration, and to tell him that no form, however perfect, could ever represent It.
* * *
The new movement in art inaugurated by Akhnaton found another masterful expression in the decoration of the royal palace and of the villas of the nobles, one of which — that of Nakht, the Pharaoh’s “vizier” — has been described at length by A. Weigall.1 Most of the palaces and villas laid bare by the excavation “were built on the two main avenues of the City, known as the Street of the High-priest and the King’s Highway.”2 If we judge by the description of the villa of Nakht, with its colonnaded entrance, its cool interior courts, its galleries, its richly adorned rooms, those two main avenues and their by-streets also, nay, the whole locality if not the whole town, with series of such buildings, must have been indeed “a place of surpassing beauty.”3
But the Pharaoh’s palace, as was natural, effaced in
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 183, and following.
2 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 183.
3 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 175.
splendour all the rest. Like generally all the mansions of the living in ancient Egypt, it was not intended to last more than a generation or two. The tomb, not the house, was the “eternal dwelling” to endure through ages. And that piece of archaic wisdom had so penetrated the sub-conscious mind of every Egyptian, including perhaps Akhnaton himself, that they acted according to it, spontaneously. But the living loved the comforts of life, and the ephemeral abode was, in all cases, as lovely as it could be; in Akhnaton’s case, perfectly beautiful and sometimes gorgeous.
His palace was a large, airy, brick structure, covering a length of half a mile. What remains of it is not sufficient to reconstruct in detail the plan of its series of halls, pillared courts, chambers, store-rooms, etc., destined evidently to accommodate, apart from the royal family, a considerable number of office-bearers of all sorts and a host of servants. But unearthed fragments of pavements and wall-paintings attest that it was magnificently decorated with scenes of natural life. The pictures expressed in form and colour that joy of breathing the daylight and that constant praise rendered to the “Lord of Life” by all living souls, which are the main themes of the young king’s famous hymns to Aton. There was a pavement representing a field full of high grasses and tall scarlet poppies, through which gambolled a calf; another pictured wild ducks waddling their way through swamps, their glossy bluish-green throats bulging out, their yellow feet stumbling in the mud with perfect naturalness; while grey and white pigeons were seen to flit across the blue of sky-like ceilings, light and airy like faraway clouds. There were birds and butterflies flying in the sunshine over watery expanses covered with pink and white lotuses. And fishes played hide-and-seek between the long winding stems. With shades of pale blue, gold and purple, their scales glittered as the rays of Him on high struck them through the water; the birds’ wings fluttered with joy, and the frisking young bull crushed the grass and poppies in an outburst of overwhelming life. The tender lilies opened themselves to the pleasure of the divine touch and let the warmth and light enter right into their golden hearts.
Never had Egyptian art been so true to life before, and never was it again to be so after Akhnaton’s reign. It was more than a new technique — movement rendered, along with colour; expression stressed even above perfection of form — it was a profession of faith; it was the Religion of the Disk made vivid to the senses.
But of all the halls of the palace, the most sumptuous seems to have been that immense one — 428 feet on 234 — in which stood 542 pillars shaped like palm-trees, with capitals of massive gold. Fragments of lapis lazuli and many-coloured glazes, deep-set in the thick curbs of precious metal, marked the intervals between the leaves. The trunks of the columns were thickly gilded, and costly stones adorned their pedestals as well as their capitals. We must imagine the pavement, walls and ceiling completely covered with the most exquisite representations of animal and vegetable life, like those we have just mentioned.
This was probably the great reception hall in which foreign envoys and vassal princes were admitted on State occasions, in presence of the king and court. It is not sufficient to think of the dazzling effect of this forest of shining pillars, either in full daylight or at the time of sunset, when the curbs of gold must have glowed like red-hot embers, and the gorgeous capitals glistened with iridescent splendour. That vast hall, with all its incredible magnificence, formed but the setting in which was to appear, worthy of four thousand years of solar tradition (obscured, at times, but never broken) and of his own lofty religion — the culmination of it all — that Man, invested with limitless power and clothed in majesty; that god on earth: the King.
We must picture him wearing his most beautiful State ornaments: broad necklaces of gold and lapis lazuli, heavy gold earrings and bracelets, and snake-shaped armlets, all studded with precious stones, and rings where gems sparkled and where diamonds flashed light. We must picture him with the tall traditional tiara resting upon his head, with the golden cobra, symbol of kingship, rolled around it; elegantly dressed in the finest of fine white linen — woven air — so
transparent that in many places his smooth bronze skin showed through the regular pleats. Above him, at the back of the throne, a large golden hawk — another symbol of royalty — stretched out its shining wings, while on either side the fan-bearers lifted and lowered, with studied cadence, enormous fans of ostrich feathers fixed on long gilded poles.
On their entering the resplendent hall, the ambassadors from distant lands must have repeated to themselves the words that one finds over and over again in all the despatches of foreign kings to Akhnaton: “Verily, in the land of Egypt, gold is as common as dust.” And they could hardly believe their eyes. But when, followed by the fan-bearers, the Pharaoh slowly walked in, ascended the steps and seated himself upon the throne, all attention was at once focused on him. He was in the full bloom of youth — with hopes, illusions, dreams — and at the height of his power. He was lovely to look upon; a touch of feminine grace increased his indefinable charm. He was wise and, above all, he was in tune with the Essence of all things — not merely the king of Egypt, the head of the empire, whom they all expected to see (and whom many had seen already in the person of Amenhotep the Third), but Akhnaton, the Prophet and true Son of the Sun, whom the world was to behold only once. He passed along, before the prostrate courtiers, with supreme poise, and seated himself upon his throne of glory with godlike simplicity. The glittering of gold and gems that surrounded him was lost in the radiance of his own body, in the serene effulgence of Aton within him. His large, dark eyes were full of infinite kindness, full of intelligence, and full of peace. Heavenly light poured out of them. His whole body was surrounded by a halo of invisible rays, like the body of the Sun. One could feel them as he passed. One could feel them as he dominated the whole gathering from the height of his throne. They filled the immense hall and seemed to stretch endlessly. And all those who came within his light — provided they were not of the coarsest type of men — could never forget him.
* * *
There were beautiful gardens to the south of the City. Cart-loads of good black earth had been brought up from the banks of the Nile and spread out in thick layers over the barren desert. Canals and artificial lakes kept it for ever moist, and beds of flowers destined to exhale their fragrance as a permanent offering to the Sun, and trees both indigenous and foreign, destined to praise Him by their very loveliness, were planted there. The dry, yellow sands gave way to a paradise of fresh perfumes, of beauty and peace. Stumps and roots of trees and shrubs, and withered remains of water-lilies which once rested their large flat leaves and open flowers upon the surface of the lakes, have been discovered by modern excavators.1
A detailed description of the “Precincts of Aton” (as the gardens were called), with their two great enclosures leading to each other, has been given by Arthur Weigal2 and other authors.3 It is useless to repeat it here. Let us only recall that there was a little temple built on an island within one of the lakes; that there were summer-houses reflecting their delicately carved colonnades in tanks full of white and coloured lotuses; that there were arbours in which one could sit in the shade and admire the play of light upon the sunny surface of the waters, or watch a flight of birds in the deep blue sky. The gardens, where Akhnaton often used to come either to pray, either to sit and explain his Teaching to his favourite courtiers, or simply to be alone, were planned to convey an impression of quiet beauty. Their sight was to lead the soul to praise God in the loveliest manifestations of His power and to fill the heart with love for Him.
The whole City was built in the same spirit. It was a place where the enjoyment of the greatest material magnificence was to be allied with a full sense of seriousness — nay, of the sacredness — of life; with the consciousness of the highest spiritual values.
On one hand, the world’s experience, from the earliest
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 182.
2 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 181, and following.
3 Baikie: The Amarna Age (Edit. 1926), p. 279.
days onwards, is that those two things seldom go together; and time and again the one has been stressed at the expense of the other in the course of history. On the other hand, it is true that man does and always did crave for both, and that any scheme of life (especially of collective life), in which one of the two is neglected, is felt to be imperfect; is, in fact, a recognition of weakness, an acquiescence in the practical impossibility of realising man’s everlasting dream of plenitude.
Akhnaton was probably not ignorant of the difficulty of maintaining pace with one’s times in the spiritual sphere. As we have seen, he was himself the child of an age of splendour, the scion of centuries of grand material achievements — the flower of Egypt and, one may add, of the whole Near East at the pinnacle of civilisation. He knew too well what depths of superstition, what ignorance of the very meaning of spiritual life went along with that worldly wealth and greatness. Whatever was precious in the traditional wisdom of the Egyptians belonged to an earlier and simpler age; and there are signs that seem to indicate that the young Pharaoh, to some extent, wished to revive an age-old cult — namely, the solar cult which had once thrived in the city of On — of which the sense had been long forgotten. But, however much the corruption of his brilliant times impressed him, he was too logical not to dissociate in his mind material comfort, beauty, luxury, etc., from the moral coarseness that so often accompanies them. It was difficult to see the two sides of life flourish simultaneously; but there was no reason why they should not do so; indeed, something told him that they should do so; that, as long as man has a visible body and lives on the material plane, there is no perfection unless they do thrive harmoniously. Himself a living example of opposite qualities admirably balanced, a man in whom, by nature, there was no excess, he wanted the whole of life — material, social, emotional, intellectual — to be a thing of beauty, religious life being the bloom and culmination of it all. He did not believe that wisdom lay in suppressing the natural cravings for worldly comfort and enjoyment, but rather in satisfying them, if possible, and at the same time in purifying them; in living intensely, but with innocence and
serenity; in feeling the lovely sensuous objects of this transient world — forms and colours, songs and caresses, the taste of good wine in a finely chiselled cup — the higher realities that these things merely foreshadow and symbolise.
He seems to have gone a step further. He seems to have held that the understanding of religious truth is impossible, if not to all individuals, at least to any group of individuals taken as a whole, without a minimum of material well-being. One aspect of his City which has hardly ever been stressed is that, besides being “a glimpse of heaven,” it was, partly at least, what we would call to-day an industrial town. Thousands of workers had gathered to build it; many of them remained after its completion. With the arrival of the court, more luxuries were needed, and therefore a greater supply of skilled labour. Apart from the usual paintings and carvings, different coloured glazes had come into fashion as an important element of house decoration. They were also widely used in the making of small artistic objects. We have seen how Akhnaton encouraged the new industry by ordering large quantities of coloured glazes for the ornamentation of his palace. Under the impulse given by him, glass factories sprang up here and there in Akhetaton and flourished — perhaps the most ancient centres of production of their kind on a broad scale. Glass vessels of great beauty were exported to distant places in exchange for other goods. Besides that, labourers of different crafts were employed to hew out of the limestone hills to the east of the City the tombs of the nobility, and to adorn them fittingly; so that, apart from the court and the officials, a large population of humble folk lived within the area specially consecrated to the Sun.
We do not know about their life as much as we do about that of the upper-class people, whose dwellings were more solid and whose career, moreover, is retraced upon the walls of their tomb-chambers. But we do know that the king had built for the diggers and other workers in the hills of the desert and in the nearby quarries, a “model settlement” which has been excavated in our times. And it is to be presumed that he did not do less for the labourers working in the City proper.
In the settlement near the eastern hills, says Sir Leonard Woolley, each labourer shared with his family a small house, comprising a front room, used both as a kitchen and as a parlour, bedrooms, and a cupboard at the back. There was accommodation for the beasts of burden that helped the men to transport the stone they had dug out. “Inside the houses, rough paintings on the mud walls hint at the efforts of the individual workman to decorate his surroundings or to express his piety; the charms and amulets picked up on the floor show which of all the many gods of Egypt were most in favour with working men; scattered tools and implements tell of the work of each or of his pursuits in leisure hours.”1
These few remarks are sufficient to suggest that, with all their monotonous simplicity, those workmen’s houses of the early fourteenth century B.C., “the very pattern of mechanically devised industrial dwellings,”2 were far more agreeable to live in than those in most of the “coolie lines” around the mines and factories of present-day India, where a whole family is often packed into one room, with walls and roof not of cool mud, but of corrugated iron, unbearable during the hot weather; far more agreeable to live in, also, than the slums of industrial England in the nineteenth century A.D. They represented no luxury, but a fairly good amount of comfort. They were the dwellings of people whose elementary needs for air, space, privacy and leisure were recognised.3
The amulets found in the labourers’ rooms, and many a figure on the walls, show distinctly that the worship of the immemorial popular gods and goddesses was predominant among the humble folk, even within the sacred territory specially dedicated to the One Lord of all beings, Aton.4 The king, so eager to prohibit the public cults of Amon and of the
1 Sir C. Leonard Woolley: Digging up the Past (Edit. 1937), p. 62.
2 Sir C. Leonard Woolley: Digging up the Past (Edit. 1937), p. 61.
3 It has sometimes been suggested that this “Workmen’s Village” was in reality a penal settlement. “It was surrounded with walls, in no way defensive, but high enough to keep people in, and there are marks of patrol roads all round it” (Pendlebury: Tell-el-Amarna [Edit. 1935], p. 58). If so, the “recognition of the elementary needs” of the people who lived there, is all the more remarkable.
4 Sir C. Leonard Woolley: Digging up the Past (Edit. 1937), p. 62; J. D. S. Pendlebury: Tell-el-Amarna (Edit. 1935), p. 58.
many deities, to have their temples closed and the plural word “gods” effaced from every inscription, seems never to have tried to bring the commoners to abandon their traditional beliefs.
One reason for that apparent indifference may well be that, as we have suggested in the preceding chapter, the Founder of the Religion of the Disk was much less of a staunch monotheist, in the narrow sense of the word, than both his modern admirers and detractors seem to think. He certainly himself believed in one God alone — one impersonal God, the Essence of all existence, personified in the Father of all life on our earth, the Sun — but he probably did not object to other people paying homage to deities of a more finite nature, as long as they did so sincerely and in a truly religious spirit. He had dispossessed and dismissed the priests who encouraged superstition in view of their own worldly ends and who strongly opposed his cherished plans of making the cult of the One God the State religion of Egypt. He had no quarrel either with the ignorant people or with their childish beliefs. Those beliefs, they would perhaps themselves outgrow with time, provided they could keep their hearts open to the beauty of the sunlit world and their minds receptive to the evidence of truth — provided they could feel and think. In the meantime, it mattered little what names and shapes they held sacred, by custom, as long as their beliefs led them to do no harm. We shall discuss later on the implications of Akhnaton’s famous motto, “Living in Truth,” but we can already safely say here that he seems always to have valued right living above anything else in a man. For one to live rightly, one’s sub-conscious mind, at least — one’s deeper self — has to grasp the truth, even if one’s conscious mind, blinded by external influences, denies it. And in the eyes of a lover of truth, and of a man of extraordinary intuition as Akhnaton was, it was surely the deeper self that mattered.
Another reason why the Pharaoh appears never to have tried to spread his religion among the commoners was perhaps that he felt it useless to force upon them a simple yet high philosophy which they would not understand, which
they were not prepared to live up to, and which they would soon distort. It was far more reasonable to increase their material well-being, so that they might begin to acquire that preliminary sense of the beauty of life, without which the Religion of the Disk loses all meaning; to give them a minimum of comfort and a minimum of leisure, that they might learn the pleasure of letting their eyes wander over an open landscape, while relaxed.
Akhnaton took several of his disciples outside the narrow circle of the highest nobility. Every time he found an individual whom he judged worthy to receive his message, not only did he teach him the great truths he had discovered, but he generally gave him his confidence in worldly affairs also, and promoted him to a high rank in the hierarchy of the State, as is shown in inscriptions in the tombs of some of his followers, for instance: “I was a man of low origin both on my father’s and on my mother’s side. But the king established me . . . he caused me to grow . . . by his bounty, when I was a man of no property. He gave me food and provisions every day, I who had been one that begged bread.”1 He was surely the last man not to appreciate the natural aristocracy of mind and character which exists, but is rare, in every stratum of society. But in his dealings with the people in general, he seems to have been guided by the conviction that a certain amount of material comfort and of leisure should precede any sort of attempt at their religious uplift. The model settlements he caused to be built, with houses containing at least three or four airy rooms each, for each family, seem to have been his main gift to the labourers of his age. And far from setting the formal adherence to his creed as a condition without which none could enjoy the advantages he offered — as so many modern theoreticians would have done, if they had his power — he let the “masses” believe what they were accustomed to, and worship whomever they pleased. Congenial conditions of life were in his eyes, along with good government, their primary need and their foremost right.
1 Inscription in the tomb of May (Rock-tomb No. 14, at Tell-el-Amarna), quoted by Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 189.
And in this — apart from being, as in many other ways, surprisingly “modern” — he was consistent with that ideal of all-round perfection, spiritual and material, which he tried to realise in his sacred City.
* * *
At the time of the foundation of his new capital, Akhnaton had already recorded upon the boundary-stones his desire that his own tomb, that of the queen and of their children, that of Mnevis (the sacred bull of On), that of the high-priest of Aton and those of the priests and principal dignitaries, should be dug out in the hills to the east of the City.1 Up till now, some twenty-five tombs have been discovered and excavated by modern archaeologists.2 Their decoration is characteristic of the “new style” that flourished in Akhetaton; the inscriptions which accompany the paintings tell us a good deal about the Pharaoh’s followers; and it is upon the walls of those sepulchres that have been found written the two invaluable Hymns to Aton, composed by Akhnaton himself, which have come down to us — the main sources from which something definite is known about the Religion of the Disk.
The tombs were each one composed of several successive chambers, hewn out of the live rock, as it was the custom in Egypt, the innermost chamber being that in which the mummy was to lie. Massive pillars carved out of a single
1 “There shall be made for me a sepulchre in the eastern hills; my burial shall be made therein, in the multitude of jubilees which Aton, my Father, hath ordained for me, and the burial of the queen shall be made there, in that multitude of years. And the burial of the king’s daughter shall be made there. If I die in any town of the north, south, east or west, I will be brought here, and my burial shall be made in Akhetaton. If the great queen Nefertiti, who liveth, die in any town of the north, south, east or west, she shall be brought here and buried in Akhetaton. If the king’s daughter Meritaton die in any town of the north, south, east or west, she shall be brought here and buried in Akhetaton. And the sepulchre of Mnevis shall be made in the eastern hills and he shall be buried there. The tombs of the high priest and of the Divine Father and of the priests of Aton shall be made in the eastern hills and they shall be buried therein. The tombs of the dignitaries and others shall be made in the eastern hills and they shall be buried therein. . . .” Inscription on the first boundary-stone, 13th day, 4th month, 2nd season, 6th year.
2 Norman de Garis Davies: The Rock of El Amarna. Sir Flinders Petrie: Tell-el-Amarna (Edit. 1894). J. D. S. Pendlebury: Tell-el-Amarna (Edit. 1935), pp. 47-56.
block and shaped like lotus-buds sustained the heavy roofs. The walls were adorned with exquisite paintings representing the main episodes of the life of the deceased, with special emphasis upon their dealings with the king, and the favour they had received from him. There was no allusion of any sort to Osiris or to any of the gods who, according to the traditional beliefs of the land, were supposed to preside over the netherworld; none of the age-old magical formulas which the dead man was expected to repeat in order to protect himself against the dangers that awaited him at different stages of his journey to the great beyond; none of the ready-made declarations of innocence which he was supposed to recite, with a view to avoiding the consequences of his misdeeds on earth. The main prayer which those who had “hearkened to the king’s Teaching” addressed to the One God was that they might continue to see the beauty of the Sun — and to serve the king — in life beyond death. Some also asked to be remembered on earth by their family and friends.
Apart from these prayers and from occasional extracts from the king’s hymns, the inscriptions in the new sepulchres contained no reference at all to any religious beliefs. They simply stated the titles and gave an account of the career of courtiers who were to be buried there, thus completing the information suggested by the adjoining pictures.
We have just quoted an extract of what May, one of the City officials, says of himself on the walls of his tomb. There are other instances of dignitaries who stress that they owe all their elevation to the Pharaoh’s favour. Pnahesi (or Panehesi), the Ethiopian, apparently one of Akhnaton’s most beloved disciples, whose tomb seems to have been more magnificent than that of any other courtier, tells us plainly: “When I knew not the companionship of princes, I was made an intimate of the king.” He also says of his royal master that he “maketh princes and formeth the humble,” a statement confirmed by another inscription in the tomb of Huya, steward of Queen Tiy, which refers to the monarch “selecting his officials from the ranks of the yeomen.”1 All
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 190.
this goes to stress what we have said above — namely that, though he surely did not scorn nobility of birth when allied with merit, Akhnaton always took merit first in consideration, in his choice of the men to whom he would entrust responsible posts, and grant wealth and honours as well as that sort of immortality conferred by the gift of a tomb built to last for ever.
How generously he lavished riches and distinctions upon those whom he judged worthy of his favour is suggested by the paintings and inscriptions in the tombs of Pentu, of Mahu, of Ay, of Merira, the high-priest of Aton, and other dignitaries who are represented receiving from him large rewards in gold. “His Majesty has doubled me his gifts in gold and silver.” . . . “How prosperous is he, my Lord, who hears thy Teaching of life,” states Ay, the “Master of the King’s horse,” who one day, after the ephemeral reign of Akhnaton’s two immediate successors, was himself to wear the Double Crown. “He has multiplied me his favours like the number of the sand,” says Mahu; “I am the head of the officials at the head of the people; my Lord has promoted me because I have carried out his Teaching and I hear his word without ceasing. . . .” Indeed, knowing as one does how readily the greater number of those men — including the most prominent among them — hastened to abandon the worship of the One God and to denounce all connection with their inspired Teacher as soon as his enemies came back to power, one is tempted to suppose that many professed to follow him mainly for the tangible marks of attachment that he would give them. However, there are inscriptions in which the courtiers pay to Akhnaton and his Teaching a homage that seems to come from the depth of their heart; the language, at least, in which it is expressed, is that of ardent devotion, such as, for instance, these words, addressed to the Sun:
“Thy rays are on Thy bright image, the Ruler of Truth, who proceeded from eternity. Thou givest to him Thy duration and Thy years; Thou hearkenest to all that is in his heart, because Thou lovest him. Thou makest him like the Aton, him Thy child, the King; Thou lookest on him, for he proceeded from
Thee. Thou hast placed him beside Thee for ever and ever, for he loves to gaze upon Thee. . . . Thou hast set him there till the swan shall turn black and the crow turn white, till the hills rise up to travel and the deeps rush into the rivers. . . . While Heaven is, he shall be.”1
One really wonders how even such men as the author of those words of glowing faith in him seem to have done nothing to defend the young Pharaoh’s memory, during the terrible reaction that was one day to burst out against all he had stood for.
* * *
Apart from the information they give about the life of the king and courtiers, the paintings and reliefs in the tombs in the “eastern hills” are, along with the famous portrait-heads found in the studio of several artists in the City, the most illustrative productions of the “new art” of Akhetaton.
The conventions which had shackled the artist in his rendering of the human figure — and especially of royal personages — and which had limited the sources of his inspiration, have entirely disappeared in the new school. Here we find the Pharaoh and his queen portrayed in all the familiar attitudes of private life — eating, drinking, chatting, smelling flowers, playing with their children, etc. — with a naturalness never attained in Egyptian art before the “Tell-el-Amarna period,” and never surpassed in any art. And that is not all: more than one of those pictures and sculptures even present a definite exaggeration of certain features, both of the head and body, which sets them apart from nearly all the productions of the ancient world, and renders them somewhat akin to our modern “futurist” art in its strange aspects. One has only to look at some of the reliefs representing the king himself with an unusually developed skull, a protruding chin, and hips and thighs out of proportion with his slender body; one has only to think of the otherwise beautiful limestone head of one of the princesses in the Cairo museum, whose skull is elongated to an incredible extent, to
1 Quoted by Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 115.
be convinced of the existence of such a tendency among the artists of Akhnaton’s school.
Some modern authors1 have endeavoured to present those strange features as the faithful reproduction of an ungainly countenance, by sculptors and painters trained by the king “living in truth” never to flatter their models, least of all himself and his family. But this view is contradicted by the existence of other portraits of the king and of the princesses — paintings, busts, and statues — in which none of these deformities are to be seen. There is the quartz head of one of the Pharaoh’s little daughters at the museum of the Louvre, the head of a normal child of exquisite delicacy. There is the delightful painted relief picturing Akhnaton in his early youth as he smells a bunch of flowers that Nefertiti holds out to him — one of the best productions of the Amarna school; a work which, according to Professor H. R. Hall himself, possesses already a hellenic grace, and in which the king’s figure “reminds one of a Hermes” and “could hardly have been bettered by a Greek”2 (the greatest compliment a European critic can pay to the masterpiece of a non-European artist). There is the whole series of portrait-busts that represent Akhnaton not as a boy, but as a man, and that attest beyond doubt that he was lovely to look upon.
Akhnaton’s physical appearance has been discussed nearly as often as his religious ideas, and sometimes commented upon with as much bitterness.3 Inasmuch as a body is the reflection of the soul that animates it — or the soul the projection of the body — it is not superfluous to try to visualise him as he once could be seen, when he trod the painted pavements of his palace. From his remains we know that he was a man of medium height; from pictorial evidence, we know that he had a regular oval face, a straight nose, thick,
1 H. R. Hall: Ancient History of the Near East (Ninth Edit. 1936), p. 304. Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 103. James Baikie: The Amarna Age (Edit. 1926), p. 294.
2 H. R. Hall: Ancient History of the Near East (Ninth Edit. 1936), p. 305.
3 H. R. Hall: Ancient History of the Near East (Ninth Edit. 1936), p. 304-305. L. W. King and H. R. Hall: Egypt and Western Asia, pp. 100, 385. Stanley Cook, in the Preface to Baikie’s Amarna Age (Edit. 1926). Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 103.
well-designed lips; and that his jet-black eyes were, in the words of Arthur Weigall, “eloquent of dreams.”1 He had a long graceful neck, well-shaped arms and legs, and beautiful hands. His body, of which the top part is generally represented bare in the paintings and bas-reliefs, was neither stout nor thin. The pleated cloth he wore wrapped around the hips and tightly tied below the navel, seems to be responsible for the “protruding paunch” to which so many authors allude in their description of him. He has been depicted as having little of a virile appearance and, at first sight at least, this remark is not entirely without grounds. There was surely an indefinable charm all about his person; a gracefulness of deportment, an irresistible gentleness — something subtly feminine. But, at the same time, in those large, dark, loving eyes, whose mere glance was like a caress, one could read courage, determination, a manly depth of thought and will; those lips, with their delicate curve, always ready to move into a mysterious smile, expressed the serenity of unshakable strength. There was, in the Pharaoh’s countenance, a well-balanced blending of grace, of force, and of poise; of voluptuousness and of character — a living picture of the harmonious plenitude of his being. In other words, Akhnaton seems to have forestalled in real life, to a very great extent, that well-nigh impossible complete human type — young demi-god with the opposite perfections of both man and woman — which Leonardo da Vinci was to conceive and to strive throughout his career to fix in lines and colours, three thousand years later. And his body, no less than his personality, bore the stamp of that strange dual beauty.
The paintings and sculptures that represent him, or the members of his family, with the exaggerated features we have referred to above, are therefore to be taken not as faithful portraits, but as characteristic instances of a “style.” And that “style,” apart from any other considerations, contained a religious — perhaps also a political — symbolism. Its productions have no parallel in the immediate past, but they strangely resemble some archaic figures of the Fourth and
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 52.
Fifth Dynasties. Arthur Weigall has given, side by side with the copy of one or two of them, the reproduction of royal heads and of a statuette found by Sir Flinders Petrie, the former at Abydos, the latter at Diospolis,1 and dating as far back as the days of the great Pyramid builders. The same receding forehead, protruding chin, elongated skull; the same overstressed hips and thighs are to be remarked in both cases, at a distance of eighteen hundred years or more. So that, indeed, from those quaint samples of the work of the new school of Tell-el-Amarna there is every probability that the distinguished archaeologist is right when he states that “Akhnaton’s art might thus be said to be a kind of renaissance — a return to the classical period of archaic days; the underlying motive of that return being the desire to lay emphasis upon the king’s character as a representative of that most ancient of all gods, Ra-Horakhti.”2
How closely that aspect of the new art was interwoven with the Religion of the Disk we can only understand after trying to define what place the king occupied in the creed which he preached. It will suffice here to say that the frequency with which those archaic renderings of him and of his family appear in the paintings and sculptures of his time, suggests what stress he himself put upon the great antiquity of his so-called “new” ideas. Akhnaton seems to have shared with many inspired religious leaders the conviction that, far from being an innovator, he was just the expounder of Truth, which is one and of all times, and of which the oldest civilisations had perhaps a more accurate glimpse than the latter ones.
Whatever, in the Amarna school, was not a deliberate attempt at imitating the archaic models, was of utmost grace and naturalness — true to life as never Egyptian art was again to be. We must remember that the young king was the soul of the whole movement. “It was he who released the artists from convention and bade their hands repeat what their eyes saw; and it was he who directed those eyes to the
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 64.
2 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 63.
beauties of nature around them. He and no other taught them to look at the world in the spirit of life; to infuse into the cold stone something of the ‘effulgence which comes from Aton.’”1
* * *
In the beautiful City we have tried to describe — the dream and the work of one man — life was pleasant. We have already seen what amount of comfort and of freedom the humblest dwellers in the consecrated area enjoyed, in the model settlements built for them near the field of their labours. They probably saw very little of the pomp of the court and, with the exception of those who lived in the City itself, they hardly ever had the opportunity of witnessing the passage of a royal procession. Whether they had or not some sort of vague knowledge of the new creed proclaimed by the king, we cannot tell. They had perhaps heard that he worshipped the Sun alone and despised the other gods; that he was in conflict with the priests of Amon; that he had raised several men of poor extraction to high positions because of their readiness to share his faith; that, in the eyes of his God, Egyptians and foreigners were the same. But, whatever rumours may have reached them in their fields, their factories, or their quarries, that brought no change either in their beliefs or in their lives. As we have seen, they continued to worship in peace the age-old popular deities that they were accustomed to. And the Pharaoh was, to them, what every one of his predecessors had been to the past generations: a divine being, the father and defender of his subjects, the “good god.” And to catch a glimpse of him as he drove through the streets in his chariot, with his beautiful young queen by his side, was a joy that most of them must have keenly valued. Like the bulk of people of all times, they cared little what their sovereign personally believed or did as long as they enjoyed plenty. And Akhnaton’s unconventional habit of appearing in public in all simplicity added, no doubt, a great deal to his popularity — at least, until the
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 181.
disasters of the latter part of his reign created serious discontent, and gave unexpected ground to renewed priestly intrigues all over the land.
The nobles, and all those upon whom the Pharaoh had bestowed his special favour, dwelt in those elegant villas surrounded by gardens which modern excavation has made it possible to give the most attractive description in full details.1 They were the bearers of all high offices, the companions and the followers of the king. They had the untold privilege of hearing his Teaching from his own lips. And those who formed the closer circle of his best beloved disciples could see him and talk to him freely.
They shared with him not only the pleasures and luxuries of court life, but also hours of thoughtful conversation and moments of silence and prayer in the brilliant halls of the palace or in the cool shade of pillared pavillions in the gardens, by the side of lakes covered with water-flowers. They were his intimates — his friends. If we judge by the way they speak of him in the inscriptions upon the walls of their tomb-chambers, some of them — such as Mahu, Pnahesi, Ramose — seem to have been fervently devoted to him. But as there are no records to tell us how far any of them stood for him against the current events that followed the close of his short reign, it is very difficult to say who was sincere and who was but a clever flatterer. Whatever it be, Akhnaton was pleased to put his confidence in them, and an atmosphere of peace, goodwill, and happiness appears to have existed in his immediate entourage.
However, the Religion of the Disk is so dominated by the personality of its Founder, so profoundly coloured by his reactions to nature and man, that nothing would help us more to grasp its spirit than the knowledge of Akhnaton’s day-to-day life amidst the beautiful surroundings that he himself had created.
It is not always easy to reconstruct the life of practically contemporary figures about whom there is abundance of undoubtable evidence. Now and then a few unpublished letters,
1 See, for instance, the description of the villa of Nakht, in Arthur Weigall’s Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), pp. 183-184.
the sudden discovery, in somebody else’s memoirs, of a precise reference to some action, which had formerly remained secret, alters entirely the picture one had of them. The knowledge of what a man — be he even a great king — did and said, felt and thought, thirty-three hundred years ago, during those apparently uneventful hours that history does not care to retrace, is therefore necessarily incomplete and liable to revision. Yet, to the extent it is possible to acquire it, it is too precious to be overlooked.
The main sources of information from which one can hope to know something of Akhnaton’s daily occupations are the paintings and reliefs where he is represented over and over again, in the tombs of his courtiers. There, a great part of his official life is pictured inasmuch as it is connected with the career of the nobles to whom the sepulchres were destined. In Mahu’s tomb, for instance, he is portrayed inspecting the defences of Akhetaton in company of Mahu himself, and — a noteworthy detail — followed by an unarmed bodyguard. Elsewhere we see him promoting Merira to the exalted position of high-priest of Aton, in the midst of great solemnity, and rewarding him for his faithfulness with necklaces of gold. Similar, though less stately scenes of distribution of rewards to officials are to be found, as we have already said, in many tombs, with the repeated assertion that the courtiers have won the king’s favour by their constant “hearkening to his Teaching of life” and by their understanding of it. This presupposes that Akhnaton spent a fairly great amount of time instructing all those whom he deemed worthy to become his disciples.
On the other hand, from the evidence of the famous “Amarna Letters,” we know that he was in correspondence with the neighbouring monarchs — Burnaburiash of Babylon, to whose son he betrothed one of his daughters; Dushratta of Mitanni, his cousin and perhaps also his brother-in-law; Shubbiluliuma, of the Hittites; and even the distant king of Assyria, Assur-Uballit, then only beginning to lead his semi-barbaric nation out of obscurity. We know that he received regular despatches from his vassals and governors of provinces, to whom he no less regularly sent his orders.
There is a picture that represents him coming forth in a gorgeous palanquin, carried upon the shoulders of eighteen men, to receive the tribute of the empire, during the twelfth year of his reign. Gold and ivory, rare fruits, ostrich feathers, and precious vases, products of the deserts and forests of the Far South and articles of Syrian workmanship, are presented to him by men of various races — the gifts of disparate subject countries to their common Lord.
From all this evidence one may presume that the king’s days were equally filled by the discharge of his official duties, which were numerous, and by the explanation of his Teaching to a small circle of followers — apart, of course, from the regular performance of worship at sunrise, noon, and sunset, in the palace or in the temple.
Little is known, in its details, of the ritual that accompanied that worship. We can, however, suppose that it was much simpler than that which prevailed in the cult of the Egyptian gods, for here there was no image, no representation of the divine under any form save the Sun-disk with rays ending in hands which was a mere symbol, not an idol. Consequently, there were none of all the elaborate ceremonies, connected with the bathing and dressing and feeding of the god, that formed such an essential part of the ritual in the temples of Egypt and of all the ancient world, as they do still to-day in the Hindu temples of India. Here, the services consisted of a minimum of pre-ordained words, chants and gestures — those alone that were indispensable to translate the king’s lofty intuitions of truth into a cult. The altars, that stood, as we have seen, in the open, were decked with beautiful flowers; and various offerings of food and drink, particularly bread, wine, and fruits, were placed upon them, symbolising the idea, at once scientific and religious, that the nourishment of the whole creation is produced through the Sun, and belongs to Him Who is the Soul of the Sun and of all the Universe. The king, reassuming the active priestly functions of the Pharaohs of old, would himself stretch out the kheper baton over the offerings and consecrate them. Then he would throw handfuls of incense into the fire, and as the coils of scented smoke slowly went up
into the sky in praise of Him in Whose light the flame of the sacrifice seemed pale, he would intone one of the hymns he had composed to the glory of the Sun — a different one according to the season, the day, and the hour. Musicians, male and female, among whom we know from a picture1 that there was a choir of eight blind men, played upon their instruments and sang during the daily services. There were dancers, also, who through a harmony of symbolical postures and movements suggested the daily journey of the Sun, the death of the earth at His departure, the resurrection of all flesh at His dawning again. They danced especially on festive days, corresponding to notable positions of the Sun in His apparent course from constellation to constellation. The queen and princesses took part in every solemnity, the little girls occasionally rattling the sistrum, as we see them do in the funeral paintings of the time.
* * *
Besides his administrative duties; besides the State functions, and occasionally the State banquets over which he presided — like that one given in honour of Queen Tiy’s visit to the new City, and represented upon the walls of the tomb of Huya — besides even the daily worship he offered publicly at the altar of the Sun, pictorial evidence reveals to us different episodes of Akhnaton’s private life which lead us to infer, about him and his creed, more than one could expect at first sight.
In nearly every painting he is portrayed with his consort and often (as in the feasting scene just mentioned) with one or more of his six (or seven) children. And the attitudes in which he has allowed the artists to represent him, doubtless in a spirit of absolute fidelity to living life, are most eloquent in their naturalness.
We have already recalled the lovely painted relief of the Berlin museum in which the young Pharaoh is seen smelling
1 In the tomb of Merira, the high-priest of Aton. Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 143.
a bunch of flowers that Nefertiti gracefully holds out to him with a smile. On the walls of the tomb of Huya he is pictured seated, admiring the performances of several pretty naked dancing-girls, while the queen, standing by his side, refills with wine his golden cup. In the tombs of Mahu and Aahmose he is painted in his chariot, with Nefertiti next to him, and actually kissing her while he drives. Princess Meritaton, his eldest daughter, stands in one of those pictures in front of her parents, and plays with the horses’ tails while the king and queen look lovingly at each other, their lips ready to unite. Even in scenes depicting State solemnities, such as the reception of the tribute of the empire — scenes in which, one might think, there was little place for intimacy — Akhnaton and Nefertiti are represented side by side, hand in hand, and with their arms around each other’s waist. And, contrarily to the age-old custom of Egyptian artists, the queen is nearly always pictured on the same scale as her husband.
One finds hardly less evidence of their great love in the written documents than in the paintings. Whatever be the inscription in which she is referred to, the queen is seldom named without some endearing epithet. She is “the mistress of the king’s happiness”; the “Lady of grace”; “fair of countenance”; “endowed with favours”; “she at the hearing of whose voice the Pharaoh rejoices.” And one of the most current forms of oath used by the king on solemn occasions — the oath engraved upon the boundary-stones of the new City, and quoted in the beginning of this chapter — is: “As my heart is happy in the queen and her children . . .”
Many will say that expressions of love found in official documents are not always to be taken literally. But we believe that they should be taken so here, for they were written at the command of one who, all through his career, lived up to his ideal of integral truth with unfailing consistency. He, one of whose first actions as a king was to have the tomb of his father reopened and the name of Amon erased from therein, because he saw in it the symbol of a false religion; he, who ended by losing an empire rather than depart from his uncompromising sincerity of purpose, can-
not be expected, in any case, to make a show of feelings which he did not have.
One has, therefore, to accept without reservation the conclusion that forces itself upon one’s mind through both pictorial and written evidence — namely, that Akhnaton loved his consort ardently.
As we have said before, he had not chosen her, but had been wedded to her when about ten years old or less. The marriage was, no doubt, the work of Queen Tiy; and if Nefertiti was, as Sir Flinders Petrie maintains, the daughter of Dushratta, king of Mitanni, it was perhaps chiefly prompted by political motives. But as it often happens in the case of child-marriages, the little prince and little princess soon grew tenderly attached to each other and, as years passed, they unconsciously stepped from affection to love. In the inscriptions on the boundary-stones of Akhetaton, which were erected between the official foundation of the City and the time the king and court came to settle in it — between the sixth year and the eighth year of the reign — one, and sometimes two of Akhnaton’s daughters — Meritaton and Makitaton — are mentioned. The third one, Ankhsenpaton, was born, according to Weigall, just before the departure of her parents from Thebes. Three others at least — Neferuaton, Neferura, and Setepenra — (and perhaps four, if Weigall and other authors are right) were born in the new capital. All six (or all seven) were Nefertiti’s children. And there is no allusion of any sort to other children, or to “secondary wives,” in the existing documents concerning the royal family; so that, as far as history knows, Akhnaton, in contrast with most kings of antiquity, and of his own line, seems to have been contented all his life with the love of one woman, given to him to be his chief wife while still a child.
Not that he had, apparently, any prejudice against the customs of his times regarding marriage, still less against polygamy as a human fact. And it would be absurd to attribute to him the mentality of a modern European bourgeois on this much-debated subject of private morality. In this matter, as in many others, he seems to have been well in advance of our times — not to speak of more prudish ages.
And if he possessed but one wife, as repeated evidence suggests, this was not because he had any moral objection to polygamy, but simply because he loved that one woman with deep, complete, vital love.
If we judge him through the pictures his artists have left of him, Akhnaton was far from being one of those austere thinkers who shun pleasure as an obstacle to the development of the spirit or even as a meaningless waste of time and energy. He seems, on the contrary, to have believed in the value of life in its plenitude, and the paintings that represent him feasting, drinking, listening to sweet music, caressing his wife, or playing with his children, apart from their merit as faithful renderings of everyday realities, had possibly a definite didactic significance. In practically every one of them the lofty symbol of the Religion of the Disk — the Sun with downward rays ending in hands — radiates over the scene depicted, so as to recall the presence of the One invisible Reality in the very midst of it, and to emphasise the beauty, the seriousness, nay, the sacredness of all manifestations of life when experienced as they should be, in earnestness and in innocence, and considered with their proper meaning. Whether they stand together in adoration before His altar, or lie in each other’s arms, the Sun embraces the young king and queen in His fiery emanation; His rays are upon them, holding the symbol ankh — life — to their lips. For life is prayer. One who puts all his being in what he feels or does — as he who “lived in truth” surely did — already grasps, through the joyful awareness of his body to beautiful, deep sensations, a super-sensuous, all-pervading secret order, source of beauty, which he may not be in a position to define, but which gives its meaning to the play of the nerves. And he is able above all to acquire, through the glorious exaltation of his senses in love, a positive, though inexpressible knowledge of the eternal rhythm of Life — to touch the core of Reality.
In allowing a few scenes of his private life to be thus exhibited to the eyes of his followers — and of posterity — was it Akhnaton’s deliberate intention to teach us that pleasure, when enjoyed in religious earnestness, transcends itself in a
revelation of eternal truth? We shall never know. But one thing can be said for certain, and this is that the instance of that perfect man, on one hand so aware of his oneness with the Essence of all things, on the other so beautifully human in his refined joie de vivre, is itself a teaching, a whole philosophy. And in him one can see an expounder of precisely that wisdom which our world of to-day, tired of obsolete lies, is striving to realise, but cannot; a man who lived to the full the life of the body and of the spirit, seriously, innocently, in harmony with the universal Principle of light, joy, and fecundity which he worshipped in the Sun. Whether we imagine him burning incense to the majesty of the rising Orb, or listening to the love-songs of the day in midst of merriment and enjoying them with the detachment of an artist; whether we think of him entertaining his followers of the marvellous unity of light and heat, thirty-three hundred years before modern science, or abandoning himself to the thrill of human tenderness in a kiss of his loving young queen, the same beauty radiates from his person.
And it is that beauty which, before all, attracts us to him, and, through him, to the Religion of the Disk, that glorious projection of himself in union with the Cosmos.
* * *
As we have just seen, something of Akhnaton’s intimate life, perhaps also something of his general philosophy, can be inferred from the pictures that have survived the ruin of his lovely City. Of his inner life, of his thoughts and feelings during those moments of blessed solitude that doubtless followed, with him as with all spiritual geniuses, hours of intense activity, there are no records whatsoever. There cannot be. And yet one feels that nothing would bring one, so as to say, in closer contact with him, than a glance at that particular aspect of his unwritten history.
It is natural to believe that the two hymns that have come down to us — and probably many more, which are lost — were composed by Akhnaton during the hours he was alone. It is therefore, it seems, in the general tone of those poems,
as well as in the evocation of the atmosphere in which they were conceived, that one can the best hope to form an idea of the king’s mind when away from the crowd of his courtiers and even from the presence of his wife and children — when free from the duties of monarchy, from the obligations of his mission, from the pleasures of love and family life.
The hymns in their details will be discussed later on as the main basis of our knowledge of the Religion of the Disk. But we can already say here, in anticipation of a more complete study of them, that the dominant idea expressed in those songs is that of the beauty of the whole scheme of things as ordained by the Sun — by Him who causes the radiant days to follow the nights full of stars and the seasons to succeed each other. They also contain the belief in an all-pervading, unfailing Love, mysteriously inseparable from the Energy within the Sun-rays; of a Love that gives each speck of life — be it the germ in the bird’s egg or the embryo asleep in the depth of a woman’s womb — a start on the golden road to full development in health and happiness. They contain the bold certitude of the impartiality of that immanent love, poured out with light and heat, through the life-giving Disk, to all tribes, all nations, all races, all living species, indiscriminately; the assertion of the unity of life and of the brotherhood of all creatures as a consequence of the universal fatherhood of the Sun.
But remarkably enough for one who would consider those hymns as expressing true facts of nature and nothing more, there is, in them, not the slightest allusion to the dark side of the picture of the world; not a hint at the millions of cases in which the all-pervading love of the Father seems to fail; in which the innocent speck of life — young insect, bird, beast, or baby — is mercilessly crushed before it even had time to know the beauty of light, or grows up only to drag a miserable existence; not a single word about those cries of distress which, to any sensitive and thoughtful person, so often seem to interrupt — for what purpose, no man knows — the harmony of the universal chorus.
Nobody, with even a superficial knowledge of his life, can suppose in Akhnaton less sensitiveness to suffering, less love
for creatures or less intelligence than in the average man. And the only way to explain, therefore, this total omission of all idea of evil from the picture of the Universe given in the hymns (at least in the two which we know) is to admit that they were composed during special moments of the king’s experience; during moments when the very sight of the world with its incoherent mixture of joy and pain, life and death — of the world at our scale — was lost to him in a state of bliss in which he grasped nothing but the essence of things, retaining of their contradictory appearances those alone that convey the idea of joy and order.
In other words, those poems do express true facts of nature, but at the same time they reveal a plane of consciousness which is not the ordinary plane. They suggest a picture of the world as perceived by one who has transcended the ordinary scale of vision; by one who has reached the stage where he actually feels the inherent goodness and beauty of the whole play of existence behind its transient failures, suffering and death — and ugliness; by one who, above the apparent disorder of phenomenal experience, greets the majesty of everlasting laws, expressions of harmony, glimpses of a Reality which is perfect.
Left to himself in the calm of his sumptuous apartments or in the fresh solitude of his gardens, it seems, if our inference be right, that Akhnaton easily raised his soul to that stage of consciousness characterised as bliss in the absence of a more enlightening description of it. Did he reach it systematically, as a result of any physical and mental discipline, or simply as a natural development of his extraordinary sensitiveness, or as the outcome both of a powerful inborn tendency and of wilful application? It is very difficult to say; and it matters little. What is important is that, in all probability, he was familiar with the genuine experience of super-consciousness. It was to that experience that he doubtless owed his astounding insight into scientific truths which could only be proved by the combined intellectual labour of thousands of men, spread over centuries. It seems also certain that, whatever might have been the Pharaoh’s deliberate efforts and the inner discipline he underwent, if any, he must have been
from the start gifted with powers of intuition out of proportion to those of the ordinary man of science, not to speak of the ordinary layman, of any age.
He would have developed those powers anyhow. And, with his uncompromising logic as a complement to insight and inspiration; with the absolute sincerity of his nature and the charm of his person, he would still have been, even in a totally different social status, one of the few great men to whom divine honours can be rendered without sacrilege. As things stand, far from having to rise to perfection in spite of his material surroundings, he used a part of the inexhaustible wealth at his command to create for himself, in Akhetaton, the ideal abode in which he could pass without effort from life in truth and beauty to the contemplation of supreme Beauty and supreme Truth. Of his City in general, and more especially of his palace with its elegantly decorated chambers, comfortable, quiet and spotlessly clean, in which every detail of architecture, every item of furniture, every minute object was a work of art; with its terraces overlooking rich palm-groves and flower-beds and avenues bordered with villas, and the great temple of the Sun nearby, and the bluish line of the distant hills beyond the sandy desert; of his palace, we say, and of the shady pavilions near the lakes in the “Precincts of Aton,” and of the “Precincts of Aton” themselves — of all the places in which Akhnaton would choose in turn to spend his moments of solitude, one could repeat the words used by the French poet to depict an imaginary land of dream and escape:
“Là, tout est ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté. . . .”1
Clad in fine immaculate linen in the midst of those mythical splendours that we can to-day but faintly recall, the inspired young Pharaoh, half-reclining upon his ivory couch, let his mind drift its natural way. Through a restful perspective of well-shaped pillars, his eyes gazed at a patch of blue sky. Subtle perfumes were floating in the air; the breeze brought him the fragrant breath of flowers; perhaps
1 Beaudelaire: L’Invitation au Voyage (Fleurs du Mal).
the subdued harmony of a distant harp reached him now and then. There was peace all around him — peace in keeping with the silence of his heart and congenial to meditation. The tranquil beauty which his eyes met wherever they looked helped him to forget every possible disturbing thought of imperfection; to detach himself from those appearances which stand in the way of the soul in quest of ultimate truth.
Thus was, as far as we can hope to picture it, the life of the king in Akhetaton, the City of God, built by him to be an island of peace in this world of strife; to be the model, on a small scale, of what he would have desired the world to become under the beneficent influence of his Teaching of truth. We have seen also something of the life of the people there. It was surely not perfect, and Akhnaton knew himself that his new capital, in spite of all his efforts, did not come up to the full expectation of his dream. But it was his dream realised to the extent it could be during the short span of his career, among average men, without the pressure of violent proselytism, without, by the way, any form of creedal proselytism at all among the commoners. It was a beautiful creation, in spite of all unavoidable shortcomings. May, one of those men whom the Pharaoh had promoted to a high position on account of his faithfulness, describes it as follows in an inscription upon the walls of the tomb prepared for him in the cliffs of the desert:
“Akhetaton, great in loveliness, mistress of pleasant ceremonies, rich in possessions, with the offerings of Ra in her midst. . . . At the sight of her beauty one rejoices. She is lovely. To see her is like a glimpse of heaven. . . . When Aton rises in her midst, He fills her with His rays, embracing in His light His beloved Son, son of Eternity, who came forth from His substance and who offers the earth to Him Who placed him upon his throne, causing the earth to belong to Him Who made it. . . .”1
1 Inscription in the tomb of May (Rock Tomb 14 at Tell-el-Amarna). See Breasted’s Ancient Records of Egypt (Edit. 1906), Vol. II, p. 412; also Arthur Weigall’s Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 176.