The story of the “Heretic Pharoah” Akhenaten is one of the most popular episodes of Egyptian history to be discussed in modern books and documentaries.
He was born into the established Egyptian religion as Amun-hotep, “Amun is Satisfied”, named after Amun, the most important god. Designated heir on the death of his older brother, he ascended the throne and within a year, had changed his name to Akhenaten “Servant of Aten” and had begun to promote the “new religion” of Aten-worship. The Aten was the sun disc, the physical manifestation of the god Ra.
In a few years, Akhenaten began to take action to suppress the old religion, and worked to establish the principle that the Aten was the only god. This is why he is often called the world’s “first monotheist”, with his reign foreshadowing the invention of Judiasm and hence all of today’s major montheistic religions. So Akhenaten is often portayed as a religious pioneer, even a prophet.
There is plenty that is fascinating about the time of Akhenaten, from the amazing film-star looks of his principal wife, Nefertiti, to his founding of a new capital city, to his ultimately futile campaign to wipe out worship of Amun and the other old gods. But among the New Age puff about “the first monotheist”, what is always overlooked is the political and economic side of the story.
When he came to the throne as Amunhotep, the priesthood of Amun was incredibly wealthy and powerful. In fact, they controlled some 60% of the country’s GDP. Imagine George Osborne trying to run the economy if the Church of England owned 60% of everything. Henry VIII faced a similar problem with the wealth of the monasteries during his reign, and he took a similar approach to Akhenaten: he abolished them and nicked their stuff.
While there is also evidence that Akhenaten was, or became, a religious fanatic; at the start of his reign he had more than enough practical reasons to oppose the old religion.
In the end, his revolution did not outlast his own reign. His young successor, Tut-Ankh-Aten “Living Image of Aten” abandoned Aten-worship in the first year of his reign and changed his name to Tut-Ankh-Amun. He didn’t live long though, and there are many theories, some suggesting that Tutankhamun’s conversion to Amun-worship was not sufficiently strong to please the old guard, and that he was quietly bumped off. In any case, the old general Ay became the next Pharoah. It’s never a good sign when the military take over.