Tell el Amarna,Capital of the Disk: The Resurrection of Akhenaten

The site of Tell el Amarna is first mentioned by Edme Jomard, reporting on his travels in the Middle Egypt region in 1799-1800 on behalf of the Desaix Division Scientific Commission. His description in the monumental Description de l'Egypte, Chapter 16 (Antiquités de l'Heptanomide) reads: "After passing el Hawata, one comes upon a vast sandy plain surrounded on three sides by the Arabian mountains, and to the west by the Nile, most similar to the gulf where Antinoöpolis was located. Here once stood a very large Egyptian city, which, to date, had never attracted the attention of travellers. The first time I saw it, I was extremely surprised to see such a huge mass of ruins, no less than two thousand two hundred meters long, one thousand wide. Located near the Nile, where the stretch of land is particularly narrow, it nonetheless has never appeared on any map. I immediately mapped it out and made sketches of its few remaining parts. Unfortunately, most of the constructions have been razed, so that only their foundations remain to be seen. However, one still finds a number of brick houses with their supporting walls, a large gate and its enclosure wall, two enormous buildings clearly revealing their plans, a forty-eight-meter-wide street that ran lengthwise, and traces of many city streets (...) I asked the inhabitants of the nearby villages for the name of these ruins, but no one could say." .


Ninetheenth-century travellers, mostly monks, hardly ever stopped over there. The French draftsman Nestor L'Hôte (1828 expedition under Champollion and 10 years later on his own account) was content to sketch several of the Boundary Stelae he came across in the neighboring desert. Finally, the great Prussian expedition directed by Richard Lepsius made an immense survey of the site in 1843. The Denkmaler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien published from 1849 to 1859 were a compilation of all the plottings of the Nile valley monuments made by the team's draftsmen; the third division (Vol. VI, pages XCI-CLXXIII) devotes twenty-one plates to the Amarna remains. Connoisseurs of the period thus discovered, much to their amazement, the strange facial features of the banished king. The very dry style proper to such highly scientific presentations notwithstanding, the subjects dear to the Amarna artists were at last revealed: the king being acclaimed by the throngs along the streets as he wends his way to the shrine, the king making an offering to the Disk, the royal family in the privacy of their apartments, the bestowing of favors upon the court's high officials. Above all, the city's temples and palaces were represented in plan, or to be more exact, at once in plan and in elevation, that is synthesized, in such detail that they served the archaeologists to confirm their own on-the-site discoveries.

Dynasty XVIII - The royal family being blessed by the Aten - Limestone - H 0.332 - Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum - This stela undoubtedly belonged to one of Akhenaten's domestic altars

The king's face, unprepossessing yet radiant, became known to all, but his identity remained a mystery. The Table of Dynasties drawn up by Brunet de Presle for his book Examen critique des Dynasties égyptiennes published in Paris in 1850, was inspired by a course given by Jean-Antoine Letronne at the Collège de France from 1833 to 1836. Under the heading "Eighteenth Dynasty", de Presle lists: "Thutmose IV-Amenophis III (Memnon) - Horus (his son) - Thmaumot (his daughter) - Ramses I(...)." As recorded by Manetho, this King Horus, son of Amenophis III, corresponds with the Horus father of Achenkeres, the ninth king of the dynasty, reigning from 1674 to 1637 BCE. Horus probably represents Horemheb, Tutankhamon's successor and the predecessor of Ramses I. No mention is made, then, of Akhenaten, Tutankhamon or Ay; nor do they appear in the Table d'Abydos, where Horemheb's cartouche (Dieserkheperure) is listed between that of Amenophis III (Nebmaatre) and that of Ramses I (Menpehtire).

Dynasty XVIII - Sculptor's study for the profile of Akhenaten -Limestone - H 0.144 - Provenance unknown - Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum

Fifteen years later, a small volume "freely translated from the English" but published without naming an author, under the title Les Antiquités égyptiennes, provides a revised canon of the royal lineage. By comparing the lists drawn up by Manetho and "the names of kings(...) found on the monuments," the author suggests, beside Amenophis-Memnon and Horus, three new cartouches: Aak-en-Aten-Ra or Amenhept II, brother of Horus - Titi, his sister, the wife of Ay- Amuntuanch, brother of Horus. This is perhaps the first modern mention of the name of Amenophis IV Akhenaten, and of Tutankhamon and Nefertiti. Despite his having been identified, Aak-en-Aten, or Khu-en-Aten as he was called at the time, continued to intrigue the learned of the day. The King's singular morphology, especially, inspired the strangest hypotheses: the French Egyptologist Mariette, soon to give full vent to his imagination in the libretto for Aïda, saw Akhenaten as a Sudanese slave castrated by his masters and set on the throne as the outcome of a dramatic coup d'état. To Lefébure, on the other hand, he was a woman disguised as a man, a royal usurper succeeding his/her father Amenophis III, identified as the Horus to which Manetho refers.

Finally, one June day in 1887, a peasant living in the vicinity of Tell el Amarna took up her daily task of digging in the mounds of mudbrick debris in search of sebakh, the nitrous compost used by the village people in Egypt to fuel the fire. At the foot of a levelled wall, she discovered hundreds and hundreds of clay tablets covered with mysterious signs. Stacking a few of them in her veil, she showed them first to the neighbors, and then to a local official who, as a figure of authority, was expected to have all the answers. Apparently, this particular one was too imbued with himself to cast an eye at a few modest briquettes, so he had the petitioner led away. But determined as she was to make a few piasters out of her discovery, our peasant woman loaded her son and two donkeys with all the tablets she could muster and journeyed to Luxor, in the hopes of encountering a less arrogant mamur. Upon her arrival, alas, all that was left in one piece in her bundles were several dozen tablets, for the rest had been reduced to dust along the bumpy road. She showed two of them to an inspector who, at last, did take the matter seriously and had the samples studied. To the general astonishment, it turned out that she had come up with the diplomatic archives belonging to the court of Amenophis IV. What a bitter disappointment it was, then, when the poor soul had to admit that four/fifths of her load had been wiped out. Of the full lot, only three hundred fifty tablets were salvaged. But at least the site itself was back on the map!

Tablet No. 23 (British Museum), sent by Tushratta of the Mitanni to Amenophis III, to inform him that the goddess Ishtar of Nineveh had been sent off to Egypt.

In 1891/1892, Sir Flinders Petrie began a first season of excavations: he unearthed a major part of the royal palace, the administrative buildings and, more to the south, several private houses. He thus uncovered a unique set of secular paintings that had adorned the royal apartments, including two exquisite little princesses, since transferred to Oxford's Ashmolean Museum

From 1902 to 1903, with frequent interruptions due to international conflicts, the site was occupied by several exploration teams: the Egypt Exploration Fund, the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft, and the Egypt Exploration Society under the direction of J. D.S. Pendlebury, in charge of the excavation publications.

The highly competent works published by the scholars who, as of the end of the nineteenth century, took a keen interest in the Amarna Period, have granted the world much insight into the dramatic high points of that era. Nonetheless, many questions still remain to be answered: Akhenaten and his court continue to hold on to much of their mystery.