Akhenaton revisited

Some consider him as the precursor of Christ. Others see in him a proto-hippy or the figurehead of the gay movement. A monotheist before the concept was invented, husband of Nefertiti and the father of Tutankhamen, this pharaoh had everything it takes to make the West fantasise. In the bibliography devoted to him  (1), the Liège Egyptologist Dimitri Laboury filters the old myths through contemporary science.

COVER Laboury
How to write a trustworthy biography of a king who disappeared over thirty centuries ago? Much depends on the abundance and the quality of the sources which time has permitted to come down to us. But in the case of Amenhotep IV- Akhenaton (Amenophis IV, in Ancient Greek), the major problem resides in the manner in which the information available about him has been interpreted since he was ‘rediscovered’, in the middle of the 19th century. His character has effectively been distorted, sometimes in ways bordering on the ridiculous, by the fantasies and the needs of identity formation felt by the West, vis-à-vis Ancient Egypt. This civilisation has in effect been perceived since the end of the Middle Ages as a precursor of contemporary societies and their values. Thus were attributed to the ‘monotheistic’ pharaoh behavioural and personality features which at times had nothing to do with what he really was and what he really did. Amongst the innumerable biographies of the monarch, be they openly romanticised or declare themselves as scientific or scholarly, nearly none of them escape this distorting mirror effect created by the expectations of the era as regards this unusual sovereign, who ruled Egypt for seventeen years (+/- 1352-1335 av. J.-C.). The Egyptologists themselves have generally been unable to escape this form of ‘cultural hallucination’; on the contrary, they have often contributed to it!

It also needs to be distinguished between what has been historically verified and what is a matter of personal opinion – or even personal projection – between Akhenaton as the precursor of Christ, the spiritual father of Moses, a pre-scientific humanist, a ‘good leader who loved humanity,’ or an enlightened despot, who practiced real politik, the first instigator of theosophy, Nazism or perestroika, or an eccentric degenerate, iconoclastic and dictatorial, a pre-Socratic philosopher or the first fundamentalist in history, to only post up some of the portraits brushed by eminent Egyptologists. But what can be said if we add a proto-Islamic Akhenaton, that of the Afro-centrists, the fathers of psychoanalysis, the Marxists, the proto-hippy of the 1960s, the idol of rappers, a figurehead of the gay movement or even the extraterrestrial Akhenaton, who is experiencing a certain success on the Internet today? From the adventures of Blake and Mortimer in The Mystery of the Great Pyramid to the hero of the Nobel Prize for literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, from a play by Agatha Christie to the esoteric Nazi writer Savitri Dévi, the pharaoh has literally been adapted to suit each and every purpose! A wide range of successive Akhenatons have thus been fantasized over the eras, according to a ‘Western-centric’ reading conditioned by the sensibilities of the times and the needs of the moment, to such a point that the monotheistic pharaoh constitutes a genuine case study to illustrate the influence of the prevailing context on the writing of history. But Akhenaton’s immense popularity surely accounts for the revelation, in the 1920s, of the magnificent and celebrated bust of his wife Nefertiti, and then the most emblematic and most mediatised of all the discoveries in the history of archaeology: the bringing to light, in 1922, of the almost intact funerary treasure of a child-king delivered up from the realm of the forgotten: Tutankhamen, who would later be revealed to be the son of Akhenaton.


(1) Dimitri Laboury, Akhénaton, Pygmalion, Paris, 2010, 482 pages. 

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