Art and Archaeology of Ancient Egypt

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There is no other period in Egyptian history that shows the relevance of art and architecture in relation to the Egyptian crown as clearly as the Amarna Period. This historical episode was extraordinary in many respects, which is apparently reflected in the art and architecture of the abovementioned age. The demise of this period is widely known; however, in order to understand its value to a considerable degree, it is essential to analyze the reasons for such a revolution in a thorough manner.

The Amarna period resulted in being exceptionally significant in terms of implemented changes in the life of society of those times. During Akhenaten’s reign, a considerably distinctive style of art has emerged. The main differences concerned the implementation of the religious reform. The Aten’s elevation to the position of a sole god was highly encouraged by King Akhenaten. His activity contributed towards elimination of other gods’ worshiping and Amun-Ra particularly. Moreover, he changed his name from Amenhotep IV, ‘Amun is content’, to Akhenaten, ‘beneficial to the Aten’.   

When analyzing the art of the Amarna Age, it becomes obvious how distinctively it looks in comparison with the art of the other periods. The essential changes in terms of Egyptian art lied within the replacement of the traditional majestic and ideal forms of the king and gods with exaggerated and elongated images of the king and his queen, Nefertiti. One of the most apparent transformations can be traced in the way human body was depicted. The proportions were exaggerated to extreme, although there were no explanations found for these changes. While the head was considerably large, the shoulders along with the whole upper body were comparatively small. To the contrast, the lower part was substantially larger with the drooping belly over the typical kilt.  Nonetheless, the abovementioned portrayal of a human body gradually less extreme.   

Furthermore, it is widely argued whether the peculiar portrayal reflects actual physical deformities or rather forms the distinctive expressionistic style of the Amarna Period. It is also crucial to note the way in which Akhenaten with his wife and daughters were depicted. The portrayal of the royal family was comprised of scenes that were full of intimate affection and tenderness. Gradually, in the later years of Akhenaten’s reign, Amarna art contributed a graceful, softly naturalistic style that had a profound impact on the subsequent development.  

Although the amount of time during which Akhenaten reigned along with his enthronement is widely discussed by scholars, the influence of Amenhotep III on his son’s ruling seems undeniable. The dramatic changes in Egyptian art and archaeology began during his reign. Various evidences contribute towards the emergence of the notion that Amenhotep III was considered to be a living embodiment of Egyptian gods, especially the creator god Re in his manifestation as the sun's disk, Aten. At that time, diverse statues in many different forms and scales represented the deified king and were placed in all the principal cult center of the kingdom. It is highly significant to point out that most of those statues were made of the stone which was associated with the sun god. According to Johnson (1996), the abovementioned statues are usually considered to be posthumous, since the manner, in which they were carved, characterizes as natural. Consequently, it allegedly pertains to the era of Akhenaten’s ruling.

Thus, the role of Amenhotep III was substantial in terms of its effects on his successor. His introduction of the new Amarna religion was undoubtedly based on his father’s previous policy of the deification. Therefore, it can also be viewed as continuation of the processes that took place in the Egyptian society of those times. Moreover, it can be traced through a specific attitude of Akhenaten towards the Aten, his devotion and preoccupation with the sun disk. Consequently, such state of affairs evolved into new theological interpretation and perception of the sole god, instead of the diverse pantheon.

The significance and power of the king is explained through his exceptional descent. He represents the god Shu, who is the first born child of the creator god and serves as the embodiment of light, sunbeams, air and life on the whole. According to Hermann Te Velde, there is a certain interrelationship between the birth of Shu and his father Atum as their origin was provoked by each other simultaneously which, in its turn, makes their existence without each other rather doubtful. This notion leads to the association of Amenhotep III and his coregent son with the unique relationships Atum and Shu. Thus, they shared the same ideology and opinions in relation to the theological issues. Johnson (1996) points out an interesting fact, while Akhenaten expressed fury towards gods of Thebes, especially Amun during the implementation of his new Amarna religion, he generally tended to spare the figures of Atum. This fact represents his connection with Amenhotep III. In addition, the style that evolved during the reign of Akhenaten emphasizes his unique nature as the first born of the creator god to a considerable degree.

Consequently, the rise of the new solar cult which was highly encouraged by Akhenaten originates from the deification policy of Amenhotep III. Moreover, it constitutes the culmination of the abovementioned process. Thus, his contribution towards the development of the Amarna art is apparent and undeniable.

The spread of the new Amarna cult of the Aten started from Akhenaten’s desire to establish it in the most prominent historic centers of Egypt. Therefore, he built a tremendous temple complex in Thebes; however, this attempt failed as this city was entirely related to Amun-Ra. Just like Thebes, other cities were linked to other gods, as well. Nevertheless, Akhenaten decided to build the temple dedicated to the Aten in a special place and with this purpose he founded a whole city in an uninhabited desert site on one of the Nile’s banks. The city was called Akhetaten, ‘horizon of the Aten’ and contributed significantly towards the spread of the new solar cult. It is crucial to emphasize that its emergence and development affected negatively the old theological system. The worship of other gods was limited or even brought to naught. In this context, the cult of Amun-Ra had undergone severe attacks.            

Nonetheless, Akhenaten’s aspirations of transforming Egyptian society did not last beyond his reign. Shortly after becoming king, Akhenaten’s successor, Tutankhaten (‘living image of Aten’), changed his name to Tutankhamun (‘living image of Amun’) and reestablished the cult of Amun and other gods. Moreover, his parentage provokes certain debates among scholars. This doubtful connection may have caused the elimination of all previously provided religious reforms. The successor of Akhenaten contributed vastly towards the restoring of the previous theological system and restored the worshiping of traditional pantheon of gods. However, he did not leave his royal heir; therefore, Horemheb, Tutankhamun’s royal general.

During the reign of Horemheb, the same policy directed towards restoration of the old pantheon of gods was conducted. He did not just mark the end of the dynasty by becoming its last king, but also completed the abovementioned return to traditional religion and art. Thus, the temples of the Aten were gradually dismantled, while new statues and temples dedicated to the old gods emerging in Egypt of those times. The reason for the collapse of the revolutionary Akhenaten’s innovations lies within the rejection of the instilled religion. It turned out impossible to uproot the Ancient Egyptians’ customs to worship several gods instead of one. However, the Amarna Period had left its apparent imprint on the development of the subsequent art. Throughout history, there can be traced various similar situations, when people chose to go back to their roots instead of implementing innovations. Nonetheless, the ongoing progress usually forwards the human development despite any objections.

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