"Pharaohs of the Sun" Documents the Enigmatic Personalities of Amarna, the Ancient Egyptian Capital

Article excerpt

"Pharaohs of the Sun" Documents the Enigmatic Personalities of Amarna, the Ancient Egyptian Capital

Nefertiti, King Tut and the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten are the most recognizable figures in ancient Egypt's 4,000-year history -- but they were unknown 100 years ago. It was only when excavations began a century ago at obscure ruins at Tell Amarna, 175 miles north of Thebes/Luxor, that the most colorful period of Pharaonic Egypt was uncovered. Thanks to sculptures and 379 cuneiform tablets uncovered there, we know the people who lived in this city for 11 years better than we know all the other rulers of ancient Egypt.

More than 250 objects from 35 private collections and world-class museums have been assembled by Rita E. Freed of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for this exhibition, "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen," which runs through June 4 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Many of the pieces have never been seen outside Egypt. The only sculpture noticeably absent is the trademark bust of Queen Nefertiti wearing her cylindrical blue crown, but this masterpiece never leaves Berlin's Egyptian museum.

Shortly after assuming power in 1353 B.C. as Amenhotep IV, the pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten (One Who is Effective For Aten). Within five years, he ordered the construction of four massive temples dedicated to Aten (the sun god) in the Karnak precinct. These were united by a colonnaded court in which monumental images of Akhenaten fronted massive pillars.

The most breathtaking display in this remarkable exhibit are two of these seven-foot-tall heads of a crowned Akhenaten. An enlarged sepia photograph of the colonnade and the sculptures in situ is the backdrop for these enormous sandstone images of Akhenaten, immediately recognizable for his narrow, elongated head, slanted eyes, full lips and protruding chin.

While his father, Amenhotep III, had departed somewhat from the rigid sculptures depicting pharaoh as a broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, idealized image, Akhenaten pulled no punches. His artists evolved a new style in which the king and his chief wife, Nefertiti, were depicted with full hips and overhanging bellies. These effeminate proportions led some early archeologists to ponder whether Akhenaten was a hermaphrodite. That is unlikely, however, as he had several wives and fathered six daughters with Nefertiti. At least one of these daughters, historians speculate, he impregnated, and she died in childbirth, barely in her teens.

Because each Egyptian metropolis worshipped its own set of deities, Akhenaten decided in the sixth year of his reign to found a new city where his god, Aten, could be exclusively revered. The undeveloped site was midway between Thebes and Memphis.

By then, Akhenaten was ignoring diplomatic ties with vassal states throughout the Middle East. His attention was riveted on erecting his new capital, Akhetaten (Horizon of Aten), which over the ensuing 11 years would become home to 30,000 to 50,000 of his subjects.

A scale model of this city has been assembled under the supervision of Barry Kemp, the archeologist in charge of excavations at Amarna. The model includes the Great Temple, which covered 1.8 million square feet and was roofless to enable the sun's rays to enter the sanctuary. The layout reveals the placement of the palace, the library containing the invaluable royal correspondence, barracks, glass kilns, bakeries, beehive-shaped granaries, houses and the studio of the sculptor Thutmose, from which two dozen busts, including the Berlin Nefertiti, were recovered.

The citizens of Amarna were prosperous. Objects left behind which are on view in this exhibition include pottery, glass beads, jars, razors, hair curlers, rings, a pair of worn-out sandals, even a toilet seat. Glass-making had been introduced to Egypt via Mesopotamia about 1500 B.C., but Amarna evidently became an international center for the manufacture of faience (highly glazed glass). …