Amarna: A Brief Flowering along the Nile

By Stabile, Tom | Humanities, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview
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Amarna: A Brief Flowering along the Nile


Stabile, Tom, Humanities


THE EGYPTIAN metropolis of Amarna flourished for just twenty years, but left its mark on the sun-baked plains along the Nile.

Founded by Pharaoh Akhenaten, who abandoned Egypt's many gods for a kind of monotheism, the city of Amarna introduced rapid change to its society, art, and people. But Akhenaten's successors obliterated his image and deserted the city not long after his death, leaving it buried in the dust from 1336 B.C. until the end of the last century.

Now, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is mining a wealth of artifacts, stories, and personalities to present a major traveling exhibition, "Pharaohs of the Sun," which will open in Boston in November and later move to Los Angeles, Chicago, and Leiden, Germany.

"This period is fascinating to people not only because it's beautiful, but also because it's so different from what came before," says Rita Freed, curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Middle Eastern Art at the museum.

The exhibition's full title"Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen"-underscores how the museum will tell the story of this brief but celebrated epoch through Amarna's three most prominent leaders. Previous exhibitions have presented specific aspects of the era and its major figures, but Freed says none attempted to take visitors into the world of Amarna through the experiences of its citizens.

"This is not a 'daily-life' show, exactly," said Freed. "It's a much broader picture and at the same time narrower. We look at the daily life of the king and the daily life of the average person on the street, but within a very narrow strip of history."

That seventeen- to twenty-year golden age-the length of the rule of Akhenaten and his successors at Amarna-produced a rich variety of artifacts unearthed by archaeologists over the last one hundred years. More than three hundred pieces will be on display.

They include sculpture, reliefs, jewelry, ceramics, clothing, tools, furniture, and even correspondence.

Freed says the pieces help bring together Amarna's personalities, its physical characteristics, and its social milieu. The central figure remains Akhenaten.

Akhenaten's grand vision for a new society took hold shortly after he became pharaoh in 1353 B.C. as Amenhotep IV. He shook the foundations of traditional Egypt: forsaking the worship of multiple deities to favor a single god, Aten; moving the empire's central institutions from Thebes to the city he founded, Amarna; and extending a greater leadership role in public, political, and religious life to women, and especially to his wife, Nefertiti, who is believed to have ruled for a time on her own.

The exhibition will focus not only on Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and their spectacular reshaping of Egyptian society, but also on Tutankhaten, Akhenaten's ten-year-old son-in-law. When he ascended the throne, Tutankhaten would drop the 'aten' from his name, reverting to the old style and the old gods, and be known as Tutankhamen. The boy king, probably under the guidance of Akhenaten's traditionalist rivals, would abandon Amarna, destroy many of its landmarks, and try to reinstate the religious and political order that had existed before.

The exhibition will also recreate the face of Amarna, which museum literature describes as a "bustling capital of the world's greatest empire, with a population estimated between twenty and fifty thousand people." After decades of excavations by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, scholars now estimate that Amarna covered an area of eighty square miles on the plain between the cities of Thebes and Memphis along the Nile. Palaces, temples, and government offices formed the city's core at the river's eastern banks. From there it spread out with opulent villas, large and small houses of mud brick, police barracks, and even bakeries.

Because it was suddenly and permanently abandoned, Amarna's urban remains are uniquely "accessible" to archaeologists, says EES Director Barry Kemp, who assisted with the development of "Pharaohs.

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