Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Thirty-Two

Struggle of the Gods

Between 1386 and 1340 BC, one pharaoh makes strategic alliances, the next changes the religion of Egypt, and the captive Hebrews disappear into the desert

THE ALLIANCE BETWEEN the Mitanni princess and the Egyptian pharaoh Tuthmosis IV, which sealed the treaty between the two countries, was apparently a success; their son Amenhotep became the next pharaoh.82

Judging from the length of his reign, Amenhotep III was still in his teens when he came to the throne around 1386. His reign was marked by the growing peace and wealth of Egypt’s cities. Amenhotep III’s inscriptions don’t record battles; they describe the feats of a king with plenty of leisure time on his hands. According to one inscription, he killed 102 lions in the first ten years of his reign, a favorite sport of Egyptian kings.1 Another credits him with killing fifty-six wild bulls in a single day on a wild-cattle hunt. (Apparently the bulls were penned into an enclosure before he started hunting, which made the task a little easier.)2

Egypt’s trade flourished; among the objects found at Mycenae are several with Amenhotep III’s name inscribed on them. And although the king made the obligatory trip down into Nubia to put down yet another revolt, the battle was small in scope. The palace account of the campaign tells us that Amenhotep,

…heir of Ra, son of Ra, beloved of Ra…. His Majesty led on to victory; he completed it in his first campaign of victory.3

This single-campaign war is the only one of Amenhotep’s whole reign. Although he gave himself the title “Smiter of the Asiatics,” this was pure public relations; he never smote any Asiatics at all. He didn’t actually need to, as his father and grandfather had established the kingdom for him.

Instead, he built. He dug a lake a mile long so that his chief wife could go boating in comfort, in a royal boat named Aten Sparkles, after the god of the sun-disk. He built a huge new palace for his own use; he added to the Temple of Amun, at Karnak, and built a virgin temple to the sun-god in the nearby city of Luxor; he constructed a huge mortuary temple for himself, with two enormous seated statues of himself, one on either side. The statue on the right, according to ancient witnesses, moaned loudly at dawn and dusk: “It gives out the sound of a voice, when the sun’s rays strike it,” the Roman historian Tacitus noted.4 This was probably because the stone warmed and cooled quickly, but it gave the locals the shivers. He opened new quarries and mines, built a Memphis residence for himself, and erected shrines at various places farther south along the Nile.5 And he married, promiscuously, as many princesses as he could find. At least seven daughters of minor kings from the Mesopotamian and Western Semitic lands came to Amenhotep III’s palace as brides.

This was politically expedient, but apparently also to his tastes. A tablet sent to the governor of Gaza, who watched out over the southernmost Western Semitic lands for the pharaoh, remarks, “I have sent you this to inform you that I am sending you [a court official]…to fetch beautiful women…. Total women, forty, at forty pieces of silver each. Send very beautiful women, but make sure none of them have shrill voices. And then the king your lord will say to you, ‘That is very good.’”6

Like his father, Amenhotep III made a gesture of peace towards the Mitanni kingdom, still strong and a looming threat in the north. The Mitanni king Artadama—his own maternal grandfather—had passed the throne on to his son Sudarna II. When Amenhotep III came to the throne, Sudarna had been ruling his own Mitanni empire for ten or twelve years.

Amenhotep III sent to his uncle for a bride and was given in return a royal princess (probably his own cousin). She arrived with 317 attendants,7 reflecting her importance in her own kingdom if not in Amenhotep’s; she became one of the pharaoh’s minor wives. When Sudarna II was succeeded, not too much later, by his own son Tushratta (the brother of Amenhotep’s princess), Amenhotep III sent north again with another offer of marriage. Tushratta agreed to the alliance, which bound the Mitanni and Egyptian royal houses together with a double knot, and sent his own daughter south. Now Tushratta’s sister and daughter were both in the Egyptian harem,8 and Tushratta himself had become simultaneously Amenhotep’s father-in-law, brother-in-law, and cousin, thus continuing the Egyptian tradition of unsnarlable genealogical knots.

But it seems that Amenhotep III was not above playing a double game against his cousin/father-/brother-in-law and his cousin/father-/brother-in-law’s empire. He was also receiving, quietly, envoys from the city of Assur, which lay under Mitanni overlordship; the vassal king of Assur, Assurnadin-ahhe II, was surreptitiously strengthening his city’s fortifications in preparation for revolt.9

Amenhotep III had no business welcoming Assur’s diplomats at all. Mitanni vassals were not supposed to negotiate with foreign powers as though they were independent. However, the pharaoh not only welcomed the envoys, but sent them back home with money for the fortifications, earning Assur’s gratitude and a possible ally against any aggression from the north.

Around the same time, he negotiated a secret treaty with the new king of the Hittites, sworn enemies of the Mitanni. This king, an energetic young man named Suppiluliuma, had inherited his position from a long line of entirely undistinguished predecessors; and he too was slightly worried about the looming Mitanni juggernaut. When Amenhotep III approached him for an alliance (“Let us establish only the most friendly relations between us,” the pharaoh had proposed), the Hittite king agreed.10

Nor was that the end of Amenhotep’s arrangements. He also married the daughter of the Kassite king of Babylon, a man much older than himself; when the king’s son succeeded, he sent off with an offer for the son’s daughter as well.

This was the same technique he had used with the Mitanni royal house. But the king of Babylon showed an unexpected willingness to cross the will of the pharaoh. In his letters, he objects that he hasn’t heard anything from his sister in years:

Here you are asking for my daughter in marriage. But my sister, whom my father gave you, is already there with you. And no one has seen her, to know whether she is alive or dead.11

Amenhotep III retorted,

Did you ever send an ambassador here who knows her, who could speak with her and recognize her? You’ve only sent me nobodies instead—an assherder as a messenger!12

He then pointed out, tartly, that the Babylonian king had a reputation for giving daughters happily away to anyone who offered gold in return.

The rude implication that Babylon’s real concern was a better bride-price was ignored by the Babylonian king, who apparently didn’t expect courtesy from Egypt anyway. By return message, he suggested that he take an Egyptian princess as his wife instead, but this met with no joy from Amenhotep: “From time immemorial,” the pharaoh snapped, “no daughter of a king of Egypt is given to anyone.”13 Amenhotep would negotiate, scheme, and marry to create alliances, but he always had the inferiority of his allies firmly in mind.

AS THE THIRTIETH YEAR of his reign approached, Amenhotep III planned his first jubilee festival, the heb-sed renewal of his power.

In this particular jubilee, the Nile and its waters were less in view than another divine entity: the sun. The sun-god Ra was one of Egypt’s oldest, and since the beginning of his reign, Amenhotep III had proclaimed a special devotion to him. He had taken, as one of his royal names, the title “Ra is the lord of truth,” and his inscriptions refer to him variously as “heir of Ra,” “chosen one of Ra,” and “image of Ra in the Two Lands.”14

Like Amenhotep’s marriages, this devotion was a convenient combination of personal tastes and political shrewdness. After a Fifth Dynasty surge in power,83 the priests of Ra had given way somewhat to the priests of Amun, the ancient father-god, the First Cause in the Egyptian pantheon. Amun had always been a rather amorphous deity; in fact, one of his appearances was a non-appearance, as an invisible presence. He was nicknamed “The Hidden One,” and was prone to borrow identities, temporarily claiming the powers of some other deity to mask his mysterious true nature.15 This gave his priests plenty of flexibility. As the titles of Hatshepsut’s vizier reveal, to be a priest of Amun was to claim ownership over practically any part of Egypt’s wealth.84

By worshipping Ra as his personal deity, Amenhotep III freed himself from the authority of Amun’s priests—and also avoided contributing any more land or wealth to Amun’s temple. Apparently the sun-god Ra showed his gratitude by welcoming Amenhotep III into the pantheon; on a relief from around the time of the festival, Amenhotep’s son bows down to worship his father, who stands high in the place of the sun.16

This is slightly unusual, since Amenhotep IV, the son of the king, rarely appeared on his father’s monuments, almost as though Amenhotep III hoped to keep him out of the view of his future subjects. He had already assigned the young man a position as viceroy of the kingdom of Kush, the name for the far south of Nubia (or “Upper Nubia” the Upper Nubian kingdom of Kush was centered around the Third Cataract, while the northern part of Nubia, “Lower Nubia,” was known as Wawa). Putting the heir to the throne so very far away suggests that Amenhotep III hoped to keep the next claimant as far from the throne as possible.

But he could not put off the inevitable forever. In the thirty-seventh year of his reign, Amenhotep III began to suffer from a sickness which drew itself out into an approach to death. His teeth, preserved in his mummy, were badly abscessed and must have pained him continually; perhaps this final sickness was a spreading infection.17 His Mitanni cousin/father-/brother-in-law Tushratta sent help, in the form of a statue of the goddess Ishtar, taken from Assur decades before. We have Amenhotep’s words of thanks, but the Mesopotamian goddess apparently had no power in Egypt; not long after Ishtar passed the Delta, Amenhotep III died.


32.1 Nubia

During his extraordinarily long reign, Egypt had reached an unprecedented peace and prosperity. Amenhotep IV, returning from his Nubian exile to take his father’s place, had a lot to live up to. He chose to outdo his father in devotion. Amenhotep III had worshipped the sun-god Ra;

Amenhotep IV started an entire new religion, the worship of the sun itself.

The disk of the sun itself was called “the Aten,” and had not gone unrecognized in the past; it was simply one aspect of the sun-god Ra. But in the hands of Amenhotep IV, the sun-disk became something new.

Rather than a god shaped like a mortal being, as Osiris and Horus and Ra himself were, the sun-disk was an abstract representation of the divine itself: the manifestation of a single power. In its glare, the other gods of the pantheon vanished. The sun was not merely the chief power. It was the only power. The gods of the Egyptian pantheon had wives and consorts; Aten was alone and self-sufficient. The gods of the Egyptian pantheon appeared in the shapes of mortal beings; Aten had no form. The gods of the Egyptian pantheon had stories; Aten had no story at all.

Amenhotep IV was on his way to becoming a monotheist.

IN THE FIFTH YEAR of his reign, Amenhotep IV announced to his priests and to his courtiers that he had received a divine word: Aten had pointed out to him a place, never before built on, where a new capital city would be erected in honor of the god.

The site was a dry, sandy, waste plain, east of the Nile, beneath a half-circle of cliffs, with hardly any fertile land nearby. It was a boiling hot hole where the stone walls collected the sun’s heat while the cliffs blocked breezes. But here, Amenhotep IV intended to build the city of Akhet-Aten. As construction began, he also changed his own name. From the ninth year of his reign, he was almost universally inscribed as Akhen-aten: worshipper of the sun.18

Now the ruler of Egypt was no longer simply “beloved of Ra” he was the child of Aten, son of the sun. Aten had no other god before it, but the pharaoh remained the sole earthly incarnation and representative of this deity. Akhenaten’s own power came directly from his knowledge of the One. He was at pains to explain this in a long creed, which he wrote himself:

You arise on the horizon of Heaven, O Living Aten, Beginniner of Life.…When you set on the horizon, the earth is in darkness, as though it were in death…. The earth brightens when you arise on the horizon.…How many are your works! They are hidden from the sight of men, Only Divine, to whom there is no one who bears a likeness…. You are in my heart, but there is none other who knows you except for your son, Akhenaten. You have made him wise in your plans and in your power.19

Once he was settled in his new city, Akhenaten ordered the name of Amun wiped out of inscriptions. Workmen were to cover it with plaster and re-inscribe it with the name of Aten.20 Amun was not a true god; he was a distorted, corrupted version of the true divine, and his powerful priests were now out of luck. The destruction was so complete that barely an instance of Amun’s name survived.

The other gods fared no better. Akhenaten ordered new temples built to Aten, with open centers where the sun could fall; but other temples were closed, the priests turned out and forbidden to sacrifice. No other priests replaced them. Aten needed no priests, no religious bureaucracy that might thwart the pharaoh’s aims. Neither the god nor the god’s representative on earth would tolerate shared power.

Name-change notwithstanding, Akhenaten was a true son of his father.

SOMETIME WITHIN a hundred-year span of Akhenaten’s reign, another religious and political upheaval took place, when the descendents of Abraham fled from Egypt.

According to the Pentateuch, Abraham’s descendents had multiplied into a nation: the Hebrews, who had lived as shepherds and nomads in the Western Semitic lands until a famine threatened to wipe them out. They took themselves and their flocks down to well-watered Egypt, where they settled somewhere in the north and prospered.

The biblical story describes an Egyptian population uncomfortable with this energetic and—more to the point—fertile people, who showed signs of outgrowing the borders of their settlement and spilling over into the rest of the country. The Egyptians had always despised the “vile Asiatics” to the north, and invasions from the Western Semitic lands were a constant danger. Not only that, but Egypt had in recent memory been captured by Western Semites—the Hyksos, who (like the Hebrews) had lived in Egypt for decades before making their move. So it is hardly surprising that the presence of yet another prospering immigrant people might make them nervous.

The book of Exodus tells us that the pharaoh of Egypt rounded up the Hebrews as pressed labor for his building projects, and (when this did not decrease the surplus population) ordered all male Hebrew children thrown into the river. The mother of one of these children hid him for three months. When she realized that he had become too noisy to conceal any longer, she made a papyrus basket, sealed it with tar, put the baby in it, and set it in the reeds by the side of the Nile, right near the place where the Egyptian princesses came down to bathe. A princess arrived, with a flock of attendents behind her, and found the baby. She recognized him as one of the Hebrews, but decided to adopt him anyway. The baby grew up in the palace, under the name of Moses.

On the face of it, a princess’s adoption of a Hebrew baby seems unlikely to exist alongside this hostility. But we know that the pharaohs from Tuthmosis IV on married the daughters of eastern royalty with regularity, meaning that this princess could easily have been of Western Semitic stock. She may well have known the story of Sargon, who floated as a baby down the Euphrates:

My mother conceived me in secret, she gave birth to me in concealment.

She set me in a basket of rushes,

she sealed the lid with tar.

She cast me into the river, but it did not rise over me.

Sargon’s birth story served as a seal of chosenness, a proof of his divinity. Surely the mother of the Hebrew baby knew it, and made use of it in a desperate (and successful) attempt to place her own baby in the line of the divinely chosen.

The reality followed on her masquerade. Moses, grown, left Egypt and then heard the call of the God of Abraham: he was to return to Egypt and lead all the Hebrew people out of slavery, back up to the land God had promised to Abraham’s descendents. When he arrived at court, the pharaoh (no doubt recognizing the Hebrew adoptee who had grown up in the palace; possibly the two men were much of an age) refused, indignantly. Each refusal was followed by divine reprisal: ten plagues, each worse than the one before, until the Egyptian resistance finally buckled and the pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.

The Exodus became the central event in the history of the Hebrews, the defining moment around which the entire story of the Jewish nation was structured. But it shows up nowhere in Egyptian chronicles.

This is hardly surprising. The exodus of the Hebrews was a nose-thumbing directed not just at the power of the pharaoh and his court, but at the power of the Egyptian gods themselves. The plagues were designed to ram home the impotence of the Egyptian pantheon. The Nile, the bloodstream of Osiris and the lifeblood of Egypt, was turned to blood and became foul and poisonous; frogs, sacred to Osiris, appeared in numbers so great that they were transformed into a pestilence; the sun-disk was blotted out by darkness, Ra and Aten both made helpless. These are not the kinds of events that appear in the celebratory inscriptions of any pharaoh.

The most conservative dating of the Exodus puts it at 1446, which would have placed it near the end of the reign of Amenhotep II, Akhenaten’s great-grandfather.85 Other estimates put the Exodus a couple of hundred years later, in the mid–1200s and over a century from Akhenaten himself. A whole range of possibilities exists around this, with a subsection of historians suggesting that the Exodus was more of a gradual seeping out of Egypt back up into the land of the Western Semites, and a smaller subsection suggesting there was no Exodus at all.

For our purposes, it is enough to note that the Hebrews disappear into the desert, and off the international scene, for some centuries. These years are historically invisible, but theologically central. It is in the desert that their own sacred book is born; in this book, the Hebrew God appears as a single power with no consort, the divine First Cause, the one and only God, who brings life in his own name.


Despite this description, the Hebrew I am and the Aten of Egypt share almost no quality beside that of self-sufficiency. The Hebrew God, although not anthropomorphic, is most definitely a personality; Aten is a force. Aten is the sun, but the Hebrew God is in no way identified with the created world, and certainly never with either sun or moon. He is so far beyond the disk of the sun that it could not begin to represent him. The two monotheistic movements were close in time—but in no other way.86

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