Dodson-Plague and Nefertiti

I am reading Aidan Dodson’s Amarna Sunset about the aftermath of the religious reformation of Pharaoh Akhenaten in 14th century B.C.E. Egypt.


Dodson’s first two chapters carry the titles: Noonday Sun and Waning Sun.

In the first chapter he makes much of an event that seems to have happened in King Ak’s (I am shortening the name of Akhenaten, originally Amenhotep IV) 12th year.  Two walls of tomb chapels at Amarna are decorated with tableaux depicting subjects from both Canaan/Syria and Nubia bringing gifts of wealth and slaves to present to King Ak.  This art represents a real event that celebrated the height of his reign.   There was a great international festival celebrating the Egyptian royal family and their god, Aten.

The royal family’s cult of Aten got more and more artistic attention as the years of King Ak went by.  Early on he changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten to include the god, Aten, in his name.  Then he moved the capitol from Thebes to a city he built, Amarna. There the art work centers on an increasingly dominant devotion to the divine manifestation of the radiance of the sun to the royal family.  Dodson thinks it is important that this art represents two things, the divine sun disk god and the royal family.  The rays of the sun fall directly upon the royal family.  Ak’s family then mediates this life force to the Egyptian empire.

This is a colorized rendering of one of the carvings.  I don’t know about you, but the addition of color help me see the details.


An interesting fact about all this art depicting the royal family is that only the daughters of the king appear.  There were royal sons, but they do not get represented in the art. We do not know why this is, but it was not new at Amarna.  When the royal family was depicted in earlier regimes, the sons were excluded as well.

We can see that by year 12, King Ak had 6 daughters.  Also he ruled a good swath of the known world.  So when the delegations from all over the empire brought offerings to him that year, his empire was at its triumphant pinnacle.  

But then some of the daughters seem to have soon died.  In fact, tombs with multiple burials seem to suggest a “flurry” of deaths in years 13 and 14.  

Dodson thinks it is possible that the festival of year 12 caused a plague in Amarna.  Thus, ironically the moment of triumph became the occasion for the beginning of the end for Amarna and King Ak’s cult of the solar god, Aten.

Sometime I will have to reread the chapter on the Waning Sun in order to really understand Dodson’s argument.  I admit that after the first reading it remains foggy in my mind.  This is because he definitely gets into the weeds of Egyptology and archeology.  

But this is what he ends up suggesting:  If there was a deadly epidemic that swept Amarna after year 12, it may have created a crisis concerning the succession.  King Ak may have been concerned about continuation of the Aten cult.  The eventual King Tut was a boy, too young to receive full responsibility for the empire.  When other possibilities were eliminated, it came down to the question of who was the most loyal and responsible adult. That was queen Nefertiti. She became the regent for Tut.  There were later attempts to expunge the record of her having ruled Egypt.  But Dodson thinks one can now see through these to the truth that Nefertiti actually ruled.

So after Ak’s death, Nefertiti ruled as Tut prepared to become pharaoh. And, although she had been a loyal devotee to the Aten cult, political reality forced her to begin to return resources to the traditional Egyptian religion and the priests and temples of Amen.  So Ak’s intention of maintaining the Aten cult was not fully successful.


The only authority I can bring to this is that I have read the Amarna letters, the Hymn to Aten and some other relevant original documents.  I am not an Egyptologist and I will have to leave it to others to either affirm of criticize Dodson’s theory about Nefertiti.  

It is interesting that we do not have internal documents that tell us how other Egyptians felt about Ak and his religious views.  For instance, if we were to discover letters from some of the priests of Amen, that would certainly help flesh out the internal reaction to Ak.

What we have is foreign reaction.  For instance, the chief or king of Shechem used a lot of pro-Aten theological language in his letters to Ak.  Was he a devotee or just trying to flatter the pharaoh?  Probably the later.  Nevertheless, details of the Aten cult were well known outside of Upper Egypt.  The king of Assyria wrote protesting that Ak had made his delegation stand in the sun and saying that if Ak thought it was good to stand in the sunlight he should do so–and die.

The temples to Aten, unlike traditional Egyptian temples, apparently had no roofs.  So you did stand in the sunlight and directly worship the solar disk.  This means that Aten worship was not just an artistic abstraction, but an actual worship of the sun.  The religious meaning of this has to be intuited by looking at the art.  Dodson’s point that the art shows a strong connection between solar worship and the royal family is an important one.  My guess would be that just as the sun ruled over and gave life to all within the horizon, so the pharaoh ruled over and gave life to all within the empire.  

So was Atenism perhaps more a justification of and interpretation of emperor worship than of monotheism?  If so, this does not mean that there was no cross influence to later Israel.  But I would look for the influence more in Solomon than in Moses.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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