Egyptian civilization persisted for thousands of years with its art and religion remaining largely unchanged. That is, except for one brief 17-year period in the 14th century BC. Had Pharaoh Akhenaten merely moved the capital and changed some religious rites, perhaps his reign would be little more than a minor footnote in the annals of Egyptian history. But for the first time ever, Akhenaten radically changed Egyptian religion and art. And his genre of ‘Amarna art,’ as we call it today, continues to stir controversy and debate.

In ancient Egypt, religion and art were inseparable. And if one was going to dramatically alter the traditional religion, it’s only natural that the art would follow suit. 

Yet the bizarre changes Akhenaten implemented took things in a strange direction that still has us scratching our heads. Amarna art is immediately recognizable for the elongated faces and wide hips of its subjects. And aside from the shining rays of the Aten sun disk, all traditional gods are missing.

While many important Amarna art pieces are sitting in museums in Germany or the UK, there’s still plenty to see in Egypt itself. During my travels around the country, I set out to find as much of this unique art style as I could. And along the way, I gained a deeper understanding of what Akhenaten may have been thinking, though this question remains far from settled.

In the following article, we’ll be tracing the developments of both Amarna art and Akhenaten’s new religion of ‘Atenism.’ To get the full picture, we’ll be going over the significant pieces of Amarna art found at Egypt’s major museums along with a visit to Amarna itself.

Where to Find Amarna Art

At the time of writing, you can find original pieces of Amarna art at the following locations: 

 CAIRO:

  • The Cairo Museum

SAQQARA:

  • The New Kingdom and Bubasteion tombs

TELL EL-AMARNA:

  • The Royal Tomb of Akhenaten
  • Various non-royal tombs
  • The Great Temple of the Aten
  • The Amarna Visitor Center (replicas only)

LUXOR:

  • Karnak Temple
  • The Luxor Museum
  • The Tomb of Ramose

What is Amarna Art?

Simply put, Amarna art refers to the distinct style of art produced during the Amarna period, a term for Akhenaten’s 17-year reign. 

When archaeologists first came across Amarna art in the early 1800’s, they assumed that Akhenaten was a foreign ruler who’d usurped the throne. Not only had he been left out of the history books, but his art was unlike anything the Egyptians had produced before or since.

Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Domestic scenes of the royal family relaxing at home were introduced during the Amarna period
Seti I Offering
A pharaoh making offerings in the traditional art style
Akhenaten making offerings to the Aten

In contrast to traditional Egyptian art, we see the subjects of Amarna art with elongated necks and enlarged heads. Their skulls seem to be stretched out, appearing rather alien-like.

Furthermore, the characters take on a curvey, cartoonish appearance that appears like a grotesque caricature.

Even Akhenaten is depicted with narrower shoulders and thin arms which lack musculature. But in contrast to his skinny arms, he has a fleshy, drooping belly and a round buttocks. His legs meanwhile, consist of thick thighs but with thin calves.

Why would anybody, especially a king, would want to be depicted this way? This is one of the most puzzling questions of the entire Amarna period. As we’ll go over below, the early Amarna sculptures are equally bizarre.

Changing the Grid

When looking back at Egyptian history, we can find numerous examples of artistic innovations in both two-dimensional reliefs and sculpture art. But one thing traditional Egyptian art maintained the entire time was its proportions.

To the Egyptians, art was not nearly about making something beautiful, or as a means for someone to express their creativity. All Egyptian art had a religious purpose, and it was first and foremost functional. 

And that’s why Akhenaten’s changes were so radical. Not only did he change the style, but he altered the proportions.

Since the early days of the Old Kingdom, a traditional grid system was utilized to determine the location of each body part. The body was divided into 18 sections, with the top being marked by the forehead (or third eye) of an individual. An additional 19th square was then added to make room for the top of the head.

The naval was always located around square eleven, with the knees at square six.

But Akhenaten added two squares to this ancient grid system. The knees and naval remain at roughly the same points they were before. But an extra square was added at the chest and also the neck, creating the elongated look he was going for.

But perhaps even Akhenaten got too freaked out by the artwork. Amarna art started off as extreme and highly exaggerated in its early phase. But later in Akhenaten’s reign, the two-dimensional art became less exaggerated. And later sculptures began to display surprisingly realistic and natural features.

While never playing a major role in Amarna art, non-royals were typically much less exaggerated. But they still exhibited narrower shoulders, a larger butt and a fleshy belly area. And as we’ll go over below, some of these styles would persist after the Amarna period was officially over.

A grid used for a draft of a pharaoh in the traditional Egyptian art style
Amarna Art Grid Lines
To the left of Akhenaten we can see some grid lines left in place
Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Characters in Amarna art had a fluidity to them which contrasted the rigid postures of traditional Egyptian art

Amarna Art's Origins in Luxor

Before he was known as Akhenaten, the king began his reign in 1362 BC as Amenhotep IV. And evidence suggests that before that, he ruled as co-regent with his father, Amenhotep III, for several years – perhaps as many as eleven.

What makes Akhenaten’s actions so puzzling is that his ‘revolution’ occurred not in a period of decline and decadence. Amenhotep III’s reign is often considered to be the zenith of New Kingdom art and culture. Furthermore, Egypt was in a state of relative peace and calm.

So what exactly was his son rebelling against? This is something we may never be able to answer. Curiosly, Amenhotep IV was a rather conventional king for the first couple years of his reign, but his break with tradition would be sudden and dramatic. 

The first phase of his transition took place at Karnak Temple in the capital of Thebes (current Luxor). 

Karnak & the Talatat Blocks

Over the centuries, new pharaohs would regularly add new additions to Karnak Temple. And one of Amenhotep IV’s first projects was adding a portico to one of the temple’s main gates. 

For some reason, the wall was never finished. But the scene is a typical one  showing the pharaoh grabbing the hair of a group of prisoners. Today, this unfinished wall is on display at the Open-Air Museum to the north of Karnak’s Great Court.

And on display at the nearby Luxor Museum is an early statue of Amenhotep IV discovered at Karnak that was done in the traditional style. 

Karnak Pylon Akhenaten
Luxor Museum Amarna Art

Amenhotep IV then decided to build several new temples just outside of the eastern edge of the temple complex. While nothing but foundations remain today, the king built four or five temples at Karnak, all of which he named after the Aten sun disk. 

The ruins of these structures reveal a swift and radical departure from traditional Egyptian art – both in two and three dimensions.

A view from the eastern gate (now locked) of the general area of where Akhenaten constructed his temples

Several bizarre colossal statues were dug up in these temple ruins, and today they can be seen at both the Cairo and Luxor museums. 

The statues display many of the strange characteristics of Amarna art we mentioned above, such as the elongated face, large lips and feminine hips. But it’s especially strange to see them from close up and on such a large scale!

Egyptian pharaohs commonly made statues of themselves posing as Osiris. Amenhotep IV followed suit, and we can see him with his arms crossed, holding the traditional crook and flail. But he’s not wearing the traditional shroud, and on his head were feathers symbolic of Shu, the primordial god of light.

Luxor Museum Amarna Art
Luxor Museum Amarna Art

Furthermore, the king appears surprisingly feminine, with wide hips, a sagging belly and large thighs. This was a far cry from the traditional pharaonic statue which depicted the king as having an ideal male body.

But what was Amenhotep IV’s intention here? Perhaps he wanted to identify himself with androgynous deities such as Hapi, an important fertility god. 

And as we’ll go over shortly, the Aten of Amenhotep IV’s new religion was genderless, so he possibly wanted to embody both masculine and feminine principles in his statues.

Cairo Museum Amarna Art

Among the collection at the Cairo Museum, one puzzling statue appears nude but with no hint of genitalia. Traditionally, the Egyptians only ever carved nude statues in wood and never in stone. And there’s still debate over whether the statue is of Amenhotep IV or his wife Nefertiti!

Creating a brand new style that broke with centuries of tradition would’ve required considerable creative insight. The sculptor behind these works was likely a man named Bek, whose father had created the Colossi of Memnon for Amenhotep III. Notably, on a stele found at Aswan, Bek claimed that he was instructed by the king himself.

Karnak Temple Ninth Pylon
Karnak Temple Ninth Pylon

The eastern temples of Karnak were also where the first examples of two-dimensional Amarna art were displayed. After Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten’s reign, pharaoh Horemheb dismantled the temples and used the blocks to construct the 9th pylon on Karnak’s southern axis.

These blocks, of which there are thousands in total, are now called talatat for their diminutive size. They were discovered by archaeologists and reassembled, with the art now on display at the Luxor Museum, 

The art not only shows us the first example of Amarna art’s distorted proportions, but it also reveals the first depictions of the Aten sun disk with its long shining rays.

Luxor Museum Amarna Art
Luxor Museum Amarna Art
Luxor Museum Amarna Art

The Tomb of Ramose

Another example of Amarna art can be found on Luxor’s west bank at the Tomb of Ramose. Ramose was the vizier of both Amenhotep III and his son. Likewise, his tomb contains examples of both traditional and Amarna art. 

Tomb of Ramose Amarna Art
Tomb of Ramose Amarna Art

While it was never finished and images of the pharaoh were later etched out, you can still clearly make out the Aten sun disk. In front of the pharaoh, meanwhile, are a large number of servants bowing to the pharaoh and kissing the ground. The hand-drawn outlines can still be seen if you look closely.

While images of Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten were effaced by his successors after his reign, the ‘heretic king’ did a lot of effacement himself. His main target was the god Amun, whose name he erased at temples all over Thebes. 

But while Amun was hardly ever depicted in Egyptian tombs, look closely and you’ll see that some birds have been etched out. These were geese, a bird closely associated with Amun!

Tomb of Ramose Amarna Art
Tomb of Ramose Amarna Art
Poor geese...

What was Atenism?​

By examining the radical changes Amenhotep IV was making throughout Luxor, it’s clear that he was more than just a reformer. In fact, he set out to create a brand new religion, which today we call ‘Atenism.’

The very first mention of the Aten appeared in the Tale of Sinuhe back in the 12th Dynasty. It was considered to be an aspect of Re, the prominent deity associated with the sun.

In fact, early on in Amenhotep IV’s reign, the official title of the Aten was ‘Re-Horakhty Who Rejoices In the Horizon, in His Name of Shu Who Is the Aten.’

But eventually, Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten would do away with references to the traditional Egyptian gods, declaring the Aten as the sole god and he as its prophet. The Aten would even get its own cartouche as if it were the true king!

Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti would act as replacements for the traditional male/female pairings found throughout the Egyptian pantheon. And together with the Aten, they formed a new triad.

Atenism is looked at surprisingly favorably by many today, especially adherents to the Abrahamic faiths. The short-lived religion is seen as the first established monotheistic faith. 

Depending on how you look at it, though, the traditional Egyptian religion could also be considered monotheistic, with all deities merely representing particular aspects of Amun-Re.

While we don’t know much about the more occult aspects of Atenism that were never written down, we do know that others in Egypt were not happy with the changes. And the growing resentment likely prompted the king to abandon Thebes and establish a brand new capital from scratch. 

Luxor Museum Amarna Art
Akhenaten wrote the official name for the Aten in a cartouche, implying that the god was the true ruler of Egypt

The New Capital of Amarna

Amenhotep IV decided to move the Egyptian capital in regnal year five – the same year he officially changed his name to Akhenaten. His new name translates roughly to ‘Effective for the Aten.’ His new capital city, meanwhile, was called Akhetaten, or ‘Horizon of the Aten.’

To further break with tradition, Akhenaten wanted to establish a city on virgin land that had no prior relationship with any Egyptian deity. And conveniently, the site he chose for Akhetaten also happened to be precisely in the center of Egypt.

Nefertiti Palace Amarna

Today, the area is known as Tell el-Amarna, or Amarna for short. Though I’d read that there was hardly anything to see in Amarna other than a ruined temple and a few tombs, I was eager to see it for myself. And so I hired a private tour company to take me on a long, exhausting day trip from Cairo to the abandoned capital. 

Approaching Amarna today, one can easily get a feel for what Akhenaten would’ve seen when first encountering the site: a vast empty desert.

Thutmose the Sculptor

Approaching Amarna, one of the first ‘ruins’ we encountered was the Southern Expedition House of archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt. In the early 20th century, Borchardt was one of the first archaeologists to thoroughly excavate Amarna. And he was also the man to discover the famous bust of Nefertiti.

Many in Egypt today regard Borchardt as a thief, as he brought the sculpture back to Germany without official permission. Despite multiple requests from the Egyptian government, one of the most famous pieces of Amarna art remains in Berlin to this day.

Amarna Visitor Center Nefertiti Bust
A replica of the bust at the Amarna Visitor Center

Controversy surrounding its removal aside, we know that the bust of Nefertiti was the work of a sculptor named Thutmose (not to be confused with the numerous 18th Dynasty pharaohs and princes of the same name). 

In contrast to the highly exaggerated, cartoonish sculptures of Akhenaten found at Karnak, Thutmose’s style is representative of what art scholars call ‘later’ Amarna art. It was a much more realistic style, but still a break from traditional Egyptian sculpture.

Cairo Museum Amarna Art
A much more realistic depiction of the king compared with Bek's earlier sculptures
Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Cairo Museum Amarna Art

Bizarrely, while Thurmose’s faces appear much more realistic, royal families were still depicted with elongated skulls. What was the symbolism intended behind this?

The strange sculptures have led many to theorize that Akhenaten’s family may have really looked like this. But examinations of Amenhotep III’s mummy have not revealed any genetic deformities. 

The North Palace

Nearby we passed a structure known as the North Palace. It was clearly once a massive and lavish palace, and it was just one of a few different royal palaces built in Amarna.

Nefertiti Palace Amarna
Nefertiti Palace Amarna

Scholars believe that the palace was built for Queen Nefertiti or Queen Tiya, and maybe later used by Princess Meritaten. Supposedly, the whole thing was decorated in zoological imagery, similar to the original flooring found at Akhenaten’s main palace (see below).

And as we’ll go over shortly, in addition to royal palaces, Akhenaten also had to hire an enormous workforce to build other things typical of an Egyptian city. Namely, temples and tombs.

The Royal Tomb of Akhenaten

Breaking with thousands of years of tradition, Akhenaten’s royal tomb (and all other tombs of Amarna) were built on the east bank of the Nile River. Discovered in 1880 around 6km from Amarna’s center, this spacious tomb was intended for Akhenaten and other family members, including Nefertiti, Princess Meketataten and his mother Queen Tiy. 

The tomb has only been open to the public for a couple of years. Very few visitors make it out here, and the tomb lacks any kind of lighting. But armed with a flashlight, I was excited to explore the tomb of the ‘heretic king’ to see what authentic Amarna art I could find.

Amarna

The limestone in the area is of poor quality, and the walls had to be plastered before any carvings could be made. Sadly, much of the plaster has fallen off, having been severely damaged by flooding.

Royal Tomb of Akhenaten
Royal Tomb of Akhenaten

While the tomb’s layout is much like what one would find in the Valley of the Kings, the artwork is not typical of an Egyptian tomb at all.

The tomb is entirely adorned in ceremonial offering scenes. We see images of the royal family and the shining Aten. But there’s little to differentiate the subject matter from the standard Amarna temple art, except for some funerary scenes.

Royal Tomb of Akhenaten
Royal Tomb of Akhenaten
Royal Tomb of Akhenaten

In contrast to every other royal tomb of the New Kingdom, there’s no imagery whatsoever depicting the king’s spiritual journey through the underworld. While one would think that Akhenaten’s tomb would reveal vital information about the secret teachings of Atenism, apparently such teachings never existed.

Akhenaten ignored the traditional funerary texts like the Am Duat or the Book of Gates, but he never created his own alternative. Considering how the soul’s journey after death was a hugely important part of Egyptian religion, this is no small oversight!

Royal Tomb of Akhenaten

Akhenaten was most likely buried in this tomb. But upon his death, his body was probably moved to a small tomb in the Valley of the Kings, possibly by his successor Tutankhamun. 

While at the Cairo Museum, don’t miss Akhenaten’s colorful coffin which was found in tomb KV55 in Luxor. Many believe, however, that the coffin was originally attended for Kiya, Akhenaten’s second wife. 

It was found destroyed and had to be pieced together by archaeologists. Just next to it is a unique glass coffin lid.

Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Amarna Visitor Center
Part of Akhenaten's sarcophagus at the Amarna Visitor Center

Also on display at the Cairo Museum is a reconstruction of Akhenaten’s alabaster canopic chest. In ancient Egypt, before mummification, visceral organs of the deceased were removed and were placed in special jars within one’s tomb.

One wonders, though, why Akhenaten bothered with the mummification process at all. If he was going to completely reject the Osirian aspect of the afterlife, perhaps something like cremation would’ve suited him better.

A miniature model of what Akhenaten's royal tomb may have looked like (Amarna Visitor Center)

The Tomb of Ay

For a city established from scratch and that only lasted a couple of decades, the overall area of Amarna is surprisingly vast. The city had two main tomb areas for non-royals, which today are just called the Northern and Southern Tombs.

Sadly, given time constraints, I wasn’t able to visit any of the northern ones. After Akhenaten’s, the main tomb I wanted to see was that of Ay, located in the southern group.

From the royal tomb of Akhenaten, it took no less than thirty minutes to reach Ay’s tomb by car! (Though this was partly due to much of the road being unpaved.) On the way there, there was nothing to look at from the car windows except for a vast white desert.

Tour groups visiting the Northern Tombs
Tomb of Ay Amarna

But who was Ay? During the Amarna period, Ay was an official whose official titles were ‘Overseer of all the Horses of His Majesty’ and ‘Fan-Bearer on the Right Side of the King.’ He also had the title of ‘God’s Father,’ and some scholars believe he was either Akhenaten’s uncle or father-in-law.

Clearly, Ay was a very important person in the Amarna period, and his tomb is the only one in Amarna to contain the complete text of the ‘Great Hymn to the Aten.’

Tomb of Ay Amarna
The niche in the center was meant for statues of the deceased

Ay’s tomb is remarkably well-preserved and features proper lighting. Upon entry, you’ll notice how the spacious tomb contains rows of impressive pillars, something seldom seen at the non-royal tombs of Luxor.

Just as how typical royal tomb scenes are absent from Akhenaten’s tomb, the traditional scenes of activities like fishing and hunting are absent here as well.

And gone are depictions of any deities from the standard Egyptian pantheon. Ay’s tomb is almost entirely decorated in images of the royal family and the Aten, with the deceased and his family only playing a minor role. 

Tomb of Ay Amarna
Tomb of Ay Amarna
Tomb of Ay Amarna
Tomb of Ay Amarna
Tomb of Ay Amarna

Covering one entire wall is a single huge scene that remains in good condition. We see the king and queen emerge from their window, in front of which large groups of people bow, cheer and kiss the ground. While I didn’t get the chance to see for myself, this is apparently a common scene at many other non-royal tombs in Amarna.

Other common Amarna tomb scenes showed the king and queen riding individual chariots, moving from the royal palace to the administrative part of the city. A jubilant crowd is shown bowing and cheering before them. 

Regardless of the subject matter, the king and queen are always shown receiving the light of the Aten. But nobody else is worthy of such a privilege – even high-ranking officials in the artwork of their own tombs.

Tomb of Ay Amarna
Tomb of Ay Amarna

Visitors can walk down to the bottom of the burial chamber, though it was never finished. There’s nothing but a large stone ball which was likely used to clear out the limestone rock. 

Tomb of Ay Amarna
Tomb of Ay Amarna
Tomb of Ay Amarna

Back over by the entrance, we can see Ay and his wife. And on either side of the wall, rows of hieroglyphs spell out the Great Hymn to the Aten. This poem may have been Atenism’s most important ‘text,’ and was likely sung rather than read. (Read the text here).

The Great Hymn to the Aten

Despite playing a central role in Akhenaten’s revolution, Ay would quickly abandon it. After Akhenaten’s death, a short-lived pharaoh named Smenkhare ruled before Tutankhamun took the throne, moving back to Luxor and restoring the temples of Amun.

But after King Tut’s premature death, Ay himself would become pharaoh of Egypt for about four years. Today, visitors can go and see his final resting place in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.

The Great Temple of the Aten

The center point of Amarna was the Great Temple of the Aten, and its architecture was a major departure from the temples found in Luxor. While little of the temple remains standing today, there wasn’t a whole lot to begin with, as much of the temple was open-air.

Great Temple of the Aten Amarna
Great Temple of the Aten Amarna

But rather than invent a completely new style of temple architecture, it appears that Akhenaten was inspired by the major solar temples of the Old Kingdom.

While little is known for sure about Akhenaten’s childhood, he may have spent significant time at Heliopolis, the cult center of Re and his form of Atum. (Bek the sculptor was also from there.) Appropriately, Re and Atum were some of the first gods Akhenaten worshipped before developing his Atenist theology.

The ancient Sun Temples of the Old Kingdom lacked the dark, enclosed shrines found at Karnak or Luxor Temple. While Heliopolis is no longer with us in its original form, Nyussere’s Sun Temple at Abu Gorab gives us an idea of what these temples were like.

But instead of building a large obelisk, it appears that Akhenaten preferred to have his main altar in an entirely empty courtyard.

Notably, Akhenaten never created statues for the Aten, and he likely just worshipped the sun directly. But the claim by modern scholars that he’d totally done away with idolatry is inaccurate, as he placed many statues of himself and likely Nefertiti around his temples.

Great Temple of the Aten Amarna

Aside from the main central altar, the temple consisted of 730 smaller altars in the central court. That means that each side contained 365 of them.

Today, the pillars and most of the mudbrick surrounding the enclosure is original. But many of the other stones on the ground are more recent reconstructions placed there by archaeologists.

When building Amarna, Akhenaten made use of small sandstone blocks that were easy to transport. But that also guaranteed his temples were easy to disassemble following his controversial reign.

Looking at the cliffs on the horizon, you’ll notice a gap which very much resembles the pylons of Egyptian temples. It’s clear that Akhenaten positioned the temple directly across from this point. And the sun can be seen rising directly through this gap on certain days.

These cliffs surely inspired Amarna’s official name of Akhetaten, or ‘Horizon of the Aten.’

Great Temple of the Aten Amarna
Ruins of the Small Aten Temple

Nearby the Great Aten Temple are the Small Aten Temple and the remnants of Akhenaten’s main royal palace. Little but mudbrick foundations remain of either.

From Elsewhere Around Amarna

Back at the Cairo Museum, there are numerous other treasures of Amarna art that were discovered around the abandoned city. Paradoxically, despite lasting for such a short time, Amarna is one of the best-preserved settlements of ancient Egypt. After the city was abandoned, nobody else dared build there again!

Among the finds in ordinary residences were all sorts of household shrines. As is the case in the tombs and temples, depictions of traditional gods were replaced with Akhenaten himself. In addition to two-dimensional art, Amarna residents also kept miniature statues of the king in their homes.

Evidence suggests, however, that worship of traditional deities persisted in private throughout the Amarna period.

Cairo Museum Amarna Art
Cairo Museum Amarna Art

Also at the museum are some stela found in the tomb of the royal scribe Any. Notice Any’s elongated head – a strange feature the Amarna artists used to indicate high status – even for those outside the royal family.

Cairo Museum Amarna Art

In the central hall of the Cairo Museum, meanwhile, is an entire floor from Akhenaten’s royal palace that was found intact. The scenes are surprisingly simple and elegant, featuring marshes and various birds.

While it was being protected in a shelter in 1910, local villagers broke in and for some unknown reason, smashed it all to pieces! While it’s since been restored, perhaps we should be thanking Ludwig Borchardt for keeping the Nefertiti bust safe in Berlin.

Cairo Museum Amarna Art

The Amarna Visitor Center

During your time in Amarna, it’s worth making a brief stop at the Amarna Visitor Center. All of the objects it contains are replicas, but it still provides a great overview of the significant pieces of Amarna art located throughout the world.

Furthermore, there’s comprehensive info in English about the layout of the ancient city, along with a full-scale model created by local students.

Amarna Visitor Center

Something I didn’t end up having time to see during my day trip to Amarna was the boundary stela placed all around the former capital. These massive carvings were cut into the sides of the hills, defining the limits of the holy city of Akhetaten.

Amarna Visitor Center

On display at the Visitor Center is a cast of a fragment of Boundary Stele S. Sadly, the whole thing was destroyed in some kind of explosion in 2004!

Tell el-Amarna
Sunset over modern Amarna

Amarna Art in Saqqara

While the story of Akhenaten and Amarna art largely begins in Luxor and ends in Amarna, the king also spread his religion and art to Lower Egypt. As such, we can also see authentic Amarna art in the Memphite tombs of Saqqara.

Tomb of Ptahemwia Saqqara

Among the New Kingdom tombs south of the Unas Causeway is the Tomb of Ptahemwia, a Royal Butler during Akhenaten’s reign. Notice the elongated skull of the deceased, which signifies his noble status.

Tomb of Meryneith
Tomb of Meryneith

Nearby is the tomb of Meryneith, steward of the Aten temple of Memphis. As most of Memphis has been lost, we’ll never know for sure what this temple looked like. 

Around the tomb, we can see the short knees, chubby belly and round butt associated with the Amarna style. Surprisingly, the tomb also features a traditional depiction of Re.

While even in Atenism’s later years, the Aten was associated with Re to some degree, it’s doubtful that the traditional rendition of Re in his falcon-headed form would’ve been allowed in Amarna itself.

Tomb of Aper-el Amarna Art
A fish found in Aper-El's tomb

While closed for tourists at the time of writing, there are several significant tombs from the Amarna period over in Saqqara’s Bubasteion tombs section. In fact, this is where Thutmose the sculptor was buried! Akhenaten’s treasury clerk, Raia, was buried here as well.

Another significant tomb belongs to a man named Aper-El. Like Ramose, he served as vizier under both Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. While currently off-limits, some art from his tomb is now on display at Saqqara’s Imhotep Museum.

Post-Amarna Art

It’s not surprising that Atenism never caught on long-term. Akhenaten went through great efforts to desecrate the name of Amun throughout Egypt – sacrilege that had never been seen before, and that wouldn’t happen again until the Christian era.

But even if he’d left the traditional religion alone, Atenism was never going to win the hearts and minds of the people. It was less a universal religion and more Akhenaten’s personal belief system. Nobody could even worship the Aten directly, but only via the pharaoh himself.

But love Akhenaten or hate him, there’s no denying that he was an incredibly creative person. And some characteristics of Amarna art lingered on for a bit even after subsequent pharaohs tried to erase his memory.

One of the most blatant examples of post-Akhenaten Amarna art is the Golden Throne of Tutankhamun that was discovered in his tomb. 

Tutankhamun was either Akhenaten’s son or son-in-law. And though he revived the traditional Egyptian religion and moved the capital back to Thebes, his throne shows him on the receiving end of the Aten’s shining rays.

Many scholars speculate that the throne was originally designed for Akhenaten himself. In any case, this may be the last ever depiction of the Aten. 

The Tomb of Ay in Luxor
Tomb of Horemheb Saqqara
Horemheb's tomb in Saqqara

As mentioned above, Ay took the throne after Tutankhamun’s early death. And while we know little of his reign, his royal tomb in Luxor makes no mention of the Aten.

Nevertheless, one peculiar feature from Amarna art was implemented here. The left and right feet of Ay have been differentiated, though everyone else’s feet look the same. For some reason, traditional Egyptian art did not depict one’s toes while Amarna art did.

Back in Saqqara is the tomb of Horemheb from when he was a general under Tutankhamun. We can clearly see the paunches and short legs of the subjects, a typical feature of Amarna art.

Horemheb later became pharaoh, and then assigned his general Ramesses I to succeed him. Ramesses had a very brief reign of one year before Seti I took the throne. And it was likely Seti I’s mission to revitalize traditonal Egyptian art, erasing the memory of the Amarna period once and for all.

Seti I revived the traditional style at his temple at Abydos
Abydos Temple Art

Walking through his temple of Abydos today, it would be hard to argue that the exquisite artwork all over the walls is not some of Egypt’s finest. Without knowing the history, one would never imagine that Amarna art was commonplace throughout Egypt just a few decades prior!

Though Amarna art would never make a comeback in ancient Egypt, it continues to leave a big impression on people today. When looking at the bizarre artistic changes, we can’t help but wonder what Akenaten and his artists were thinking. As much as we know about the Amarna period, the why of Amarna art remains one of ancient Egypt’s greatest enigmas.

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Before visiting Amarna, I’d read that “There’s hardly anything to see in Amarna” and also that “Seeing everything requires more than one day.” Somehow, both turned out to be true.

As mentioned above, I hired a tour operator to take me as a day trip from Cairo. I booked it through Viator and paid around $150. Before arriving at Amarna, we also stopped at the Middle Kingdom tombs of Beni Hassan. Or at least that was the plan.

Once on the highway, we were caught in a dust storm, and all traffic ground to a halt for at least an hour. The tour guide kept telling me that everything was fine, and that we’d still have plenty of time to see everything.

But it was only when we got to Beni Hassan that she said there was only time to see two out of the four tombs!

As everything in Egypt seems to close at 16:00, we had to rush through Amarna. And as mentioned above, the tombs of Akhenaten and Ay were around thirty minutes apart.

Despite many other tombs being open for visitors in Amarna, I didn’t end up getting to see them.

All in all, I departed around 7am that morning and got back to Cairo at 11pm!

If I had to do things over again, I would’ve stayed for a few days in the nearest big city of Minya. And from there I would’ve hired a driver to take me around to the various sites nearby. In addition to Amarna and Beni Hassan, the area is also home to archaeological sites like Tuna el-Gebel.

Frustratingly, most of the updated information about Amarna is written by and for archaeologists, with little consideration for curious tourists. I didn’t realize how much there was to see and how spread out everything really was.

And as more and more in Amarna is opening up all the time, much of the info online or in books is already outdated.

But upon a future return trip to Egypt someday, I definitely plan to do an extensive tour of Amarna, after which I hope to create a comprehensive guide.

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