Category Archives: Ancient Egypt

Worshipping the Sun


A little note during our intense New York heat wave:  it’s much hotter in other parts of the world.  At least one man, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, would have felt quite content with our 100 degree days.

Akhenaten ruled Egypt for seventeen of the most contentious years in Egyptian history (1351-1334 BCE).  He decided to throw out the gods of Egypt, especially the popular god Amun-Re, in favor of the Aten.  The Aten is the disc of the sun, and Akhenaten initiated a program which demanded the worship of this sole god.  It was, arguably, the first time in history that someone undertook such radical, unprompted change.

Akhenaten’s appearance reflected these changes:  exaggerated features which have been explained as medical conditions or simply as having East African features, ambiguous gender, and poses which do not occur earlier in royal art, such as the very human act of kissing his daughter.   Amarna art celebrates exaggeration while also exploring realism in age, human behavior, and body size:  his wife, Nefertiti, can look gloriously beautiful but also aged, women now have heavy legs and hips, his mother, Tiya, is filled with expressive attitude.

But his images of the Aten are always simply the disc of the sun.  Court artists from his new capital, Akhenaten (now known as Amarna) depict him worshiping it or allowing its rays to reach down on him while holding the ankh, the sign for life.   The plurality and multiplicity of divinity is now One:  the sole god, the god who protects Akhenaten, the royal family and the land.  One sizzling hot sun.

Akhenaten’s program didn’t last.   Egypt moves back to its ancestral religion and relegates the Aten to what it was before Akhenaten’s radical movement.  A pharaoh who may or may not have been Akhenaten’s son (Tutankamum) becomes well known for his tomb, and nothing more.  A new dynasty far more recognizable by name (the family of Ramses the Great) will take over Egypt.  Egyptians will attempt to erase Akhenaten’s memory from the earth:  images smashed, texts destroyed, names erased from the record, and the town of Akhenaten razed.

One thing that remains is a poem found in the tomb of one of the Amarna officials, a man named Ay.  Inscribed on its walls in an area far hotter than New York is an ancient praise to the sun, Akhenaten’s Aten.  Read it in today’s intense heat, and remember:  the blazing sun was once worshiped:

You rise beautiful from the horizon on heaven,
living disk, origin of life.
You are arisen from the horizon,
you have filled every land with your beauty.
You are fine, great, radiant, lofty over and above every land.
Your rays bind the lands to the limit of all you have made,
you are the sun, you have reached their limits.
You bind them (for) your beloved son.
You are distant, but your rays are on earth,
You are in their sight, but your movements are hidden.

You rest in the western horizon, and the land is in darkness in the manner of death,
sleepers in chambers, heads covered,
no eye can see its other.
Anything of theirs can be taken from under their heads, they would not know.
Every lion goes out from its den,
every snake bites.
Darkness envelops, the land is in silence, their creator is resting in his horizon.
At daybreak, arisen from the horizon, shining as the disk in day,
you remove the darkness, you grant your rays,
and the two lands are in festival,
awakened and standing on their feet.
You have raised them up, their bodies cleansed, clothing on,
their arms are in adoration at your sunrise.

The entire land carries out its tasks,
every herd rests in its pastures,
trees and plants are sprouting,
birds flying up from their nests,
their wings in adoration for your spirit.
Every flock frolics afoot,
all that fly up and alight,
they live when you have shone for them.
Boats sail north and south too,
every road is opened at your sunrise,
and the fish on the river leap at the sight of you
Your rays penetrate the Great Green.

You who cause the sperm to grow in women,
who turns seed into people,
who causes the son to live in the womb of his mother,
who silences him in stopping him crying.
Nurse in the womb, who gives breath to cause all he has made to live,
when he goes down from the womb to breathe on the day of his birth,
you open his mouth in form,
you make his needs.
When the chick in the egg speaks in the shell,
you give it breath within to cause it to live,
you have made him, he is complete, to break out from the egg,
and he emerges from the egg to speak to his completion,
and walks on his legs, going out from it.

How numerous are your works, though hidden from sight.
Unique god, there is none beside him.
You mould the earth to your wish, you and you alone.
All people, herds and flocks,
All on earth that walk on legs,
All on high that fly with their wings.
And on the foreign lands of Khar and Kush, the land of Egypt
You place every man in his place,
you make what they need,
so that everyone has his food,
his lifespan counted.

Tongues are separated in speech, and forms too –
Their skins are made different,
for you make foreign lands different.

You make a Flood in the underworld, and bring it at your desire
to cause the populace to live, as you made them for you,
lord of all they labour over,
the lord of every land.
Shine for them, O disk of day, great of dignity.
All distant lands, you make them live,
you place a Flood in the sky, to descend for them,
to make waves over the mountains like the Great Green,
to water their fields with their settlements.
How effective they are, your plans, O lord of eternity!
A Flood in the sky for foreigners, for the flocks of every land that go on foot,
and a Flood to come from the underworld for Egypt,
your rays nursing every meadow,
you shine and they live and grow for you.
You make the seasons to nurture all you mae,
winter to cool them,
heat so they may taste you.

You have made the far sky to shine in it,
to see what you make, while you are far, and shining in your form as living disk.
risen, shining, distant, near,
you make millions of forms from yourself, lone one,
cities, towns,. fields, the road of rivers,
every eye sees you in their entry,
you are the disk of day, master of your move,
of the existence of every form,
you create … alone, what you have made.

You are in my heart, there is none other who knows you
beside your son Neferkheperura-sole-one-of-Ra.
You instruct him in your plans, in your strength.
The land comes into being by your action, as you make them,
and when you have shone, they live,
when you rest, they die.
You are lifetime, in your body,
people live by you.
Eyes are on your beauty until you set.
All work is stopped when you set on the west;
shine, and strengthen (all for) the king.
Motion is in every leg, since you founded the earth,
you raise them for your son who come from your body,
the king who lives on Right, lord of the two lands,
son of Ra who lives on Right, lord of Risings,
Akhenaten, great in his lifespan,
and the great king’s wife whom he loves, lady of the two lands,
Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, eternally alive.

(translation of Miriam Lichtheim)

Thoughts on Argo, and a Three-Thousand Year Old Peaceful Resoultion

younger memnon

Last night, Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture.  I remember 1980 and the Hostage Crisis very well, and I remember how we worried about the United States bombing Iran in retaliation for taking the hostages. No one wanted to see a violent end in Iran, yet no one knew what would work to bring the hostages to safety.  Even though it is not entirely true to history (it is based on the story , but NOT a reporting of the event), Argo speaks to the desire to solve conflicts peacefully and creatively.  Zero Dark Thirty, also a Best Picture contender, did not share in this vision of peaceful resolution.

About 3,272 years ago, Egyptians and Hittites may have been holding their breath in the same way we did in 1980, and the way we did in 2001, the year which set the situation at hand in  Zero Dark Thirty.  Ramesses II, the pharaoh of Egypt, spent considerable energy moving toward the Hittite Empire (based in today’s Turkey), and the Hittites met the Egyptians in battle at Kadesh, a neutral city near the Hittite borders. For the next twenty years, the Egyptians and Hittites engaged in a sort of Cold War.   Then, around 1254 BCE, the nephew to the Hittite king Hattusili III, a man named Uri Teshub,  attempted to overthrow the king.  He was chased out of the Hittite Empire, and found safety in Egypt.

Hattusili III demanded his return.  Egypt refused.  And the world waited.

Who was the adviser who thought of a different strategy?  Egypt and the Hittite Empire met each other on the battlefield before.  What made this issue different? The Egyptians could use Uri Teshub as a pawn in overtaking the Hittite Empire, and the Hittites could use Uri Teshub as the excuse to invade Egypt. Both sides knew about the movements of nomadic tribes in all directions, and both sides had reason to fear the increasing power of the Assyrians, from what we would call northern Iraq today.

Instead of war, both sides agreed to a treaty,  Both sides pledged peace.  The Hittites promised to aid Egypt in the face of invasions or rebellions, and Egypt promised to aid the Hittites in the face of invasions or rebellions.  Uri Teshub was extradited to the Hittites.  And IF the world was holding its breath — if they were even aware of this tension between superpowers in a world without journalism– they could exhale now.

Ramesses received a silver copy of the treaty, now long lost to history.  Egypt would never face a Hittite invasion, but they would meet Sea Peoples, Libyans, Assyrians, Nubians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and European colonialism.   The Hittites would never face an Egyptian army again, but the Sea Peoples who wrecked havoc on Egypt also aided in toppling the Hittite Empire.  A copy of the treaty rests in the Istanbul today (a city  unknown to the Hittites), and a copy carved on Rameses II’s mortuary complex also survives in the remains of ancient Thebes.

One other copy can be found in New York, at the United Nations.

Someone thought of something daring and untested in the 1980 CE  hostage crisis, and someone thought of something daring and untested –amongst superpowers at least — in 1259 BCE.  Let’s never forget the power of human creativity in the face of war.