In the history of Ancient Egypt, Akhenaten occupies a very special place. Of all the pharaohs over the many centuries, he was by far the most controversial one. His radical policies, major religious reforms, and social changes, all caused a lot of instability in the Ancient Egyptian state. His reign and the changes he put through were one of the major turbulences in the entire timeline of this ancient civilization, and arguably caused a spiraling and slow downfall that could not be remedied by his successors. One of the major changes Akhenaten introduced was in art. Sculptures, carvings, and paintings from his reign are all markedly different from the usual Egyptian fare. Human features were accentuated to impossible and odd proportions, and some pieces look outright alien. This has caused a lot of unique theories to spring up over time. But what was the actual reason the odd art pieces propagated by Akhenaten?
A colossal statue of Akhenaten from his Aten Temple at Karnak on display in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Akhenaten and His Controversial Reign
We can understand a lot about Akhenaten’s controversial reign by just observing his origins. He was a son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III . The reign of this exalted ruler was marked as a period of unparalleled prosperity in Ancient Egypt. Amenhotep III reigned from circa 1388 to 1351 BC as the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty . During this time arts, culture, architecture, and international power within Ancient Egypt were at their absolute zenith. To that end, we can understand that Amenhotep III’s son, the future Akhenaten, was born and raised in relative peace, prosperity, and abundance. In fact, in Akhenaten’s life there were little to no hardships that would toughen up and shape a future ruler. Could it be that much of his questionable future stems from such an idyllic background?
Upon the death of his father Amenhotep III, and his older brother Thutmose, young Akhenaten became the tenth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Akhenaten was not his original name: at birth and ascension to the throne, he was named Amenhotep IV. But after the fifth year of his reign, around the time when he began introducing his odd policies, he adopted the name Akhenaten, meaning “Effective for the Aten.”
This famous (or infamous) pharaoh is best known for his radical and revolutionary changes to the traditional Ancient Egyptian polytheistic religion . Initially in his reign, he followed the established traditions that were followed by his father also. But after that fateful fifth year into his rule, young Amenhotep IV underwent a major transformation. He officially changed his name to Akhenaten, and became a devotee of the cult of Aten, changing his allegiance from the cult of Amun . And over the following twelve years, he caused a major ruckus across the Egyptian state. And he became known as the “Heretic Pharaoh” by instigating major changes in Egyptian religion and art.
Aten depicted in art from the throne of Tutankhamun, which may have been originally made for Akhenaten himself. (Djehouty / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Aten: The Living Incarnation of the Sun Itself
First, a word or two about Aten. In Ancient Egyptian mythology, Aten was the great disc of the Sun, initially another aspect of the God Ra . The symbol of Aten was the Sun disc and its radiating rays of light. In many ways, Aten could be considered as the Sun, personified.
In Akhenaten’s time, Aten, the Sun Disc, was not new. It had existed for centuries and was a small and lesser-known religious cult god, like many others. The major religious deity of Akhenaten’s time, however, was that of God Amun . The cult of Amun was a major religious (and political) player within Ancient Egypt. The powerful priests of Amun held a lot of power in the state, and at its peak (during the reign of Amenhotep III), the cult of Amun owned more land than the pharaoh himself. And by the time Akhenaten came to the throne, the priests of Amun were almost on an equal standing with the pharaoh, in terms of wealth and influence.
It is possible that Akhenaten, seeking to curb the power of this major religious cult and place himself on top, decided to shift from the traditional religious norms. To that end, he pronounced himself as the “living incarnation of a single all-powerful deity known as Aten,” outlawing the traditional Ancient Egyptian religion, and, in the process, closed all major temples and suppressed religious practices.
After centuries of well-developed Egyptian religion, this came as a major change that was not well accepted in society. Atenism, the religion that Akhenaten introduced, is widely regarded as absolute monotheism, which is radically different from polytheism.
Over the following years, the changes in Egyptian society kept piling up. Akhenaten ordered the creation of a completely new capital city. It was called Akhetaten, the Horizon of Aten, and is today known as Amarna. The city defined the “Amarna period,” the official name for the period of Akhenaten’s reign. And the Amarna period was unlike anything else in the entire history of Ancient Egypt.
Akhenaten “bathing” in the solar light of Aten, the new god of ultimate stature in the radically unique Amarna period. (Hans Ollermann / CC BY 2.0 )
A Unique Art Style or Something Beyond Comprehension?
Another hard-to-accept change in society was the new and unique artistic style that was developed under close direction of Pharaoh Akhenaten. In general, art of Ancient Egypt was incredibly slow to change, often following the same style for centuries on end. Thus, the sudden and dramatic changes of the Amarna period were unlike anything seen before.
Suddenly, standard reliefs showed new activities on display. And quickly the reliefs of Akhenaten became more crowded and filled with details. Moreover, humans were portrayed in a more realistic fashion, with a more three-dimensional approach and with exaggerated features . In many ways, they were almost alien-looking, with their elongated heads, bulbous stomachs, and long limbs. The Sun Disc of Aten is present in almost all of these “new” reliefs and paintings.
Egyptian sculptures also became immensely different and bordered on completely alien human depictions. Most noticeable aspects of this can be observed on the many surviving sculptures and busts of Akhenaten himself, and his wife Nefertiti. Necks, faces, and skulls were dramatically elongated, the chin made prominent, and lips large and accentuated. The pharaoh is portrayed with extra high cheekbones, and unmistakably wide hips, thighs, and bottom. He is also portrayed with a noticeable paunch in the form of a fatty protruding belly. In simpler terms, he was portrayed as an almost alien-looking man. What is the reason for this?
Certain scholars argue that this sudden change in artistic style can be explained by an influx of “new people or groups of artists whose background and training were different from those of the classical Karnak sculptors.” It is possible that Akhenaten introduced foreign artists to achieve his artistic goals, although this theory has never been proven.
Other scholars, on the other hand, have drawn extreme and illogical conclusions, bringing actual extraterrestrials into the story, presenting Akhenaten’s alien portraiture as something utterly mysterious and inexplicable. But could the actual explanation be far simpler than this?
A relief portrait of Akhenaten from the Amarna period (circa 1345 BC) that reveals his unique facial features that seem almost “alien.” (Keith Schengili-Roberts / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Dynastic Line Plagued By Genetic Deformities
Most scholars agree that these unique portrayals of the pharaoh and his family are due to genetic abnormalities and physical defects that he suffered from in life. Rather than accentuated and alien features of a unique art style, these changes might simply be an ultra-realistic portrayal of the ruler as he was. But how can a man suffer from a string of genetic defects, and still be a powerful ruler?
Well, in Ancient Egypt, this was not at all unusual. Pharaohs practiced marriage between siblings for centuries. Brothers married sisters, ensuring the purity of the dynastic lineage, and their offspring also inter-married. It was almost the norm. Of course, having offspring with your brother or sister, i.e., inbreeding, is completely unnatural, and it can cause a string of genetic deformities across generations. A classic example is the iconic “Habsburg Jaw.”
So, did Akhenaten look totally deformed and unnatural? It’s more than likely.
Many leading scientists and scholars cited a number of possible syndromes and disorders that could have troubled Akhenaten. Mandibular prognathism , the extreme protrusion of the lower jaw (best known as the “Habsburg Jaw”), could have been one of these, and the cause of the prominent chin portrayed on Akhenaten’s sculptures. Early researchers proposed Frölich’s syndrome as a possibility. It is also known as Adiposogenital dystrophy , and causes enlarged breasts, thighs, paunch, and bottom in men, creating a look that is similar to that of Akhenaten. However, this theory has been largely dismissed since this syndrome usually causes sterility, but Akhenaten sired many children.
Marfan syndrome, a multi-systemic genetic disorder, is also a likely possibility. It causes a string of physical deformities but does not impair mental abilities or causes sterility. Those suffering from this rare syndrome develop an elongated and thin face, they grow extremely tall, they display an elongated skull, fingers, and arms; they have enlarged thighs and a larger pelvis, and a funnel chest. Many of these symptoms can be seen on Akhenaten’s odd sculptures. What is more, there is a 50% chance that people suffering from it can pass it onto their offspring. Interestingly, Akhenaten’s daughters are also portrayed with odd features, notably their elongated skulls.
Wooden standing statue of Akhenaten, currently in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, that also shows how his body was different or depicted differently. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
An Inbred Pharaoh Far From Perfection
Other scholars have proposed Gynecomastia, an imbalance of estrogen levels that causes enlarged breasts in men, while others put forward Craniosynostosis, a condition that causes deformities of the skull. Other possibilities include Sagittal Craniosynostosis syndrome, Aromatase Excess syndrome, or Klinefelter syndrome. Mental disabilities were also considered. Generations of inbreeding won’t cause only physical deformities, but mental ones as well. Schizophrenia, egomania, and similar conditions could have possibly afflicted Akhenaten.
To piece together the puzzle of Akhenaten’s odd looks, we need to follow his successors also. It is likely that he was the father of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun. The latter is famous today because of the discovery of his intact tomb, which is still the most sensational discovery in the world of Egyptology. However, it is likely that he was not extremely influential during his life and reign. What is more, modern research shows that Tutankhamun, who died when he was just 18, was plagued by a number of debilitating genetic diseases, and that he might have had a physical appearance similar to his father, Akhenaten.
Modern CT scans show that Tutankhamun had a physical disability in the form of a deformed left foot with bone necrosis, and that he was forced to use a cane at all times. Other finds indicate that he could have suffered from gynecomastia, Marfan syndrome, Antley-Bixler Syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Wilson–Turner X-linked intellectual disability syndrome, and several other serious defects. By all accounts, young pharaoh “Tut” was extremely frail and seriously deformed. Modern forensic reconstructions of his remains show him as such, in addition to sharing many of his father’s physical characteristics.
A Grotesque Ruler With Ideas That Were Too Radical
Considering all these facts, and the advantages of modern medical science, we can safely stand behind the theory that Akhenaten, his offspring, and possibly his predecessors, all suffered from mild to severe genetic deformities, all caused by generations of inbreeding. While they believed that marrying brothers and sisters would ensure purity of the bloodlines, they were in fact polluting them, causing multiple hereditary congenital defects.
Akhenaten’s odd and controversial reign is hard to explain. He could have introduced the radical changes for political reasons, or he could have simply been a tyrannical monarch, plagued with physical and mental disorders and obsessed with the sun deity Aten.
After his death, all of his changes were reversed, and Egypt quickly returned to its old and established ways. Either way, there is no mistaking the alien-looking appearance present in all of Akhenaten’s depictions both in statues and reliefs. A realistic portrayal of a deformed pharaoh, or a unique and abstract art style? We may never know for certain.