More than 3,000 years ago, ancient Egypt, with its myriad gods and goddesses, saw the founding of two monotheistic religions within a century of each other. One is associated with Moses, the Bible and ancient Israel’s faith, which is the foundation of Judaism and Christianity. The other burst on to the scene around 1350 BCE, flourished for a moment, and was then eclipsed when its founder died in 1336 BCE. We call the religion Atenism. Where did it come from? And why didn’t the world’s first monotheism last?
In the 4th millennium BCE, there were two distinct cultures in Egypt: one in the Delta (north) region, the other in the south. This geographical and political dualism had its counterpart in religion. In the north, the most powerful god in the Egyptian pantheon was Re, the sun god. His cult centre was in a suburb of present-day Cairo, still known by the ancient Greek name Heliopolis, ‘City of the Sun’, and his principal icon was a pyramid-shaped stone called the benben.
The pyramids and obelisks still familiar today owe their shape and symbolic significance to this ancient solar image. By his agency, Re created other gods, over which he was chief, as well as humans. Re’s son was Horus the sky-god, represented as a falcon, and the Pharaohs were the incarnation of Horus. So their title was ‘Son of Re’.
Meanwhile, in the southern town of Thebes (modern Luxor), the god Amen emerged as the most powerful religious force. As his name suggests in ancient Egyptian, Amen is the ‘hidden one’ and is often depicted in human form with blue skin, representing the blue sky or atmosphere. Amen’s principal cult centre was Karnak Temple in Thebes. Around 2000 BCE, then, there were two dominant deities in Egypt: Re, who reigned in the north, and Amen, who ruled the south.
Northern and southern Egypt were embroiled in civil war between c2150 and 2000 BCE. Rival pharaohs ruled Egypt, resulting in parallel kingships based in Memphis in the north and Thebes in the south. It was left to a 11th-dynasty ruler, the Theban Mentuhotep II to unify the land through war around 2000 BCE. By around 1950 BCE, Amenemhet – meaning ‘Amen is foremost’ – founded another dynasty, the 12th.
He was the first to incorporate Amen into his name. Amen’s time had come. In a unifying gesture, Amenemhet moved the capital north, back to the Memphis area where Upper and Lower Egypt meet, with his devotion to Amen intact. He called his new capital Itj-tawy, ‘Seizer of the Two-Lands’, and likely here he fused together Amen and Re into a single, powerful deity: Amen-Re, who was called ‘the king of the gods’. Amen-Re’s influence spread through all Egypt, and for 600 years he had no rival atop the pantheon. Karnak mushroomed into the largest temple complex in ancient Egypt as ruler after ruler honoured this god, his consort, Mut, and Khonsu, their son.
The Karnak complex expanded significantly between 1500 and 1350 BCE when the 18th-dynasty monarchs ruled. While Memphis remained the political capital, Thebes was considered the imperial capital. From Karnak, divine oracles directed the kings to conquer neighbouring lands, and they duly obliged. Egypt’s empire stretched north and east to beyond even the Euphrates River, and in the south, Nubia, the northern half of Sudan, was colonised.
Tribute and booty poured into Egypt during this century and a half, with Karnak Temple and its powerful priesthood the major recipients. There is no greater testimony to the prosperity of this era than the colossal building projects of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE) at Karnak and Luxor Temples, largely in the name of Amen-Re. Egypt and its god Amen-Re had reached the zenith of power. But no one could have foreseen how quickly things would change with the death of Amenhotep III.