14 years of religious experimentation
Sunset over the Great Temple of Aten.
The story of the site outshines the site itself. There is really little to see of Akhenaten's capital of the 14th century BCE (1374-1360), both due to effective demolition of his enemies but also because large areas are still unexcavated.
Of some unknown reason or inspiration, did Akhenaten declare the worship of the formerly inferior sun-god Aten, as the only accepted cult. Aten was declared as the only god. In cases where a new god was made the leading god, priests would declare all other gods as his subjects. But not this time. They were declared powerless, they were stripped of their divine powers. Akhenaten would head the first known monotheistic religion in world history.
Climbing up to the northern tombs.
The move to Akhetaten, "Horizon of Aten" can be explained in several ways. Most important appears the need to distance himself from Thebes, the leading cult centre of Egypt and also the capital for centuries. The position, in the middle of his dominion, may also have served practical needs. The fact that at this place, the sun rises between two mountains forming a wide "V" may also have created an idea that it was a holy place.
The point where the sun rises; between the two mountains.
But the move had made priests and princes unemployed and in some cases ruined. At no time would Thebes accept the new religion and capital.
How the Akhetaten period ended is unclear. There are no good records on when and how, and even if, Akhenaten died. A mummy has never been found.
He was succeeded by Smenkhkare, a person we know nothing about. He is by some suggested to have been Akhenaten's wife Nefertiti ruling in the disguise of a man. Others suggest that Smenkhkare was Akhenaten gay lover, while Nefertiti had been placed in house arrest in her palace.
The last king ruling according to the Aten cult was Tutankhaten, who ascended the throne when only 9 years old. Strong forces from Thebes quickly moved in, and forced him to move back to Thebes and had him change his name to revere Amon: Tutankhamon. Akhetaten was fully abandoned, and systematically destroyed.
The short period of Akhetaten involved some very interesting artistry, where statues are dominated by inflated and soft body shapes and long back of the heads. The finest examples of this is found in the The National Museum in Cairo, in the Amarna Section. Well worth visiting! At Tell el-Amarna there is nothing of this, not even a small, local museum.
The main attractions of Tell el-Amarna are the tombs in the hills north and south of the ancient city. The northern ones are clearly the finest. Of the Great Temple of Aten, extremely little has survived.