Skip to main content



A Brief Flowering Along the Nile

By Tom Stabile | HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

The Egyptian metropolis of Amarna flourished for just twenty years, but left its mark on the sun-baked plains along the Nile.

Founded by Pharaoh Akhenaten, who abandoned Egypt's many gods for a kind of monotheism, the city of Amarna introduced rapid change to its society, art, and people. But Akhenaten's successors obliterated his image and deserted the city not long after his death, leaving it buried in the dust from 1336 B.C. until the end of the last century.

Now, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is mining a wealth of artifacts, stories, and personalities to present a major traveling exhibition, "Pharaohs of the Sun," that will open in Boston in November and later move to Los Angeles, Chicago, and Leiden, Germany.

"This period is fascinating to people not only because it's beautiful, but also because it's so different from what came before," says Rita Freed, curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Middle Eastern Art at the museum.

The exhibition's full title -- "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen" -- underscores how the museum will tell the story of this brief but celebrated epoch through Amarna's three dominating leaders. Previous exhibitions have presented specific aspects of the era and its major figures, but Freed says none attempted to take visitors into the world of Amarna through the experiences of its citizens.

"This is not a 'daily-life' show, exactly," said Freed. "It's a much broader picture and at the same time narrower. We look at the daily life of the king and the daily life of the average person on the street, but within a very narrow strip of history."

That seventeen-to-twenty-year golden age -- the length of the rule of Akhenaten and his successors at Amarna -- produced a rich variety of artifacts unearthed by archaeologists over the last one hundred years. More than three hundred pieces will be on display. They include sculpture, reliefs, jewelry, ceramics, clothing, tools, furniture, and even correspondence.

Freed says the pieces help bring together Amarna's personalities, its physical characteristics, and its social milieu. The central figure remains Akhenaten.

Akhenaten's grand vision for a new society took hold shortly after he became pharaoh in 1353 B.C. as Amenhotep IV. He shook the foundations of traditional Egypt: forsaking the worship of multiple deities to favor a single god, Aten; moving the empire's central institutions from Thebes to the city he founded, Amarna; and extending a greater leadership role in public, political, and religious life to women, and especially to his wife, Nefertiti, who is believed to have ruled for a time on her own.

The exhibition will focus not only on Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and their spectacular reshaping of Egyptian society, but also on Tutankhaten, Akhenaten's ten-year-old son-in-law. When he ascended the throne, Tutankhaten would drop the 'aten' from his name, reverting to the old style and the old gods, and be known as Tutankhamen. The boy king, probably under the guidance of Akhenaten's traditionalist rivals, would abandon Amarna, destroy many of its landmarks, and try to reinstate the religious and political order that had existed before.

The exhibition will also recreate the face of Amarna, which museum literature describes as a "bustling capital of the world's greatest empire, with a population estimated between twenty and fifty thousand people." After decades of excavations by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, scholars now estimate that Amarna covered an area of eighty square miles on the plain between the cities of Thebes and Memphis along the Nile. Palaces, temples, and government offices formed the city's core at the river's eastern banks. From there it spread out with opulent villas, large and small houses of mud brick, police barracks, and even bakeries.

Because it was suddenly and permanently abandoned, Amarna's urban remains are uniquely "accessible" to archaeologists, says EES Director Barry Kemp, who assisted with the development of "Pharaohs." Kemp has worked at the site since 1977, but his focus has been less with the excavation of artifacts -- many had already been removed -- and more with the effort to understand the city's culture.

"What I wanted to do was to apply modern and inevitably slower methods of excavation and to study with a view to learning more about the life of the city," Kemp explains. "My interest is much more in the power of archaeology to reveal the more basic aspects of society."

The exhibition shares that goal in trying to show how the Amarna period was unlike any of Egypt's preceding eras, with significant changes in religious canon, art, and even common philosophy.

"Everything you believe for 1,500 years was changing," says Freed, describing the challenge facing Amarna's typical citizen. "You were told to change your whole thought pattern."

It also tries to show the sophisticated collection of roles that citizens in Amarna played as soldiers, bureaucrats, construction workers, farmers, police, glass blowers, weavers, and artists. The exhibit will reconstruct these everyday citizens by bringing together the jigsaw pieces of their daily lives. "We have fragments of some of the clothes they wore, their jewelry, their furniture, their methods of worship," said Freed. "We also have tools -- everything from farm equipment to loom weights."

All of these aspects of Amarna will come to life in the museum's Gund Gallery, in a 10,800-square foot climate- controlled space. Gathering artifacts and objects for presentation in the exhibition has been a major logistical task. Freed says there are items from thirty-five public and private collections from around the world, most of them from Britain, Germany, and Egypt.

"These pieces were literally scattered all over the world," says Freed, who traveled extensively during the preparations. Part of the reason that Freed had to log so many miles is the way in which the predecessor to EES, the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), operated at the turn of the century: All EEF subscribers were entitled to a share of the items found at Amarna. While about half of the items by EEF uncovered went to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, the other half went to the organization's numerous individual supporters, Freed says. Another cache of artifacts also ended up in Germany after the Berlin Museum conducted a separate Amarna excavation.

She explains that that the willingness of other institutions to participate was the most rewarding aspect of the project. "As the word spread, institutions would call and say, 'Do you know we have this piece? Do you want to borrow it?'" she says. "We've had to turn some down."

The breadth of objects which the exhibition will offer visitors is formidable, Freed notes, starting with the trappings of the everyday. "Very simple things, like the yoke of a donkey, to ceramics to the shoes they wore," she says. There are many other examples: a latrine seat, a window grating, a stone seat, a wooden stool, jars, spoons, and hairpins. The jewelry features rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and, anklets.

Works of art typical of the naturalistic style developed in Amana include a sculpture of an aging Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's predecessor, portrayed as aging and overweight, and a sculpture of the head of Queen Tiye, Akhenaten's mother, made of yew wood with silver, gold, glass, and a gessoed linen wig. A series of plaster masks created by a local sculptor, Thutmos, depicts the faces of everyday people.

While Amarna's art was a step removed from traditional Egypt, the new style was also a product of it. One example of the link to the past is a limestone relief depicting Akhenaten as a Sphinx, blending the traditional imagery of the lion with a reference to the sun god Aten and the Akhenaten-influenced use of exaggerated facial characteristics. The museum description of a clay ball figurine of Bes, a household deity, says it is "typically depicted as a plumed dwarf with beard-like mane, round ears and a lion's tail." A range of artifacts from the periods just before and just after Akhenaten invite stylistic comparisons.

A large model of the city will show visitors the location of the temples honoring Aten and the orderly pattern of streets in downtown Amarna -- wide avenues running parallel to the river and narrower streets perpendicular to them.

Visitors will also get a glimpse of lively correspondence found in the city's records office between the royal family and subordinates in the outer reaches of the empire, as far- flung as modern-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The literary masterpiece of the age, "The Great Hymn to Aten," will be on display. The work is attributed to Akhenaten, and proved lasting enough to eventually be melded into Hebrew literature as Psalm 104.

Information about Amarna does not stop at the exhibition's door. Short films about the city's architecture and the excavation work at the site, educational programs and seminars for adults, and curricula and materials for teachers will disseminate lessons about Amarna to schools and communities throughout the Boston area.

Partnering the exhibition is a new site on the World Wide Web. It will allow visitors to explore Amarna and delve into a wealth of background material. The site will include animation, audio, video, and a "walk-through" reconstruction of the city. A special "Ask the Curators and Archaeologists" page on the site will help visitors with answers to detailed questions. Other pages will explore topics, from Akhenaten's personal affairs to intriguing aspects of the archaeological expeditions at Amarna since 1891, including the Egypt Excavation Society's current preservation efforts.

Freed hopes that those who walk through the exhibition, view the films, and explore the web page will come to understand how the leading figures of a famous era changed their world in the rise and fall of Amarna.

"We're putting a cast of characters in their context," she says. "We'll see not just that they are important historical figures who revolutionized art and religion in their culture, but how they built a whole new city and way of life."

About the Author

Tom Stabile is a writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston received $231,335 in planning and implementation grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce "Pharaohs of the Sun."