The concept of a single God is called monotheism. Monotheism originates from the Greek – monos = single, and theos=God.

Monotheism is a predominant feature of the Abrahamic religions- these being:

·        Judaism

·        Christianity

·         Islam

Monotheism is also a key feature of the Baha’i belief, Zoroastrianism and Sikhism.

While many may consider monotheism as a modern Western concept, it is in fact, a practice which emerged in the ancient East.

The scope of this paper will not allow an overview of those religions listed above, but rather to consider a particular moment in ancient Egyptian history were Monotheism existed, albeit for a very brief period during the New Kingdom era (1550–1070 BC : considered by many as the most glorious period of ancient Egyptian history).

This unique time when monotheism was a dominant feature of Ancient Egyptian religion, art and societal custom and tradition is today known as Atenism. This form of monotheism  was so named after the Sun.

When uttering the name Amunhotep IV, unless one has a sound knowledge of the lineage of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs, it is likely that this name will not raise much interest. However, mention the name Akhenaten and commentary abounds!

The much maligned Pharaoh has been described as a deformed heretic, a meglomaniac, and revolutionary. It is also noteworthy that he was the father of the boy King Tutankhamun whose intact tomb found in the early twentieth century is one of the most celebrated finds in archaeology.

Regardless of one’s view of him, Akhenaten’s legacy, like his reputation, has endured over the millennia and today we are able to consider his contribution to Ancient Egyptian religion, worship and art.

The theological experiment, to which it is sometimes referred, was a revolutionary belief system. It focussed on the notion of a single deity. In this case, the Aten or Sun-disk.

Indeed, the Pharaoh believed himself to be the Son of the Sun. Within the first few years of his reign, Amenhotep 1V had changed his name to Akhenaten meaning “Radiant Spirit of the Aten”.

This radical approach to worship, that is, monotheism, predated the Hebrew’s religion and that of Christianity.

Whether this relatively short-lived theological experiment directly influenced later religions such as that of the Israelites is a matter of great, academic speculation. I will present some commentators’ opinions at the conclusion of this presentation, of which you may evaluate for yourselves.

Akhenaton was born Amunhotep 1Vth and reigned a mere 14 years (1352-1338 BCE). It is likely he died in middle age. The cause of his death is unknown but I have found some amusing speculations as to the nature of his demise! Some scholars have offered the possibility that he may have died of skin cancer, or sun stoke on account of his unending “sun worship” at every opportunity.

We also have accounts of the many structures built in the capital and especially at the Royal Court which were constructed without a roof. Historical accounts detail petitions made by international emissaries complaining about standing in the sun for long hours wearing heavy regalia without the benefit of being under shade, whilst attending Royal ceremonies for many hours.

The Pharoah was obsessed with the sun. He decreed that his new city be situated on the eastern shore of the Nile which was essentially, the desert. Fittingly, he named his capital city Akhetaten meaning “Horizon of the Sun-disk”.  The location is now modern El Armarna. Today is it no more than ruins.

It appears that Akhenaten was dissatisfied with the worship of Amun at the time. The usual religious rituals involved the deity Amun being revered in a dark, inner part of the sanctum, of a temple and this was only for the select few. Additionally, it is likely that the attendant priesthood was another aspect of the religious practice with which he was not impressed, and so, over a period of time, he began closing down many of  the temples across Egypt.

While Akhenaten’s revolutionary approach to everyday worship and devotion of the divine may have been at odds against the previous prevailing orthodoxy, other aspects of the period were indeed fresh and inspiring. Religious representation changed from a stylised, iconographic manner to a more realistic depiction of the Royal Family. However, many have viewed the representation of the Royal Family  as  odd.

Mostly the royal portraiture of Akhenaten displays the pharaoh in unflattering light. Many historians have hinted that the Royal portraiture was ‘realistic’ in that, the family was afflicted with a genetic disorder (Marfan’s Syndrome) brought about by procreating amongst an interrelated gene pool, as close family members often married each other and spawn offspring.

A revisionist view is that the Royal family were depicted in a less stylised manner to demonstrate the notion that the family was different to mere mortals, and that they were unworldly and extraterrestrial. Depictions of the Royal Family abound and also testify to this idea. The family, though imbued with familial tenderness and devotion, in the many royal scenes, also denote ‘other worldliness’.  For me, there is something, somewhat fascinating but strange about the oddly-shaped face and body of the Pharaoh, with his beautiful Queen Nefertiti and their  children with their extraordinary, elongated, shaped heads.

So far as the new religion was concerned, the Aten (Sun) was not portrayed with the usual human or animal attributes as had the pantheon of Egyptian deities. The Aten was always depicted as a geometric solar circle – but such representation was beautifully rendered with little hands attached to the sun-rays.

There are many depictions of Akhenaten and his family having the loving, gentle rays of the Aten, figuratively toughing via the ‘hand and fingers’ of the Aten’s rays.

What is remarkable about Akhenaten’s Atenism, I feel, is that this religion was accessible for every Egyptian. One did not have to have come from the ruling classe, nor of the  elite Priesthood to have contact with this God. The Aten, the Sun, touched everything and everyone without distinction or favour.

The beauty of this religion was the brightness of it, for nothing was in the shadows so to speak, as was the worship of Amun. Every worshiper could have immediate, direct, illuminated commune with the Aten. The worshipper could always have his/her “time in the Sun”.

Not only did Pharoah’s influence extend into the Affairs of state but also how they were conducted. The reign of Akhenaten was a relatively peaceful one as was the social the  structure.

Cyril Aldred has said of Akhenaten;

…”there was one aspect in which he was wholly original, and that was his insistence upon a true monotheism, the worship of one god only, whose incarnation he was, to the exclusion of all else. Where this idea came from in the world of the fourteenth century BC, which widely recognised so many different manifestations of godhead , is not known; but his own identification with the Aten probably provides the key’’.p.260. –  Aldred, C. Akhenaten Pharaoh of Egypt a new study,p. 260.


Another author, Redford, has made the following comments of which I will not evaluate. Instead you may arrive at your own assessment of Akhenaten’s legacy concerning his contribution to the notion of monotheism.

Several revisionist historians believe Atenism did not begin as monotheism but as a preference and superiority of one god over others.

As stated by Donald B. Redford…

“There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the bible…(it) had its own separate development.”  Redford, Donald B. The Monotheism of Akhenaten  Princeton University Press. p. 26.


At this juncture it may be timely to consider that Redford here is referring to Henotheism.

Wikipedia, defines Henotheism as “…the belief and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped.” 

Finally, an analysis of Akhenaten’s legacy which appealed for me are that of Aldred,  when he says:

“In the development of religion and thought, Akhenaten stands out as against the momentum of traditional religion as the instigator of ideas which were in advance of his time. As such, he seems the world’s first individual and the world’s first idealist”. Aldred: Page 257.