One of the most notable religious reformers of the ancient world, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton attempted to reshape his country’s religious traditions in a radical effort to stamp out old beliefs in favor of a new religion organized around a single sun god, Aton. Akhenaton, who ascended to the Egyptian throne in about 1350 BC, was the son of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, who had ruled Egypt for about thirty-seven years. The young king was originally named Amenhotep IV, but changed his name after creating the new religion in the fourth year of his rule.

Prior to Akhenaton, Egyptians had worshipped a centuries old pantheon of gods, including Osiris, the god of fertility, and Horus, the god of war. After rejecting the older gods, Akhenaton banned the worship of the traditional deities and ordered the destruction of many old temples.

Although Akhenaton seems to have been sincerely devoted to his new creed, the monarch’s new religion also had important political implications. By removing the Egyptian priesthood from its traditional role as interlocutors between men and the gods and declaring that he alone could communicate with Aton, the king weakened the clergy’s power and strengthened his own authority. To consolidate his rule, he even built an entirely new city in the desert, Akhetaten, and moved the Egyptian capital there from its old home in Thebes.

However, the general population never fully embraced Atonism during the king’s seventeen-year reign. After the pharaoh’s death, the child pharaoh Tutankhaten bowed to pressure from the priesthood to restore the old gods and move the capital back to Thebes. Within a few years, the Egyptians had rejected Atonism completely and moved to obliterate all vestiges of the iconoclastic pharaoh. However, Akhenaton is considered an innovator, and the religion he created is often viewed as an intellectual ancestor of the monotheistic faiths.


  1. Akhenaton wished to be portrayed in artworks as having a short torso and long arms, neck, and head. This unusual representation has led some modern scholars to suggest that Akhenaton may have suffered from a rare genetic malady called Marfan syndrome.
  2. The new capital city’s name, Akhetaton, meant “Horizon of Aton.”
  3. After abandoning Atonism, the boy king Tutankhaten also abandoned his name, which meant “Living Image of Aton.” In its place he adopted the name by which he is now more widely known: Tutankhamen.

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