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Pharaohs of the Sun - 20 credits (HS2410)

Course Description

The so-called ‘Amarna Period’, sometimes referred to as ‘the Amarna heresy’ is one of the most fascinating and heavily researched areas of Egyptian archaeology.   The term is rather loosely defined, the ancient city of Amarna being a new capital created by Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten  (1352-1336 B.C.) in the mid 14th Century B.C.  However, the period has its origins as least as far back as the reign of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III (1390-1352 B.C.) and extends through the reign of Tutankhamun ( 1336-1327 B.C.) with its influence felt right up to the close of the 18th Dynasty around 1295 B.C.

This module investigates the archaeological and historical evidence for all of the key figures of this period and concentrates particularly on the archaeology of Tell el-Amarna itself.  Since this site was never extensively re-occupied or over-built it provides a valuable snapshot of life in the ancient capital.  Recent work by Professor Kemp is also revealing the burial places of many of the inhabitants of this ancient city and – for the first time – giving us a clear picture of life and death in Akhenaten’s new city.

The religious changes of the period - the shift to Atenism – and its consequences for Egyptian thought and art are examined along with the monuments associated with this short-lived religious change.

The latest thinking on the mysterious body in KV55 is also discussed in the light of the evidence from DNA studies which was published in 2010 and has been widely debated/disputed since that time.

Credits 20

Availability of module: Available every second year

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Tutor: Dr Paul  Nicholson

Teaching methods

20 one hour lectures


2500 word essay (40%)

30 minute class test (10%)

1 Hour Exam (50%)

Summary of course content

The Physical and Symbolic Geography of Ancient Egypt
Importance of environment – brightness and clarity leads to optimistic outlook, aided by security.  Significance of creation, endless repetition so that each day is repetition of the ‘First Time’.  Importance of physical sun – gods Atum, Re, Khepri.  The river, a source of plenty, little rain, annual flood governs though process through its regularity and predictability.  Desert gives rise to duality in thought process – order vs. chaos underpins notions of ma’at and isft.

Background to Egyptian History
What is meant by Old, Middle and New Kingdoms?  What are ‘Intermediate Periods’?  Source material for Egyptian history – Manetho, the Turin Canon etc.  Hieroglyphic texts.

Traditional Egyptian Religion
Earliest forms are animism and fetishism which give way to polytheism.  Previous gods are often anthropomorphic but Egyptians do not generally worship animals per se.  Discussion of monotheistic beliefs before the Amarna period.  Discussion of the rise of Amun.

The Reign of Amenhotep III
Egypt at the pinnacle of affluence.  Malkata.  Importance of the Heb sed festival. Changing representational conventions in art and sculpture.

History of Research on the Amarna Period
Rediscovery of Akhenaten 180 years ago.  Subsequent excavations, modern views of the King.

Akhenaten and the Development of the Heresy
Who is Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten?  Possibly co-regency with Amenhotep III, influences from father and mother.  Early evidence for the Aten.  Was the new religion really a heresy?

Karnak and the Early Monuments
Background to Karnak before Akhenaten.  Developments during the reign of Akhenaten – the Aten temple.  Talatat blocks.  Other sites – Memphis (?), Soleb etc.

The Move to Amarna
Reasons for the move.  Why Amarna? The Boundary Stele as sources for the move.  Change of name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten.

Who was she?  Influence on her husband at Amarna.  Significance of the royal children.  Who was Kiya? 

The City of Amarna
The layout of the city, its main monuments and the surrounding tombs.

Akhenaten’s Religious Teaching
Imposed, not counter-religion in a strict sense.  Main changes from traditional religion.  New solar theology, intolerance of other religions.

Amarna Art
The limits of traditional art.  Changes to the ‘naturalistic style’.  Impact of the new art and its effects on future reigns.  Crafts and industries.

The End of Amarna: Abandonment of Atenism
The last years of Amarna.  Changes in sculpture. Return to traditional forms.  Nefertiti’s last years.  Where did the key figures go?

DNA and the Royal Family
Examines the recent work by Hawass et al. using DNA on selected mummies of the period.

Learning outcomes

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.

Suggested book purchases

Shaw, I.  and Nicholson, P.T. (2008) The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: B.M.P.

And any or all of:

Kemp, B.J. (1992) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London: Routledge.

Kemp, B.J. (2012) The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. London: Thames and Hudson.

Redford, D. B. (1984) Akehnaten: The Heretic King.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Reeves, C.N. (2001) Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet. London: Thames and Hudson.

Suggested preparatory reading

Kemp, B.J. (2012) The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. London: Thames and Hudson.

Reeves, C.N. (2001) Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet. London: Thames and Hudson.