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Archaeology: Pharaohs Of The Sun

3 minute read
Frederic Golden

It was a brief, shining moment in Egypt’s history–a time of epochal change presided over by a Pharaoh named Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Nefertiti. During his 17-year reign the old gods were cast aside, monotheism was introduced, and the arts liberated from their stifling rigidity. Even Egypt’s capital was moved to a new city along the Nile called Akhetaten (modern Amarna). But like Camelot, it was short-lived, and its legacy was buried in the desert sands.

Now Akhenaten’s 3,400-year-old world has been brilliantly recalled in an exhibit titled “Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen,” which opens this week at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Part of the city’s eight-month tribute to ancient Egypt (operas, ballet and an IMAX film), it is a unique assemblage of more than 250 objects from Egypt’s 18th dynasty, some of which have languished unseen in storerooms and private collections for decades. They range from larger-than-life statues of Akhenaten to exquisitely sculpted reliefs and dazzling jewelry to such poignant reminders of everyday life as a perfectly preserved child’s sandal.

The exhibit illuminates a murky period in Egyptian history that curator Rita Freed describes as having “all the elements of a soap opera.” When Amenhotep IV, as he was originally called, ascended the throne in 1353 B.C., Egypt was a flourishing empire, at peace with its neighbors. Yet there were troubling signs. His father Amenhotep III had already challenged the powerful priesthood by proclaiming the sun god Aten as foremost among Egyptian deities and himself as his living incarnation.

His son shook things up even more, not only changing his name to honor the new god (Akhenaten means “one who serves Aten”) but also banishing the older gods, especially the priestly favorite Amen. Some scholars believe Akhenaten’s monotheism, a historic first, inspired the Hebrew prophets, but it had the more immediate effect of freeing Egypt’s artists. They could now portray the Pharaoh and the voluptuous Nefertiti (who may have shared the throne with him) in a far more casual, realistic way. Akhenaten’s cone-shaped head, elongated face, fingers and toes, pot belly and flaring hips have led some scholars to suggest that he had hydrocephalus or Marfan’s syndrome.

He was certainly a revolutionary, propelled either by madness or by great vision. Still, his changes did not endure. After his death, his son-in-law (and perhaps son) Tutankhamen moved the political and religious capitals back to Memphis and Thebes respectively and reinstated the old gods. Egyptian art returned to its classic, ritualized style. And like Camelot, Akhenaten’s once bustling capital became only a mythic memory. “Pharaohs of the Sun” will remain in Boston until February, then travel to Los Angeles, Chicago and Leiden, the Netherlands.

–Reported by Andrea Dorfman/New York

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