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Why the Long Face?
In November 1828, Jean-François Champollion, the founder of Egyptology, arrived at a run-down village on the Nile called Tell el-Amarna. The nearby sites of Beni Hasan and Hermopolis were much better known; but as Champollion was aware, the scholars of Napoleon's expedition had uncovered some curious relics at Amarna a few years earlier. These included boundary stelae for what appeared to be a considerable city of Middle Egypt. With no idea whom he might be describing, Champollion made swift notes about an extremely odd-looking Pharaoh depicted on the stelae. "King very fat and swollen," he wrote, "big belly. Feminine contours...grande morbidezza [great softness]." This king had a grotesquely elongated chin and neck, an egglike head, and long, rubbery fingers straight out of an Italian Mannerist painting. Was it a man or a woman? Champollion was not at all sure. Later, in 1843, Karl Richard Lepsius, an early scholar of the Amarna site, was similarly puzzled.
In fact, without knowing it, Champollion had stumbled upon perhaps the strangest figure in Egyptian history: the physically deformed (or artistically exaggerated) heretic Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later self-baptized as Akhenaten. And the city marked by these intriguing stelae was none other than his remote capital. Ruling for a mere sixteen years in the middle of the fourteenth century b.c., at the height of the fabulous and decadent Eighteenth Dynasty, Akhenaten was the greatest iconoclast Egypt had ever known. Banishing the ancient top god Atum and his dizzying pantheon of lesser divinities, he set up the world's first monotheistic religion--the cult of Aten, or the sun-disc. The king designated a brand-new capital, far from either of Egypt's traditional capitals at Luxor and Memphis, devoted to this new religion. Such was the gravity of this revolution that later Pharaohs tried ferociously to eradicate all trace of Akhenaten's memory. And they succeeded surprisingly well.
Today, however, Akhenaten is fully resurrected. Since the German archaeologist Arthur Weigall published his groundbreaking Life and Times of Akhenaton in 1910, he has been hailed as everything from the precursor of Moses and monotheism (courtesy of Freud) to the first modern individual. Even Thomas Mann fell under his spell in Joseph and His Brothers.
But Akhenaten's fame has another dimension. After all, he was married to one of history's most glamorous queens, Nefertiti. During their brief reign, they were the John and Jackie Kennedy of the ancient world. Nefertiti's limestone bust, which a German team discovered in the abandoned Amarna workshops of the royal sculptor Thuthmosis in 1912, has made her Egypt's most recognizable face. Since it was first exhibited in Berlin in 1924, this palely haughty, cruelly serene aristocratic portrait--"exalted, harsh, and alien," as Camille Paglia puts it--has become an archetype of sophisticated beauty. Fey comparisons with Audrey Hepburn have come thick and fast. Hitler loved it so much he refused to give it back to Egypt.
In Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, Erik Hornung, professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Basel, explores the metaphysical and religious dimensions of Akhenaten's "perestroika." Meanwhile, Joyce Tyldesley, an honorary research fellow at Liverpool University, burrows into the myths of Nefertiti in Nefertiti, Egypt's Sun Queen. Inevitably, their subject matters overlap. Nefertiti, unusually for an Egyptian queen, played a crucial role in Akhenaten's rule. She is frequently shown alongside her husband at nearly equal height (a noteworthy breaking of artistic rules). And, even more unusually, she participates in ritual "smiting scenes," which show the Pharaoh calmly lopping off the heads of assorted miserable Asiatics and Nubians. Like the female Pharaoh Hatchepsut who preceded her (and whom Tyldesley has also written about), Nefertiti was no wifely sidekick.
Indeed, as both scholars show, Nefertiti formed part of a divine trinity with the sun god Aten and the Pharaoh Akhenaten, while the disgruntled Atum and his outraged priests were packed off to the wilderness. Central to the new religion was an ecstatically immediate response to nature. In his brand-new palace, the young Pharaoh surrounded himself with elaborate gardens and the most thrillingly vibrant frescoes of nature. He also created a new style of roofless temple, opening up previously dark and shadowy complexes to direct sunlight--the emanation of his beloved Aten.
Sun worship was hardly original to Akhenaten, but the heretic king made it his own by jettisoning the cumbersome paraphernalia of mythic references that had previously burdened Egyptian litanies. In Akhenaten's hymns, Aten's light creates cattle, rivers, cities, and people, and suffuses them with cosmic vitality. But Aten himself is unknowable and imperceptible: the true ancestor of the Mosaic God. Akhenaten's "Great Hymn to the Aten," which has been compared both to Psalm 104 and to Saint Francis's "Canticle of the Sun," proclaims:
You are distant, though your rays are on earth;The most intriguing aspect of the Amarna court, however, is undoubtedly its art. Since Norman de Garis Davies published Rock Tombs of El Amarna in 1903, this flamboyantly exaggerated and convention-breaking style has mystified and sometimes appalled its admirers. Heinrich Sch”fer described it as "expressionistic" in 1926. Amarna and modern art, in other words, mirrored each other uncannily. "An ecstasy of speed," writes Hornung, "pervades the chariot scenes," as if the latter were futurist images. At the center of this stylistic upheaval lie the enigmatic, almost hermaphroditic portraits of Akhenaten himself, especially the early ones executed by the sculptor Bak, who was later replaced by the more traditional Thuthmosis.
Hornung gives an amusing catalog of stunned reactions on the part of European scholars and writers. Adolf Erman in 1905 commented on the "strangely sick appearance of the king," which somehow proved he was "an enlightened despot." Mann famously wrote that Akhenaten reminded him of "an aristocratic young Englishman of somewhat decadent stock... pretty and well-favored not at all, but of a disturbing attractiveness." Joachim Spiegel (1950) noted the "pathological grotesqueness of his physical form." Eberhard Otto (1953) lamented both an "ugly and sickly" Akhenaten and the "tasteless and aberrant" scenes of intimate family life that characterize certain Amarna art. For some reason, this led Otto to conjecture, wildly, that Akhenaten was "unpolitical and egocentric."
Indeed, Hornung shows how psychological and medical interpretations of Akhe naten's portraits based on a literal reading of their anatomy-bending style have often fed dubious moral presumptions. Weigall's contemporary Gaston Maspero, for example, thought that the king was a eunuch, while Weigall himself claimed that he was an epileptic. Elliot Smith believed that he was hydrocephalic. Some works suggested he had suffered from Fr–hlich's syndrome, a deformative disease. One of these, a 1968 biography by Cyril Aldred, created what Hornung calls "a totally absurd picture" of a psychologically and physically unsound monarch disposed to crazy and untenable religious ideas. "Ugly" and "sick," Hornung tells us, were the most common epithets applied to Amarna art by scholars at the turn of the century.
Of course, Akhenaten has also had his admirers. Among them was the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, who saw the Pharoah as a philosopher-pacifist avant la lettre, a kind of Bronze Age Bertrand Russell. Reality, Hornung seems to be saying, probably lay elsewhere, though he himself seems prone to much the same admiring impulse. "The sixteen years of his reign," Hornung writes enthusiastically, "demonstrate impressively how the tempo of historical development more than three thousand years ago could approximate that of modern times."
If Hornung is mostly concerned to show us how moderns have willfully overinterpreted Akhenaten, Tyldesley does a fine job of painting in the context of the Amarna court. Amarna art shows us the daily life of the royal family in unprecedented detail. We see Nefertiti dangling on Akhenaten's lap with their six daughters, just as we see the couple relaxing together, plainly enjoying each other's affections. At the same time, there is a dire lack of specific information about Nefertiti, and no mummy for either regent has ever been found. Akhenaten's successor, Tutankhamen, his son or son-in-law (the relation is not clear), left the most resplendent mummy of them all; but Akhenaten and Nefertiti simply disappeared into thin air. This leaves the field wide open for much speculation, which Tyldesley accordingly provides.
Did Nefertiti simply grow old and lose her prestige to her daughter Meritaten, who later symbolically married her own father? This is nowhere proved, but according to Tyldesley it is a distinct possibility given the prevalence of Egyptian royal incest. Then again, perhaps Nefertiti died of the same plague that carried off most of her children. Then there is the question of Nefertiti's shadowy rival, Kiya, Akhenaten's alternative favorite for a while. Finally, there is the queen's apparent lack of close relatives in the historical record--if we except her formidable sister Mutnodjmet, who later became the wife of the Pharaoh Horemheb.
Here Nefertiti's story closes in an ironic circle, for the stolid, traditional Horemheb is credited by most scholars with closing Akhenaten's Aten temples at Karnak. He is often accused of eradicating the memory of Egypt's most startling royal couple out of personal spite. What remains of Nefertiti, then, is an accident: that spare, exquisite bust that Thuthmosis casually left on a shelf after hurriedly moving his studio to Luxor. The left eye is missing, as if the studio assistants hadn't yet gotten around to it, though modern reproductions carefully avoid this sinister-looking lacuna. The severe regularity of the face has made it unnervingly timeless.
"Few of us are blessed with absolutely symmetrical features," Tyldesley concludes, "but Nefertiti, in the form of her bust, has been, and this contributes to her perfect but remote and faintly inhuman appearance." Tyldesley closes with Paglia: "The proper response to the Nefertiti bust is fear."
Lawrence Osborne is a frequent contributor to LF. He is the author of The Poisoned Embrace: A Brief History of Sexual Pessimism (Pantheon).