The City of Akhetaten (the ancient el-Amarna)

Figure 1: Akhetaten (Amarna) and environs (taken from

      Thus far we have discovered why and when Akhenaten founded Amarna, but what of its actual layout and design? The city was founded in about 1348/7 BC by the carving of two boundary stele into the cliff faces, one in the north and one in the south. These were approximately 9km apart from each other, marking out a large, crescent shaped area bounded by cliffs on the eastern bank of the Nile for future habitation. The land on the west side of the river would be used only for cultivation. Thirteen additional stele were cut into the rock, extending and shaping the final city limits. Each one bore a dedicatory inscription, much like this example:

'Akhetaten extends from the southern tablet as far as the northern tablet, measured between tablet and tablet in the eastern mountain, likewise from the southwest tablet to the northwest tablet in the western mountain of Akhetaten. The area within these four tablets is Akhetaten itself; it belongs to Aten my father: mountains, deserts, meadows, islands, high ground and low ground, water, villages, men, animals and all things which the Aten my father shall bring into existence eternally and forever. I will not neglect this oath which I have made to the Aten my father eternally and forever.' (trans. B. Kemp, 1989: p. 267)

      M. Mallinson has calculated some very interesting ratios for the stele and the placement of buildings according to sitelines. For instance, the distance from the north to south boundary stele is exactly four times the distance from Karnak to Luxor, a processional route used by Akhenaten's father. Furthermore, at the exact midpoint between the stele, the first altar was built, later becoming the Small Aten Temple. The city was laid out on this north to south axis, with palaces at either end as well as in the center. It seems that the northern palace was the main area of residence for the king, for it had greater natural protection, more privacy, and caught the prevailing winds before any other nearby structure. If this is so, it is interesting to note that the Great Temple was not situated on the midpoint but nudged a bit northward to the residence of Akhenaten, a subtle but effective gesture. These measurements and geometric siting techniques are clearly an attempt to bring order to chaos, mimicking the Aten's rays bringing light to darkness.

Figure 2: A model of the central city from the air (the Great Temple is in the extreme lower left corner) (taken from

      As was already mentioned, the city of Akhetaten was abandoned soon after the death of Akhenaten, though this process did not occur overnight. As best as scholars have been able to discover, the city remained the seat of royal power and center of religious worship through the reign of Neferneferuaten and into the first year or so of Tutankhamen's. It was then that the city lost its royal patronage, but it was not altogether abandoned. The following ruler was the former leader of chariotry for Akhenaten, a commoner named Ay (1323-1319 BC). Not much is known about his involvement with the now languishing city of Amarna, but from the lack of any building programmes or dedicatory inscriptions, we can probably deduce that there was no interest paid to that site. The final pharaoh of the 18th dynasty was a general named Horemheb (1319-1307 BC). It was during his rule that the Aten temples at Thebes and Karnak were despoiled for their stone, reused in many pylon towers built for the sanctuary of Amun there. Furthermore, Horemheb began the dismantling of the structures of Amarna itself, starting with the blocks of the Great Temple being ferried across the Nile to be used at Hermopolis. However, W. Murname has translated two dedicatory inscriptions indicating that Horemheb presented temple furniture at the Great Temple. One explanation is that the temple may have been rededicated to Amun. Still, this somewhat contradictory evidence aside, the general abandonment of Akhetaten continued. The final nail in Amarna's coffin came by the end of the Rammesside period only a few generations later, the buildings of Amarna were stripped down to their foundations. The city would lie waiting to be discovered again for 3000 years.

       The first hints at a rediscovery came when a French Jesuit priest stumbled upon a boundary stele and reported his findings in 1714. However it was not until the end of the 18th century that the scholars and soldiers of Napoleon mapped out the site and published their work. Excavations at Amarna did not begin for yet another hundred years, first led by Sir W.M. Petrie of the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1891-2. His reports are of little use to myself as they are often anecdotal and concentrate on areas of the city outside the focus of this study. Later, the Germans under the supervision of Ludwig Borchardt excavated the suburbs to the north and south, again missing the Central City. However, the British returned in the 1920's and early 1930's to excavate the Great Temple region in earnest, led by J.D.S. Pendlebury and others. Finally, Barry Kemp has continued the digs at Amarna, including some around the Great Temple, since the late 1970's. I base most of my archaeological research on the last two teams mentioned, but I am partial to Kemp's work due to its more up to date scientific methods, general methodology, attention to details and substantial use of former archaeological work.