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By Rick Gore Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti ruled Egypt just long enough to transform the empire’s religion, art, and architecture. Digs at Amarna yield clues to their enigmatic dynasty.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Akhenaten’s rebellion began with his father, the strong-willed pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled for 37 years during a golden age of the Egyptian empire. Amenhotep III tapped the wealth of that empire to build an unprecedented series of monuments. These included elaborate constructions at Karnak and Luxor, religious centers of the god Amun, patron of Thebes. Amun became increasingly powerful after Thebes regained control of Egypt around 1520 B.C. His name means Hidden One, and he resided in the inner sanctum of his temple at Karnak, where his priests fed, washed, and clothed a statue of him. Amun soon merged with the ancient sun god Re and became Amun-Re. Pharaoh himself was regarded as the son of Amun-Re. His divine authority could be renewed only by the Hidden One each year in a festival called Opet. Late in his reign, and perhaps chafing from political friction with the priests of Amun, Amenhotep III decided that he was not only the son of Amun but also the incarnation of Re—and thus at least equal to Amun. He began building monuments to his own divinity, including a vast funerary temple across the Nile from Thebes. This temple featured two 65-foot-high (20-meter-high), 720-ton quartzite statues of himself that he declared should gleam into people’s eyes like the rising Aten. The ruins of those statues are famed as the Colossi of Memnon.

The stage was thus set for the entrance of Akhenaten, who came to the throne as Amenhotep IV. Some scholars argue that Akhenaten and his father ruled together as co-regents for several years. Ray Johnson, a specialist at the University of Chicago, believes the father lived on for many years, yielding power to his son and accompanying him to Amarna. But most now contend that Akhenaten ruled without his father, perhaps driven to outdo him.
Akhenaten was probably already married to Nefertiti when he ascended the throne. Perhaps both were children when they wed, as Akhenaten’s father and mother, Queen Tiye, had been. No one knows where Nefertiti came from. Her name means “the beautiful one has come,” which once led scholars to assume she was foreign-born. Today many believe she was from a town now called Akhmim and belonged to the same influential family as Queen Tiye. Wherever Nefertiti was born, she was a part of Akhenaten’s revolution from the beginning.

VIDEO Go back in time as photographer Kenneth Garrett discusses images from the land of the Pharaohs.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

King Tutankhamun, whose golden death mask has haunted the world’s imagination since its discovery 80 years ago, remains a riddle waiting to be solved. He is one of the most mysterious yet also the best known of Egypt’s pharaohs. His tomb is the only record of the array of treasures that adorned a king’s death. Four gilded wooden shrines surrounded Tut’s quartzite sarcophagus, with three nested coffins protecting his mummy, the last one of beaten gold.

In spite of the tomb’s lavish contents and the glimpse it gives us of Egypt’s riches more than 3,300 years ago, many questions are unanswered about the birth of this young king and the circumstances of his death. Was Tut the son of Amenhotep III or of Amenhotep’s son Akhenaten? Was Tut even of royal blood? A team of Egyptian and Japanese scientists are about to test the DNA of Tut and compare it to DNA from Amenhotep III’s mummy, found stashed with the bodies of several other pharaohs in a Valley of the Kings tomb. Another window into the mysteries of the past should soon be opened.

—Jeanne E. Peters

Egypt Exploration Society’s Excavations
Investigate the adventure of turn-of-the-century Egyptian archaeology and current discoveries of the Egypt Exploration Society.

The Wonders of Egypt
Travel through dozens of ancient sites along the Nile from Alexandria to Aswan on the official website of Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism.

Amarna—Ancient City of Akhetaten
Journey to ancient Amarna, Akhenaten’s capital, and see his Great Palace and Small Aten Temple recreated by computer.


Baines, John and Jaromir Malek. Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Andromeda Oxford, 2000.

Clayton, Peter A. Chronicle of the Pharaohs. Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Freed, Rita and others. Pharaohs of the Sun. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1999.

Reeves, Nicholas. The Complete Tutankhamun. Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Shaw, Ian, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson, 2000.


Berger, Gilda and Melvin. Mummies of the Pharaohs: Exploring the Valley of the Kings. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Dumatt, Albert. “Mummies: The Inside Story,” National Geographic World (June 1999), 6-10.

Egypt: Secrets of the Pharoahs. National Geographic Videos, 1998.

Weeks, Kent. “Valley of the Kings,” National Geographic (September 1998), 2-33.

Roberts, David. “Age of Pyramids: Egypt’s Old Kingdom,” National Geographic (January 1995), 2-43.

Gore, Rick. “Ramses the Great,” National Geographic (April 1991), 2-31.

El-Baz, Farouk. “Finding a Pharoah’s Funeral Bark,” National Geographic (April 1988), 513-533.

Miller, Peter. “Riddle of the Pyramid Boats,” National Geographic (April 1988), 534-550.

Noblecourt, Christiane Desroches. “Tutankhamun’s Golden Trove,” National Geographic (October 1963), 625-646.


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