The Lost Years

What happens when business as usual is suddenly suspended?

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March 9, 2021

Did Tutankhamun rule as pharaoh during a pandemic? Scattered pieces of evidence suggest that he may well have done. Letters found in archives across the Near East speak of plague gods putting kingdoms in their shadow, of prisoners infecting their captors, of entire cities falling sick. In Karnak, the great complex of temples that stood on the far side of the Nile from the Valley of the Kings, a stela was raised in the first year of Tutankhamun’s reign. “The land,” it proclaimed, “is in grave disease. The gods have forsaken it.”

This, however, does not conclusively prove that the plague recorded in other Near Eastern kingdoms had indeed reached Egypt. It may have been a metaphor. Even if the “disease” mentioned on the stela had manifested itself as the plague sweeping the Nile Valley, it was dreaded above all as a cosmic malignancy: one that had infected the dimension of the supernatural. The stela listed the symptoms. Temples stood desolate. Crumbling shrines were piled with rubbish. Thistles sprouted in the sanctuaries of the gods. “It was as if they had never been.”

What had prompted this great convulsion of iconoclasm? Only a pharaoh could possibly have commanded a people as respectful of their venerable traditions as the Egyptians to tolerate such a disorienting, such a revolutionary, such an unspeakably blasphemous programme.

Two decades before the eight-year-old Tutankhamun came to the throne, another, infinitely more domineering king had ascended to the rule of Egypt. Everything that Amenhotep IV did might have been calculated to shock and bewilder his subjects.

Amun-Re, the great god whose sprawling temple at Karnak was only one of a multitude of such complexes across Egypt, had been decisively repudiated. The king himself, to signal this as directly as he could, had changed his name from Amenhotep — “Amun is pleased” — to a new one: Akhenaten. “Effective for the Aten”, it meant: the expression of a radical new theology. The Aten, the sun disk, was, by Egyptian standards, a chillingly impersonal god. There was barely a hint of the anthropomorphic about it. In friezes, it was portrayed simply as an orb. It resembled nothing of the mingled human and animal forms that were characteristic of other Egyptian gods. Its rays, when they fell on Akhenaten or his queen, Nefertiti, were shown with open hands; but such a blessing was for the royal couple, and the royal couple alone. No one else served the Aten as its intermediaries to mankind.

“Sole god, without another beside him.” Akhenaten’s proclamation of monotheism, in a realm as crowded by gods as Egypt, struck at the very heart of how his subjects understood both the universe and themselves. No longer was the sun portrayed as descending at dusk into the realm of the dead, there to bring life to the departed. The cosmos, in Akhenaten’s imagining of it, was purged of all mythology. Knowledge of the divine was rendered a prerogative of the king alone. The festivals that had structured the rhythms of life in Egypt for centuries; the comfort of knowing that a great multitude of gods existed, familiar and much-loved; and the reassurance that in death these same gods might come to be seen, and eternal life be had, and everything serve as one perpetual festival — all that was swept away. It was Egypt’s — and the world’s — first experience of revolution.

An experience that the Egyptians came decisively to reject. This was what the stela raised at Karnak in the first year of Tutankhamun’s reign served to proclaim. The boy-pharaoh himself, almost certainly Akhenten’s son, had spent his early years as Tutankhaten: “the Living Image of the Aten”. Now, as Tutankhamun, “the Living Image of Amun”, his role was as the figure-head of a counter-revolution. The worship of the Aten was abandoned. Akhenaten’s legacy was targeted for systematic desecration. The traditional priesthoods had their temples and their authority restored.

Tutankhamun’s early death only quickened the pace of the repudiation by the Egyptian elites of the pharaoh who had come to be known by them simply as “the Criminal”. It was the army, in the form of a general by the name of Horemheb, who consigned his revolution definitively to the grave. A damnatio memoriae was proclaimed not only against Akhenaten but against Tutankhamun as well. The reign of the boy-pharaoh had been defined by opposition to that of his predecessor, and so he too was condemned to oblivion.

Both had all traces of their existence wiped clean. Their presence on the king lists was removed. Their cartouches were chiselled out. They began to slip from memory. As the centuries slipped by, so demolished statues of Akhenaten lay buried and forgotten beneath temples raised at Karnak to the greater glory of Amun. Across the Nile, the robbers who preyed on the royal tombs that pockmarked the Valley of the Kings never thought to look for the treasure that had been buried with Tutankhamun — for they had never heard of such a pharaoh. It was as though the entire traumatic episode of Akhenaten’s revolution had never been.

Or was it? A millennium and more after the death of Akhenaten, Egypt came under the rule of foreign kings, Greeks from Macedonia. In the reign of one of these kings, Ptolemy II, or perhaps Ptolemy III, an Egyptian priest named Manetho wrote a history in Greek of his native land. Naturally, he did not include Akhenaten in his long list of the pharaohs who had ruled over Egypt; yet Akhenaten’s ghost, even so, may not have been entirely absent from his chronicle.

Such, at any rate, is the implication of a strange story told by Manetho about a pharaoh called Amenhotep — a king who, supposedly, had driven all the lepers in Egypt out into the desert. There the lepers had taken as their leader a priest of the sun. This priest, Osarsiph, had made laws for them that reversed all the laws that Egyptians, from time immemorial, had taken for granted. No longer were the gods to be worshipped, their temples cherished, their sacred animals allowed to live. Everything was to be turned on its head. The lepers, under the leadership of Osarsiph, ended up seizing control of Egypt. Amenhotep fled to Ethiopia as an exile. Osarsiph’s rule saw sanctuaries ritually desecrated, the images of the gods mutilated, and sacred animals roasted on spits. Only after 13 years of such blasphemies was Amenhotep finally able to return, and redeem his kingdom. The lepers were driven out into the desert, never to return. With them went Osarsiph — a man who by this point, so Manetho noted, “had changed his name, and come to be known as Moses”.

Such was the origin of a tradition that, elaborated by a succession of Greek and Roman writers, came to cast the biblical story of Exodus as a narrative marked both by disease and by the scandalous inversion of every norm. Moses, wrote Tacitus in the early 2nd century AD, had instituted “novel rites which were the exact opposite of those practised by other mortals everywhere”. This re-telling of Exodus — one that had a profound influence on Roman attitudes to the Jews — was a mirror held up to the portrayal in the Bible of the gods and customs of Egypt. “Both accounts,” as Jan Assmann, in his book Moses the Egyptian, puts it,

“are suffused with mutual hatred and abomination… In the Biblical version, the Egyptians are shown as torturers and oppressors, idolators and magicians. In the Egyptian version, the ‘Jews’ are shown as lepers, as impure people, atheists, misanthropes, iconoclasts, vandals, and sacrilegious criminals.”

What they bear witness to, so Assmann brilliantly argues, is not a historical Exodus, but rather the role played by Akhenaten’s revolution in the collective memory of the Egyptians as a a buried neurosis, the enduring scar-tissue of an otherwise forgotten trauma.

Well might Freud have been fascinated by the heretic pharaoh. The rediscovery of Akhenaten by archaeologists, and the possible clues that the cult of the Aten might provide to the origins of Jewish identity, were themes that he started turning over in his mind in 1912, at least. His last work, completed in 1939, even as Hitler was preparing for war and Freud himself was preparing for death, cast Moses as a follower of Akhenaten: a priest who, after the failure of the pharaoh’s revolution, had led a band of “wild Semites” out into the desert, there to try and school them in the worship of the Aten.

The attempt, so Freud hypothesised, had failed. Moses’ followers, weary of the demands he was placing on them, had killed him. In place of the Aten, they had fallen instead to worshipping a volcano-god called Yahweh. Even so, they could not entirely suppress the guilt they felt at having murdered the father-figure who had led them out of Egypt. Over the course of the centuries, this guilt had served to forge out of the Aten and Yahweh, the sun disk and the volcano-god, a composite deity. Repression of the memory of this process had served to disguise from the Jews the true origins of their monotheism. It had derived, wrote the dying Freud, not from Sinai but from Egypt. “When Moses brought to his people the conception of a single god, it was nothing new.”

No one today takes the precise details of Freud’s theory seriously. Yet in this year of all years, as we prepare to emerge from the pandemic, and snatch after the prospect of normality, it is possible that the story of Akhenaten does indeed provide a warning. So traumatic had his revolution been to the Egyptians that it had seemed to them a leprosy, a corruption of the body, a plague. The memory of Akhenaten’s iconoclasm, it appears, took a lot longer to fade in Egypt than the memory of Akhenaten himself. A millennium after his death, it was still able to express itself in the form of the narrative that Manetho would go on to record in his history. Freud, at any rate, would not have been surprised. A pandemic, like a revolution, is a trauma that cannot readily be forgotten. At best, it can only be repressed.