Break-up of the Empire and Death of Ikhnaton
Had Pharaoh Ikhnaton been a mature mind he would have realized that the change which he had proposed from a superstitious polytheism deeply rooted in the needs and habits of the people to a naturalistic monotheism that subjected imagination to intelligence, was too profound to be effected in a little time; he would have made haste slowly, and softened the transition with intermediate steps.
But he was a poet rather than a philosopher; like Shelley announcing the demise of Yahveh to the bishops of Oxford, he grasped for the Absolute, and brought the whole structure of Egypt down upon his head.
At one blow he Pharaoh Ikhnaton dispossessed and alienated a wealthy and powerful priesthood, and had forbidden the worship of deities made dear by long tradition and belief.
When Pharaoh Ikhnaton had Amon hacked out from his father's name it seemed to his people a blasphemous impiety; nothing could be more vital to them than the honoring of the ancestral dead.
He had underestimated the strength and pertinacity of the priests, and he had exaggerated the capacity of the people to understand a natural religion.
Behind the scenes the priests plotted and prepared; and in the seclusion of their homes the populace continued to worship their ancient and innumerable gods.
A hundred crafts that had depended upon the temples muttered in secret against the heretic.
Even in his palace his ministers and generals hated him, and prayed for his death, for was he not allowing the Empire to fall to pieces in his hands?
Meanwhile Pharaoh Ikhnaton the young poet lived in simplicity and trust.
He had seven daughters, but no son; and though by law he might have sought an heir by his secondary wives, he would not, but preferred to remain faithful to Nofretete.
A little ornament has come down to us that shows him embracing the Queen; he allowed artists to depict him riding in a chariot through the streets, engaged in pleasantries with his wife and children: on ceremonial occasions the Queen sat beside him and held his hand, while their daughters frolicked at the foot of the throne.
He spoke of his wife Nofretete as "Mistress of his Happiness, at hearing whose voice the King rejoices"; and for an oath he used the phrase, "As my heart is happy in the Queen and her children."
It was a tender interlude in Egypt's epic of power.
Into this simple happiness came alarming messages from Syria.
The dependencies of Egypt in the Near East were being invaded by Hittites and other neighboring tribes; the governors appointed by Egypt pleaded for immediate reinforcements.
Pharaoh Ikhnaton hesitated; he was not quite sure that the right of conquest warranted him in keeping these states in subjection to Egypt; and he was loath to send Egyptians to die on distant fields for so uncertain a cause.
When the dependencies saw that they were dealing with a saint, they deposed their Egyptian governors, quietly stopped all payment of tribute, and became to all effects free.
Almost in a moment Egypt ceased to be a vast Empire, and shrank back into a little state.
Soon the Egyptian treasury, which had for a century depended upon foreign tribute as its mainstay, was empty; domestic taxation had fallen to a minimum, and the working of the gold mines had stopped.
Internal administration was in chaos. Pharaoh Ikhnaton found himself penniless and friendless in a world that had seemed all his own.
Every colony was in revolt, and every power in Egypt was arrayed against him, waiting for his fall.
He was hardly thirty when, in 1362 B.C., he died, broken with the realization of his failure as a ruler, and the unworthiness of his race.
You may also be interested in...
Return to Ancient EGypt History