Book – Heretic: The Life And Death Of Akhenaten

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Akhenaten-Front-Cover_554x831_pinterestAkhenaten was reclining in a chair as Aye spoke to him. “Forgive me for being blunt, Sire, but the situation in Mitanni is urgent and calls for our immediate attention.”

The Pharaoh responded with sarcasm. “Isn’t every situation urgent?”

The vizier refrained from showing his frustration, save for a slight clenching of his jaw. “That is our duty— to protect and secure Egypt and its holdings— as it was your father’s.”

Akhenaten slammed a heavy goblet on the table, eyes burning fiercely, startling the servants who stood nearby. “Do not speak of my father!” he shouted, “Not to me, nor to anyone else! You may have been loyal to him once, but your loyalty now lies with me!”

Aye swallowed nervously. He needed a moment to collect his senses and corral his thoughts. He hated to admit— even to himself— that the Pharaoh’s reaction had shaken him. He adopted a contrite appearance. “Forgive me for speaking out of line, Sire. I think only of you and Egypt and what’s in her best interest.” He paused again before speaking. “Still, I regret to inform you that Tushratta has vowed to attack and gain Egyptian holdings for himself since you’ve ignored his offers of friendship and peace.”

Akhenaten raised a brow. “Attack Egyptian holdings? Tushratta would not do that. He has been a loyal friend to Egypt since the time of my father.”

The vizier agreed. “While that is true, he feels slighted by your lack of correspondence and that he’s been cheated in the gold sent to him. He is offended and as there has been no response to his last offer. He is lashing out, your Majesty.”

Akhenaten frowned. “I see…” he said.

Aye’s hopes began to rise. Perhaps he was getting through to the man. He went on, not wanting to lose the ground he’d gained. “I urge you to send General Horemheb and his army to save Egypt’s possessions from Tushratta. To do nothing means risking all out war with the Mitanni. It is much too late to go back to friendly relations. We cannot lose our holdings!” He fell silent, awaiting the Pharaoh’s response. His patience wore thin, as still, Akhenaten remained silent, sipping from the freshly poured wine in his chalice. “Sire? Shall I find the general?”

“No,” said Akhenaten.

No?” said Aye. The vizier could feel his eyes bulge from his head and somewhere in his skull, his blood began to boil and pound, though he hid his emotions well.

The Pharaoh appeared to be bored with the conversation, casually studying his hands. “No. We must wait. It is merely a threat. I will send him a peace offering.”

***

Fuming with rage, Aye made his way briskly back to his own chambers. He burst through the doors, and sent pottery, glassware, and other valuable items crashing to the ground with a sweep of his arm. Having vented his frustration privately, he turned and went back out into the hallway and headed for Queen Tiye’s chambers.

***

The Queen sat by the window, gazing patiently at her son’s vizier. “What is it you wished to speak with me about, Aye?”

The man hesitated, secretly trying to calm his anger, but appearing to the Queen as if he were merely searching for the right words. “I’m afraid it is about your son, the Pharaoh, your Majesty. I regret to inform you that his reluctance to secure Egypt’s borders and holdings is putting us at risk.”

The Queen listened thoughtfully as Aye continued. She felt herself being persuaded to see the point of this man who seemed so humble and concerned for the well-being of his country and king.

***

Meanwhile, a farmer was busy plowing furrows into the soil, when he looked up and saw the Pharaoh and Nefertiti at the Aten temple in the distance. The farmer spoke to his son. “See how the Pharaoh and his Queen visit their god at His temple?

The young man nodded. The farmer’s tone became resentful as he continued, “They are the only ones to worship Him. Would that we could pray to Him as well, but we are mere commoners. It appears only Pharaoh and his Queen are good enough for Aten. Perhaps that’s why Pharaoh won’t even march out to protect Egypt and her vassals from her enemies.”

“And we’ve no other gods to turn to for help,” replied his son.

“Not quite,” said the farmer. He smiled, pulling a tiny statue from within the folds of his tunic. It was the fertility god, Min. He bent down and placed it in the ground, covering it with soil.

***

Later that evening, Nefertiti was sitting amongst several female musicians, learning to play the lute while Akhenaten watched indulgently, a soft smile on his face. The young Queen hit the wrong chord and the women giggled. One of the musicians corrected Nefertiti’s position on the instrument and she was soon playing the right note.

Queen Tiye swept into the hall, finding her son applauding Nefertiti’s skills. She stopped at his side and whispered in his ear, “We must speak.”

Akhenaten’s gaze remained on his wife. “Hello, Mother. How good of you to visit us. And no— not right now.”

“It’s urgent,” said the Queen.

“There is time enough for everything.”

“No,” said the Queen, “this has waited long enough.”

The Pharaoh reacted to the tone in his mother’s voice. Taking her arm in resignation, he led her to another room. He closed the door and seated himself so that he faced her. “What is this about?”

“I regret this is not a social call, son. We must send the army to protect Egypt’s borders and holdings.”

“I see you’ve heard from Aye.”

“Yes, the vizier has come to me. But the Mitanni king, Tushratta has been writing to me himself for years, begging me to get you to cooperate with him, but I have held my tongue, not wishing to interfere with your leadership.   However, the situation is now desperate. It may already be too late.”

Akhenaten’s attention was lost after hearing of Aye’s visit to his mother. His words became slow and deliberate, his eyes starting to simmer with anger. “You mean my vizier Aye?”

The Queen was oblivious to her son’s emotional reaction. “Yes. He’s come to me with his concerns. He says we must send General Horemheb with garrison troops to secure the borders and cities Tushratta is wishing to attack. They will fall to him if we don’t.” Her look was pleading.

The Pharaoh played with the tassels on a silk pillow, losing interest in the conversation.

The Queen was confused. “Why haven’t you done anything?”

Akhenaten sighed loudly. “I hear from him all the time, Mother. Every other month he sends a messenger.”

“His first request was years ago! Where are the messengers?”

The Pharaoh pouted like a naughty child. He would always be uncomfortable with any disapproval from his mother, as she was one of the few people he loved and respected. “They are still here. Somewhere,” he muttered.

The Queen’s voice rose in disbelief. “You’ve kept the messengers waiting for years?”

Akhenaten became defensive. “This is trivial. Life is to be savored, not spent fighting and—”

The Queen shook with anger. “It is not trivial! This is your empire— you must protect it! It’s already too late for so many of our old vassal states. We will all fall to the Mitanni king if you fail to send an army!”

The Pharaoh looked away, trying in vain to escape his mother’s disappointment. She went on, “Your father and all of his fathers before him spent their lives building and preserving Egypt and her empire and you cannot allow Mitanni or the Hittites or anyone else to threaten it!”

Akhenaten spit his words in anger. “My father!” His voice was ugly, his face twisted in hatred.

“Yes! Your father! No matter what you felt about him, he was a good king and kept his country strong. His people were fed and clothed, the army trained and prepared, the borders safe and the temples maintained.”

The Pharaoh barked out a harsh laugh. “Maintained? They weren’t just maintained, they were polished and coddled and overfed. The priests and their sham of a god had greedy bloated egos that equaled that of father’s!”

The Queen’s voice shook with emotion. “It is your duty to Ma’at— to truth! Duty to the gods must remain in balance or there will be consequences.”

“There are no other gods, Mother. There is only the Aten! My duty is to Him and Him only.”

The Queen fell back in defeat, her expression helpless. She pled with him one last time. “Please, son. If you do it for no other reason, then do it for me. Do it for me because I’m your mother and I love you.”

At last the Pharaoh seemed humbled. He slumped into a chair, allowing his mother to stand tall before him. He hung his head. “I will see what I can do.”

***

Later that night, Aye was making his way through the hallway when he heard sounds coming from the Pharaoh’s chambers. He stopped at the door, pressing his ear against it.

Inside, the Pharaoh was leaning weakly against a wall, coughing and choking, gasping for air. After a few moments, he regained it and began to breathe easily again, and the vizier continued on his way.

***

     In the morning, General Horemheb approached Akhenaten in the receiving rooms. “You wanted to see me, Sire?”

“Yes. I’ve decided to send you on a campaign to support our borders and holdings.”

The General gave the Pharaoh a hard stare. Akhenaten was the first to drop his gaze. The shorter man bowed at last. “As you wish,” said Horemheb.

The General turned sharply and departed, speaking under his breath. “If it isn’t too late already.”

***

General Horemheb and his army boarded ships with their horses and chariots, starting their journey to the north. They were headed for Rhacotis, the port city at the Nile’s delta, where they would sail over the Mediterranean Sea to secure Egypt’s holdings in neighboring countries. Others troops were deployed across the northern desert to protect the border towns.

***

The Pharaoh confronted his vizier. “You betrayed me!” He picked up an unlit clay lantern and heaved it across the room where it shattered against the wall.

There was real fear in the vizier’s eyes as he trembled. “I’m sorry, Sire!”

“How dare you run to my mother when you found my policies not to your liking!” Akhenaten removed a stone sconce from the wall and smashed it on the marble floor. The Pharaoh dared not examine his own motives for his anger, for he was not sure if it was due to the betrayal itself or the fact that the man had given his mother reason to be disappointed in him.

“How— how will you punish me?”

Akhenaten wrapped his hands around the older man’s neck, staring down into his eyes. He spoke softly, “Do you remember how my father punished those who betrayed him?”

Aye tried to pry the Pharaoh’s hands from his neck, though they were not tight. “Please. I beg you,” he said.

Akhenaten shook him. “Do you remember?”

“Yes!”

“How?” demanded the Pharaoh.

“Death,” he whispered, barely able to speak. “He killed them.”

Akhenaten smiled, pressing his thumbs into Aye’s neck. “Yes.” He squeezed tighter, enjoying the fear in the other man’s eyes before shoving him roughly away. “You’re lucky I’m not my father.”

Aye gasped for breath, his eyes full of relief as he rubbed his neck. “Bless you, Sire. I have learned my lesson. You won’t regret this.”

“Don’t thank me yet. If I ever catch you doing something like this again, you will be banished from Egypt. Forever.”

The Pharaoh’s words struck a chord in the patriotic vizier. The man looked as if he’d been physically struck. “Forced to leave Egypt? You would banish the father of your beloved Nefertiti? The grandfather of your daughters?”

Akhenaten stared at him coldly. “Without hesitation.”