Book – Heretic: The Life And Death Of Akhenaten
Lanterns and torches were shining brightly on the festivities taking place in the dining hall. Beautiful dancers moved to the music of flutes and drums. Their hair weighted with metal beads, swayed and undulated with the rhythm of their bodies. The Pharaoh’s guests clapped and smiled as they enjoyed the show, reclining on colorful rugs and pillows while being fed succulent meats and exotic fruits offered from gold platters. Attendants and slaves circulated the room, pouring wine into jewel-encrusted goblets.
In the hallway, a pair of servants— a young woman and a boy— clung to the shadows and slipped silently amongst the columns. Fortunately, there were only a few torches that burned dimly along the path, casting just enough light for them to see— but not be seen. The girl was to follow the boy, for he knew how to find the workers’ village. At last they made their way through the towering doors of the palace and out into the dark and dangerous streets.
“Follow me!” he said in an urgent whisper.
The young woman was small and her clothing was too large for her. She stepped on her hem, stumbling slightly and loosening the veil that covered her face. She replaced it, but not before the boy glanced back and caught sight of her beautiful, arrogant features. He hoped that if they were seen she would not be recognized.
They had gotten but a short distance from the palace when they heard a cry ring out behind them. “Sound the alarm! The queen is gone!”
The two began to run as a soldier spotted them and began to give chase. They rounded a corner, losing him momentarily.
The young woman watched as the boy managed to jump into the back of a moving caravan. He turned, reaching for her and said, “Give me your hand!” He caught her wrist and lifted her, helping her into the wagon beside him. They settled into the cart and pulled the canvas into place to hide themselves from view.
It appeared they were safe— for now.
The Hittite, Hattusa-ziti, was a tall and imposing man. He paced the small room of the hut in the workers’ village, speaking impatiently to the elderly servant who lived in the humble home. “Where is she?” he growled.
The old man, Ineni, responded with quiet confidence. “She will be here.”
The handsome young foreigner frowned. “This had better not be a trap. My men are prepared to attack if it is.”
“She is not a fool,” the servant replied. “She knows you are the enemy. She is desperate or she would not have turned to your king.”
Hattusa glowered and they fell silent. The only sound was the drone of insects as they circulated the lanterns.
Suddenly there was a sharp knock. Both men tensed, exchanging glances. Ineni unfolded his arthritic body and rose to answer the door, revealing the young servant girl and her companion. They filed inside and the girl removed her veil at last, uncovering her exceptional face. Hattusa-ziti was momentarily taken aback as her dark eyes shone with intelligence in his direction. Her commanding presence belied her appearance as a servant girl.
The old man gave him a triumphant look as he presented the girl to him, “Meet Egypt’s queen, Ankhesenamun, dear sir.”
Hattusa recovered his composure, taking her hand and bowing over it with a small kiss. “At your service, Your Majesty. I am Hattusa-ziti, Chamberlain to Suppiluliuma, King of the Hittites.”
Her eyes flashed with annoyance. “I know who you are. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t, would I?”
Hattusa smiled, his gaze wary, “Of course.”
Ankhesenamun crossed the room and took a seat before the fire. The desert was cold when darkness fell, and the possibility of getting caught drove the chill deeper into her bones. She gestured to the foreigner. “Please. Sit.” She arranged her tunic, unaccustomed to wearing servant garb. She looked to her elderly servant. “Have you any wine, Ineni? Perhaps it will warm us.”
Hattusa seated himself, sighing, “Can we proceed quickly, please? I’ve come a long distance and need to return to my country so I can deal with real crises there, rather than hysterical—”
The queen fixed him with a cold stare. “Curb your rudeness. I will explain in due time.”
The old servant, Ineni, stepped forward. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I do fear we are at risk of being discovered at any moment.”
Hattusa finally saw fear in the woman’s eyes. “You are right, Ineni,” she said, “I will tell my story posthaste, as my country and I are in grave danger.”
The Hittite chamberlain leaned forward, returning her cold gaze with one of his own. He spoke quietly, but his words did not leave the room’s inhabitants with any doubt of his intent. “Before you begin, I must remind you that if this is a trap, I will not spare your life, nor those of your loyal servants here.”
“I am well aware of your concerns, foreigner, but believe me— I have more to fear than you.” Her rigid mask of strength shifted again, and the man saw her fear and sadness. She paused as she tried to collect her thoughts and arrange them meticulously. “Now listen carefully. You won’t understand how we’ve come to be in such peril until I tell you the story of my father.”
The flickering flames from the fireplace were reflected in her eyes as she began, lost in her thoughts as the years rolled back with her words to reveal the past. “I am the only surviving child of Prince Amenhotep the Fourth, also known as Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh…”
The sun was cresting the horizon of the desert, rising magnificently in brilliant shades of purple, red, pink, orange and gold as it made its ascent into the sky, its rays falling on a scarab beetle slowly pushing her way through the sands.
The young Prince Amenhotep, a small boy of six, was belly-down in the dirt, eye-level with the insect, watching in awe as it crawled relentlessly onward. The sun rose behind it, surrounding it like a halo. A shadow fell over the little tableau, spoiling the child’s vision and he gasped at the sound of a voice behind him.
“What’s this, small Prince?”
The prince turned, shading his eyes as he looked up to see the high-ranking official named Aye. The man was Overseer of Horses in the army of the boy’s father, the pharaoh, and was now indeed holding the reins of a beautiful stallion. Though only in his early thirties, the man was already stout and balding, giving him the appearance of even greater age. In spite of his personal vanity, he could not bear to wear his wig except on ceremonial holidays or similar events, for it seemed to capture the sun’s blazing heat and intensify it. His gaze was not unkind as he looked at the boy, but there was a hardness to his features— especially his eyes, and his mouth had a look of determination.
Prince Amenhotep pointed to the sky, his childish voice animated with joy. “Look at the sun, Aye! It gives life!” Then he turned back to the sand and pointed to the insect that was still pushing her offspring through the crystalline grains. “See the beetle?” he asked, “She’s pushing her young in the sand. She came to life when the sun came up.”
The man laughed, shaking his head in disbelief, “What an imagination you have, child!” he said, and then to himself, “Coming to life with the sun.”
But the young prince heard him. “She does! I’ve been watching her every morning.”
Aye bent down and helped the boy up. “Come along, your Highness. I’ll take you back to your chambers before you’re missed.”
The boy stretched out his small hand and the man took it. “No one ever misses me, Aye,” the child said sadly.
There was no need for elaboration. Aye knew what he meant. “Your father expects you to join him at the Temple of Amun, little one.”
The boy sighed. It was the only time his father ever wanted to see him.
They were not long at his father’s palace, Malkata, before being taken to the Temple of Amun at Karnak in the royal carriage. He rode with his father, the rotund, yet powerful pharaoh, Amenhotep III, and older brother, Thutmose, the favorite son. Servants stood perched precariously behind their seats fanning them with peacock feathers not only to cool them but to scatter away any flies who dared to land on them. A brightly painted awning kept them shaded from the sun’s heat as they traveled.
The Pharaoh Amenhotep and his sons were not consciously aware that the vast numbers of their loyal subjects were themselves engaged in daily worship and rituals of their own as the royal carriage passed them in the streets. The brewer prayed to the goddess Tjenenet, who was the patron deity of the beer that nourished and quenched the thirsty; the young wife made offerings to Tawaret to protect her unborn child; the soldier invoked the spirit of Montu as he practiced the skills needed in battle. Incense was burned and flowers, beer, bread, fruit, and wine were presented to the gods in the homes and businesses of Egypt’s residents. These rituals and prayers were conducted almost automatically, so ingrained was religion in everyday life, thus establishing and maintaining prosperity, power, and healthy crops in Egypt as bestowed by its satisfied gods. Yes, life was good and the land thrived under this pharaoh, his father before him, and even the gods, but especially under the god Amun, who outranked them all and was the main benefactor of the capital city they lived in, Thebes.
The carriage turned and went through the entrance of the temple complex. The pharaoh, called out to the driver, commanding him to stop, and the boys and the king descended from the carriage and entered the complex on foot. It was immense, towering imposingly over everything below. It was heavily colonnaded and contained colossal statues, obelisks, pylons, chapels and other monuments dedicated to deities. Once inside the compound, they saw the pharaoh’s own gold-plated pylon and then the sacred lake. At last they entered the Amun Temple, and then the sanctuary itself, where the pharaoh was to perform the daily ritual to the god, Amun. This was the occasion when the pharaoh stepped into his rightful role as the Highest of all Priests. Young Prince Amenhotep and his brother, Thutmose, were to observe, only performing tasks when asked to do so by their father.
The boy trembled, as he did not like the Amun Temple, especially the sanctuary, with its cavernous darkness. The torchlight only illuminated the space nearby and the shadows were intense and startling after the brilliant morning sun. They went deep into the long hallways until reaching the chamber of worship. The room’s silence was profound as Pharaoh lit another torch to shed light into the nearly pitch black surroundings. He began the purifying ritual, lighting incense, then breaking the seal on the doors of the shrine, revealing the carved image of the god, Amun. He folded himself to the ground, kissing the feet of the statue before chanting, praying, and making offerings of flowers, spices, oils, and jewels to the god. He then removed the statue from its shrine, purifying it and adorning it in new linens. He placed bread, cooked meats, and wine at the god’s feet to ensure his sustenance. Finally, he invited Amun to inhabit the statue itself before making the closing prayers.
“We ask that you enter your temple, Lord Amun. We ask that you enter your body and let it be nourished by this food that we are offering,” he said, and sealed the shrine once again.
As they left the sanctuary, the doors closed behind them with a resounding boom. The priests, cloaked in dark robes, were waiting for the pharaoh to shower them with gifts, for they were almost as powerful as he. Pharaoh Amenhotep nodded and the young princes watched as two of his footmen stepped forward, placing baskets heavy with gold, jewels, colorful silks and perfumed oils on the altar.
The pharaoh addressed the High Priest. “For your loyal service, Meryptah.”
The priests pressed their hands together and bowed silently to the pharaoh. The Pharaoh Amenhotep and his sons turned and made their way back out into the light.
Later, the royal family was gathered with courtiers and dignitaries in the outer court of the palace where a feast was spread. Children raced amongst the tables, laughing and playing as the adults indulged in food and festivities. Servants led a procession of exotic wild animals captured by the pharaoh, his favorite son, Thutmose, and their royal hunting party.
Prince Amenhotep hung back on the sidelines, listlessly scraping drawings in the dust with a stick, while his father extolled the virtues of his older son to one of the dignitaries. They watched as the handsome young Prince Thutmose showed off his skills to the other children in the archery competition.
The dignitary flattered the king’s favorite subject. “You have a fine boy there, Your Majesty. Look how often he strikes the heart of his target.”
Thutmose drew back his arrow, aiming for the painted gazelle held by two anxious slaves. He let it fly, driving the arrow through the animal’s chest. The assembled guests cheered their admiration.
The pharaoh smiled. “Yes. He makes my heart proud. He’ll be a great king someday.”
“Of that, I have no doubt.” The dignitary nodded, turning back to watch as Thutmose once again took aim, this time at a painted duck, before suddenly swiveling around and shooting a live tame duck swimming peacefully in the pond. The bird fell limp, the still quivering arrow protruding from its eye.
Young Prince Amenhotep cried out in anguish, running from his spot in the shadows and jumping into the water. Thutmose had shot an innocent bird! He thrashed lamely, unable to swim. His mother, Queen Tiye, rose in alarm. “Save him! Save my baby! He can’t swim!”
The pharaoh merely looked annoyed. “Amun, give me patience…”
Thutmose, dashing young hero that he was, dropped his bow and arrows and dove into the water, saving his younger brother and further thrilling his audience, who applauded and cheered wildly. Prince Amenhotep sputtered and coughed on the banks of the pond, choking and gasping, unable to breathe while his brother made a sweeping bow to his appreciative audience.
The Queen kneeled next to her son and began to panic when she saw the state he was in. “He stopped breathing again! Amun, help him!”
“Perhaps because he swallowed half the pond, my love,” the pharaoh muttered as he stepped forward and gave the child a couple of hard smacks on the back.
The young prince coughed again, this time spewing water from his lungs. He cried in his mother’s arms as she gently rocked him. “Hush, darling. Mother is here.”
The party guests took in the scene in silence. Even the other children had stopped playing to stare. Disgusted at this display of motherly devotion and childish hysterics, the pharaoh clapped his hands at one of the slaves. “Take the child away. I won’t have him humiliating us any further.”
Queen Tiye watched in helpless dismay as her sobbing child was carried away and taken into the palace, but the pharaoh merely clapped his hands again, gesturing to the musicians, who instantly struck up their instruments and the party resumed once more.
The moon hung in the sky like a lone pearl, invisibly suspended, casting its light into Prince Amenhotep’s chambers. The boy stared at it, not blinking, not moving, as he pondered the events of the day. It pained him to see animals die or suffer. He could not bear it. Furthermore, he wondered why he did not have his father’s love. What had he done wrong? He knew he was not strong, athletic, charismatic, or handsome like his brother, but he was smart and sensitive and creative. He loved the earth and the sky, the birds and their lovely songs, and the papyrus reeds that grew on the banks of the Nile. He knew in his heart that the sun gave life to everything and renewed it every day as if everything was re-born at each sunrise.
The door to his chamber opened and his mother stepped into the room. She seated herself next to him, smoothing his hair back from his forehead and singing to him for a moment before lighting an oil lamp on the table nearby. He still coughed and wheezed, his breathing labored but much improved since his mother had sent a servant earlier to heat some herbs so he could get relief from the fumes.
“Mama?” Prince Amenhotep asked.
He was too ashamed to ask why his father didn’t love him. Instead, he asked her about one of the other thoughts that weighed heavily on his mind. “Why must the god Amun always be in the dark?”
“Because he is the hidden one, son. He is the air we breathe.”
“Yes, I know, but how can I believe in him when I can’t even see him?”
“You see him when you go to his temple with your father.”
“Yes, but that’s only a statue. That’s not really him— not like the sun, who I see every day. How can I believe in a block of carved stone?”
The queen looked taken aback. “I don’t know. You just have to have faith. We all do. All of the gods are this way.”
“Not the Aten,” he said of the sun god, “He is in the sky, giving us light every day.”
His mother sighed. “What is this obsession with Aten? It won’t do. There are many gods, but to us, the most important one is Amun. You know that, son.”
Queen Tiye frowned suddenly. “Have care, boy. Don’t let your father hear you talking like this. Just believe.”
The young prince looked hurt.
“I’m sorry,” his mother went on, “but it’s not our place to question things. That’s just the way it is.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Now good night.”
The prince shut his eyes as she softly closed the door. “Good night, Mama,” he whispered.