Out of Egypt

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Article #10

Moses and Akhenaten

© Ahmed Osman 2002
Ahmed Osman
Historian and Scholar


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One And The Same Person

The First Monotheist

Akhenaten is the most mysterious and interesting of all the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. He created a revolution in religion, philosophy, and art that resulted in the introduction of the first monotheistic form of worship known in history. Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, was the first to suggest a connection between Moses and Akhenaten. In his last book, Moses and Monotheism, published in 1939, Freud argued that the biblical Moses was an official in the court of Akhenaten, and an adherent of the Aten religion. After the death of Akhenaten, Freud's theory goes, Moses selected the Israelite tribe living east of the Nile Delta to be his chosen people, took them out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus, and passed on to them the tenets of Akhenaten's religion. When modern archaeologists came across the strangely-drawn figure of Akhenaten in the ruins of Tell el-Amarna in the middle of the 19th century, they were not sure what to make of him. Some thought he was a woman disguised as a king. By the early years of the 20th century when the city of Amarna had been excavated and more became known about him and his family, Akhenaten became a focus of interest for Egyptologists, who saw him as a visionary humanitarian as well as the first monotheist.

In my attempt to pursue Freud's theory through the examination of recent archaeological findings, I came to the conclusion that Moses was Akhenaten himself. The son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye (daughter of Yuya, whom I have identified as Joseph the patriarch), Akhenaten had an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother. Yuya had been appointed by Tuthmosis IV to be the Master of the King's Horses and Deputy of the Royal Chariotry. On coming to the throne, and according to Egyptian customs, Amenhotep III married his sister Sitamun, who was just a child of three years at the time. However, in his Year 2, Amenhotep decided to also marry Yuya's daughter Tiye, the girl whom he loved, and made her, rather than Sitamun, his Great Royal Wife, his queen. (According to Egyptian customs the king could marry as many women as he desired, however the queen, whose children would follow him on the throne, had to be his sister, the heiress.) As a wedding present, Amenhotep presented Tiye with the frontier fortress of Zarw, in the area of modern Kantara in north Sinai, the capital of the Land of Goshen, mentioned by the Bible as the area where the Israelites dwelled in Egypt. Here he built a summer palace for her. To commemorate his marriage with Tiye, the king issued a large scarab and sent copies of it to foreign kings and princes.

The Birth of Moses

Amenhotep, who was later known as Akhenaten and Moses, was born in Year 12 of his father Amenhotep III, 1394 BC, in the summer royal palace in the border city of Zarw in northern Sinai. Zarw, modern Kantara East, was the center of the land of Goshen where the Israelites dwelt, and in the same location where the biblical Moses was born. But contrary to the biblical account, Moses was born inside the royal palace. His mother Queen Tiye had an elder son, Tuthmosis, who died a short time before Amenhotep's birth. Tuthmosis had been educated and trained at the royal residence in Memphis before he mysteriously disappeared—believed to have been kidnapped and assassinated by the Amun priests. Fearing for his safety, Tiye sent her son, the infant Amenhotep, by water to the safekeeping of her father's Israelite family outside the walls of Zarw. (Which was the origin of the biblical baby-in-the-bulrushes story.)

The reason for the priests' hostility to the young prince was the fact that Tiye, his mother, an Israelite, was not the legitimate heiress to the throne. She couldn't therefore be accepted as a consort for the state god Amun. If Tiye's son acceded to the throne, this would be regarded as forming a new dynasty of non-Amunite kings over Egypt. During his early years, his mother kept Amenhotep away from both the royal residences at Memphis and Thebes. He spent his childhood at the border city of Zarw, nursed by the wife of the queen's younger brother, General Aye. Later, Amenhotep was moved to Heliopolis, north of Cairo, to receive his education under the supervision of Anen, the priest of Ra, who was the elder brother of Queen Tiye.

Young Amenhotep first appeared at the capital city of Thebes when he reached the age of sixteen. There he met Nefertiti, his half-sister, daughter of Sitamun, and fell in love with her. Tiye, his mother, encouraged this relationship, realizing that his marriage to Nefertiti, the heiress, was the only way he could gain the right to follow his father on the throne.

Akhenaten Co-Regent

Following his marriage to Nefertiti, Amenhotep III decided to make Amenhotep his co-regent which upset the priests of Amun. The conflict between Amenhotep III and the priests had started sixteen years earlier as a result of his marriage to Tiye, an Israelite, daughter of Yuya and Tuya. During his reign, Nefertiti was active in supporting her husband, Amenhotep, and was more prominently seen at official occasions as well as on all monuments. However, the climate of hostility that surrounded Amenhotep at the time of his birth surfaced again after his appointment as CO-regent On joining his father on the throne Amenhotep became Amenhotep IV. The Amun priesthood opposed this appointment, and openly challenged Amenhotep III's decision.

When the priests of Amun objected to his appointment, the young CO-regent responded by building temples to his new God, Aten. He built three temples for Aten: one at the back end of the Karnak complex, another at Luxor near the Nile bank, and the third at Memphis. Amenhotep lV snubbed the Amun priests by not inviting them to any of the festivities in the early part of his co-regency and, in his fourth year, when he celebrated his bed festival jubilee, he banned all deities but his own God from the occasion. Twelve months later he made a further break with tradition by changing his name to Akhenaten in honor of his new deity. To the resentful Egyptian establishment, Aten was seen as a challenger who would replace the powerful State god, Amun, not falling under his domination. In the tense climate that prevailed, Tiye arranged a compromise by persuading her son to leave Thebes and establish a new capital at Amarna in Middle Egypt, on the east bank of the Nile.

A New City for Aten

The situation calmed down following Akhenaten's departure, while Amenhotep III ruled alone in Thebes. For the site of his new city at Amarna, Akhenaten chose a land that belonged to no god or goddess. The building started in his Year 4 and ended in Year 8; however he and his family moved from Thebes to Amarna in Year 6. At that point of land, the cliffs of the high desert receded from the river, leaving a great semi-circle about eight miles long and three miles broad. Here Akhenaten built his new capital, Akhetaten, the Horizon of Aten, where he and his followers would be free to worship their God. Huge boundary stelae, marking the limits of the city and recording the story of its foundation, were carved in the surrounding cliffs. Akhetaten was a capital city possessed of both dignity and architectural harmony. Its main streets ran parallel to the Nile with the most important of them, the King's Way, connecting the city's most prominent buildings, including the King's House, where Akhenaten and his family had their private residence. To the south of the house was the king's private temple to Aten.

Military Coup

Following the death of his father, Amenhotep III, in Akhenaten's Year 12, he organized a great celebration at Amarna for foreign princes bearing tribute because of his assumption to sole rule. Akhenaten and Nefertiti appeared to receive the tribute of foreign missions coming from Syria, Palestine, Nubia, and the Mediterranean islands, who offered them their gifts. It was at that time the king decided to abolish the worship of all gods in Egypt—except Aten.

Akhenaten gave orders to his troops, instructing them to close all the temples, confiscate their estates, and sack the priests, leaving only Aten's temples throughout the country. Units were dispatched to excise the names of the ancient gods wherever they were found written or engraved, a course that can only have created mounting new opposition to his already rejected authority. This persecution, which entailed the closing of the temples, the confiscation of property, the dispatch of artisans who hacked out the names of the deities from inscriptions, the banishment of the clergy, and the excommunication of Amun's name, was supervised by the army. Each time a squad of workmen entered a temple or tomb to destroy the name of Amun, it was supported by a squad of soldiers who came to see that the royal decree was carried out without opposition.

The persecution of the old gods, however, proved to be hateful to the majority of Egyptians, including the members of the army. Ultimately, the harshness of the persecution had a certain reaction upon the soldiers who, themselves, had been raised in the old beliefs. After all, the officers and soldiers themselves believed in the same gods whose images the king ordered them to destroy; they worshipped in the very temples that they were ordered to close. A conflict arose between the king and his army. Horemheb, Pa-Ramses, and Seti planned a military coup against the king, and ordered their troops from the north and south to move toward Amarna. When the army and chariots came face to face at Amarna's borders, Aye advised the king to abdicate the throne to his son, Tutankhaten, in order to save the dynasty and avoid a wholesale defection and perhaps even a civil war. Akhenaten agreed to abdicate and left Amarna with Pa-Nehesy, the high priest of Aten, and a few of his followers, to live in exile in the area of Sarabit El-Khadem in southern Sinai. When Tutankhaten took the throne, he changed his name to Tutankhamun to appease the priesthood of the powerful State god Amun. He did not, however, renounce the Atenist religion of his father.

Back From Exile

The root of the name Moses is in the Egyptian word Mos which means "child." But this word also had a wider legal meaning—"the rightful son and heir." As it was punishable by death to mention Akhenaten's name after his banishment, a code name was established through which his followers could refer to him. Therefore they called him MOs, the son, to indicate that he was the legitimate son of Amenhotep III and the rightful heir to his father's throne. The ancient Egyptian language had no written vowels, although the vowels were pronounced. The written word meaning a child or son consisted of two consonants, m and s, It is therefore easy to see that the Hebrew word, Moses, was derived from the Egyptian, Mos. The final 's' of Moses derives from the Greek translation of the biblical name.

Following his abdication, Akhenaten/Moses lived with his followers in exile in southern Sinai for about twenty-five years, during the reigns of Tutankhamun, Aye, and Horemheb. Here, Akhenaten/Moses lived among the Shasu (Midianites) Bedouins with whom he formed an alliance. On hearing of Horemheb's death, Akhenaten/Moses decided to leave his exile in Sinai and come back to Egypt, in order to reclaim his throne.

In his rough Bedouin clothes, Akhenaten/Moses arrived with his allies at General Pa-Ramses' residence in the border city of Zarw, his birthplace, which had now been turned into a prison for his followers. Pa-Ramses, by now an old man, was making arrangements for his coronation and getting ready to become the first ruler of a new 19th Ramesside dynasty when he was informed of Akhenaten/Moses arrival.

Akhenaten/Moses challenged Pa-Ramses' right to the throne. The general, taken by surprise, decided to call a meeting of the wise men of Egypt to decide between them. At the gathering, Akhenaten/Moses produced his scepter of royal power, which he had taken with him to exile, and performed secret rituals that only the king could have had knowledge of. Once they saw the scepter of royal authority and Akhenaten/Moses' performance of the rituals, the wise men fell down in adoration in front of him and declared him to be the legitimate king of Egypt. Pa-Ramses, however, who was in control of the army, used his power to frustrate the verdict of the priests and elders and retained the right to rule by force—a coup d'etat.

General Pa-Ramses ascended to the Egyptain throne as Ramses I, the first Pharoah of the 19th dynasty. Left with no choice but to flee from Egypt with his followers—the Israelites and Egyptians who embraced the Atenist faith—Akhenaten/Moses began the Exodus toward the Sinai via the marshy area to the south of Zarw and north of Lake Temsah, as this watery route would hinder the pursuit of Egyptian chariots. After a time Akhenaten/Moses then marched north toward Gaza and attempted to storm the city with his Shasu allies. Seti I, son of Ramses, led an army against Akhenaten/Moses, the Israelites, and the Shasu, and defeated them, with great slaughter, at many locations on the Horus Road as well as central Sinai.

It is likely that Akhenaten/Moses was killed by Seti I himself in the course of these military operations.

Ahmed Osman

Historian, lecturer, researcher and author, Ahmed Osman is a British Egyptologist born in Cairo

His four in-depth books clarifying the history of the Bible and Egypt are: Stranger in the Valley of the Kings (1987) - Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt (1990) - The House of the Messiah (1992) - Out of Egypt (1998)


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