Ikhnaton (reigned 1379-1362 B.C.) was the tenth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. His reign was marked by the flourishing of the worship of Aten and by numerous uprisings.
Ikhnaton, son of Amenhotep III (Amenophis III), ascended the throne of Egypt as Amenhotep IV (Amenophis IV). A devotee of the cult of the Aten, or sun disk, the young king soon came into conflict with the priest-hood of Amun, one of Egypt's premier gods, and its supporters.
There is evidence that the cult of the sun disk existed in the reign of Thutmose IV (1425-1417 B.C.) and that during the reign of Amenhotep III its importance had grown until it was formally adopted by his son. Basically the cult was monotheistic. It was not anthropomorphic, its manifestation being the disk of the sun, the giver of heat, light, and life. The Aten is represented as the disk from which emanate rays ending in hands holding the sign for "life." Considerable emphasis was laid on maat, a word usually rendered "truth," but whose full meaning seems to have been "order" or "reality." While the Aten cult did not embody any complicated theology, at the same time it lacked moral content.
Early in his reign Amenhotep IV proscribed the worship of Amun and other state deities and moved his capital from Thebes to a fresh site on the east bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt which he named Akhetaten, "the Horizon of the Aten" (now Tell el Amarna). Here, together with his queen, Nefertiti, and his supporters, many of them apparently "new men" taking advantage of the collapse of the old noble class, Amenhotep adopted the new name Ikhnaton (Akhenaten) and devoted himself to the promotion of his new faith.
Ikhnaton found little general support for his ideas, and a number of setbacks toward the end of his 17-year reign obliged him to modify his policies. An apparent disagreement with Nefertiti, together with unrest within the Egyptian Empire, so weakened his position that a rapprochement with the Amun priesthood became necessary, though this may perhaps not have occurred during his lifetime.
Ikhnaton appears to have displayed little interest in foreign affairs and to have done little to maintain the empire created by his predecessors. His inactivity resulted in the rise of subversive movements among the vassal princes of Palestine and Syria and in incursions into friendly areas by hostile forces. Many of the so-called Amarna Letters (discovered in 1887) contain desperate appeals from loyal vassals of the Pharaoh for help against marauding neighbors. After his death the memory of Ikhnaton was abhorred and his name hacked from the monuments.
An excellent general account of Ikhnaton and his times is given in Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt: A New Study (1968). For a clear and succinct account of the topography of Akhetaten see J. D. S. Pendlebury, Tell el-Amarna (1935). For material on the Aten cult see Jaroslav Č erný, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1952). Contemporary affairs outside Egypt are discussed in W. F. Albright's chapter, "The Amarna Letters from Palestine: Syria, the Philistines and Phoenicia," in I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, and N. G. L. Hammond, eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 2 (rev. ed. 1966).