Holy Moses! The Egyptian King Who Believed in One God Before the Jews

Ridley Scott's 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' tells the story of Moses, whom many consider the founder of monotheism. But its real pioneer was an Egyptian pharaoh called Akhenaten.

Noa Manheim
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Christian Bale as Moses in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings.'
Christian Bale as Moses in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings.'Credit: AP
Noa Manheim

Ridley Scott’s pompous new film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” hits the big screen this week. A kind of “Gladiator” set in the desert, it tells the story of Moses (played by Christian Bale), the Hebrew orphan raised in blissful ignorance and wealth in Pharaoh’s palace. There he learns to walk like an Egyptian beside the future pharaoh, Ramses (Joel Edgerton), until the Hebrews’ suffering motivates him to wage a holy war against the wealthy and the royal house, which is in vogue these days (like in Bale’s last Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises”).

It is not clear what real Egyptians would have done with this loud product of the priests of the present-day Hollywood empire. And when the film’s creator and producer are asked why the cast of the film, whose protagonists are Egyptian and Hebrew, are dazzlingly white, they can only stammer in reply. While many believe Moses to be the creator of monotheism, the real pioneer of belief in a single deity was a different leader entirely.

A young Egyptian prince who lived in the mid-14th century B.C.E. abandoned the tradition that had shaped his spiritual, religious and political image, together with the palace in which he had lived as sovereign. Turning his back on the pagan gods, he announced the existence of a single supreme deity. “How great are your works, hidden from the eyes of human beings,” he wrote in a poetic hymn to his deity. He smashed his ancestors’ idols and led his people into the desert. The name of this first recorded monotheist was not Moses, but Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV). Although his rule was brief – only 17 years – he caused a theological, political and religious revolution that reverberated throughout the length and breadth of history.

Amenhotep IV was born in the large empire that the pharaohs ruled for more than 3,000 years. He grew up in a world controlled by the concept of ma’at, which means “the proper order of things” – which was the cause of the admired and nurtured cultural stagnation that was carefully protected by priests and kings alike. He was raised to worship about 2,000 gods: goddesses with the bodies of human females and the heads of cows; cats and lionesses; and gods with the bodies of human males and the heads of falcons, crocodiles and jackals. After seeing the light – in his case, the light of the sun – he rebelled against the Egyptian pantheon and adopted the worship of a single deity: Aton, god of the sun, who had no body or image, but was the abstract representation of the sun’s disc.

A colossal statue of Akhenaten from his Aten Temple at Karnak. Photo by Gérard Ducher

Amenhotep changed his name to “the magnificent chosen one of Aton,” left the capital city of No-Amon and established the city of Akhetaten (“the horizon of Aton” – present-day Amarna) in the desert. He commanded the construction of enormous temples, without roofs, in which the sun disc could be worshipped directly. He accomplished this in only 10 years, using thousands of slaves, whom his religious ideas affected about as much as the peels of the onions and garlic that the Israelites longed for in the desert.

He sent out the army to obliterate the gods’ names from the pillars and obelisks, and changed the word “gods” from the plural to the singular. The textbooks for schoolchildren were rewritten, and the king himself ceremonially killed the god Amon-Ra before the eyes of thousands of priests, who subsequently found themselves unemployed. They walked bitterly about the marketplaces, drinking fermented wheat beer and creating ferment among the frustrated military leaders, who feared that the neglectful behavior of the king – who was busy taking sunbaths and enjoying the company of his beautiful wife, Nefertiti – would lead to the loss of the frontier provinces.

The fawning, pleading letters, filled with politely expressed desperation alongside the proper terminology of the new faith, written by the leaders of those neglected provinces were discovered in Amarna in 1887. Suwardata, the governor of Gath, begins his letter, “To my lord the king, my god, my sun: Thus speaks your servant, the dust of your feet. I prostrate myself at the feet of my lord the king, my god, seven times and seven times.”

Shifting sands

But Akhenaten was the one who fell in the end. The sun set upon his attempt to create a religious revolution, and the desert swallowed up his city, burying it beneath the shifting sands. The military leaders and the priests joined forces to destroy all memory of his existence, so that little information about him remains. He left us his “Hymn to the Sun,” a song of praise that bears an enchanting resemblance to the biblical Book of Psalms; his odd statuette, with its elongated face and body that is almost female in its structure; and statues and paintings depicting him beside his wife – the only queen to have such honorable representation in ancient Egypt – as he performs not only religious rituals but also simple household activities that were never depicted in Egyptian art before or since: eating and drinking, playing with the royal offspring, hugging and kissing.

He left behind a mystery that enabled generations of thinkers and artists to project their fantasies onto him. Sigmund Freud, in his provocative work “Moses and Monotheism,” raises the idea that Moses was a priest of Aton who wished to fulfill the deceased king’s vision of monotheism, and that the name of the Jewish deity, Adonai, was a portmanteau of the Egyptian Aton and the Canaanite word “adon,” which means master or lord.

Prof. Yehuda Elitzur claims that Joseph was the one who changed the religion of the Pharaoh to a monotheistic faith. Despite, or maybe because of, the dearth of solid evidence of Akhenaten and the possible link between him and Moses, many scholars – from Jan Assmann to Israel Knohl – continue to see him as the one who provided the inspiration for the establishment of Abrahamic monotheism.

The expressive and (relatively) realistic art created during his time has attracted many artists – such as the composer Philip Glass, who wrote a biographical opera about him that is sung in Akkadian (ancient Egyptian and ancient Hebrew); and the avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman, who failed to turn his screenplay about him into a film. Jarman envisioned Akhenaten as an ancient model of homosexuality, with his feminine-shaped body surrounded by nude boys painted with kohl. He died in exile, and in the last scene of the screenplay he looks straight into the face of his god until the light blinds him.

The scholar Joseph A. Boone writes that the screenplay turns Akhenaten into a campy and orientalist character completely unlike the way the Victorians perceived him (his abandoned city was discovered during the Victorian era). To them, he was the first family man, who admired his wife and made mischief, like any person, with his wife and children, as if the royal family were pictured on Christmas postcards.

Splendor and terror

But the discovery of the grave of his son-in-law and successor, Tutankhamun, was what captivated the imagination of the West, which had captured the Orient. From the moment that Napoleon’s Grande Armée entered Egypt, with its 30,000 troops and the army of scholars who trailed behind it, archaeology became a tool of imperialism, which beat its swords into digging trowels.

The East became the West’s battlefield, as France and England carved out limbs of the Sick Man of Europe, the rotting Ottoman Empire. Napoleon, like Hitler after him, happily looted artistic treasures as he competed with Britain for the title of the biggest grave robber in history.

The national hostility was so strong that one French archaeologist smashed thousands of stone pitchers that he had found (though only after sending the choicest of them to the Louvre) rather than let the British get their hands on them. The Rosetta Stone was also hidden from the British victors, wrapped inside the French army commander’s baggage, after the Battle of the Nile. The stone, which was deciphered by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, revived a language that had been dead for a thousand years. To the great disappointment of stargazers and believers in mystical doctrines – who believed that the hieroglyphics contained the secrets of the universe in code – the Rosetta Stone turned out to be a dry legal document. Even so, it still attracts more people to the British Museum than any other exhibit since the mummies.

The mummies that arrived at the British Museum in the 19th century, embalmed and entombed in magnificent sarcophagi, embodied the splendor and terror that the wild East held over the cultured West, a terror that may have contained a drop of guilt. A horror novel entitled “The Mummy!” was published in 1872. Its author remains unknown, and the subject of mummies that come back to life to take vengeance on those who robbed their graves was so popular that even Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” wrote a story about one.

The gender-studies scholar Jasmine Day interprets Alcott’s story, and the mummy stories of other women writers of that time, as an analogy for rape, in which the mummy (which is always that of a woman) takes revenge on the man who penetrated her secret place and desecrated it. She sees them as proto-feminist and post-colonial narratives, with rape as a metaphor for the West’s violent invasion of the bodies of its colonies.

But there were also men – from Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula – who wrote chilling novels about mummies; novels that were joyfully adopted by the newborn film industry, which loved the character that walked with arms outstretched before it, yellowing shrouds falling from it, the mother of today’s zombie.

Mummie dearest

In 1932, Boris Karloff – better known as another romantic monster in “Frankenstein” – played the mummy Imhotep in “The Mummy,” which was remade in 1999 with Brendan Fraser in the title role. The film “Stargate” featured a pharaoh-like alien (played by Jaye Davidson) with homoerotic motifs that would have pleased Jarman. The mummy reached television screens in a 1979 film in which it visits Dracula’s castle, and robotic mummies appeared in an episode of “Dr. Who” entitled “Pyramids of Mars.”

The combined splendor and terror peaked in 1922, when Howard Carter – the archaeologist and adventurer on whom the character of Dr. Indiana Jones is based – peeked into the tomb of Tutankhamun, the only royal tomb that had remained intact. “Do you see something?” his patron, Lord Carnarvon, asked him agitatedly, as he stood behind him. “Yes,” replied Carter. “Wonderful things.” At exactly that time, a cobra – the symbol of the pharaonic family – got into Carter’s home, took his pet canary from its cage and ate it, and the “curse of the pharaohs” was born.

Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning several months after the tomb was discovered, and many of those who had been involved in the discovery and study of the tomb died mysterious and strange deaths – from the physician who x-rayed the mummy, to dignitaries who had come to see it. When the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini received a mummy as a gift, he was shaken to the core and ordered that it be removed from his palace.

But this mass hysteria did not prevent rebellious young people from dancing the Charleston to “King Tut.” Egyptian motifs were the last gasp of the Roaring Twenties, from silk stockings to gloves; “King Tut” lemonade promised to bring those who drank it back from the dead; President Herbert Hoover called his pet puppy Tut; and singer Harry Von Tilzer sang, in his song “Old King Tut,” “They opened up his tomb the other day and jumped with glee / And learned a lot of ancient history.... / His tomb, instead of tears, / was full of souvenirs / He must have traveled greatly in his time.”

But the direct visual heir of hieroglyphics, comic books, were late in adopting Egyptian mythology. In the mid-1970s, more than a decade after the heroes of Greek and Norse mythology had become Marvel Comics superheroes, Osiris, Horus and Seth – the gods whom Akhenaten renounced – were recruited to the ranks of ancient and powerful supernatural alien fighters. DC Comics chose Isis – or, more precisely, the archaeologist Andrea Thomas, who was the goddess’ alter ego.

The Isis comic book became a successful television series, starting a series of guest appearances of Egyptian gods in various forgettable films, from “Conan the Barbarian” to the pornographic film “The Mummy’s Kiss.” Creators of contemporary fantasy also turned to Egyptian mythology after exhausting all the others – from the awful “Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear” to “The Anubis Gates,” the dark urban fantasy by Tim Powers, which brings together Egyptian priests, romantic poets and travelers in foggy 19th-century London; to The Kane Chronicles novels by Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson series. In this series, Riordan brings the ancient Egyptian gods back to life in distinctly modern terrain, such as an apartment on the banks of the Hudson River.

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