Tuesday, March 4, 2014
The most dramatic “revolutionary” of them all lived from 1399 to 1358 B.C., the last pharaoh of the XVIII dynasty in Egypt. He started his rule in 1375 B.C., when, as a young man of twenty-four, he succeeded his famous father Amenhotep III. He was crowned as Amenhotep IV, but he changed that very soon. After quickly founding a new religion he called himself Akhenaton, meaning “it pleases Aton.” Aton was the name of the young pharaoh’s newly proclaimed deity, personified by the life-giving and life-preserving sun. His emblem in the new temples was a likeness of the solar disk.
Up to then the Egyptian Pantheon had been ruled by the sun-got Amon-Ra, whose powerful priesthood now declared the royal reformer to be a heretic. But Akhenaton fought back and his queen stood bravely by his side like a companion in arms. Today she is the best-known ancient Egyptian queen, notwithstanding Cleopatra (who was of Greek descent), and her beautiful features can still be admired in the Museum of Berlin where a well-preserved bust of her has been exhibited for many decades. Her name? Nefretete, often misspelled Nefertiti.
Akhenaton and his wife were a remarkable couple. Inscriptions found before the last world war in newly-excavated tombs, reveal that it was Nefretete who influenced the king with new religious ideas. It was almost pure monotheism in the biblical sense: there is only one God, Aton, and the radiant sun is his symbol.
What wonder that this new and intense cult of the sun soon induced the pharaoh and his queen to preach “the blessing of the exposure of the nude body to the sacred rays of Aton?”
Even before the recent informative inscriptions about Nefretete were found the nudist sun-cult of the royal family and the court was known to two Egyptologists of last century. The German, Georg Ebers, and the Frenchman, August Mariette, discovered a brittle papyrus that mentioned the habit of the royal couple to dress as little as possible and often walk around their palace in the nude. The fact was considered so shocking in the Victorian days that the text of the papyrus was chastely translated into Latin, the “medical” language.
During excavations between the two world wars, three British archeologists discovered the reliefs in the Amarna tombs (named after the Arabian village, Tell-el-Amarna) which show Akhenaton and Nefretete either in thin, transparent robes or completely naked. On one relief the pharaoh is seen kissing the queen as they drive in a chariot.
Such startling frankness was entirely new in Egyptian art. One can easily imagine the upheaval caused by such unheard-of deviation from sacred traditions, jealously supervised by a cast-ridden priesthood.
In the papyrus deciphered by Ebers and Mariette — the latter furnished the story for the libretto of Verdi’s opera, “Aida” — Akhenaton and Nefretete join in a hymn of praise of “the love of beauty in nature and art as inspired by Aton, the Life-Giver, the preserver of the world, to whose beneficial rays we offer our bodies in silent worship, absorbing his divine power through the pores of our skin and receiving his strength in our hearts, the blessing of fertility in man’s semen and woman’s womb.”
But Akhenaton was not content with preaching the new religion. He became a zealous converter and destroyed the old statues of Amon-Ra replacing them with the “sun-disk.” In a royal edict, still preserved in relief-inscriptions, the king forbade any worship of the old gods and their chief, Amon-Ra.
The people rebelled silently and the old priests, chased from their temples, spread evil rumors about the young pharaoh and his wife who refused to reside in the traditional capital, Thebes, and retired to the newly-built capital, Akhetaton, “the horizon of the sun-disk.”
There the king and queen, the nobles and court officials worshiped Aton, dancing solemnly in the sun, nude, and chanting the hymns composed by Akhenaton himself. He and Nefretete led the symbolic round dances, naked like the others, until they were overcome by an ecstatic mood and forced to sit down in silent meditation.
The dethroned priesthood of Amon-Ra considered the pharaoh’s religious nudism a particular sacrilege because only they were traditionally permitted to worship in the nude, except for a small triangular apron tied around their loins. Only the pharaohs, being “sons of deities,” enjoyed the privilege of approaching the inner sanctum completely nude.
This is not unlike a similar tradition found among the ancient Mayan Indians who, in pre-historic times, — as some historians believe — could travel to Africa over the mysterious continent, Atlantis, which sank into the ocean around 10,000 B.C.
What offended the priests of Amon-Ra most was the king’s continual attempt to introduce religious nudism among the common people, which would give them a certain sense of freedom and independence from the old priests since Akhenaton fostered the idea that “nude” and “true” were synonymous. Queen Nefretete, instigator of the new faith, became the main target of the sacerdotal fury. But neither queen nor pharaoh, nor nobles and courtiers let themselves be disturbed by the intrigue of the former priests and continued to build more and more inner courts and patios to be used for sun-bathing in the nude.
The intense anger of the priests is understandable. Their moral reputation was anything but sound. In the Mariette-papyrus are to be found allusions to certain sexual rites in the old temples which Akhenaton ascribed to the secretly-practiced nudism of the cunning priesthood whereas he was preaching and practicing “the new freedom of the body in the sacred rays of the sun,” open and without any secrecy.
The sexual act between all pharaohs and their queens, both being considered divine, was traditionally “attended” by the senior priests of Amon-Ra who chanted hymns to the chief-god beseeching him to give fertilizing power to the seed of the king. When Nefretete energetically demanded full privacy for the royal love-making, such a revolutionary request went beyond the understanding of the ex-priests accustomed to a salacious witnessing of the royal coitus as a sacred ritual. Some Egyptologists have come to the conclusion that it was the lascivious indelicacy of the priests that impelled the queen to do away with “the old superstitions” and to induce Akhenaton to found a “true” religion, practiced in the open air under the rays of the sun.
Henceforth the semi-darkness of the old stone-temples became suspect and most of the nobles, the military chiefs and all the court officials and their families enthusiastically followed the royal example of worshiping in the nude. The best argument against the former forms of worship was that Akhenaton and the queen did not encourage any sexual stimulation in their new mode of worship. This became widely known and helped to refute the priests’ gossip about “the shameless queen.”
Nefretete, beautiful and liberal-minded as she was, had nevertheless a strong mind of her own and did not approve of her husband’s plan to spread the new religion in foreign countries. Akhenaton, in the fourteenth year of his rule, had developed both a Messiah and a martyr complex. He felt he was the chosen apostle of Aton, the Life-Giver, whom he wanted to be worshiped as the only God throughout the world. He also explained his belief in nudism as a pacifistic force with the argument that “naked and unarmed people are sacred to Aton and will not be attacked.”
Nefretete called an energetic halt and when the king remained obstinate she left him and, taking their little son with her, retired to a palace of her own.
From that moment on, Akhenaton’s luck ran short. He withdrew more and more into himself, ever composing new hymns to Aton and chanting them on the sun-baked roof of his palace, offering his nude body to the rays of his god. He became so absorbed in his religious meditations in the nude that he paid scant attention to the rebellious armies in his provinces and in the neighboring countries threatening his rule from all sides.
He received continual “letters” from his generals, imploring him to send military reinforcements, fresh horses and food. Those letters were inscribed on the famous “clay-tablets of Amarna” where an Arabian woman found them in 1887. (The ruins of Akhenaton’s capital are situated around Amarna.)
No replies from the king were ever found. He seems to have removed himself more and more from reality, becoming resigned to end as a martyr for his faith. Perhaps he did not read those clay-tablet messages which still can be seen at the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. It gives one a weird feeling to look at the Babylonian cuneiform writing that outlasted almost 3400 years.
At last, in 1735 B.C., the invading armies overran Akhenaton’s weakened demoralized troops and his capital fell. Nobody knows to this day what became of the king. The general assumption is that, true to his pacifistic belief, he faced the enemy nude and without arms and permitted himself to be killed by the sword of a rebel warrior. He was only forty-one and had ruled over Egypt for seventeen years.
Queen Nefretete outlived her husband and succeeded in having the crown-prince, Tutankhaton, pronounced king. Some inscriptions report that the royal widow and queen-mother was continuing the nudist worship of Aton in whose faith she had brought up the young pharaoh.
But after he death, the young ruler had to yield to the returning influence and power of the priesthood of Amon-Ra. He foreswore his allegiance to Aton and agreed to the reopening of the old cave temples. He even changed his name to Tutankhamon, “pleasing to Amon,” a name that has become familiar to us since the excavation of his tomb in the early Twenties.
It must have been a painful experience for young Tutankhamon to look on helplessly when the priests chipped the name of his father from most of Akhenaton’s monuments and removed and destroyed the sculptured sun-disks.
The seventeen years of “open nudism” in Egypt had ended and the “secret nudism” of the Amon-Ra priests was practiced again in the exclusive sanctums of the god. “Dark superstition returned to Egypt where the light had ruled for almost two decades,” remarked Egyptologist Ebers in an essay on Akhenaton and his queen, the first missionaries of nudism in history who called attention to its healthful and cleansing aspects when practiced in large groups.