The Sun Beneath the Horizon
he religion of the one impersonal God was swept out of Egypt. The whole country returned to its legions of local deities. And the priests of Amon became more powerful than ever.
After the ephemeral reign of Smenkhara, they set up as a puppet king a young noble without any personality or will of his own, and married him to Akhnaton’s third daughter in order to legitimise his claim to the throne. They forced him to change his name from Tutankhaton — “the living image of Aton” — to Tutankhamon — “the living image of Amon” — and to transfer the seat of the government from the City consecrated to the God they hated, back to the old capital, Thebes, the city of Amon.
They re-established the cult of Amon in all its former splendour. Solemn sacrifices were again offered
in honour of the national god all over the land, and miracles were performed in his name by his clever servants to impress the ignorant populace.
King Akhnaton’s body was taken away from the sepulchre in which he had repeatedly expressed his desire to rest, and put into the tomb of his mother, in the Valley near Thebes. But the priests did not let him remain there long in peace. They had the tomb re-opened once more and the mummy of Queen Tiy removed to another place. They considered it a disgrace to her, so they said, to lie by the side of her beloved son, whom they called a heretic and a criminal. The gentle king had never persecuted them during his lifetime. But they pursued him with their hatred even beyond death, and with a refinement of cruelty, sought to torture his immortal soul. It was believed in ancient Egypt that a nameless soul, deprived of the comfort of funeral offerings and of prayers for the dead, found no rest in eternity. Accordingly, the priests erased the name of Akhnaton wherever they found it, even from the ribbons of gold foil that encircled his mummy, that he might, as they thought, wander in hunger and agony for ever and ever.
The City of peace which he had built, they caused to be systematically ruined. Each of its monuments was pulled down stone by stone and the fragments re-used in the construction of other buildings in Thebes and elsewhere, so that nothing was left of it. The animals
which the king had loved were abandoned to die slowly of hunger, in their stables and kennels, in the midst of the deserted place, where their bones have been found by modern excavators. The beautiful gardens were left to decay. In a short time, successive waves of drifting sands had covered over the entire expanse of the holy City. There was nothing more to be seen of it. And men began to forget the very site where it had once stood.
All traces of Akhnaton’s work were effaced. The priests of Amon, in an explosion of ferocious joy, composed a hymn to their god-a hymn of hate that has come down to us:
Thou findest him who transgresses against thee;
Woe to him who assails thee!
Thy city endures,
But he who assails thee falls. . .
. . .
The sun of him who knows thee not goes down, O Amon
But as for him who knows thee, he shines.
The abode of him who assailed thee is in darkness,
But the rest of the earth is in light . . .
Whoever puts thee in his heart, O Amon,
Lo, his sun dawns.
A curse was proclaimed throughout Egypt and what was left of the Empire, and the memory of Akhnaton was anathematised. The severest penalties were
pronounced against any man who would henceforth utter his name. In official documents, whenever they could not do without mentioning him, he was referred to as “the apostate,” “the heretic,” or “the criminal.” Horemheb, the Pharaoh who succeeded Tutankhamon, dated his reign from the end of that of Amenhotep the Third, Akhnaton’s father, so that no trace of the rationalist king or even of his sons-in-law might remain in history.
And the world forgot him completely.
Nefertiti alone continued to cherish his memory as if he had been living still. “He is living,” she used to say; “he can never die.”
She lived an austere life, in retirement, thinking of him and waiting to meet him again after death.
She saw one Pharaoh succeed another, and grew old. She heard people speak of new military expeditions against Syria, of the rebuilding of the Empire which her husband had sacrificed to his lofty principles. But the victories of Egypt did not over-impress her. She remembered with bitterness how the priests — the actual rulers of the land — had treated the one whom she loved during his life and after his death. And it pained her still more to think of the behaviour of those courtiers who had once called themselves Akhnaton’s disciples, but who hastened to deny him and his Teaching the very moment his enemies came to power. “Egypt has persecuted the best
of kings,” she said in her sorrow; “she will never be great again, unless and until she repents of her crime and honours him once more.”
People remained silent, for nobody believed that such a day could come. But Nefertiti did believe that it would. “For centuries, perhaps for milleniums he may lie in oblivion,” she said; “but one day, in exchange of the lost Empire, he will get dominion over souls. When, somewhere in the world, even one person’s life will be transformed through the love of his memory, then the day of his glorification will dawn and a new era begin.”
And it came to pass, indeed, that Egypt never recovered her pristine greatness. For a time, she struggled to rebuild her empire, but soon new warring nations rose to power and she was overrun. The priests of Amon, who from king-makers became kings, could do nothing to stem the tide of decay. And four hundred years after Akhnaton the Assyrians rushed through the land as a whirlwind and left Thebes a heap of smoking ruins. Then the Ethiopians came; then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Arabs, then the Turks, then, finally, the French and the British. Never more did a prince of the soil wear the Double Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Once, while the Greeks were the masters of the land,
their king asked an Egyptian priest, named Manetho, to write a list of the Pharaohs of old and of their deeds. Manetho’s book, written in Greek, was for long the only source of information the outside world had about the ancient kings of the Nile Valley. But Akhnaton was not on the list; his memory had been so thoroughly destroyed for centuries that nobody knew of him in Manetho’s days.
Truths similar to those he had taught — the oneness and universality of God, the immutable order of nature, the law of love — were preached later on by other great souls. They became common tenets of international religions or of world-renowned philosophies. But nobody knew that Akhnaton had preached them centuries before.
The body of the world’s first rationalist still lay in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, in the desert near the ruins of Thebes. When the priests had left the tomb, after effacing the king’s name from the coffin and from the gold ribbons around the mummy itself, they did not care to seal it properly; so that the dampness from the Nile, slowly penetrating the lonely chamber through an opening, caused the embalmed flesh to decay. The king’s body had become a skeleton. And years passed on; and the world changed its face many times.
A day came when, in a land that was hardly known in Akhnaton’s time, men of science discovered and demonstrated a fundamental law of existence which they
called the principle of conservation of energy. “Heat and light,” they said, “are only two different manifestations of the same unknown agent, Energy, which is at the basis of everything. Motion, sound, electricity, hertzian waves . . . are all different manifestations of the same. And the universe is but one divine harmony in which a different rhythm — a different length of wave — corresponds to each quality of existence.” But nobody knew that an inspired youth within his teens had been gifted with the intuition of that very same truth, three thousand three hundred years before, and that he made it the basis of a Teaching which would have been the first scientific world-religion, had men accepted it.
It is only a little more than fifty years since the City that Akhnaton built was discovered and excavated by modern archaeologists. Then for the first time, through fragments of his hymns found in the tombs of the nobles, in the hills near the City, a few people began to get an idea of his greatness. Sir Flinders Petrie, the famous English Egyptologist, paid to him a magnificent tribute. “If this,” he writes, “were a new religion invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of Akhnaton’s view of the energy of the solar system . . . ; he had certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which
we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship.”
In 1907, two archaeologists, Weigall and Ayrton, discovered the remains of the young king in the tomb where they were put after the return of the court to Thebes. They lie now in the Cairo Museum.
There are few things in history as beautiful as Akhnaton’s short life. Yet, the world at large does not know of him. Much noise has been made, in recent years, around the name of his insignificant son-in-law, Tutankhamon, for the sake of a few pieces of gilded furniture found in his tomb. But no public recognition has been given to the king who sacrificed the greatest empire of his time to that very ideal of peace towards which nations are still striving in vain. By a sad irony of fate, the Pharaoh who was a great thinker, a great artist and a spotless soul, enjoys no popular fame.
We are growing weary of science without God, as well as of fictitious religions without a scientific background. The harmonious synthesis to which we aspire, the blending of scientific knowledge and religious inspiration, has been conceived thirty three centuries ago by a man of eternal vision, to whom knowledge and love, truth and beauty were identical. Akhnaton is preeminently the first modern man, whose Teaching is in advance even of our present age.
May the future generations learn to love his memory, and to look upon him indeed as:
. . . the beautiful Child of the living Sun, whose
name shall live forever and ever.