Wednesday, June 12, 2013

History Mystery: Amarna Capital Of Heretic Pharaoh -5

Fashion, in the modern sense of fluctuating styles of dress, evolved side by side with the wealth and taste fore luxury which arose under the new kingdom. Chic Egyptian began to wear fuller and more complex garments. Short-sleeved blouses became popular, and the traditional loincloth was covered with a large piece of transparent drapery. In Amarna, the front of this piece of fine linen was folded upwards to form a long pleated pocket. New, discreetly voluptuous forms began to replace the austere lines of traditional wear. Women’s dresses, full length and flared, were knotted under the breasts, sometimes leaving them bare. Whether male or female, all high-born Egyptians lavished great care on their complexions. Men shaved regularly with bronze or copper razors: a high –ranking Egyptian never wore facial hair, a custom that distinguished him sharply from his Asiatic neighbours. On bas-reliefs, Syrians are immediately recognizable by their beards. Men’s hair was cut short, and a curly wig worm on top. Women wore heavier artificial hairdos, especially for banquets, when the wig was plaited and fell to the shoulders in a mass of ribbons and flowers, often crowned with a jeweled diadem. The jewellery of the New Kingdom was magnificent. Women’s necks were adorned with beaded necklaces, their wrists with arrays of bracelets. Materials varied according to the wearer’s station: from pottery or glass paste to gold, sliver, ivory, and precious stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, or malachite.

 This iridescent splendour reflected more than wealth or high rank. Decorative amulets of magical significance were shaped in the forms of hieroglyphs meaning ‘Life’, ‘Health’, or ‘Longevity’. Even before the Amarna period, the distinction between men’s and women’s clothing was becoming blurred. In Akhenaten’s time, this tendency reached its high point. It is clear from portraits that the king had a strangely feminine appearance, and under his rule characteristics traditional associated with women were exalted: Love, tenderness, affection for nature, and domesticity. At the same time, conventionally masculine skills of warfare and statecraft were being abandoned a move that was to have catastrophic consequences for the empire. The reign of Akhenaten lasted 17 years. During that time, Egypt’s hard-won dominion over Palestine and Syria was disintegrated. A cache of state archives, written on clay tablets, was discovered at Amarna in 1887. Many of the tablets are letters from the rulers of contemporary states such as mitanni, discussing diplomatic gifts. Others present a vivid picture of an empire in decline. They include letters written by vassals of Egypt in the Middle Eastern territories, begging of help against rival states, or complaining about Egypt’s failure to send troops. In fairness to Akhenaton, the process of decay must have set before he came to the throne. Many of the letters are addressed to his father, Amenhotep III. Some schorals have suggested that it was official policy to keep the eastern states quarrrelling among themselves, on the time-honoured principle of ‘divide and rule’. If so, the policy backfired.

A people now known by their Biblical name of the Hittites were emerging as a major power in the Middle East. They profited from Egypt’s neglect by seizing Syria. No evidence survives to suggest that the loss worried Akhenaten in his secluded world on the banks of the Nile. While night stole across the imperial domain, Amarna bathed in the rays of the setting sun. The last years of the pharaoh’s reign are shadowy. Queen Nefertiti disappears – she may have died or fallen from favour, or she may have moved to Thebes as the pharaoh’s representative. Her place at Akhenaten’s side was taken by her eldest daughter, the princess meretaten. In 1362 BC Akhenaton died, and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Smekhkare, husband of Meretaten. Smenkhkare reigned far a mere two years, and was succeeded by another son-in-law of Akhenaten, Tutankhaten. Already Egypt was turning away from the god which had failed to keep the empire intact. The new sovereign change his name to Tutankhamun, reflecting a reversion to the ancient dynasty deity previously worshipped in Thebes. The name of Tutankhamun became famous after the discovery, in 1922, of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. His reign was short, but significant for the restoration of the traditional gods. Deserted shrines were rebuilt in splendour, and their priesthoods returned. But the taint of heresy lingered about the royal house. The efforts of Tutankhamun and his successors to appease the angry heavens did not go far enough. Around the end of the 14th century BC, one of Tutankhamun’s chief advisers, a general called Horemheb, came to the throne, and set about annihilating Akhenaton’s memory.

Amarna, already partially deserted, was obliterated. Statues of Akhenaten were smashed, monuments razed to the ground. Particular vengeance was reserved for the great temple; the walls were demolished, and thousands of stone slabs ferried along the Nile for re-use in temples dedicated to the ancient gods, as though to atone for the outrage committed against them. In a final gesture, a layer of cement was poured over the foundations of Amarna’s temples. Under the new dynasty of pharaohs, Egypt’s old imperial ambitions were revived, and the Amarna episode was committed to oblivion. Yet, in a curios paradox, it is the only major Egyptian city of which a fairly clear picture survives. Urban centres in the populated regions have all disappeared under successive layers of habitation, but the remote site of Amarna was never re-occupied. In addition, the cement which Horemheb poured over the foundations of the temple protected them from erosion, and the layout of the town survives exactly as it was in the age of Akhenaton – a blueprint of Egyptian town planning preserved. An extraordinary mystery surrounds the fate of Akhenaton himself. The pharaoh had prepared a family tomb to the east of the city, and this has been excavated. One of the royal princesses, who had died young, was buried there, but no other members of the household reached their appointed resting place. Four granite coffins have been unearthed at the site – they had been shattered. Somehow, the Egypitans denied the dead pharaoh his intended burial, perhaps wishing to forget the son of the Aten and his divine, faceless father.

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