When the House of Akhnaton
Died Out

Stormy and unsettled was the period of the eighth and seventh centuries before the present era. The world was uneasy and in a tumultuous state. Terrifying portents were seen in the sky and were accompanied by great perturbations of nature—among them earthquakes and changes of climate. The nations of the ancient East were in turmoil. Peoples of the steppes of the north crossed mountain barriers and transgressed the boundaries of states. Civilian unrest flared up in many places and armies marched along military roads, engaging one another in strife and wars.

A few decades before this uproar, in the second part of the ninth century, the glorious Theban (Eighteenth) Dynasty of Egypt came to an end and the house of Akhnaton degenerated and was extirpated.

For only a short time did Akhnaton’s residence city, Akhet-Aton, enjoy the sounds of agitated life, with messengers and ambassadors coming and going. Soon the place was abandoned by men and desert sands swept over it and buried it, to make place at last for the few poor settlements of el-Amarna. With Akhet-Aton left to decay, Thebes, the old southern residence, once more was made the capital of the land. Two heirs of Akhnaton in quick succession occupied the throne, each reigning for a short while, before dying young. The younger was Tutankhamen, whose tomb was discovered in 1922. Never before had such riches in gold, jewels and furniture been found in the vault of a dead person. He was buried by the last king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the old Ay, the granduncle of the last two reigning youths.

This much is known: the religious reform of Akhnaton was abolished, his line died out, and his palace and his city were abandoned; but history professes not to know the personal fate of Akhnaton and of the epigoni that followed on the throne of Egypt, nor what happened during the anarchy which followed or which may also have preceded the end of this glorious dynasty.

In Oedipus and Akhnaton I undertook the task of reviving the pageant of this era and of illuminating the personal fate of its heroes. I showed also how the tragic fate of the house of Akhnaton gave rise to a legendary cycle that reached to the shores of Greece, took hold of the imagination of generations of poets, and survived in its legendary form till our own days.(1)

Paintings on a wooden chest found in the tomb of Tutankhamen show the young king in war against the Ethiopians and Syrians. It appears that in the fraternal war his elder brother Smenkhkare, deprived of his throne, called to his assistance foreign troops; in this war both young princes died. Smenkhkare was buried clandestinely by his sister-spouse, who also placed a song of love, cut into gold foil, at the feet of the dead. His burial was violated by the emissaries of Ay, brother of Queen Tiy, mother of Akhnaton. Ay, assuming the royal power, officiated at the splendid funeral of his protege Tutankhamen. Having reached the throne in his old age, Ay did not occupy it for long. The exact order of events that ended with Ay’s elaborate and beautiful sarcophagus being smashed to smithereens, we do not know; but the Eighteenth Dynasty was terminated by invasion. Ay was not followed on the throne by any kin of his—the House of Akhnaton was followed by foreign rule.


  1. Oedipus and Akhnaton: Myth and History (New York, 1960).