National Geographic : 2017 May
akhenaten 143 In ancient Egypt, after periods of weakness or disunity, leaders often declared a wehem mesut, literally “repeating a birth”—a renaissance. They turned to ancient symbols as a way of using past glories to promise future success. Tutankhamun declared a wehem mesut, and it seems Horem heb may have as well. And the strategy continues today. Revolutions gain legitimacy if they’re con nected to the past, which is why Tahrir slogans were often accompanied by images of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. It’s also why mar ginalized groups around the world, ranging from gayrights activists to Afrocentrists, have gravitat ed to the figure of Akhenaten. In 2012, after Morsi and the Muslim Brother hood came to power, they passed a constitution that cited Akhenaten’s “monotheism,” and they named their policy program Nahda, Arabic for Renaissance. Three short years after Morsi was deposed, another charismatic leader on the oth er side of the world, Donald Trump, would rise under his own version of wehem mesut: “Make America Great Again.” In Egypt there’s always a temptation to hold that modern mirror to the distant past, remaking the pharaonic world in our image. But it’s also true that ancient Egyptians developed sophis ticated political tactics—their system, after all, lasted more than 3,000 years. They introduced us to the concept of divine kingship, as well as many universal symbols of power, including the crown and the scepter. Amarna art often functioned as propaganda, portraying Akhenaten giving prizes to sycophants and parading around the city with deferential bodyguards. Barry Kemp has written that those scenes provide “an unintended cari cature of all modern leaders who indulge in the trappings of charismatic display.” At the site of the Great Aten Temple, I asked Kemp whether such patterns of thought and be havior are universal across time. “ We’re all the same species,” he said. “ We’re wired up to some extent to think and behave the same way. But longdeveloped traditions moderate individual societies. That’s the responsibility—to find the balance between universal patterns and those that are distinctive culturally.” The Amarna Project, which organizes research at the site, keeps a Cairo office in a building next to Tahrir. Anna Stevens said that this environ ment has given her a new perspective on the past. “Living through this time has made me think much more about Akhenaten and the impact of revolutions,” she said, referring to the rise of Sisi. “I’m struck by this interest in a strong male lead er.” She commented that at Amarna, the tombs of high officials feature Aten and the royal family, but thus far these images haven’t been found in the commoners’ cemeteries. “There’s no mention of Akhenaten or Nefertiti,” Stevens said. “It’s like it’s not their place.” She observed a similar dynamic with the elit ism of today’s politics. “ You can have very radical changes at the top, but below that, nothing changes,” she said. “ You can shift a whole city to another part of Egypt; you can shift a whole group of people to Tahrir Square—but nothing changes.” In her view a revolution is an act of selective storytelling. “Akhenaten is creating a narrative,” Stevens said one day in her office. And then she pointed to an image of skeletons from a com moners’ cemetery. “But this narrative isn’t for these people, really.” Their stories will never be fully known, in the same way that the lives of most contemporary Egyptians are ignored when we focus on the dominant figures of national pol itics: Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi. If we find it hard to capture the full range of revolutionary experi ences during the past six years, what are the odds that we can truly understand the politics of the mid14th century B.c.? “ That’s the way life is,” Stevens said. She sat six stories above Tahrir, surrounded by a mess of data from Amarna excavations. But she seemed comfortable with Akhenaten’s fundamental un certainty: the mysteries of his faith, the messages of his people’s bones, and all the broken pieces that would never be put together again. She smiled and said, “There’s no clear narrative.” j Peter Hessler lived in Cairo from 2011 to 2016 and is now working on a book about archaeology in Egypt. Rena Effendi shoots human-interest stories around the world. This is her third story for the magazine.