Amarna (commonly known as el-Amarna) is the name given to an extensive archaeological site that represents the remains of the capital city built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten of the late Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1353 BC). The name for the city used by the ancient Egyptians was Akhetaten (or Akhetaton - transliterations vary), meaning "the Horizon of the Aten".
The site was discovered in 1887 when a local woman digging for sebakh uncovered a cache of 300 tablets (now known as the Amarna letters). These tablets were diplomatic correspondence of the Pharaoh and were written in Akkadian, the language commonly used during the Late Bronze Age of the Ancient Near East for such communication.
The frequent designation "Tell el-Amarna" for the city is inaccurate: nowhere do the ancient remains constitute a mound of eroded architecture that would warrant the description of a "tell" (Arabic: "city mound"), so common elsewhere in the region. Cyril Aldred notes that the name "Tell el-Amarna" is a misunderstanding of the name for one of the modern villages near the ruins, Et Til el Amarna. The name "Amarna" itself comes from the name of a tribe of nomads, the Beni Amran, who left the Eastern Desert in the 18th century to settle on the banks of the Nile along this stretch.
Excavation at Amarna has been conducted by a number of British and German excavation teams. One of the best-known 19th century archeologists who worked in this area was Richard Lepsius, who copied wall illustrations and inscriptions, and took paper squeezes of reliefs. The 19th century records made by these teams are of immense importance since many of these remains were later vandalized by the locals in anger against the Egyptian Antiquities Service.
The current investigations have been in annual operation since the late 1970s, directed by Dr Barry Kemp (Reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge, England) under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES).
The city of Akhetaten
The city was built as the new captial of the Pharoah Akhenaten, dedicated to his new religion of worship to the Aten. Construction started in year 4 of his reign (1364 BC or 1346 BC) and was probably completed by year 9 (1359 BC or 1341 BC), although it became the captial city two years earlier.
It is the only ancient Egyptian city for which we have great details of its internal plan, in large part because the city was abandoned shortly after the death of Akhenaten, and remained uninhabited thereafter. However, due to the unique circumstances of its creation and abandonment, it is questionable how representative of ancient Egyptian cities it actually is.
The city as a whole is divided into a number of wide-flung components, which include:
- the Royal Wadi and Tomb
- the Northern Tombs of the Nobles
- the Southern Tombs of the Nobles
- the Workmens' Village
- the Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten
Amarna art is unique among the Egytian world for its realistic depiction of its subjects, instead of the strict idealistic formalism universal in Egyptian art up until that point, as well as for depicting many informal scenes such as the royal family playing with their children. Although the worship of Aten (known as the Amarna heresy) was completely suppressed, the artistic legacy had a more lasting impact.
Famous landmarks at the site include:
- Great Temple of the Aten
- Great Royal Palace
- Tomb of Akhenaten
Chronology of investigation
1714 - Claude Sicard, a French Jesuit priest travelling through the Nile Valley, describes the first known boundary stela from Amarna.
1798-1799 - Napoleon's corps de savants prepare the first map of Amarna, subsequently published in Description de l'Égypte between 1821 and 1830.
1824 - Sir John Gardiner Wilkinson explores and maps the city remains.
1833 - The copyist Robert Hay and his surveyor G. Laver visit the locality and uncover several of the Southern Tombs from sand drifts, recording the reliefs. (The copies made by Hay and Laver languish largely unpublished in the British Library).
1843 and 1845 - The Prussian expedition led by Richard Lepsius records the visible monuments and topography of Amarna in two separate visits over a total of twelve days, employing drawings and paper squeezes. The results are ultimately published in Denkmäler aus Ægypten und Æthiopien between 1849 to 1913. Despite being somewhat limited in accuracy, the engraved Denkmäler plates nonetheless form the basis for scholastic knowledge and interpretation of many of the scenes and inscriptions in the private tombs and some of the Boundary Stelae for the remainder of the 19th century.
1887 - A cache of nearly 400 clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform are discovered by an Amarna woman, which are now known as the Amarna letters.
1891-1892 - Sir Flinders Petrie works for one season at Amarna, working independently of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF). Excavating primarily in the Central City, Petrie investigates the Great Temple of the Aten, the Great Official Palace, the King's House, the Records Office and several private houses. Although frequently amounting to little more than a sondage, Petrie's excavations reveal additional cuneiform tablets, the remains of glass factories, and a great quantity of discarded faience, glass and ceramic in sifting the palace rubbish heaps (including Mycenaean sherds). Publishing his results and reconstructions rapidly, Petrie is able to stimulate great interest in the site's potential.
1903-1908 - Norman de Garis Davies publishes drawn and photographic descriptions of private tombs and boundary stelae from Amarna.
1907-1914 - Led by Ludwig Borchardt, the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft excavates the North and South suburbs of the city. The famous bust of Nefertiti - now in Berlin's Ägyptisches Museum - is discovered amongst other sculptural arteftacts in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 terminates the German excavations.
1921-1936 - The Egypt Exploration Society (EES) returns to excavation at Amarna under the direction of T.E. Peet, Sir Leonard Woolley, Henri Frankfort and John Pendlebury. The renewed investigations focus on religious and royal structures.
1960s - The Egyptian Antiquities Organization (now the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities) undertakes a number of excavations at Amarna.
1977 - present - The EES returns once more to excavation at Amarna, now under the direction of Barry Kemp.
1980 - A second, shorter expedition led by Geoffrey Martin describes and copies the reliefs from the Royal Tomb, later publishing its findings together with objects thought to have come from the tomb.
- Amarna, Capital of Ancient Egypt (http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/Projects/Amarna/home.htm) - information page of the University of Cambridge excavations
- Model of the City (http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/Projects/Amarna/Model/Map.htm) - interactive map of Amarna.
- Amarna Art Gallery (http://www.kate.stange.com/egypt/gallery.htm) - shows just a few, but stunning, examples of the art of the Amarna period.
- Wallis Budge describes the discovery of the Amarna tablets (http://members.tripod.com/~ib205/budge.html)