The Ancient City of Akhetaten at el-Amarna

El Amarna

by Jimmy Dunn

An old aerial photograph of the central part of  Amarna during the excavations of 1932

What we call Amarna, or el-Amarna today was the city of Akhetaten (The Horizon of the Aten). It was created by Egypt's heretic king, Akhenaten for his revolutionary religion that worshiped Aten during the Amarna Period.

The ancient capital of Akhetaten lies some 365 miles south of Cairo in a natural amphitheater between inhospitable cliffs. This narrow opening exists for some twelve kilometers along the Nile River and has a half rounded depth of about five kilometers.

This is the place where, in about the fifth year of the king's reign, we are told that by divine inspiration, Akhenaten build his capital.

The History of Discovery

The site was unknown to the European travelers other than its name, which was a village called Et Til el-Amarna. Early visitors misunderstood its name, so it became to be known as Tell el-Amarna, though there are not a single tell, or great mound marking the ancient site.

Even though John Gardner Wilkinson initially investigated the site in 1824, and soon returned with James Burton to further examine the tombs located at el-Amarna, they had at that time no idea of the its significance. It was only during this general time frame that Champollion made his initial discoveries on Egyptian writing, and so the two early explorers were unable to read the names and inscriptions they encountered on this expedition. In fact, they identified the site as Roman Alabastronopolis from a nearby alabaster quarry.

A Robert Hay drawing of one of the Boundary  Stela

Later, Robert Hay investigated the site not only examining all the open tombs, but clearing others from beneath extensive drifts of sand. However, as was the work of Wilkinson and Burton before him, was never published. Others would also come to el-Amarna, and would also fell to publish their work, though most of their efforts are available in various museums today.

Nevertheless, due to the unique decorations in the tombs at el-Amarna, many showing the activities of the royal family not in the formal attitudes of worship repeated so often in other tombs, but in intimate and vivid detail as human beings engaged in everyday domestic affairs, scholars continued to visit the site. There was also a prevailing mystery. In fact, because of the depictions that we know understand represent Akhenaten and Nefertiti, these early explorers wondered whether this was not the home of two queens, because of the almost feminine physique of the king.

Even as the ability to read hieroglyphics spread amongst the early Egyptologists, discovering the nature of this site remained elusive. So thoroughly had the ancient Egyptians, aided afterwards by the early Christians, destroyed this place that it was not easy to find an intact cartouche bearing the name of the king or queen for whom it was built. Even when they did find cartouches, they were larger than those of other pharaohs, and surrounded by a double border. Furthermore, the signs within these were complex and difficult to interpret, but were evidently the same as those which accompanied a representation of the Sun god, Re-Horakhty found on a few monuments elsewhere.

It was finally Richard Lepsius, a disciple of Champollion and doubtless the foremost Egyptologists of his day, who came to el-Amarna to record inscriptions and take paper squeezes of the reliefs and afterwards, publish his work. This work allowed scholars to finally make advances in their understanding of the city and its king, who they initially read as Khuenaten. Now, more than a century of study has given us this king's correct name, Akhenaten, as well as revealing many of the mysteries that once surrounded the site.

The General Area

The plan of the area of el-Amarna

The plan of the area of el-Amarna

Located on the eastern side of the Nile River, El-Amarna, like all other ancient Egyptian capitals, was made up of temples, government establishments, utilitarian facilities such as grain silos and bakeries, palaces and common mudbrick homes, several necropolises, as well as a number of zoos, gardens and other public buildings. In fact, the scope of this city is somewhat amazing if one considers that it was founded in about 1350 BC and abandoned only some twenty years later. The population of the city has been estimated to have been between twenty and fifty thousand inhabitants.

The area of the city and its surrounding property was fixed by copies of decrees carved on fourteen tablets embedded in the cliffs on either side of the river. Hence, these stone slabs are known by Egyptologists as boundary stelae. They not only encompass the city itself, but also fields and villages on the west bank. The most impressive of these today is Stela U, which measures about 7.6 meters from top to bottom and occupies almost the entire height of the cliff in a little bay to the north of the entrance to the Royal Wadi. At the base of this Stela on both sides are the remains of a group of carved statues of the Royal Family.

El Amarna

These stelae give a vivid account of the king's selection and dedication of the site for his capital, following instructions from his father Aten when he illuminated a certain spot on the desert at sunrise. Much of the western side of the area, including houses, harbors and the main palace of the king, was obscured under the modern cultivation. However, there are a large number of structures that have been preserved in the desert to the east, and in general, most of the layout is discernable from foundations.

The area is divided into suburbs, with the so-called "central city" housing the Royal Palace and The Great Temple (The Per-Aten), as well as various buildings archaeologists have labeled official (police, taxes...). It is here in one such building, the 'records office', that the Amarna Letters were found by a peasant woman. This area of Amarna was completely excavated in the 1930s. The other residential areas consist of the North City or Suburb, the Main or South City, and the worker's village.

The central City was apparently carefully planned, while the other residential zones where not. In these other areas, the spaces between the earliest large houses was gradually filled up with smaller clusters of homes.

The Central City

Prospective of the Central City

There was an ancient road that led in from the north to the Central City, which took an identical path to the modern road of today. It is the central city that the scenes in the North Tombs depict, though the layout of this part of the area requires time and patience to follow now due to decay. Within a generation of Akhenaten's reign, most of the building material was removed, leaving mud brickwork that is now mostly gone.

The chronology of the buildings here can be fairly well determined. The Chapel in the Great Temple and the royal estate were built first, followed closely between year six and nine by the temenos wall of the Great Temple and its sanctuary, replacing the earlier chapel. The palace was begun but never completed.

The main street here is the Royal Road which is a modern name. It comes from the south and passes through the old South City moving into the Central City between the official palace and the royal estate, where it is spanned by a bridge and broadens into a square in front of the entrance facade of the Great Temple. To the east runs the West Road, continuing the High Priest Street of the South City and passing by the Records Office and stopping at the temple magazines.

Layout of  the Central City

Layout of the Central City

The city was dissected by two east-west streets that met the West road. The southern one stretches between the king's house and the small temple and then the records office and the clerks' houses to the south and reaches the army headquarters. The second street passes to the north of the royal estate along the southern side of the magazines. This entire district was deserted in the third year of Tutankhamun's reign.

The Temples

Here, we find the Great Aten Temple as well the Small Aten Temple. Temples at Amarna are considerably different then most cult temples of ancient Egypt. They were, of course, solar temples, with the essential elements consisting of a small obelisk on a high base and an altar. Though solar temples had been built during the Old Kingdom, the worship of the Aten did not require the equipment and architectural elements found in these older establishments, with the exception of the altar. There was no need for a naos because there is no deity to be sheltered.

However, some temple elements are essential. These attributes include a general rectangular plan enclosed within a tremenos wall which is symmetrically about a longitudinal axis and orientation with the facade facing the west. There are also the pylons as entrance fronts to courts together with a circuitous entrance to conceal the interior from the eyes of the uninitiated. There must also be a slaughter court, the altar and trees flanking the entrance approach. Most of these features, which had been characteristic of Egyptian Temples since Archaic Period, could not easily be absent even at Amarna.

The most basic element of an Aten temple is the altar, to which a ramp or stairway ascends from the west in the middle of the court, surrounded by a temenos wall. The altar platform could occasionally be surrounded by a wall and fronted with a porch. Some also could be abutted by four ramps oriented toward the cardinal points. The altar was usually surrounded by rows of offering tables. The court housing the altar could also be preceded by another court or more.

A recreated view of the sanctuary of the Great  Aten Temple

The Great Temple of the Aten

The Great Aten Temple is on the northern edge of the Central City. It is partly covered over by the modern cemetery of el-Till. The enclosure wall for this temple extended back from the modern road for some 750 meters, and is now represented by a low, straight ridge. Within, the sanctuary was very similar to that in the Small Aten Temple and is marked by a group of isolated rubble heaps near the back.


There is a long, low mound to the south of the temple running east-west with visible broken pottery. This pottery is actually broken bread moulds, and the line marks the site of the central bakeries.

The Bridge

At the end of this ridge is the massive foundations for a bridge that crossed the so called Royal Road in front of the King's House by means of brick piers. There remains some ancient timbers that once bound the brickwork together. On the far side of the road was the Great Palace, consisting of a complex of courts and halls of which only foundations remain.

The Small Temple of the Aten

In recent years, some consolidation and restoration has been carried out at the Small Aten Temple. This included the erection of a replica column. A prominent brick enclosure wall also remains, which was once strengthened by towers on the outside. There are brick pylons at the entrance, and others which subdivided the interior of this building. In the back of the temple stood the sanctuary originally built of limestone and sandstone.

This temple had a foundation layer of gypsum that is now covered over by sand. However, modern stone blocks have been laid atop the sand in order to provide the basic outlines of this temple.

A circular walk beginning at the middle of the north side of this small temple's enclosure wall reveals other parts of the Central City. There is a tall ridge of sand and some rubble that runs northward from across the street through the middle of a small palace built of mud brick. Known as the King's House, it probably accommodated the Royal Family on their visits from their North Palace. Behind the King's House and the Small Aten Temple (further from the Nile River) were a group of government buildings built of mud brick. This is actually where the famous Amarna Letters were discovered by a peasant lady in 1888.

The Main City Sometimes Known as the South Suburb

A view into the ruins of the house of Nakht

Southwards from the Small Aten Temple is The Main City, which was the principal residential area of the ancient city that ran south to the vicinity of the modern village of el-Hagg Qandil. It was the part of the city occupied by the most important people (other than the king), including the vizier Nakht, the high priest Panehsy, the priest Pawah, General Ramose, the architect Manekhtawitf and the sculptor Tuthmosis (Thutmose). Probably connected to this quarter was a river temple, still in use under Ramesses III and even later through perhaps the 26th Dynasty.

It was probably laid out just after the Central City. There is a platform here built in order to allow visitors to view the interior of one of the private houses which has been cleared and repaired in recent years. Though probably a senior official, the owner of the house is unknown. Here, there are also the ruins of grain silos.

Further south, roughly half way between el-Hagg Qandil and the desert edge of the site on the edge of the Main City, the famous bust of Nefertiti was discovered in Thutmose's workshop.

Elsewhere the city has grown up, as cities will, in an irregular haphazard way, as citizens erected buildings where they felt it was convenient. Some suggest Akhenaten lacked the resources to control the rapid growth of his new city and regulate its plan (other Egyptian cities are much more carefully laid out).

North Suburb

The North Suburb is separated from the Central City by a depression. It was apparently dominantly inhabited by essentially a middle-class including a strong mercantile component. It was not begun until the middle of Akhenaten's reign and was abruptly abandoned, apparently at the end of his reign. Afterwards, apparently the houses were re-inhabited by those who could not afford to travel back to Thebes after the end of the Amarna Period.

There were large estates built here initially between the West and East roads, and subsequently middle class houses and slums which apparently even blocked the streets were added.

The North Palace (Palace of Nefertiti)

Still further north is the North Palace that the locals call "The Palace of Nefertiti" (Kasr Nefertiti). This was a self contained residence built along three sides of a long open space, which itself was divided by a wall and pylon. The residential part had gardens and reception rooms with columns along its rear. In the northeast corner is the most famous part of this residence, consisting of a garden court. A central chamber on the north side, known as the "Green Room", was painted with a continuous frieze representing the natural life of the marshes. Each room has a window from which the sunk central garden could be viewed. In recent years, the walls have been somewhat restored and some of the missing column bases have been replaced with modern replicas. There were animal pens further to the west on the north side and also a court containing three solar altars, of which nothing now exits but their foundations. This palace was probably originally built for one of Akhenaten's major queens, but was later converted for use by Princess Meritaten.

The North City

A model of  an Amarna Estate

Farther to the north where the cultivation ends at the cliffs there is also a North City, which was a separate residential area that served a major palace known as the North Riverside Palace. The palace itself is located just north of the residential area. This was probably the main residence for Akhenaten's family. Most of this is now gone, but there is a length of a massive brick enclosure wall pierced by a huge gateway at the palace.

The Desert Altars

On the road to the North Tombs, one passes a watchmen's house, and a short distance to the west and north of this lie the remains of three large mud-brick solar altars in the form of square platforms with ramps that are known as the Desert Altars. The northernmost of these had four ramps of well-rammed sand and probably an altar in the center.

The Necropolises

The necropolis consists of more than twenty-five tombs facing the base of the cliff front that is located on the east side of the desert plain, which reaches a height of about eighty-five meters and south of the Royal Wadi Six tombs are located at the north side near Darb El-Malik and known as the North Tombs. These were probably tombs owned by fairly high officials, while nineteen more tombs are located in the south and known as the South Tombs. These southern tombs were owned by a mix of officials.

These tombs are built to be highly complicated to ensure that they are protected from thieves. Most of them start with an open court that leads to three chambers. Within these chambers there are papyrus columns that meet in the rear end. There a statue of the dead would have been placed looking toward the entrance.

The North Tombs were once encroached upon by an ancient Coptic Christian settlement, and groups of little stone huts on the hillside below the tombs belong to these people, who converted tomb number six into a Church. From these tombs, there is an excellent view of the valley below.

The South Tombs are the larger of the two groups of tombs. They are cut into the flanks of a low plateau in front of a major break in the cliffs, where the rock is of poor quality. However, here one finds tomb number 25 which was built for the "God's Father", Ay, who would later become pharaoh. Though often not as imposing as the tombs in the north, they do have their charm, as well as more variety. On the other hand, many of the South Tombs contain little or no decoration and some had barely been started before the city was abandoned. Some of these tombs were also used for later burials, and amongst them are pot shards mostly dating from between the 25th and 30th Dynasty.

The Workers (or Eastern) Village

To the east in a little valley on the south side of a low plateau that runs out from the base of the cliffs between the Royal Wadi and the southern tombs there is an interesting settlement dubbed "the workmen's village". It is a walled enclosure of very regular houses along several parallel streets. Archaeologists believed it housed workers working on the rock tombs nearby (which, incidentally, though built for the royalty and courtiers, were mostly never occupied). However, this walled town had a guard house at the only exit, and it seems more likely to have been to keep the workers in than anything out (the main city was protected by no such wall, for the whole site, including the workmen's village, is enclosed by high cliffs).

The Royal Tomb

The Royal Tomb built for Akhenaten lies in a narrow side valley leading off of the Royal Wadi some six kilometers form its mouth. Its basic design and proportions are not unlike those of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor). However, it was intended for several people, including the king, a princes and probably Queen Tiy so there are additional burial chambers. There is also an unfinished annex that may have been intended for Nefertiti. Here, the quality of the rock is poor, and so the decorations of the tomb were cut into a thin layer of gypsum plaster. Hence, most of the decorations have not survived and most of what is left is in the chambers of princess Meketaten.

Other Ruins

At Kom el-Nana, south of the main city and east of the modern village of el-Hagg Qandil is an enclosure thought to have surrounded another of Akhenaten's sun temples. Recent excavations have revealed brick ceremonial buildings and the foundations of two stone shrines. The northern side was occupied by a Christian monastery during the 5th and 6th centuries, AD. There is also far south of the city an unusual cult center known as the Maru-Aten. While it has completely disappeared under the cultivated land, this appears to have been a special function cult structure. Amarna is unique in Egypt. Even cities built up by foreign rulers did not suffer its fate. It was established most probably from scratch, and appears to have been completely abandoned a short time after Akhenaten's death. Today, considerable research continues at this location that should eventually uncover more of the secrets of the most interesting pharaoh's reign.


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