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Sunset at Amarna, over the tombs at El-Hagg Qandil, the dome belonging to the tomb of Sheikh Mohammed Farag.

Investing in Religion

A project supported by the Templeton Foundation, through its Cambridge Templeton Consortium http://www.cambridge-templeton-consortium.org/index.php

Synthesis & aims

Aspects of religion have long been inherent in the work of the Amarna Project. In response to a call from the Templeton Foundation for works addressing the theme Becoming Fully Human: Social Complexity and Human Engagement with the Natural and Supernatural World, a new research initiative seeks to bring these underlying strands to the fore, and explore Amarna’s unique contribution to the study of the history and experience of religion. With the onset of excavations at the lower class South Tombs Cemetery, and the introduction of a mortuary dataset hitherto unavailable, the moment for such synthesis is particularly apt.

The work is structured around the theme of investment. The principle goal is an interpretative synthesis that approaches the subject of investment for spiritual ends from the perspective of both the king and the general population of the city. It aims to define where the boundary lay between the king’s visionary programme and the set of ideas that the bulk of the population held of what was most useful to guide them in the course of their lives. The combined study should be seen as a chapter in the history of separation and convergence between defined cult and popular belief, something that could be claimed as one of the main themes in the history of human spirituality.


Results of the work will be disseminated by a combination of written and visual means:

  • Illustrated text for conventional print-based media.
  • The extension of the existing Amarna artefact database with full description of the objects in which the makers have invested effort towards crossing the threshold of transcendental power.
  • A set of displays for the new Amarna Site Museum (Home/ Museum).

Full project description

Every religious action or belief requires at some level an investment. It may be a commitment of emotion, thought, action, time or resources. Most often it will be a combination of these. Much of the complexity of human involvement in religion can be traced to these underlying investments and differences in their levels of intensity. Where material accompaniments are involved, they represent both the outcome of investment – the results of manufacture, exchange, design, instruction – and often the cause for further commitment – the prompts that shape religious conduct and thought. One means of accessing and assessing the nature and complexity of past religions is to consider its material components in terms of these investments.

Amarna provides an unusual situation in which a major yet short-lived development in the religion of a powerful state is represented on the ground by a large urban site where the impact on material culture can be assessed across a broad spectrum of society. Akhenaten sought to leave behind him the traditional religion of his country and to transfer spiritual authority to the creative force represented by the visible sun (the Aten). He appears to have been facing up to a central question of all religious beliefs, how should we imagine the gods, what do gods look like? The Near/Middle East is home to two very different answers. The ancient Egyptians represent an extreme of one of them. Egyptian culture placed a high value on being able to reduce complex entities to precise uncluttered artistic delineation. Egyptian art, inextricably bound up with hieroglyphic writing, is a fairly direct and straightforward language of visual symbolism, most obviously so in scenes on the walls of temples where the king and the gods interact with one another. The Egyptians thought that they understood their gods. They expressed this comprehensibility by giving the gods perfect human forms, and what made one god different from another was conveyed through a limited number of variations, most noticeably in cases where animal heads replaced the human head. Yet the ease with which, in religious texts, the attributes of different gods were intermingled shows that outward symbols were convenient aids to identifying a local manifestation of that complex entity, a divine being. With statues Egyptian texts are explicit in stating that they were regarded simply as places that a god could conveniently inhabit.

At the other extreme is the avoidance of portrayal of god altogether. It had become one of the tenets of Judaism by the time that the Old Testament received its final shape. In the Book of Exodus the Egyptian preference for helpful visual aids to worship became the anathema of the ‘golden calf’. Islam has continued this tradition of wishing to convey the almightiness of god by leaving it to thoughts and words alone.

Akhenaten seems to have taken a step from the one extreme (that of his own country’s traditions of lively visualization of god) to the other, but halted mid-way. The Aten was to have no human image, but it was still to have an image: the circular disc of the sun from which downwards-reaching rays emanate, even though accompanying texts point to more complex thinking involving an interplay with the concept of light (Shu).

Early in his reign he founded a new city, Amarna, where he could live, rule and worship far from the traditional images and sacred sites of his country. It became home to a city population of several tens of thousands of people. Its rapid abandonment shortly after his death has left a large archaeological site.

There is a lack of consensus on the shape of the Amarna religious landscape. Some see a high level of emotional commitment to the official cult; for others, pragmatism reigned. Can archaeology, through a study of investment and the material components of religion, help adjust the sliding scales of religious commitment to an approximation of their levels in antiquity?

A set of initial proclamations at Amarna, carved in the cliffs in a series of large tablets, laid out Akhenaten’s programme. When this is followed on the ground, through the results of excavation, it emerges that the austerity of his ideas did not preclude a huge investment in the ostentatious display of his religion, partly through temple building and partly through the provision of offerings (food and incense).

We need not doubt Akhenaten’s piety and sincerity any more than we should with others who have sought religious enlightenment. What makes his case unusual is that he possessed sufficient power to convert spiritual urgings into reality very speedily and on a large scale. He did not renounce power in favour of a contemplative life even though he presumably could have done. To a modern way of thinking it is all too easy to see this as a fatal compromise. Egypt of the New Kingdom was an architecturally conscious society that also used temples as major instruments of economic management. They were significant landowners and the centres of very large flows of commodities that notionally belonged to the god and were actually termed ‘offerings’. They made entry into the temple accounting systems, and physically into temple storage facilities, there to be distributed as ration payments to the temple staff and to others who were given an entitlement as a reward or honour. The monumental size of temples and their material riches reflected a human scale of values that the gods were assumed to share. Akhenaten accepted both. Whist in his view it was wrong to show god in human form, that same god was believed to take pleasure in seeing huge temples built and made into gathering-points for material wealth. It seems at first sight a flawed vision.

Accounting for the various features of the Aten temples, which differ considerably in design and proportions, is not easy. Their most baffling feature is the multiplication of offering-tables. At the Great Aten Temple they totalled more than 1800. The Great Temple is also strikingly unusual in the way that its stone buildings are dwarfed by and are peripheral to a huge flat open stretch of desert lying ultimately within the bounds of the temple enclosure wall. Several archaeological features both inside the enclosure and spread over the outside ground to the south point to the possibility that the main purpose of the Great Temple was to act as the centre of large-scale consumption of ‘offerings’ in the form of open-air feasting by a significant portion of the city’s population. The people came in part through the chains of dependency that ran through Egyptian society and which are manifested in the character of the housing neighbourhoods. The language of the day placed a high value on gratitude in a mindset that had a weakly developed field of cynical dialogue.

One part of the proposed research will be an examination of the thesis that Akhenaten presided over a system that created a channel of populism for his policies that the written sources barely hint at. It will concentrate on the Great Temple and its ancillary buildings. The synthesis will be guided by ordering and considering the evidence around the concept of investment. The goals for Akhenaten were in part the traditional and unexceptional ones of architecture and institutions on a grand scale. But there is also the possibility of the more novel one of large-scale communal feasting under the direct patronage of the king with favourable popular reception of the new religion as a consequence.

A question that has never been satisfactorily answered is the extent to which Akhenaten’s ideas transferred beyond the court circle to the general population of the city. We have no written sources that illuminate their minds and interests. One can point to a dearth of material that can be associated with the official Aten cult and conclude that there was little popular engagement. Yet a similar situation seems to prevail at the archaeological sites of towns and cities elsewhere in Egypt that belong to periods on either side of Akhenaten’s reign. In and around their homes Egyptians generally did not display or keep images of gods, at least in materials that survive in the archaeological record.

Part of the explanation is probably to be found in that, in their daily lives, the Egyptians felt the proximity of a threatening Otherworld, a mixture of certain familiar gods and goddesses and of malevolent spirits that had to be countered separately from temple religion. From it emerged manifestations that brought sickness and ill fortune, but it was also to some of its most powerful denizens that they appealed for help, with spells and recipes that together made up Egyptian magic. The modern assumption is that Akhenaten is bound to have tried to ban this too. That would indeed have been a serious blow, since the rarified religion of solar light did not explain the bad things of life nor did it offer remedies.

Excavations in the city, some of which go back to the end of the 19th century AD, have brought up a diverse range of material, mostly small items of the ‘amulet’ kind, which seems to represent an investment of time, skill and emotion directed towards contact with this world of the threatening supernatural. One explanation is that the bulk of the population retained their vivid, detailed beliefs in the Otherworld. If so it is difficult to accept that this retention was an underground or clandestine sub-culture. The ties of dependency in the densely packed neighbourhoods, where privacy must have been slight anyway, would have ensured that the local patrons, the officials who owed so much to their king, would have known most of what was happening amongst their dependants. Moreover, it looks as though traditional amulets were being made in the same places, presumably by the same people, as were producing items for the court.

Iconography is often pinpointed as the key to interpreting the material remnants of religion, and indeed it offers a degree of insight into the shape of emotional investment. Yet when seeking investment in a broader sense, it is necessary to consider the material in a much wider framework of manufacture, use, deposition, and so on. This part of the proposed research involves a full review of this extensive and often poorly documented evidence from the city, taking full account of the materials used, the levels of skill and hence degrees of investment of personal resources deployed in their manufacture, and the particular places within the city where they were found (and sometimes manufactured).

In traditional Egyptian religion an important place for the private recognition of divinities was the cemetery, and the dead were thought to spend much of their eternal existence within the Otherworld, something for which they needed to be prepared through possession of specialist knowledge. It is here that the accepted interpretation of Akhenaten’s ideas would have had a particularly sensitive impact on the people of the city. It is commonly thought that his austere views on the nature of god and the spiritual universe would have proscribed traditional funerary beliefs and practices.

Actual evidence for burial practices at Amarna has hitherto been hard to come by, but in recent years the Amarna expedition has succeeded in locating several cemeteries seemingly of poorer inhabitants of the city. An excavation of one of them, the South Tombs Cemetery, began in the Spring of 2006. One of the goals is the recovery of evidence which will contribute towards a more informed assessment of the effect on the funerary religion of the experience of living in Akhenaten’s city.


Barry Kemp
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
Cambridge University
Downing St
Cambridge CB2 3ER

Limestone relief

Limestone relief found near the Great Aten Temple. It depicts a man kneeling in an attitude of adoration. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, JE 59296

Website first posted September 2000; last updated October 2017 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk