What distinguishes a visionary from a madman? That question lies at the heart of this sumptuous novel by Pauline Gedge, which takes us to the Egyptian court of the late 18th dynasty, in the mid-14th century BC. The Empress Tiye is the primary wife of Pharaoh Amunhotep III, whose failing health and debaucheries distract him from the everyday business of ruling. Tiye has commanded the reins of power for years, using her acute political sensibilities to keep Egypt prosperous and to maintain its military supremacy. Unusually, she is not of full royal blood herself, and her rise has also boosted members of her family, especially her brother Ay, a leading courtier. Now, in the twilight of her husband’s reign, Tiye is preoccupied with the issue of the succession. Her eldest son, also called Amunhotep, has spent his life imprisoned within the harem, hated and suspected by his father, but he is the only plausible successor if Tiye wishes to continue her control of Egyptian politics. She sets out to secure the throne for her son, planning to marry him off to her niece (Ay’s daughter) Nefertiti, thereby cementing her family’s influence. It is a fine plan. But Tiye hasn’t accounted for one crucial detail: the personality of the prince into whose hands she has consigned the future of her country. For Amunhotep IV – or Akhenaten, as he renames himself – has a vision of his own for Egypt, which will strike to the very heart of the country’s civilisation. Epic in every sense, this account of the Amarna period is richly intricate: a gripping story of Egypt’s most extraordinary, fascinating and enigmatic personalities.
Akhenaten’s gift is also his curse. He is devoted to a minor cult of the sun god Ra, which worships the god in his visible manifestation as the Aten or sun disc. When he becomes Pharaoh, he gradually grows more and more fundamentalist in his devotions, beginning to cut off the flow of money to the temples of Amun, traditionally the dominant god of the Egyptian pantheon. For Akhenaten, there is no longer a pantheon. Only one god, the Aten, is worthy of veneration. This would be bad enough, for a country in which much of the economy is centred on the temple complexes of various gods; but worse is to come. Soon Akhenaten makes an even more shocking announcement: he has had a great vision, in which it has been revealed that he is the son and incarnation of the Aten. Pharaohs and their queens have been regarded as living divinities before, but Akhenaten takes it one step further. Rather than building a temple to himself and engaging priests to work there, he employs a priest to follow him, consecrating the ground he walks upon. He shows absolutely no interest in foreign affairs and, while Egypt’s enemies nibble voraciously at her borders, and invade her allies, Akhenaten forbids military action, announcing that the god will provide. Blinkered, innocent and desperately naive, he risks undoing all of Tiye’s hard work. How can she regain control of the chaos she has inadvertently unleashed upon Egypt? How can she persuade her son to listen to her?
It’s customary for Egyptian royals to marry their siblings and, sometimes, for fathers to take daughters as wives. But Akhenaten’s theology, again, takes this one step further, pushing it into the realm of ancient taboos that leave his courtiers and subjects stricken with horror. His greatest innovation, however, is to move the court away from Malkatta (just over the Nile from Thebes) to a virgin site downriver, where he constructs a dazzling new city entirely from scratch in record time. Part temple, part paradise, Akhetaten is the fruit of one man’s vision, a place in which Akhenaten plans to consolidate the holiness of his family, and to exalt the Aten with purity, simplicity and beauty. It’s an attractive dream, but the gardens, lakes and parties can only keep reality at bay for so long. Beyond the walls of Pharaoh’s fantasy city, the people of Egypt are beginning to starve. The Levant is falling under the control of the Khatti, whose leader is beginning to realise that he can act with impunity. And the leading courtiers, finding themselves unwilling participants in this grotesque dream, must ask themselves how – and if – they can halt their great empire’s headlong slide into insularity, fundamentalism and irresponsibility.
Gedge’s story begins while Amunhotep III is still alive and covers around thirty years, until the restoration of the status quo and the end of the 18th dynasty, so all the famous personalities have their moment in the sun (or ‘under the Aten’?). Tiye is the protagonist: a formidable woman, whose extraordinary reserves of intelligence and political acumen are challenged to the utmost. I knew of her already, thanks to the stunning wooden portrait of her in Berlin, where she is shown with the disc-and-feather Empress’s crown which plays such a central part in the novel. While Nefertiti naturally has a leading role, Gedge doesn’t allow her to dominate: she is petulant, spiteful, ruthless and consumed by her rivalry with Tiye; but, on the other hand, she’s one of the few characters to fully support Akhenaten in his religious convictions. We meet Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, who appears on so many of the reliefs produced during the Amarna period, which celebrated the tight-knit and affectionate family life of the royal family. And we encounter the enigmatic Smenkhara, whose identity has been so much discussed by scholars, who here becomes Akhenaten’s brother: a spoiled young man who, like the woman he loves, is irreparably damaged by Pharaoh’s controversial beliefs.
My favourite character – apart from Tiye – was Mutnodjme, Ay’s daughter and Nefertiti’s half-sister, who is married to the promising young commander Horemheb. (According to Wikipedia, there’s no proof that Horemheb’s wife was the same woman as Neferiti’s sister, but it works well here.) Mutnodjme simply does not give a damn for anything except partying, swanning around wearing a youth lock, long past the age when it’s appropriate, and giving the impression of being permanently bored. Scratch the surface, though, and you find one of the most astute characters in the whole book, who wisely keeps out of the way during the power struggles that erupt around Akhenaten and his heirs. Naturally, that court intrigue centres around Tiye, her brother Ay (who rapidly gains prominence under Akhenaten), and Horemheb, commander of Egypt’s armies, whose loyalty is gradually shredded away as he watches Egypt’s enemies rampaging unchecked. Horemheb is a familiar face, because there’s a gorgeous statue of him with one of his wives (probably not Mutnodjme) in the British Museum. This sculpture has surprising sensitivity, showing the gentle affection between husband and wife, and it’s a piece I’ve always loved. It’s been great reading about people whose faces I already know, to some extent, from my hours of happy pottering around various museums (Berlin’s Neues Museum is the perfect place to go for an primer, not least because it houses both Tiye’s portrait and the fabulous, iconic bust of Nefertiti).
It can be difficult to get your head around the Amarna period. Many of the structures and temples created during this brief flare of visionary zeal were destroyed by later pharaohs. Names were chiselled off reliefs, in a concerted campaign of damnatio memoirae, making some identifications tricky. Scholars don’t always agree on the family relationships between different characters in this saga; in one case, they don’t even agree on whether someone was male or female. As a novelist, Gedge has the privilege of taking what seems most logical to her and bringing it to life. She specialises in Egyptian historical fiction and really knows her stuff: her story elegantly embraces several of the theories surrounding Akhenaten, his family and his successors, suggesting plausible explanations which bring these figures into proposed alignment. And her ideas are plausible; so plausible that it’s tempting to just imagine that things were exactly so. Perhaps, when The Twelfth Transforming was published in 1984, the details of the novel did dovetail with current scholarly opinion; but that’s no longer the case.
In recent years, Egyptologists have made huge strides in expanding our knowledge of this period. There’s plenty of further reading if you’re interested (but beware: you will end up going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole). DNA analyses from 2010 has helped confirm the identities of mummies from this period, and clarified the relationships between them. The mummy of the so-called Elder Lady, in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, has been identified as Tiye, who retains her luxuriant hair and has a very well-preserved face. Another mummy, called the Younger Lady (found in the same tomb as Tiye), has been conclusively identified as Tutankhamun’s mother, but we don’t know her identity, only that she was a full sister of Akhenaten, which unfortunately undermines Gedge’s theory in this novel. She seems to have died from a violent blow to the face, perhaps the result of an accident.
Akhenaten himself may have been identified, thanks to recent DNA tests which confirm that a mummy, long thought to be him, was the son of Amunhotep III and the father of Tutankhamen. If you fancy reading more about the discovery of Akhenaten’s tomb, and the challenges posed by his coffin and body, take a look here. Some scholars maintain that this mummy isn’t that of Akhenaten at all, but of his mysterious successor Smenkhara (also called Smenkhkare); on whose identity and gender, see here. (If there are any Egyptologists reading, please enlighten us as to what the current consensus is! – if any?) Finally, you can find out more about the palace complex at Malkata or Malqata which Gedge calls Malkatta) in this account of excavations made between 1985 and 1988 by Waseda University, which includes photos of astonishing fresco fragments.
Gedge’s novel throws up so many things to explore. While undeniably hefty, it has the detail and colour of a tapestry, unfurling an engaging picture of an historical period which can often seem forbiddingly remote. Not only that, but she crafts a deft tale from a bewildering mass of theories and fragmented evidence. Her absorbing novel revives the dazzling Amarna period in all its visionary, heretical splendour, throwing fresh light on an episode which Akhenaten’s successors worked so hard to obliterate. I’m definitely going to be revisiting Egypt in her company.