Was the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton in Fact the Father of Modern Monotheism?

Was the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton in Fact the Father of Modern Monotheism?

How plentiful it is, what you have made,

Although they are hidden from view,

Sole god, without another beside you;

You created the earth as you wished,

When you were by yourself,

Mankind, all cattle and kine,

All beings on land, who fare upon their feet,

And all beings in the air who fly with their wings.

This passage may read like a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible; but, this is a quote from the Hymn of Aten , a work by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV better known as Akhenaton. This so-called heretic king was the only known Pharaoh in Egyptian history who believed in a monotheistic doctrine when most of the ancient world adhered to polytheism.

Just how did this Pharaoh start to form the practice of worshiping a single god?

Religion in Egypt Before the Sun God Aten

Religion seemed to dominate every aspect of ancient Egyptian culture. Before pharaonic times, there were a variety of deities worshiped in various districts throughout Egypt. It wasn’t until the First Dynastic Period under King Narmer that the country was unified. Religion too was unified, but there wasn’t an official canonization of gods that minimized or eliminated the importance of lesser gods. Instead, deities were cosmopolitan – all of the gods of Egypt were recognized as an important part of the pantheon. This created some confusion and some overlap in beliefs but still no hegemony of deities seemed to exist in ancient Egypt.

Representations of six gods from the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon

This codification of religion brought a substantial change in kingship. The birth of the concept of a Pharaoh emerged in which the king was no longer just a civil ruler but a part of the divinity – the godhead to be precise. The new god-king ruled in conjunction with Ra, or Amen-Ra, and he was often depicted as a powerful man with a falcon head nested upon his head with cobra surrounding the sun.

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Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari, 13th century BC

With this uncontested rule of the god-king came another important change. The role of the priests became much stronger and more dominant. Unlike today’s priests, they weren’t charged with guiding the masses. Instead, they were the keepers of tradition and played an integral part in appeasing the gods and goddesses through rituals and sacrifice. During the 18 th dynasty, there was a temple created in Amen-Ra’s honor and Thebes became the city representing a unified Egypt, after a brief takeover by the Hyksos. The Pharaohs of this era paid homage to this god by incorporating the name Amen in their names, hence Amenhotep.

The Sun-Disk Pharaoh Emerges

By the time Amenhotep IV took the throne, pharaonic Egypt was in full swing. Rituals and traditions of the priests had been set in stone for many generations. Pharaohs simply assumed authority and let the priests do all the work while they enjoyed the finer things. This didn’t sit well with Amenhotep IV, however. Unlike his predecessors or even his successors, he was unhappy with tradition and was especially disgusted with the power of the priesthood. Whether Amenhotep IV unhappiness was due to him being fed up with Egyptian decadence or him being tired of the priests control over the Pharaohs is uncertain. But one thing for sure is that after five years of his reign he set out to turn Egyptian religious practices upside down and because of his divine authority, no one could stop him.

Statue of Akhenaten - Father of Tutankhamun ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

One of the first things he did was abandon the name Amen-, a name associated with a god he now despised – and changed his name to Akhenaten. Aten was the name of the sun disk god he now embraced as the only god. He then moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna. Most likely this move represented a break from the old and freedom from the authority of the priesthood. He then employed agents who outlawed the worship of other deities and forced the people to recognize only one god. To ensure that the people would follow his orders, he closed the Temple of Amun and defaced all of the deities in the temple.

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Statue of Amun

Life After Aten

Akhenaten’s religious fervor was undoubtedly strong during his lifetime and his cronies supported his desire to spread the power and influence of the Aten religion. Unfortunately, upon his death, the religion of Aten faded as swiftly as it had come. Akhenaten’s reign became a historical mockery. Even depictions of him seemed to mock his figure – oval eyes, high cheekbones, pot belly, frail build. Artisans and historians alike worked to minimize Akhenaten’s significance, not by writing him out of history or art; but making him look like a madman with unusual laws and an unusual appearance. The power of Egypt was restored to Thebes, the priesthood was reestablished, and even Akhenaten’s son defied his father’s teachings and reembraced the religion of Amun.

The exaggerated features of Akhenaton ( CC BY-NC-NA 2.0 )

Could Akhenaton be Moses?

Akhenaten certainly seemed like a religious zealot devoted to a single god. Perhaps his passions were divinely inspired or maybe they centered on a more worldly aim of absolute power and control free of the priesthood’s influence. One man seems to imply that Akhenaten’s motives stemmed from the fact that he was Moses himself – the man depicted in the old testament of the Bible. Ahmed Osman - author of Moses and Akhenaton: The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus - is convinced that archaeological and Biblical evidence prove that Akhenaten and Moses were the same man.

Moses with the Tables of the Law, Guido Rene ( Public Domain )

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Ahmed Osman - author of Moses and Akhenaton: The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus

Interview with Expert Ahmed Osman on the Moses–Akhenaton Debate

Mel Childs: Why do you think that Akhenaton was Moses?

Ahmed Osman: The reason for me to conclude that King Akhenaten of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty

was the same person as Biblical Moses, as well as both of them have introduced the

first monotheistic belief, they lived in Egypt at the very same time.

MC: It is implied that Moses of the Bible had a conflict with Pharaoh Ramses; however, history doesn’t account for Akhenaton having any issues with any other Pharaohs. How do you explain this?

AO: The Pharaoh at the time of Moses is not mentioned by name in the Bible.

However, the name Ramses is mentioned as the city the Israelites had to build

for Pharaoh.

I believe that Akhenaten was forced to abdicate his throne for his son, Tutankhamun,

and live in Sinai in exile. When all the kings of the 18th Dynasty died, General Ramses,

who established the 19th Dynasty, was challenged by Akhenaten, who came back from exile,

demanding his throne.

When he lost his throne, Akhenaten also lost his name and became known as Moses.

This indicates in Egyptian the son or heir.

MC: Do you think that Akhenaton’s monotheism influenced later forms of monotheism that emerged?

AO: Akhenaten's monotheism, not only influenced other religious beliefs, but also philosophy.

As ancient Egyptians believed that humans have physical and spiritual dimensions,

Akhenaten was the first person to recognize the cosmos also has a spiritual dimension.

Is Akhenaten the father of monotheism as it is known today? Share your opinions below.

Akhenaten: Heretic and Pharaoh of New Kingdom Egypt

Akhenaten (ca. 1379–1336 BCE) was one of the last pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom Egypt, who is known for briefly establishing monotheism in the country. Akhenaten drastically revised the religious and political structure of Egypt, developed new art and architectural styles, and generally caused great chaos during the Middle Bronze Age.

Fast Facts: Akhenaten

  • Known For: Egyptian pharaoh who briefly established monotheism
  • Also Called: Amenhotep IV, Amenophis IV, Ikhnaten, Osiris Neferkheprure-waenre, Napkhureya
  • Born: ca. 1379 BCE
  • Parents: Amenhotep (Amenophis in Greek) III and Tiye (Tiy, Tiyi)
  • Died: ca. 1336 BCE
  • Ruled: ca. 1353–1337 BCE, Middle Bronze Age,18th Dynasty New Kingdom
  • Education: Several tutors, including Parennefer
  • Monuments: Akhetaten (the capital city of Amarna), KV-55, where he was buried
  • Spouses: Nefertiti (1550–1295 BCE), Kiya "Monkey," the Younger Lady, two of his daughters
  • Children: Six daughters by Nefertiti, including Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten perhaps three sons by the "Younger Lady," including Tutankhamun

Akhenaten Essay

Akhenaten was the Pharaoh of Egypt for 17 years during the Eighteenth Dynasty which took place from 1352 to 1336 B.C. He was born the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tyie. His was originally named after his father, Amenhotep IV, but decided to change his name during the fifth year of his reign. During that year he changed his name to Akhenaten, which means “horizon of the sun,” or can also be translated to “He who is of service to Aten.” He had six daughters, Merytaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuaten-tasharit, Neferneferure, and Sotepenpre. Akhenaten was also suspected of having two more sons, Smenkhkare who succeeded him on the thrown, and Tutankhamun whom reigned after his brother. Both sons were born from different mothers. His first wife Neferiti, who was renamed to Nefernefruaten by the Pharaoh Akhenaten, which translated, means “beautiful is the beauty of Aten,” was also known as the “great royal wife” during the early years of his reign. He also had 3 consorts during his reign as well. First was Kiya, known as the “lesser royal wife.” Next was Meritaten, whom was also known as the “great royal wife” because she was the Queen during the later years of his reign. The last consort that Akhenaten was believed to have, was named Ankhesenpaaten. This consort was controversial because she was also believed to be one of his six daughters. Although Ankhesenpaaten may have been one of Akhenatan’s daughters, it was been said that she birthed a child to her own father.

Akhenaten was a philosopher and also and intellectualist. He has been described as Egypt’s most profound ruler. He was most recognized for the introduction of his monotheistic views of the sun god known as “Aten.” He basically abandoned the traditional polytheistic views of the Egyptians and began to worship Aten. However, His views and ideals were not accepted by all of the Egyptian people. Some described his new religion as a “mono-theistic cult” and refused to accept it. He.

A Son of Gods – The Beginning of the Osiris Myth

The name ‘Osiris’ is the Greek form of the Egyptian name Asir (or Wsir or Asar), which may mean “the Powerful”, “the one who sees the throne,” or “the one who presides on his throne.” Later on, Osiris became known as Un-nefer, “to open, appear, or make manifest good things or beauty”.

From the 5th Dynasty (circa 2513–2374 BC) on, Osiris was also a member of the Ennead (a.k.a. the Great Ennead and the Ennead of Heliopolis), a group of nine Egyptian deities which were worshipped primarily in Heliopolis, but whose influence spread to the rest of Egypt as well. That’s also when Osiris became known as the first child of Geb and Nut.

Geb and Nut were the children of Shu and Tefnut, the creation of the first god, Atum. Osiris’ siblings were Set, Nephthys, and Isis. These three beings played key roles in the Osiris myth.

Outer coffin of Taywheryt depicting Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys. (CESRAS/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )


Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE) was a pharaoh of Egypt of the 18th Dynasty. He is also known as `Akhenaton’ or `Ikhnaton’ and also `Khuenaten’, all of which are translated to mean `successful for’ or `of great use to’ the god Aten. Akhenaten chose this name for himself after his conversion to the cult of Aten. Prior to this conversion, he was known as Amenhotep IV (or Amenophis IV). He was the son of Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE) and his wife Tiye, husband of Queen Nefertiti, and father of both Tutankhamun (by a lesser wife named Lady Kiya) and Tutankhamun’s wife Ankhsenamun (by Nefertiti).

His reign as Amenhotep IV lasted five years during which he followed the policies of his father and the religious traditions of Egypt. However, in the fifth year, he underwent a dramatic religious transformation, changed his devotion from the cult of Amun to that of Aten, and, for the next twelve years, became famous (or infamous) as the `heretic king’ who abolished the traditional religious rites of Egypt and instituted the first known monotheistic state religion in the world and, according to some, monotheism itself.

His reign is known as The Amarna Period because he moved the capital of Egypt from the traditional site at Thebes to the city he founded, Akhetaten, which came to be known as Amarna (also Tell el-Amarna). The Amarna Period is the most controversial era in Egyptian history and has been studied, debated, and written about more than any other.

Amenhotep IV Becomes Akhenaten

Amenhotep IV may have been co-regent with his father, Amenhotep III, and it has been noted that the sun-disk known as the `Aten’ is displayed on a number of inscriptions from this period of the earlier king’s reign. The Aten was not new to the rule of Akhenaten and, prior to his conversion, was simply another cult among the many in ancient Egypt. It should be noted that `cult’ did not have the same meaning in this regard as it does in the present day. There was absolutely nothing negative in the designation of a community of worshippers being known as a `cult’ in ancient Egypt. It carried the same meaning then as a member of the Christian community today being designated a Baptist, a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, or Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The gods and practices of the various cults all represented the same end: eternal harmony and balance.


Amenhotep III ruled over a land whose priesthood, centered on the god Amun, had been steadily growing in power for centuries. By the time Amenhotep IV came to power, the priests of Amun were on almost equal standing with the royal house in wealth and influence.

The historian Lewis Spence writes, “With the exception of Ra and Osiris, the worship of Amun was more widespread than that of any other god in the Nile Valley but the circumstances behind the growth of his cult certainly point to its having been disseminated by political rather than religious propaganda” (137). By the time of Amenhotep IV, the Cult of Amun owned more land than the king. In the 5th year of his reign, Amenhotep IV outlawed the old religion and proclaimed himself the living incarnation of a single all-powerful deity known as Aten and, by the 9th year, he had closed all the temples and suppressed religious practices.

Amenhotep IV moved his seat of power from the traditional palace at Thebes to one he built at the city he founded, Akhetaten, changed his name to Akhenaten, and continued the religious reforms which resulted in his being despised as `the heretic king’ by some later writers while admired as a champion of monotheism by others.

Akhenaten’s monotheistic

Some historians have praised Akhenaten’s reforms as the first instance of monotheism and the benefits of monotheistic belief but these reforms were not at all beneficial to the people of Egypt at the time. The historian Durant, for example, writes that Akhenaten’s reforms were “the first out-standing expression of monotheism – seven hundred years before Isaiah [of the Bible] and an astounding advance upon the old tribal deities” (210). Those `old tribal deities’ of Egypt, however, had encouraged peace, harmony, and the development of one of the greatest ancient cultures the world has ever known.

The polytheism of the ancient Egyptians encouraged a world view where peace and balance were emphasized and religious tolerance was not considered an issue there is not even a word directly corresponding to the concept of `religious tolerance’ in the ancient Egyptian texts. A hallmark of any monotheistic belief system, however, is that it encourages the belief that, in order for it to be right, other systems must necessarily be wrong. This insistence on being the sole arbiter of ultimate truth leads to intolerance of other beliefs and their suppression this is precisely what happened in Egypt. The names of the god Amun and the other gods were chiseled from monuments throughout Egypt, the temples were closed, and the old practices outlawed.

“Dating to this point in Akhenaten’s reign was a campaign to excise the name of gods other than the Aten, especially Amun, from the monuments of Egypt. This was done with violence: hieroglyphs were brutally hacked from the walls of temples and tombs. This was probably carried out, at least in part, by illiterate iconoclasts, presumably following the orders of their king. [Akhenaten] carried out a religious revolution the like of which had never been seen before in Egypt. His reign represents a significant departure from religious, artistic, and political norms.” – Egyptologist Zahi Hawass

Priests of Amun who had the time and resources hid statuary and texts from the palace guards sent to destroy them and then abandoned their temple complexes. Akhenaten ordained new priests, or simply forced priests of Amun into the service of his new monotheism, and proclaimed himself and his queen gods.

Neglecting Egypt’s Allies

The pharaoh as a servant of the gods, and identified with a certain god (most often Horus), was common practice in ancient Egypt but no one before Akhenaten had proclaimed himself an actual god incarnate. As a god, he seems to have felt that the affairs of state were beneath him and simply stopped attending to his responsibilities One of the many unfortunate results of Akhenaten’s religious reforms was a neglect of foreign policy.

From documents and letters of the time it is known that other nations, formerly allies, wrote numerous times asking Egypt for help in various affairs and that most of these requests were ignored by the deified king. Egypt was a wealthy and prosperous nation at the time and had been steadily growing in power since before the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE). Hatshepsut and her successors, such as Tuthmosis III (1458-1425 BCE), employed a balanced approach of diplomacy and military action in dealing with foreign nations Akhenaten chose simply to largely ignore what happened beyond the borders of Egypt and, it seems, most things outside of his palace at Akhetaten.

Watterson notes that Ribaddi (Rib-Hadda), king of Byblos, who was one of Egypt’s most loyal allies, sent over fifty letters to Akhenaten asking for help in fighting off Abdiashirta (also known as Aziru) of Amor (Amurru) but these all went unanswered and Byblos was lost to Egypt (112). Tushratta, the king of Mitanni, who had also been a close ally of Egypt, complained that Amenhotep III had sent him statues of gold while Akhenaten only sent gold-plated statues.

Akhetaten & Art

The famous Stele of Akhenaten, depicting the royal family, shows the rays of the Aten touching them all and each of them, even Nefertiti, depicted with the same elongation as the king. To consider these images as realistic depictions of the royal family, afflicted with some disorder, seems to be a mistake in that there would be no reason for Nefertiti to share in the king’s supposed disorder. The depiction, then, could illustrate Akhenaten and Nefertiti as those who had been transformed to god-like status by their devotion to the Aten to such an extent that their faith is seen even in their children.

One aspect of Amarna Period art which differentiates it from earlier and later periods is the intimacy of the images, best exemplified in the Stele of Akhenaten showing the family enjoying each other’s company in a private moment. Images of pharaohs before and after this period depict the ruler as a solitary figure engaged in hunting or battle or standing in the company of a god or his queen in dignity and honor. This can also be explained as stemming from Akhenaten’s religious beliefs in that the Aten, not the pharaoh, was the most important consideration (as in the Stele of Akhenaten, it is the Aten disk, not the family, which is the center of the composition) and, under the influence of the Aten’s love and grace, the pharaoh and his family thrives.

Akhetaten’s Monotheism & Legacy

This image of the Aten as an all-powerful, all-loving, deity, supreme creator and sustainer of the universe, is thought to have had a potent influence on the later development of monotheistic religious faith. Whether Akhenaten was motivated by a political agenda to suppress the power of the Cult of Amun or if he experienced a true religious revelation, he was the first on record to envision a single, supreme deity who cared for the individual lives and fates of human beings. Sigmund Freud, in his 1939 CE work Moses and Monotheism, argues that Moses was an Egyptian who had been an adherent of the Cult of Aten and was driven from Egypt following Akhenaten’s death and the return to the old religious paradigm.

“This image of the Aten as an all-powerful, all-loving, deity, supreme creator and sustainer of the universe, is thought to have had a potent influence on the later development of monotheistic religious faith. Whether Akhenaten was motivated by a political agenda to suppress the power of the Cult of Amun or if he experienced a true religious revelation, he was the first on record to envision a single, supreme deity who cared for the individual lives and fates of human beings. Sigmund Freud, in his 1939 CE work Moses and Monotheism, argues that Moses was an Egyptian who had been an adherent of the Cult of Aten and was driven from Egypt following Akhenaten’s death and the return to the old religious paradigm.” – Freud quotes from James Henry Breasted, the noted archaeologist

Freud recognizes that the Cult of Aten existed long before Akhenaten raised it to prominence but points out that Akhenaten added a component unknown previously in religious belief: “He added the something new that turned into monotheism, the doctrine of a universal god: the quality of exclusiveness” (24). The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570-c.478 BCE) would later experience a similar vision that the many gods of the Greek city-states were vain imaginings and there was only one true god and, though he shared this vision through his poetry, he never established the belief as a revolutionary new way of understanding oneself and the universe. Whether one regards Akhenaten as a hero or villain in Egypt’s history, his elevation of the Aten to supremacy changed not only that nation’s history, but the course of world civilization.

To those who came after him in Egypt, however, he was the `heretic king’ and `the enemy’ whose memory needed to be eradicated. His son, Tutankhamun (c.1336-1327 BCE) was given the name Tutankhaten at birth but changed his name upon ascending the throne to reflect his rejection of Atenism and his return of the country to the ways of Amun and the old gods. Tutankhamun’s successors Ay (1327-1323 BCE) and, especially, Horemheb (c. 1320-1292 BCE) tore down the temples and monuments built by Akhenaten to honor his god and had his name, and the names of his immediate successors, stricken from the record.

In fact, Akhenaten was unknown in Egyptian history until the discovery of Amarna in the 19th century CE. Horemheb’s inscriptions listed himself as the successor to Amenhoptep III and made no mention of the rulers of the Amarna Period. Akhenaten’s tomb was uncovered by the great archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1907 CE and Tutankhamun’s tomb, more famously, by Howard Carter in 1922 CE. Interest in Tutankhamun spread to the family of the `golden king’ and so attention was brought to bear again on Akhenaten after almost 4,000 years. His legacy of monotheism, however, if Freud and others are correct, influenced other religious thinkers to emulate his ideal of a one, true god and reject the polytheism which had characterized human religious belief for millenia.

Akhenaten and Foreign Policies

Akhenaten ruled an empire that dominates Palestine, Phoenicia, and Nubia. He wasn’t able to create a powerful diplomatic connection with other countries.

The famous Amarna letters between Egypt and Cannan which are a cache of diplomatic correspondence, proof of his negligence of maintaining any kind of a friendly relationship with our allies.

He was occupied with his new religious, interested in creating art and poetry for his new god and ignoring his empire. He failed in his attempt to declare Aton the only god in Egypt and Thebes and Amun returned once again as the official capital and god. His predecessor referred to him as a criminal or an enemy.

Facts About Akhenaten

  • Akhenaten ruled for 17 years and was co-regent with his father Amenhotep III during the last year of his father’s reign
  • Born Amenhotep IV, he reigned as Amenhotep IV for five years before adopting the name Akhenaten to reflect his belief in Aten the one supreme deity
  • Akhenaten shocked Egypt’s religious establishment by abolishing its traditional gods, replacing them with history’s first recorded monotheistic state religion
  • For these beliefs, Akhenaten was known as the Heretic King
  • Akhenaten was an outcast from his family and only succeeded his father due to his older brother Thutmose’s mysterious death
  • Akhenaten’s mummy has never been found. Its location remains an archaeological mystery
  • Akhenaten married Queen Nefertiti, one of ancient Egypt’s most beautiful and well-respected women. Egyptologists believe she was only 12 years old when she married
  • DNA testing has shown that King Akhenaten was most likely Tutankhamun’s father
  • Egyptologists call Akhenaten’s reign “The Amara Period,” after his decision to relocate Egypt’s capital from its dynastic site at Thebes to Akhetaten his purpose-built city, later known as Amara
  • King Akhenaten is thought to have suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome. Other possibilities include Froelich’s Syndrome or elephantiasis.

Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Family Lineage

Akhenaten’s father was Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE) and his mother was Amenhotep III’s wife Queen Tiye. During their reign, Egypt sat astride a flourishing empire whose might spanned from Syria, in western Asia, to the Nile River’s fourth cataract in what is now Sudan.

Akhenaten also came to be known as `Akhenaton’ or `Khuenaten’ and `Ikhnaton’. Translated these epithets denote `of great use to’ or `successful for’ the god Aten. Akhenaten personally selected this name following his conversion to the sect of Aten.

Akhenaten’s wife was Queen Nefertiti one of the most powerful women in history. Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s Great Royal Wife or favoured consort when he ascended the throne. Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamun by Lady Kiya, a lesser wife went on to be pharaoh in his own right, while his daughter with Nefertiti Ankhsenamun married Tutankhamun her half-brother.

A Radical New Monotheism

Akhenaten’s major religious reform was to declare the sun God Ra and the actual sun, or its representation as the “Aten” or the sun-disc, to be separate cosmic entities.

The Aten or the sun-disc had long been part of the ancient Egyptian religion. However, Akhenaten’s decision to elevate it to the prime focus of Egyptian religious life was both shocking and scandalous to the ranks of the Egyptian priesthood and many of his conservative traditionally minded subjects.

Akhenaten ordered a series of Aten temples built at the existing temple complex of Karnak near Luxor. This complex and its priesthood served Amun-Ra. Some scholars believe this new temple complex was initiated during Akhenaten’s first year on the throne.

Akhenaten’s philosophical and political issues with the worship of the divinity Amun were evident early in his rule. The orientation of Akhenaten’s growing Aten compound faced the rising sun. Building these structures facing to the east was in direct contradiction to Karnak’s established order, which was aligned towards the west, where the underworld was believed to reside by most ancient Egyptians.

In effect, Akhenaten’s very first major construction project flouted convention by turning its back to the temple of Amun. In many ways, this was to be a metaphor for events that followed later in Akhenaten’s reign.

Egyptologists note that sometime in the middle of Akhenaten’s ninth and 11th years on the throne, he altered the long form of the god’s name confirming the Aten status was not just that of the preeminent god but that of the sole god. Supporting this change in religious doctrine, Akhenaten initiated a campaign designed to desecrate the inscribed names of the gods Amun and Mut, together with other minor deities. This concerted campaign effectively removed the old gods from power over religious worship as well as whitewashing them from history.

Akhenaten’s devotees began erasing the names of Amun and his consort, Mut, on public monuments and inscriptions. They also progressively began a campaign of changing the plural… ‘gods’ to the singular ‘god.’ There is surviving physical evidence to support the contention that the temples honouring older gods were similarly closed, and their priesthoods dissolved around this time.

The effects of this religious upheaval rippled throughout the extended Egyptian empire. The name of Amun was erased from letters in the diplomatic archives, on the tips of obelisks and pyramids and even from commemorative scarabs.

How far and how willingly Akhenaten’s subjects adopted his radical new form of worship is debatable. In the ruins of Amara, Akhenaten’s city, excavations unearthed figures depicting deities, such as Thoth and Bes. Indeed only a handful of ancient Egyptians have been found with the word “Aten” attached to their name to honour their god.

Neglected Allies And An Ailing Empire

Traditionally, the pharaoh was viewed as a servant of the gods and identified with a god, usually Horus. However, prior to Akhenaten’s ascension to the throne, no pharaoh prior to Akhenaten had gone so far as to proclaim himself as an incarnation of a god.

Evidence suggests that as a god resident on Earth, Akhenaten felt the matters of state were far beneath him. Indeed, Akhenaten seems to have simply stopped attending to administrative responsibilities. An unfortunate byproduct of Akhenaten’s devotion to ushering in his religious reforms was the neglect of Egypt’s empire and the atrophying of its foreign policy.

Surviving letters and documents from that time show Egyptians wrote many times asking Egypt for its assistance in dealing with a range of military and political developments. The majority of these requests appeared to have been ignored by Akhenaten.

Egypt’s wealth and prosperity had been steadily growing since before the reign of Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE). Hatshepsut’s successors, including Tuthmosis III (1458-1425 BCE), adopted a balanced blend of diplomacy and military force in dealing with foreign nations. Evidence suggests Akhenaten opted to mostly ignore developments beyond Egypt’s borders and even most events outside of his palace at Akhetaten.

History Revealed Through The Amarna Letters

The Amarna Letters are a treasure trove of messages and letters between the kings of Egypt and foreign rulers discovered in Amarna. This wealth of correspondence bears testimony to Akhenaten’s apparent neglect of foreign affairs, save those, which personally interested him.

The preponderance of the historical evidence, collated from the archaeological records, the Amarna letters and from Tutankhamun’s later decree, firmly suggests Akhenaten served Egypt poorly in terms of looking after the interests and welfare of his subjects and outlying vassal states. Akhenaten’s ruling court was an inward-focused regime that had long surrendered any political or military investment in its foreign policy.

Even the surviving evidence that points to Akhenaten engaging with matters outside of his palace complex at Akhetaten inevitably returns to Akhetaten’s abiding self-interest rather than a commitment to serving the state’s best interests.

Palace Life: The Epicentre of Akhetaten’s Egyptian Empire

Life in Akhenaten’s palace at Akhetaten appears to have been the pharaoh’s main focus. Built on virgin land in the middle of Egypt, the palace complex faced east and was set precisely to channel rays from the morning sun towards its temples and doorways.

Akhenaten built a formal reception palace in the centre of the city, where he could meet Egyptian officials and foreign embassies. Each day, Akhenaten and Nefertiti proceeded in their chariots from one end of the city to the other, mirroring the sun’s daily journey across the sky.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti saw themselves, as deities to be worshipped in their own right. Only through them could the Aten be truly worshipped as they officiated as both priests and gods.

Impact On Art And Culture

During Akhenaten’s reign, his impact on the arts was as transformational as his religious reforms. Modern art historians have applied terms such as ‘naturalistic’ or ‘expressionistic’ to describe the artistic movement that prevailed during this time.

Early in Akhenaten’s reign, Egypt’s artistic style performed an abrupt metamorphosis from Egypt’s traditional approach of portraying people with idealised, perfect physiques, to a new and some say a disturbing use of realism. Egypt’s artists appear to be portraying their subjects and Akhenaten in particular with unsparing honesty, to the point of becoming caricatures.

Akhenaten’s formal likeness could only have been created with his blessing. Hence, scholars speculate his physical appearance was important to his religious beliefs. Akhenaten styled himself as ‘Wa-en-Re’, or “The Unique One of Re,” emphasizing his distinctive features. Similarly, Akhenaten emphasised the unique nature of his god, Aten. It could be that Akhenaten believed his atypical physical appearance conferred some divine significance, which linked him to his god Aten.

Toward the latter portion of Akhenaten’s rule the ‘house’ style changed abruptly, once more, possibly as Tuthmose a new master sculptor assumed control of the pharaoh’s official portraiture. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of Tuthmose’s workshop yielding a spectacular collection of artistic masterworks, together with valuable insights into his artistic process.

Tuthmose’s style was substantially more realistic than Bek’s. He produced some of the Egyptian culture’s finest art in. His portraits are also believed to be some of the most accurate portrayals of the Amarna family we have today. Akhenaten’s daughters are all portrayed with a strange elongation of their skulls. The mummies of Smenkhkare and Tutankhamen were found with skulls, similar to Tuthmose’s statues, so they appear to be an accurate depiction.

Two-dimensional art also changed. Akhenaten is shown with a smaller mouth, bigger eyes, and softened features, making him look more serene than earlier depictions.

Similarly, Nefertiti’s striking face emerged during this period. The images of Nefertiti from this later period are some of the most famous works of art from the ancient period.

Akhenaten’s changed appearance was also adopted in Egypt’s three-dimensional art. His features are often softer, rounder, and plumper than in earlier portraits. It remains unclear if this reflects a shifting social mood at that time, changes in Akhenaten’s actual appearance or the result of a new artist taking control.

Apart from the colossal statues of Akhenaten from Karnak and the iconic bust of Nefertiti, it is the Aten worship scenes, which are the most prolific images linked to the Amarna period. Almost every “disc worship” image reflects the same formula. Akhenaten stands before an altar, making an offering to the Aten. Nefertiti is positioned behind Akhenaten while one or more of their daughters stand dutifully behind Nefertiti.

In addition to the new official style, new motifs appeared during the Amarna period. Images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten were so numerous during this time that archaeologists unearthing finds from Akhetaten christened Akhenaten and Nefertiti “disc worshippers.” Imagery dating to the Amarna period is more relaxed and informal than any other period in Egyptian history. The cumulative effect was to portray the pharaoh and his family as slightly more human than their predecessors or their successors.


Akhenaten straddles the dimensions of both hero and villain in Egypt’s history. His elevation of the Aten to the pinnacle of Egypt’s religious practices altered not only Egypt’s history but also arguably the future course of European and Western Asian civilization.

To his successors in Egypt, Akhenaten was the `heretic king’ and `the enemy’ whose memory was determinedly erased from history. His son, Tutankhamun (c.1336-1327 BCE) was named Tutankhaten upon his birth but later changed his name when he was elevated to the throne to reflect his absolute rejection of Atenism and his determination to return Egypt to the ways of Amun and Egypt’s old gods. Tutankhamun’s successors Ay (1327-1323 BCE) and particularly Horemheb (c. 1320-1292 BCE) demolished Akhenaten temples and monuments honouring his god and had his name, and the names of his immediate successors, stricken from the record.

So effective were their efforts that Akhenaten remained unknown to historian until Amarna was discovered in the 19th century CE. Horemheb’s official inscriptions placed himself as Amenhoptep III’s successor and omitted the rulers of the Amarna Period. The prominent English archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered Akhenaten’s tomb in 1907 CE. With Howard Carter’s famous excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 CE interest in Tutankhamun spread to his family shining attention once more on Akhenaten after almost 4,000 years. His legacy of monotheism perhaps influenced other religious thinkers to reject polytheism in favour of one true god.

Reflecting On The Past

Did Akhenaten experience a religious revelation or were his radical religious reforms an attempt to reduce the growing influence of the priesthood?

Header Image courtesy: Egyptian Museum of Berlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient History

Akhenaten was a Pharaoh of Egypt during the New Kingdom Period and reigned roughly from 1351-1334 BC. He was originally called Amenhotep and was the fourth Pharaoh of that name. However, for reasons unknown, in the fifth year of his reign Amenhotep changed his name from Amenhotep (Amun is satisfied) to Akhenaten (The Living Spirit of Aten) and moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a new site in the eastern desert that he called Akhetaten but which is now referred to as Amarna.

These changes were not arbitrary. Akhenaten had apparently experienced some form of religious conversion to a new type of religion. Egyptian religion was polytheistic, worshipping many gods, with statues associated with these gods. Akhenaten focused upon a hitherto obscure deity, known as Aten, who represented the disk of the sun. There was a much better known god of the sun, known as Ra or Re, whom Akhenaten treated with some respect but he much preferred to focus on Aten, who was worshipped at the expense of all the other gods and who was represented merely as a golden circle with lines representing rays of sunlight streaming downwards.

Ruins of Amarna
Thebes, in Upper Egypt, had been the capital of the New Kingdom Pharaohs and the priesthood of the patron god of the city, Amun, had profited from the rise of his city. Magnificent temples were built in his honour, the priesthood controlled large tracts of land and the god was even mentioned in Akhenaten’s previous name. Akhenaten was changing the religion so that the sun disk replaced Aten as Egypt’s chief god. This no doubt angered the establishment in Thebes, so, to diminish Thebes, Akhenaten changed the capital. Some scholars view Akhenaten as a reformer who may have genuinely believed in the new religion. Others see him as a crusader against priestly power, while others see the reform as a cynical attempt to focus all devotion on himself as the sole spokesman of the new god. All of these ideas are plausible but hypothetical until more information is uncovered.

Akhenaten also changed the art of Egypt. Since the inception of Egyptian art the Pharaoh had always been represented as a godlike figure and the only difference between the one Pharaoh and another was the hieroglyphs denoting who was represented (which was one reason it was so easy for one Pharaoh to claim another’s accomplishments for their own). Akhenaten was portrayed oddly. His stomach was displayed as protruding, his skull elongated and his face gaunt. He also allowed depictions of family life, which seldom featured in the art of previous Pharaohs. His wife Nefertiti was represented as a beautiful woman but later depictions show her as an aged queen, which would never have been shown in earlier (or later) Egyptian art.

Some scholars think that this was an attempt at naturalistic portrayal. However, there are human remains that are tentatively identified as Akhenaten’s. If the identification were proved then it would appear that these traits were exaggerated and that Akhenaten looked little like his portrait. Other scholars think that the art was an attempt to create an imposing spectacle. They argue that the statues were generally large and would be viewed from below. Statues that appear as caricatures when viewed at eye level become quite imposing when viewed from a lower angle. While I suspect that this view has a lot going for it, it fails to explain why the reliefs also use this style of portrayal.

Akhenaten worshipping Aten
The move to Amarna and the religious reforms placed certain strains on the running of the empire. The reforms were definitely unpopular with certain factions and moving the entire business of state always causes strain on a bureaucracy. But the Hittites were on the ascendant and this, coupled with the related decline of the Mitanni, meant that the Egyptian empire in Syria was under threat. Akhenaten did use diplomatic measures to try and stem the tide but significant northern cities defected to the Hittites while the southern cities in Canaan suffered persistent bandit attacks. To make matters worse, a disease swept through the Middle East (which ironically stopped the Hittite threat as their greatest military leader, Suppiluliama I, eventually died from it, although the exact chronology here is disputed) and decimated Egypt. Akhenaten survived the epidemic but passed away shortly thereafter, leaving Egypt in turmoil as his successors struggled to contain the discontent that his reforms had caused.

Statue of Akhenaten seen from beneath
His brother Smenkhkare, who probably reigned less than a year, probably succeeded Akhenaten but the exact relationship between Smenkhkare and Akhenaten is unclear. The next Pharaoh was the boy king Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun, abandoned the new capital Amarna in favour of the old capital Thebes and died after a brief reign. The usual explanation is that the priests of Amun used their influence to manipulate the young Pharaoh into abandoning the new religion but some elements of the tomb goods seem to show Tutankhamun under the guidance of the sun disk Aten. The following Pharaohs left few inscriptions and had short reigns, which is usually a good indication that the dynasty was breaking down. Finally an unrelated Pharaoh, Horemheb, came to the throne and reversed all remaining reforms and went so far as to obliterate all the records of Akhenaten and the following Pharaohs and dismantle the city of Amarna. If Horemheb ever refers to Akhenaten, he is known simply as “the enemy” and thus this remarkable reformer and his descendants effectively disappear from history until the modern era.

Horemheb: The Pharaoh who erased Akhenaten's legacy
This situation had some remarkable consequences. Because the records of the old dynasty were destroyed their memory faded and while most of their tombs were found and looted in antiquity, one minor Pharaoh of the time was so insignificant that his resting place was overlooked. Were it not for Horemheb’s destruction of records it is almost positive that the tomb of Tutankhamun would have been looted thousands of years ago.

A less shiny but more archaeologically interesting consequence was that certain records were abandoned at the city of Amarna when the state bureaucracy relocated back to Thebes. The records at Thebes were destroyed in the numerous sieges of that notable city but the records in Amarna were left to lie under sand for thousands of years and after their rediscovery they now form some of the best sources for life and politics in that period.

Mask of Tutankhamun
Because of his religious ideas, promoting one god above all others, it has been difficult for scholars to look at Akhenaten without questioning to what extent his ideas influenced/were influenced by Hebrew ideas of monotheism. The best-known example of this is where Sigmund Freud imaginatively but baselessly conjectures that Moses was a priest of Aten who fled the new Egypt of Horemheb and his descendants. The fact that Freud could get away with writing such entirely hypothetical ideas in a supposedly serious work is a good indication of the fascination scholarship has had with the idea of Akhenaten’s work. The truth of the matter is that there is simply no agreement on when (or if) the Exodus of the Bible occurred and without agreement on that crucial date it is impossible to gauge the influence that the theology of Moses and Akhenaten had on each other.

I will leave the reader with the opening of the most famous inscription of Akhenaten, which similar to Psalm 104, is a hymn of the devotee to their god. This translation is sourced from the Internet History Sourcebook.

Friday Messiah: Akhenaten, the Heretic Pharaoh

Sargon of Akkad was an upstart, a nobody, raised to power by the favour of a goddess—at least, according to the legends that both celebrated and rationalized his iffy background. But what if a would-be leader did not have to fudge his background to get respect? What if he were already considered to be the very next thing to a god, born at the very summit of the social pyramid? That was the case with Akhenaten of Egypt, the Heretic Pharaoh, and husband of the more famous Queen Nefertiti.

Move forward from Sargon by about a millennium, and westward by some eight hundred miles, to New Kingdom Egypt in the mid-14 th century BC. This is the troubled Amarna period, a murky blip in pharaonic history, erased and forgotten for over three thousand years. Almost everything surrounding the enigmatic Akhenaten and his court is controversial, partly because the archaeological record for this period is more than usually fragmentary. This, in turn, is because the generations that followed Amarna made a savage effort to wipe out even the memory of this time, and particularly this personage. Inscriptions were chiseled out, king lists were altered, whole temples were dismantled, an entire city was left to ruin. At least three, maybe five, pharaohs became nonpersons.

/> Damaged burial plausibly identified as Akhenaten.

Even so, a fascinating story can be pieced together from the scattered fragments. Here is the story as it is usually told. In a dazzling era of Egyptian prosperity and power, when the state god Amun ruled in Thebes, the hugely successful pharaoh Amenhotep III of the 18th dynasty was succeeded by his younger son Amenhotep IV. The new pharaoh started off fairly conventionally, but broke away within a few years from the worship of the numerous immemorial state gods, and defied the powerful Amun priesthood in Thebes. In place of Egypt’s diverse polytheism, he instituted the monotheistic worship of the sundisk, the Aten, which he considered to be the source of all life and to better concentrate on this, he shifted himself and his court off to a stretch of barren desert about midway between the two traditional capitals, Memphis and Thebes, a place now called Amarna. In the course of his reign, he changed his name to honour the new god, desecrated the idols of the old faiths, and neglected the nation’s affairs to the point that Egypt’s prosperity and empire were threatened.

Then he died, giving rise to a shadowy six-year sequence of little-known pharaohs who scrabbled vainly to keep the new religion alive. Eventually the nine-year-old Tutankhamun was placed on the throne, and in his short reign, the court moved back to Thebes and the old gods were reestablished. After Tut’s untimely death and hasty burial, the throne was taken over by Ay, a high official of the old regime, who himself had a short reign and a suspicious death. Ay was followed by a commoner, a general named Horemhab, who systematically erased the previous reigns and the traces of the brief, heretical cult—in fact, wiping out the previous decades, as if he were the immediate successor of Amenhotep III.

Akhenaten’s departure from Egypt’s wild, lush polytheism caught the imagination of nineteenth-century scholars. At the time his story began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century, scholars—who themselves were, of course, monotheists— considered monotheism to be superior by definition, and culturally more advanced (and truer) than the polytheism of heathen native cultures. Therefore, they came to see Akhenaten as a visionary, an innovator, a metaphysical philosopher tragically ahead of his time. Freud saw him as the inspiration for Moses, and the wellspring of what eventually became the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition in fact, a net-search on Moses and Akhenaten will throw up an array of bizarre websites claiming that Akhenaten was Moses, and similar absurdities. Velikovsky saw him as Oedipus other scholars as a forerunner of Christ. But are we really looking at a brave religious philosopher in Akhenaten, willing to risk all for the sake of getting closer to a single, personal god and a modern-style morality? Or, do we have—a messianic cult? In fact, there are distinct signs of the latter.

At the beginning of Akhenaten’s reign, he was still Amenhotep IV, a name linking him to Amun, the chief state god. He presided at the temple of Amun, paid respect to numerous other traditional deities, and was portrayed in the traditional idealized style. But very early in his regime, he ordered the construction of a vast temple at Karnak dedicated to the worship of a minor aspect of the sungod, the Aten, or sundisk—though he was not in fact the Aten’s first fan. The trend to expand the importance of the Aten had started with his grandfather, and continued with his father. Amenhotep IV, however, took things much, much farther.

/>The temple featured huge statues of Amenhotep IV in a strange new-fangled guise: an androgynous style with long, exaggerated bone structure, a long face, swollen belly and hips, and feminine-looking breasts. This strange body has been taken several ways: either as an ideological distortion, exaggerating Akhenaten’s imperfections and feminine nature for religious reasons or as a manifestation of some congenital pathology, for example Marfan’s or Froelich’s syndrome. ( The Egyptian royal family had also been interbreeding for generations, and the most famous Amarna mummy that has come down to us—Tutankhamun, very likely Akhenaten’s son—is loaded with congenital problems, including scoliosis, cleft palate, and club foot.)

Starting in Year 5 of Amenhotep IV’s reign, dramatic developments altered the politicoreligious landscape. First, the king changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten, in some readings the “mystical spirit, or akh, of the Sundisk”—signifying a claim to be the personification on Earth of the Aten. Second, he began his attack on the state cult of Amun, although (contrary to popular belief) he did not try to wipe out the rest of the vast pantheon—only Amun and Amun’s close associates. In fact, technically, the Amarna period was henotheistic rather than monotheistic.

Third, he upped stakes and moved the royal court to a brand-new purpose-built city in the middle of nowhere: Akhetaten, the “Horizon of the Sundisk,” the site now known as Amarna. It was an amazing place, springing up out of bare desert in only a couple of years, like a gold-rush town: huge palaces and huger temples, open to the sky, unlike the closed-in standard temples dedicated to the older gods. It was a stunning achievement—but there was a dark side.

The workmen building the tombs and temples in this boondocks royal city were underfed and overworked in a way not often seen in Egypt, according to the analysis of their physical remains. The beautiful mansions and grand suburbs may have looked fabulous, but little thought had been given to small matters like sanitation or drainage.

Further into the dark side, each of those grand houses held private shrines for worship – but the only gods shown there were the Aten (Sundisk) and the royal couple. Indeed, the only people ever shown directly worshipping the Aten were the royal couple and their immediate family, indicating that Akhenaten had set himself up as the sole intercessor between the supernatural and the mundane. This was a messianic move that put him somewhat beyond the pretensions of previous pharaohs. Everybody else was portrayed as bowing and scraping, and accepting gifts of gold necklaces from the royals – including the general who later became pharaoh, and so assiduously erased the traces of his erstwhile benefactor’s reign.

Overall, Amarna looks to me less like a brave, benign but ultimately doomed religious reformation, and more like an oppressive personality cult, centered around Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and not surviving them for very long. There are also indications that grave troubles in Egypt—possibly a plague, certainly problems with the empire and foreign relations—may have destroyed the credibility of the Aten cult, such that the government left to clean up the mess returned thankfully to the old traditions, and did their best to wipe out the memory of the failed messiah. Those are the bare bones of the story, which illustrates some common messianic-cultish motifs.

First, it is very common for a messianic character to lead the faithful into a wilderness, literal or metaphorical, where they—and he—can better be cut off from old ties, outside influences, and reality checks. Moses and Jim Jones, Manson and Brigham Young, are prime examples L. Ron Hubbard, the messiah of Scientology, took Scientology to sea for many years on converted freighters. Etc. The move to Amarna was classic.

Second, there are distinct signs of megalomania and grandiosity. Megalomania may have been part of a pharaoh’s job description, but Akhenaten seems to have taken it more seriously than most. As for grandiosity, Amarna was showy—but it was surface glamour on a large scale, built to showcase, not just the Sundisk, but the Sundisk’s prophet, Akhenaten. We see the same grandiosity in, for example, the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huang Di at Xian, another conquering messiah. In fact, messianic megalomania may be at the root of a good many wonders of the ancient world. As well, the egocentric focus of the cult is one that we will see again and again. Akhenaten may have worshipped the Aten, but the people were expected to worship him.

Third, we have deterioration: the cult leader moving further out of touch with reality, and further into delusions of grandeur and omnipotence, while things around him are otherwise falling apart. In this case, Akhenaten kept himself busy handing out gold necklaces and writing hymns to the Aten, and Egypt came very close to losing her empire.

Fourth, we see the consort, a not uncommon accessory: the opposite-sex soulmate of the messiah, and often a primary sexual partner. Not all messiahs have them, but when they do, the consort may have almost as much power as the principal, and may be the only person the messiah defers to or depends on emotionally. Indeed, the messiah usually demands the same deference for his consort as he demands for himself. She may even try to assume control of the cult if the messiah goes out of the picture, and sometimes she succeeds. The beautiful Nefertiti was a classic consort, and we shall see many more, from Mother Divine and Madame X to David Berg’s “Maria”.

Fifth—and more speculatively—Amarna may reflect an episode of pathological transformation or apotheosis. Why did Amenhotep IV, a pharaoh more or less in the conventional mode, become the decidedly nonconformist Akhenaten? Standard explanations range from political (a desire to smash the power of the Amun priesthood) to mystical—a measured desire to get closer to a personal god. But perhaps the sudden escalation of change in Year 5 reflects a road-to-Damascus type of vision for the young king a good candidate is his claim that the Aten itself directed him to the site of his new cult-city, a place where the sun rising over the eastern hills gave the illusion of the hieroglyph for “horizon”. Many messiahs appear to have received their missions, their egomania, and their charisma while ill with fever, in visions that sound suspiciously like cerebral events leading to certain kinds of temporal lobe damage: Wovoka, Caligula, Saul of Tarsus, Joan of Arc, even Adolf Hitler. In this connection, it is interesting that recent research does suggest a congenital temporal epilepsy syndrome running through the tightly interbred Egyptian royal family.

“Akhenaten could have been the first monotheist in all of history.”

Nonsense. Abraham (‘as) lived 2000BC.

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Watch the video: Akhenaten: The Heretic Pharaoh