Tel el Amarna

David A. Watson

It was the broken who followed the king out into the desert. They went because they had nothing. They went because Asar, the Lord of Silence, did not wait for them in the west to raise them from the dead on the last day of the world. They went because they were poor; because they were hungry; because they were sick or deformed. They went because the king was deformed, like them, and had gone through the city searching them out. He touched each of them on the forehead and told them to await him at the gates of the city and he would lead them to the Last Horizon, to the Land of the Sun. And so, at the appointed time, they gathered at the place the king had designated. Some of them brought family, but most came alone.

The king waited for them. His wife was with him. She was beautiful beyond reckoning, and none of the assembled had ever laid eyes upon her before—though many had paused at the gates of the Temple of Asar to gape at her likeness set in relief on the westward facing wall. Many of the assembled thought, though none gave voice to their thoughts, that it was strange to see a woman so clearly touched by the gods bound to a husband so deformed. His trunk was long, his fingers spider-like, his face exaggerated in its length and depth, his legs curiously bent and seemingly swollen so that he walked with an unusual gait, his ears too large. But his eyes were kind and his voice was like the roll of distant thunder or the cottoned roar of the third cataract. Those who looked into his eyes and heard his voice loved him with a fierce love, or else hated him beyond reason. The broken loved him because he saw them not as they were but as they might be. Others loathed him because they sensed in him power and vision that could never be theirs. It was that hatred that forced him out of the City of the Hundred Gates. It was that love that urged so many to join him.

When all were assembled, the king turned towards the east and said a silent prayer. When the king had finished his prayer, he turned to the north, raised his arms toward the sky, and began to walk. The people followed.


For twenty days, they walked north. A few among them wondered why the king did not have them travel by night when the air was cool and sweet. But they did not bring their question to the king. Perhaps this was born out of respect; they were common men and he was the ruler of the world. Perhaps it was because, as they marched into the scorched land, the king seemed to gain a new force of solemnity and his gaze was like that of a falconer watching the distant peregrinations of some raptor soaring so high that it was beyond the sight of other men. With each day, their expectation grew and they began to speak of a place that none of them had ever seen. They called this place Tel el-Amarna, for that name was on the lips of each and every one of them when they woke in the morning from their dreamless slumber, and that name took on a mystical significance among them.

On the dawn of the twenty-first day, as the sun rose, the king did something that he had not done before. He dropped to his knees, extended his hands above his head, and then dipped his forehead until it touched the sand. The queen ran to his side, but neither her entreaties nor her prodding could induce him to rise. None could move him.

The word spread among the people that the king was prostrate, and they gathered and stood like so many statues waiting for their monarch to rise. Hours passed, and the day grew hot. Still the king did not rise. In the distance, a storm gathered. Dust billowed from the desert floor and raced towards where the king knelt and the people stood. Still, the king did not rise. In the late evening, it came upon them, and the people were forced back to their rudimentary shelters. Still, the king did not rise. The wind raged and lightning danced through the cloud like the pulse of an excited god.

At long last, the cloud of dust dispersed and revealed a sky brilliant with stars. The people rushed from their tents. Many were certain that the king must be dead. But when they reached the place where he had knelt, they would find him standing. He wore a smile on his face, and when he turned and saw the anxious looks on their faces, he laughed. The laughter of the king chilled his subjects, filled them with a foreboding which they could not name, and ever after when they spoke of their king, it was in hushed tones and muted whispers.

The king called for stones, and when they had been brought before him, fifteen in total, he drew in the sand with his finger a map of the land and ordered the stones to be placed at certain points to mark the boundaries which he said had been shown to him. When they asked who had shown him these boundaries, the king smiled and said that they were the gift of Aten, Father of Light. Then the people were deeply moved. For though it had long been their custom to deify, their kings had never, in the recollection of any living or in the annals of the kingdom, which went back forty generations, functioned in the role of oracle.

When the boundary stones were laid, the king walked their full circuit. When he had completed the circuit, he ordered the people assembled and told them that they were to build a city upon that land and that, while he lived, he would never again pass the boundaries that had been given to him by the Aten. What is the name of this place? the people cried. The royal scribe was called for and he came to them bearing ancient maps which named each portion of the kingdom that had been consolidated by Narmar, first in the long line of kings. When the scribe told the people that the place was called Tel el-Amarna, they let out a great cheer and proclaimed loudly that such a place had been whispered in their ears by providential spirits as they, dreamless, slept each night of their journey. Let us, therefore, said the king, call this city of ours Akhetaten, the City of the Sun. Then he proclaimed in a loud voice that, while he lived, he would never again pass beyond the boundaries which he had lain down at the command of the Aten.


They built a city. It took five years. Though the king had left behind the City of the Hundred Gates, he was still the king and so, at his command, masons brought stones, and brick bakers and brick layers came to make and lay bricks, carpenters brought exotic woods, pitch was brought from the Land of Cedars, and workers by the thousands flocked to Tel el-Amarna in the time between harvests to work.

Rumors trickled back to the City of the Hundred Gates of the wonderful city of Akhetaten that was blooming in the desert like a wild rose, and these rumors were received by the great families of that city with equal measures of envy and disdain. The king should give up this foolishness, the great men said. We do not object to him, per se, only to his wild fancies and strange ways. If he would behave himself properly, he could return to us here and rule as his forefathers have for forty generations. That the king would not give over his curious ways was a sign, they agreed, that he was not fit to be king. A revolution should be got up and a man found who would do the job properly. For all the talk, there was to be no revolution. The army could not be convinced to take up arms against the king.

Tel el-Amarna grew. Houses, shops, temples dedicated to the Aten all nestled within the territory outlined by the fifteen boundary markers. People flocked to the city from the third cataract in the south to the estuary where the Great River emptied into the sea. There was fear amongst the original settlers, who had left the City of the Hundred Gates in hopes of escaping the pain of their deformity, their despair, and their anguish, that they would fall back into their old position. But the king was equal to their fear. Those who had come with him in the beginning were richly afforded, their counsel sought, their voices heard. Each was given responsibilities to which he was equal, and authority to make good upon his decisions. Each day, as the sun was rising, the king would go out among them, and where he found suffering in the people of his city, he did all that was in his power to give remedy. Where there was no remedy, he gave justice.

Once the sun was up, the king would walk out into the desert. There he would conduct the day’s business, standing in the sun. Attendants and members of the court requested that pavilions be built so that they could find cover and relief from the burden of the heat and light, which stung their eyes, and the king consented to the construction of two large tents. But if any wished to speak to him directly, they were forced to leave the pavilions behind and come out to where the king sat atop a small mound.

Before noon, he faced towards the east. When the sun was at its zenith, he lay upon his back, looking straight up. After noon, he turned and faced towards the west. It was his habit to eat a sparing vegetable diet, but he gorged himself upon light. When ambassadors and dignitaries were brought to him, it was not uncommon for them to wait many hours in the desert sun for the privilege of an audience. Many complained that it was not seemly to make representatives of foreign powers stand about being scorched like chaff on the floor of a threshing room after the grain has been removed. They viewed this as a ploy designed to weaken and undermine their petitions.

When his advisors told him that the ambassadors and dignitaries were unhappy with the situation, the king laughed. “Do they not know, he asked, that light is the substance of life? Do they long to burrow themselves into the earth and find their death? In the light, their dross is burned away. If they consent to the immolation of their dross, they will find themselves angelic. That is the will of the Aten, who is Father to us all.”

“They know no such thing,” his advisors said. “They know only that the sun burns their skin and sears their eyes.”

When he heard this, the king wept bitter tears.


News came to the king one day that the ancient enemy of the people, the heqa khasewet, had begun to raid the farmland that supported the City of the Hundred Gates. The wealthy citizens of the city sent emissaries to the king at Akhetaten and asked him to send a contingent of soldiers to relieve them. The king listened to the emissaries, bowed to them, turned, and began to walk further out into the desert. The emissaries turned to one another. “Has the king heard us?” they asked. “Why has he said nothing?”

One of them broke from the rank, pushed aside several members of the royal entourage, and ran after the king. A great shout of alarm was raised, but the king did not turn. As the emissary approached the king, he fell to the ground and buried his face in the sand before the king. The sun was high, the sand was burning hot, and the emissary was not accustomed, as those who lived at Akhetaten were, to the heat. Where his face touched the sand, his skin began to burn at once. Though he was in agony, the emissary did not raise his face. After a moment, the king turned, knelt down, and raised the emissary to his feet.

“Where are you from?” the king asked.

“From a small village,” said the emissary, his face already beginning to blister where it had touched the sand. “Each day, the heqa khasewet burn a farm and slaughter a family as a symbol of their restless desire to regain the rule of the land. Many have I seen perish, calling out for mercy.”

“For the sake of the Aten, I was sent away, the king said. Many grumbled against me, plotted to take my life, conspired against my family and my government; all this because I have worshiped the Aten. Why should I now concern myself with their suffering?”

“Is not the Aten the Lord of All?” the emissary asked. “Does he not maintain the people? Does he not weary himself with them? Does he not supply them with food? Distinguish them by their speech and skin? Does he not reckon their days? Should you, who are his emissary and his arm, take any less care than this?”

“I will petition the Aten on their behalf,” said the king. “And I will act in accordance with his will as he makes it known to me.” With these words, he turned away from the emissary and walked away towards the west, his head canted, his face troubled. The emissary stood, watching the king, and did not move until two of the king’s retainers took him by his elbows and led him away.

“Please,” the emissary said, “let me stay; let me wait for him to make up his mind.”

“You do not understand,” one of the retainers whispered to him, “we are protecting you. He will remain here until the sun has set. You are not conditioned to this way.”

“No,” said the emissary, “I will wait for his word, for only his word can deliver us from our enemies. The retainers looked into the eyes of the emissary and saw that he would not be moved, and so they retreated to the tents, which had been set up at a distance, and left him alone in his resolve.

After three hours, the emissary struggled to stand without swaying; his body rocked as if the earth below him were billowing like the waves of the sea. In the fourth hour, he collapsed, but when the retainers of the king came out from their tents to pull him away, he spoke to them through cracked lips and told them to leave him where he lay.

“I will wait,” the emissary said, “for the word of the king.”

The sun set, and at last, the king turned and saw the emissary sprawled upon the ground. The king spoke a word and the unconscious man was rolled onto a litter and carried to the palace.

“Give him water,” the king said, “and bring him to me before the sun rises.”

In the morning, in the hour before sunrise, the emissary was brought before the king in the great hall of relief images that served as the public entrance to the palace. The king was standing before one image, which had been carved the year before. He did not turn as the emissary approached.

“Do you know where we are?” the king asked.

“I do,” the emissary said. His voice was ragged, for though a servant had stayed beside his bed all through the night, spooning water down his parched throat, he was not yet fully himself.

“And do you know,” the king asked, “what this image before me commemorates?”

“I do not.”

“It is the deathbed of my lesser wife,” the king said. “There beside her, that is I, and Nefertiti, the queen, my great wife. Do you see how we weep for her?”


“And there,” the king continued, “that is me, later that same day, seated in a chair, and in my lap are the children born of that lesser wife. I am explaining to them that their mother has died. I remember this day vividly. It was among the most painful of my life.”

“It has been said,” the emissary replied, “that you know pain as no king before you ever has. They say that is why you built this place, why you populated it with the broken, and why you have sequestered yourself here to worship the Aten, because you know pain.”

“Is that what they say?”

“It is. Though,” the emissary continued, “I do not know if it is true. For a king who knows the pain of his people, if he were a good king, must do all that is in his power to comfort his people. I have come to you for help, from a part of your kingdom where invaders hold sway, and kill your people for their sport. I am not the first to come, many have come before me, and always you have turned your back to them, and so day-by-day, hope flees from us.”

To this, the king said nothing. But he and the emissary stood, side by side, and stared up at the images carved into the wall, of the king and his dying wife, of the king and his grieving children, and in the east, the sun began to rise, and the first rays of its light entered through the great doorway to the east, and for the first time since his arrival in the sacred city, the king did not turn to greet it.

About the Author

David A. Watson lives in a small house, on a lake, with his wife and a small, but quiet, dog named Ham.