Birth: Circa 1385 B.C.
Place of Birth: Thebes (now Luxor) Egypt
Nationality: Egyptian
Job title: Pharaoh, High Priest of Ptah, Governor of Memphis, Royal Servant of Aten
Partners: Queen Nefertiti (main wife), Merytaten (lesser wife), Kiya (lesser wife), Mekytaten (lesser wife), Ankhesenpaaten (lesser wife), Smenkhkare (male lover)
Died: Circa 1335 B.C. Akhetaten

Over time, stories can become twisted and distorted beyond any resemblance of actual events. From the small pieces of evidence left behind, scientists can create several different life stories for the same man. Even the simplest ‘fact’ about his existence is questionable. It is inevitable then that every time his life is put into words, it will be a totally new and different story. One theory is that this month’s Gay Great was a man posing as a woman. Another theory was that he was a hermaphrodite. Some say he was a genius; some say mentally retarded. There are even experts who don’t believe he existed at all! So what do we know about the man they called the Heretic King?

Ancient Egypt was in the middle of the 18th dynasty, a time in the history of early civilisation that is best compared to the Victorian era. Changes were everywhere and the basic technology of day to day life was progressing faster than ever before. Already, the great pyramids had been around for a thousand years and Egypt had a well developed army, government and even a police force. However, the birth of Christ was still a huge 1300 years away.

It was this Egypt that Amenhotep III ruled, his wife Tiye by his side. In early artwork depicting the family, there are four daughters and one son, Thutmose V, heir to the throne of Egypt. Hidden behind the scenes was another son, Amenhotep IV, later to be remembered as one of the most famous Pharaohs in history, Akhenaten. It is hard to associate the young Akhenaten with his later image of glory. He was odd looking, a stubby body with long limbs and fingers, feminine curves and a small pot belly, not the sort of boy a royal family would be proud of. Medical experts today speculate if Akhenaten’s form was simply due to a medical condition called Marfan syndrome. Without a body to test, we will never know.

The secrecy around Akhenaten was soon to end. His older brother Thutmose suddenly disappeared from the record books, presumably because he died. The circumstances aren’t clear and while some experts dwell on the possibility of suicide, others just assume one of the many illnesses of the ancient world claimed him. But with Thutmose V dead, Akhenaten was suddenly heir to the greatest civilisation the world possessed. To begin with, Akhenaten took over his brother’s roles as High Priest of Ptah and Governor of Memphis as well as taking authority of official royal art. The changes were instantly recognisable. He did away with the traditional, conservative poses of the royals, in favour of family and every day scenes. He was already acquiring a taste for change.

When Akhenaten came of age, Amenhotep III elected that his son should jointly rule with him so that he could learn the art of leadership. Now a young man, Akhenaten was lucky to marry one of the most beautiful women in Egypt, Nefertiti, who is famous today as the archetypal beautiful Egyptian woman. After a few years of joint rule, his father died and Akhenaten found himself as the 10th Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty.

But there was something new about the incoming king which didn’t sit well with a lot of his subjects. Instead of worshipping the traditional Gods, Akhenaten declared a preference for Aten, the sun-disk God. As everything was nurtured by the sun, it seemed natural to Akhenaten that he was the one true God. Inadvertently, the young Pharaoh was on his way to laying down a theological blueprint that can be seen throughout organised religion even today, that of a single, Supreme Being.

Once in his new city, Akhenaten settled down to life with his four wives and six daughters. He set about rewriting the language, removing all plural references to God. His reforms even stretched to taxing temples not devoted to Aten and eventually banning the worship of ‘lesser Gods’ altogether. Akhenaten’s monotheist kingdom was complete.

So why is Akhenaten a Gay Great? Well, there is one mystery about the great Pharaoh’s life that can never be unravelled. Towards the end of his reign, as Akhenaten entered his late twenties, Nefertiti seemingly disappeared from all records, replaced by a new ‘beloved of Akhenaten’. An unknown, handsome young man, Smenkhkare, seemed to enter into the Pharaoh’s life as a partner alongside all his other wives. Later Smenkhkare grew massively in importance to become co-regent and possibly carried on his reign after Akhenaten’s death. In papyri from the time, the two are often seen in a loving embrace. Was this the first ever recorded gay relationship? Experts are naturally split. Some say it was Nefertiti, renamed and posing as a man. Some say he was simply the son of Akhenaten.

But in 1907 a discovery was made that would link the sun worshipping Pharaoh closer to the rumours of a gay relationship than any other piece of evidence. Arthur Weigall and Theodore Davis, two Egyptologists, were busy opening tombs in the Valley of the Kings. One tomb, number 55, presented them with some great mysteries. Inside was a huge gilded shrine, the face and name plate of which were defaced, containing the body of a young man. All around the tomb, certain images of the same man had been picked out and erased. Could this be tomb raiders executing the removal of the now hated Heretic King? Most compelling of all, why was the title ‘Beloved of Akhenaten’ inscribed on the coffin of a man? The evidence is confusing, but two things are clear; Smenkhkare did exist and Akhenaten certainly had a great affection for him, so much so that he deserved a burial equal to that of one of the Pharaoh’s wives.

The end for Akhenaten came after several years of turmoil. His mother, a lesser wife, plus four of his daughters all died within months of each other, probably from the plague which was rife in Egypt at the time. A growing discord was bubbling under the surface of the country. With his co-regent and lover Smenkhkare, Akhenaten just about managed to hold peace for the rest of his reign.

The next king in line, Tutankhamen, was to be the last Pharaoh to keep order and uphold the new religion. Less than twenty years after Akhenaten died, in the 17th year of Tutankhamen’s reign, the city of Akhetaten was pillaged and left in ruins. In the years to come, the old religion and Gods would make a comeback. The image of Akhenaten would be erased from papyri, wall paintings, carvings and tombs over the whole of Egypt. However, despite their attempts, the legend of Akhenaten, although uncertain in many places and a complete mystery in others, has managed to survive.

What would Akhenaten himself think if he could read the many different versions of his life? He would probably laugh at many of the ‘facts’ we think we know but have got hideously wrong. Maybe some of the things he would read would be so accurate as to make him feel like crying. Maybe we have even got the most fundamental detail wrong, like his gender! It is sad to think that we will never know the truth and will always have to speculate about what happened in 1300 B.C. Egypt. Accepting that most of what we know about Akhenaten is a myth is difficult when there is evidence in the palm of our hands which we just can’t interpret. But when a man who has been dead for over 3000 years still motivates scientists, historians and writers the world over to continue on a search for the truth, it is surely his inspirational story that is important and not the finer details.


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