There is nothing left of this glorious city of temples and palaces. The mud brick buildings have long since crumbled and little remains of the immense stone temples but the outline of their floor plans.
—from Akhnaten, the opera by Philip Glass
Like the lost kingdom of Egypt, little more than outlines remain of the glorious ancient pharaohs that ruled there. A treasure trove of precious metals and jewels, the once carefully preserved tombs—intended to last for eternity—have been looted and disturbed since antiquity. Today, we have stories that are pieced together from 7,000-year-old mummified bodies and the confusing array of artifacts and artistic renderings remaining to us. Modern technology has allowed for advancements never before imagined. CT imaging of mummies allows us to see more and destroy less and DNA testing has advanced the traces of a family tree. But there is still much we don’t know about this profoundly important African dynasty.
In 1907, 15 years before the iconic discovery of King Tutankhamun’s hidden burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, a tomb of unknown origins was unearthed. The mummified remains found there, just 100 feet from the still undiscovered tomb of Tut, became known as Mummy KV 55. The tomb was not intact and much of KV 55’s excavation in 1907 was improperly documented by today’s standards, leading to many controversies and disagreements regarding its contents and the history of its inhabitant. Modern historians say that KV 55 was the son of Amenhotep lll and the father of Tutankhamun. He was ascribed several names: Amenhotep IV, Amenophis IV, and finally Akhenaten; the inspiration for Philip Glass’s interpretation of this figure in his otherworldly opera, Akhnaten.
As ancient rulers go, Akhenaten is a particularly interesting subject for an opera, as he was the first known champion of monotheism—the belief in a single, all powerful god as opposed to many. He converted his kingdom from a polytheistic system, one worshiping multiple gods, to a monotheistic worship of Aten, god of the sun, and likely made some enemies in the process.
It is widely accepted that Akhenaten believed he was the earthly embodiment of Aten, the life giver. As such, representations of Akhenaten from the era are inconsistent. He is frequently depicted in historical artifacts as having indefinite gender and unusual physical characteristics, which are not consistent with the current scientific analysis of his remains. As a result, we do not know if Akhenaten actually embraced androgyny in every day life, only on occasion or was simply portrayed as such in surviving art. Later artwork created that depicts Akhenaten and the other royals was greatly influenced by western colonization and culture, further distorting the ancient reality and our perception of these ancient African rulers.
Another widely accepted belief about Akhenaten is his close relationship with Nefertiti, his queen. Considered to be one of the most influential—and beautiful—queens in Egyptian history, she is repeatedly depicted as his love and equal in ancient art.
Akhenaten’s transformation of his kingdom, and his creation of a new national city, Amarna, in honor of the single god, Aten, had ruinous consequences. Following his death, the new temples were leveled and the mummies of the royal family disappeared, leaving KV 55’s lone tomb, with its gold gilded inscription chiseled away. What remains leaves us with more questions than answers. We know more now than we knew a hundred years ago, but hopefully there is much more to discover in the future.
Rather than attempting to recreate a historical narrative that has been lost, Philip Glass’s Akhenaten, and LA Opera’s production of the piece, is a metaphorical collage of ambiguity, mirroring its subject’s history, both the known and the unknown, and always celebratory. It captures the human essence of a great man—his love for Nefertiti, his revolutionary drive for change and enlightenment—without attempting to fill in the blanks left by time. Akhnaten—the opera—is a symbolic and surreal rendering of all the complications interwoven with the humanity of one man’s personal and historic journey.
Note to the reader: Since we are admittedly experts in the subjects of art and opera rather than ancient history, we encourage you to research this endlessly fascinating subject on your own. There are many resources available to you; below are some to get you started. Also, on opening night of Akhnaten, we were joined by Black History Matters, a group of scholars, students, community leaders and ordinary citizens dedicated to educate others about and celebrate people of African descent. You can find their flyer here [link to pdf].
An aggregation of scholars, students, community leaders and ordinary citizens will gather to celebrate an icon in the history of people of African descent, Akhentan, whose life and times are the focus of the operatic play “Akhnaten