Neil Oliver’s piece about our broken democracy for this site set me thinking. I’m interested in all sorts of historical analogies for our times because they can help a wider understanding of the mess we are getting deeper and deeper into. Neil points out, rightly, that we are being increasingly led into a future determined by a small, and getting smaller, elite tier of leaders. Ramesh Thakur warns that once Government takes on extra powers it won’t give them up.
Absolutism in all its forms has a far longer history than democracy and so does what we are seeing in our own time. Ancient Egypt was ruled by a despotic absolutist hereditary monarchy that manifested itself in a succession of dynasties. The reigning Pharaoh, who was in a few exceptional instances a woman, posed as the protector of Maat.
Maat was a nebulous concept that encompassed order, truth and justice. The Pharaoh stood as a bastion between the people and the forces of chaos. This pretext has been used by the ruling class or the ruler since time immemorial. It was no different during Covid, when governments across the world legitimated dramatic controls over people’s private lives on the basis that the state was protecting the population from the chaos and disorder of Covid. They were able to do this, because most people most of the time acquiesce in the state’s leadership. This is perfectly understandable because the alternative is usually anarchy, and because the state is perceived alone to have access to the resources necessary for protection. However, it is very easy to allow the state to subsume ever more power and control.
In or around 1352 BC the Pharaoh Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty died. With his Queen Tiye he presided over Egypt at the climax of its power and wealth. If the mummy thought to be his really was him, he was by then a man in late middle age crippled by ill-health, obesity and rotten teeth.
Amenhotep was just the figurehead of a wealthy and totally dominant elite tier of society, defined mainly by the priesthood of the god Amun and the administrators such as the viziers who ruled Egypt for the King. The King and the elite cornered most of Egypt’s resources for themselves, including the tribute that poured in from vassal states and would-be allies who trembled at the thought of Egypt’s army invading them. Amenhoteop and his predecessors maintained the pretence that Egypt was at the mercy of external enemies in the form of Syria and Nubia. Caricature figures of these enemies became an artistic trope.
For around 150 years Amenhotep III’s dynastic predecessors had been managing that narrative with great success, hurtling out of the Nile Valley in their chariots to beat up the enemy and record their destruction in ludicrously biased propaganda inscriptions that described the Pharaoh as a superhero and his enemies as witless cowards led by imbeciles.
The wealth that was seized or handed over in a succession of wars before his accession across the Middle East was invested in vast temple complexes that depicted the Kings as mighty, gigantic supermen, and into royal palaces filled with extravagant decoration, pointlessly ostentatious lakes that the king could sail around on, trophy wives and slaves, and the prodigy tombs and homes of the greedy nobility. Nepotism and backhanders ruled.
Under Amenhotep III a new era of gigantism emerged, with the King portrayed in monolithic statues as much as 18 metres tall and weighing 700 tonnes.
Amenhotep III epitomised the egregious narcissism and self-indulgence an unrestrained elite culture can achieve. When he died, everyone must have expected this to carry on. Instead, the consequences of absolutism took a wholly unexpected turn.
He was succeeded by his son, known now as Amenhotep IV, who soon married a woman called Nefertiti, possibly a relative of his mother’s. Amenhotep IV was probably only in his mid-teens but he was convinced that his world was in an existential religious crisis. With the dramatic combination of adolescent immaturity and monochrome thought with untold wealth and absolutist power which meant his every whim would be indulged he and his Queen expelled most of the old gods.
Amenhotep IV and Nefertiti turned their focus onto a lesser-known solar deity called the Aten. The King renamed himself Akhenaten (‘useful to the Aten’). With a reckless disregard for tradition and a conviction that they were right and everyone else was wrong, they proceeded to build a vast new temple at Thebes, having shut down the cult of Amun, with themselves as the sole agents of bringing the worship of the Aten to the Egyptian people. The priests were out of a job. The palace lickspittles, spotting that continuing to cream off a percentage meant signing up for the new way, eagerly joined in – at least for the moment.
However, there was certainly some opposition to this sudden new order. Angered by this, Akhenaten upped sticks. He abandoned Thebes, and even the tomb he was having built in the Western Valley of the Kings. The royal family and their hangers-on relocated themselves 250 miles north to a virgin plain overlooked by inland cliffs on the east bank of the Nile and now known as Amarna.
Here with their daughters, the royal couple ordered the construction of a new city with temples and palaces, and a royal necropolis. The elite hangers on built themselves fine townhouses and well-appointed tombs. The rest of the city’s people, who had had no choice, lived in slums.
Even worse, the city was built by armies of workers who lived in absolute poverty, locked into compounds where they were kept under constant surveillance. Excavations of their miserable cemeteries show they suffered from malnutrition, terrible physical injuries and sordid deaths, most before their late 20s. Many of them were children.
This was possible because the elite class in Egypt could do as it pleased. There was no political representation, no popular assembly, no mechanism of protest – the modern authoritarian Government’s dream. There were not even any places where ordinary people might gather. They were caught up in a narcotic belief in the security the state would bring them. But Akhenaten and Nefertiti had pushed it to the limit.
While the labourers’ backs were literally broken to pursue the conceit, the King and Queen cruised Amarna’s wide streets in their chariots, the privileged vehicular transport only available to the elite. Indeed, the word for a chariot, werret, was derived from the word for great, wer. In short, being a member of the great elite was synonymous with having prestige transport not available to anyone else.
Accompanied by the chosen elite, on whom were bestowed trinkets and honours to keep them loyal, and guards, the king and queen paraded themselves in front of the rabble who had no choice but to pick the dust and sand out of their eyes as the royal pageant raced by.
Akhenaten, like most self-indulgent fanatics, had what passed for an ideology and liturgy to justify all this. He composed a hymn to the Aten solar deity which one of his chief acolytes, a man called Ay whom some think was Nefertiti’s father, conveniently posted in his tomb which was being cut out of a cliff along with the other noble tombs.
Like all elite visionaries, Akhenaten depicted his idea of the future in naïve idealistic terms. Everyone would be joyfully in festival under the Sun’s rays. People work happily in the fields, surrounded by wildlife that shared in joyous adulation of the god. Everybody is in their place. The Aten supplies everything they need, and their lifespans are foretold. Other countries are also integrated within this system where everyone and everything is working together for the Aten and under its protection. The battered bodies of the workers desiccating in their miserable burials were ignored.
Like most utopian visions of the future, construed to justify everyone being in their preordained place, there was dramatic contrast between the dewy-eyed idealism and the reality of life in Akhenaten’s new city. The location was demarcated by large inscriptions that were dotted around the hinterland that made it clear where his paradise was being made. The city’s outskirts were patrolled by his police.
It wasn’t at all clear where Akhenaten was travelling towards, or what his endgame was. He described a perfect state of affairs that he was incapable of actually achieving. When several of his daughters and his mother unexpectedly died, the bubble began to burst. We do not know why they died but their demises did not smack of divine approval. If it was plague, and that has been suggested, then many more probably died.
Akhenaten had no vision of what happened after death. Having expelled the old cult deities of death and the afterlife, he had nothing to offer. This was a huge problem for an absolutist regime that had dragged the nation down a route to salvation.
The exact dates of Akhenaten’s reign are uncertain. But if the dates normally assumed to be his are at least about right, then on May 14th 1338 BC Akhenaten had a shock in store. A total eclipse blocked out the sun that day, obliterating the solar disk for several minutes. In those days, such a shocking event was seen as a major omen, and it cannot have looked good.
These events in the Bronze Age over 33 centuries ago are shrouded in mystery and confusion. No-one really knows what happened though plenty of Egyptologists have twisted themselves into knots trying to find out.
What we do know is that after 16-17 years of reckless upset, Akhenaten disappeared around 1336 BC. He may have died of natural causes. More likely he was, like other inconvenient kings, assassinated though there is no evidence for that. It seems that Nefertiti stepped up to the mark and briefly ruled as King (yes, women had to rule as kings – there was no concept of a Queen regnant) in his place – they had certainly been joint monarchs for a while. If the body believed to be hers has been correctly identified, she was bludgeoned to death.
After only a short space of time one of the surviving daughters, Ankhesenpaaten, had been married to boy of uncertain origins called Tutankhuaten. He was probably her brother or half-brother. Soon afterwards they changed their names to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun.
They were the patsies for old guard who had already been surreptitiously changing horses when they spotted time was up for Akhenaten’s regime. They included the unctuous Ay who not long before had been shown falling down in abeyance before Akhenaten.
Akhenaten’s new world order was dismantled with breakneck speed so the old elite could get back in the driving seat. Amarna, the brand-new city, was abandoned. Thebes was capital once again and the huge temple to Amun at Karnak came back into operation, and the priesthood restored to massive cornering of the nation’s wealth.
One thing you can say about absolutism is that the old order was revived swiftly, and no further questions asked. No waiting around for an election.
Within a decade, by c. 1327 BC, Tutankhamun was dead. He was barely 20 years old, if that, and childless. A sickly youth, he had probably had a chariot injury as well as malaria, to say nothing of the generations of inbreeding that had preceded his birth. Embarrassing royal mementos of the Armana dream were buried with him but he was overseen by Egypt’s gods of old, Osiris, Isis, Anubis and others.
He was succeeded by Ay, now an old man. Ay, who had once been a sidekick-in-chief to Akhenaten’s dreams, now ruled Egypt and carried on the recovery of the good old days. He lasted only a short time before he expired too in c. 1323 BC. A general called Horemheb took over. Horemheb cut Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Ay out of the king lists and pretended he had succeeded Amenhotep III almost 30 years earlier before introducing some well-timed reforms to make sure he stayed king.
Horemheb died without issue and rule in Egypt passed to a new dynasty. The system was to stagger on in one shape or form for nearly another 13 centuries before the future Augustus Caesar defeated Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC and took Egypt in 30 BC, ruling as a restorer of the pretend democracy called the Roman Republic, but in fact as a despotic monarch of a new type.
Akhenaten’s brief blaze across the firmament was a bizarre combination of despotism and a sort of proto-Marxian socialist control-freak utopia but under his fanatical dictatorship. He was born into a system where the elite lived, exploited and struck as it pleased, where the resources of an entire nation were harnessed for the exclusive benefit of a very few. This enabled him to impose his will on his people without concerning himself whether they objected or not. He depicted his dream as being to everyone’s benefit. He rushed into it without any consideration of where it would lead, or whether he could carry everyone or even indeed anyone with him. When it became obvious his edifice was crumbling, what passed for his support among the self-serving elite evaporated. So much was done to suppress any knowledge of his rule that it has taken vast amounts of work on the remains at Amarna to recover.
Does Akhenaten have a message for today’s regimes? In a way yes. He typifies the behaviour of elites of all types, especially in systems where the populations they rule over are ignored. He also showed that just because they have dragged some along with them that by no means ensures their continued acquiescence, let alone active support, even among those they thought they could trust. But all that happened is that instead of true reform, the elite succeeded in securing their power even more successfully.
Back in those days political rebellion was all but unthinkable – when rebellion of any sort emerged it was usually crushed with uncompromising violence as was the Spartacus slave revolt in Italy in 73 -71 BC. But we live in different times, when enforced impoverishment, endless controls on the pretexts of public health and climate change, the suppression of free speech, 24/7 electronic surveillance and other privations can, and surely will one day, lead to revolution.
Since the late 1700s popular revolt has become much more dangerous. Our leaders would of course argue that they are doing everything they can to save us from such disorder, while at the same time contributing in no small part to the circumstances that may create what they claim to be preventing. Indeed, perpetuating a sense of crisis is the foundation of its power.
Unfortunately, if there is any lesson from history it will be that whatever upheavals are to come, they will only lead to a rearrangement of the imbalance of power and wealth after a brief euphoric interlude. After all, Russia replaced the despotism of the Tsars with the despotism of the Communist Party, a new type of tsar, a new type of poverty, and a new lack of rights or freedoms. One dreads to think what use Stalin could have made of the Covid, ‘the climate crisis’ and the internet, to say nothing of other despots since time immemorial.
Guy de la Bédoyère is author of Pharaohs of the Sun. How Egypt’s Despots and Dreamers Drove the Rise and Fall of Tutankhamun’s Dynasty, published by Little, Brown 2022.