In the eighth year of his reign, Pharaoh Akhenaten moved Egypt’s capital to Amarna, the Horizon of the Sun, a new city that was quickly filled with splendid mansions and working-class neighborhoods.
When, descending the Nile, we landed at Amarna, the capital of Egypt during the short reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, we found ourselves on a desert plain with some scattered ruins. Only the two reconstructed columns of the Little Temple of Aten attest to its former grandeur.
The city was abandoned shortly after the death of its founder, Akhenaten, and the following pharaohs uprooted its stones to reuse them in their own constructions while the villagers of the neighboring towns took the bricks for their houses; but, fortunately for archaeologists, no other city ever rose above its soil.
For this reason, the desert sands were burying and preserving the foundations of its buildings and the remains abandoned by its inhabitants, making Amarna the archaeological site that provides the most information on the life of the ancient Egyptians.
One of the things that has provided more information about life in the disappeared city are the piles of garbage from that time, among which have been discovered feathers and bones of birds, remains of goats and sheep, fish bones, seeds of barley, peas, lentils, cucumbers, onions, garlic, pomegranates, grapes, figs, olives, dates.
From all this we can deduce that the diet of the ancient Egyptian was healthy and balanced.
Ancient Egyptian houses in Amarna
When the court moved to Amarna in the fifth year of Akhenaten’s reign, the first to settle were the new officials who followed Pharaoh.
Each one chose the site and size of their house, located on a large plot with all the comforts. Outside there were granaries and warehouses where food and articles that were exchanged for goods necessary for the family were kept, stables for horses, a small enclosure for carts and weaving and ceramic workshops for daily use.
There was no lack of a vegetable garden and a well, nor the stables for domestic animals.There were also special places where food was made: one to grind the grain, since this task raised a lot of dust, another for the manufacture of beer, in addition to the kitchen itself, to the south of the house so that the north wind, the one that blows the most in Amarna, will take the fumes and bad smells out of the enclosure.
A small shrine was also built with statues or reliefs of the kings, who as intermediaries between men and gods were asked to direct their supplications and requests to Aten, the solar disk.
The slab was made of stone in the important houses and clay in the middle ones – like that of an artisan excavated in 1987 -, but it is totally absent in the small houses of the Workers’ Village, place of residence of the workers destined to the construction of royal and noble tombs.
The houses consisted of a central hall around which the other rooms were distributed. This room consisted of three elements that are repeated in all the houses: a low bench with cushions to sit on with crossed legs, a brazier to warm the cold desert nights, and an ablution slab with a pitcher of water to wash your hands and feet or just cool off.
One of the most luxurious houses in Amarna was that of Vizier Nakht “Nakhtpaaten”. In addition to a lavishly decorated living room, it had another small room that would serve as a dining room, as well as two more reception rooms: two galleries with large windows that opened onto the garden, one to the north for the cool summer wind and the other to the west for receive the last rays of sun in winter.
Large and medium-sized houses had a toilet room that consisted of a toilet with a stone seat, which contained an earthenware container and a wooden lid, and the shower, which was a stone slab with a gutter that would carry the water to a hole with a pot to collect it.
The ladies’ dressing tables have left us samples of the delicacy of the artisans when making small glass or alabaster bottles for perfumes, boxes to store cosmetics.
The most sought-after artisans
Around these large houses, smaller ones were raised of people who would accompany these noble families and work for them.
In Amarna there was not a neighborhood for the rich and another for the poor, but anyone could choose their home location.
Thus, the city was filled with inhabitants from other towns and cities of Egypt; they came in groups from the same place and formed a small neighborhood to live together and not feel alone in a strange city.
Sometimes, several houses had access to the same patio, which meant that there must be a friendly relationship between the neighbors.
There were also families of artisans who had worked together and decided to try their luck in the new capital. In the northern neighborhood we find a series of small poor houses in which glazed pottery was manufactured together.
Some neighbor would work in a state workshop and get, as part of his salary, the necessary materials to start a small business.
In the excavations of 1931, an infinity of beads of necklaces in the shape of flowers, fruits or simply round were collected; In addition to the beads, the molds to make them were also found.
Thus, in this area a very fashionable costume jewelery would be manufactured in Amarna; good proof of this is that Nefertiti, in the famous Berlin bust, wears a necklace of several rows of ceramic beads, like a breastplate that covers her almost to the chest.
This activity suggests that an incipient private economy based on moonlighting developed in Amarna, thanks to the freedom enjoyed by its inhabitants and their desire to increase their standard of living.
This is seen in the aforementioned Workers’ Village. At first, all the houses were the same, but in a short time their structure changed because whoever was a worker and at the same time an entrepreneur could improve their economic situation.
Outside the village a series of pigsty was set up where pigs were raised. In 1984 two buildings were discovered in this area; Due to its characteristics, archaeologists determined that in one the animals were sacrificed and in the other salted and preserved fish were made. Possibly this activity would give additional income to the workers.
Ancient Egyptian Women in Amarna
Women also obtained extra benefits for the family by installing a loom that, judging by its size, was not used only for family needs.
Between 1979 and 1986, 5,000 fragments of fabric, mainly linen, were collected in the village, and experts have determined the different kinds of linen used, the different wefts and patterns, how the fabric was finished when it was removed from the loom and even how it was sewn.
They were admirable weavers, but not very skilled seamstresses, so the pieces were woven to the size necessary for the garment to be used.
A rectangle served as a dress for the ladies with a simple knotting (as seen in a famous statue of Nefertiti in the Louvre Museum) and with a folded piece of cloth, Sewn along the side curbs and making a hole in the center to put the head in, a shirt or tunic was obtained that could be given the desired length. Pleated shawls completed the outfit.
The main street of Amarna
Amarna did not enjoy an initial urbanization. The only planned street was the Royal Road, which started from the far north, where Akhenaten and Nefertiti resided, and crossed the entire Central City.
The official buildings were located there, such as the two temples dedicated to Aten, large spaces that were apparently open to the people – for example, in the Great Temple there were 929 clay tables to receive the offerings of the inhabitants.
Egyptians and foreigners must have been amazed by the beauty of their palaces when they were invited to royal receptions, because Amarna was a very cosmopolitan city.
Yes, In the constant flow of people passing through the Royal Road, different clothes were seen and different languages were heard. On occasion, the marveling walkers could even contemplate the kings moving in their chariots to attend religious rites in the two great temples of the city or official ceremonies in the Central Palace.
At the grave of the high dignitary Meryre, a beautiful scene gives us an idea of the magnitude of a procession on the Royal Road.
The king, without a coachman, holds a spirited steed, while Nefertiti, the only queen of Egypt we see driving her own chariot, follows behind.
We also observe the princesses leaving the palace, where two porters speak, accompanied by fan-bearers and ladies, while the soldiers run in front of the chariot and to the sides of the road.
But not everything was beautiful and healthy in Akhenaten’s Amarna. The religious intransigence of the king from year 9 of his reign must have disappointed many nobles, who abandoned the decoration of their tombs and surely fled Amarna.
Amarna existed as a city for a very short time: twelve years during Akhenaten‘s reign and supposedly about three years during Tutankhamun’s. However, it was a period of great intellectual activity, remarkable innovations and extraordinary freedom, as manifested in the various forms of art and the proliferation of small businesses. The cosmopolitan, dynamic and creative Amarna undoubtedly represented a unique moment in ancient Egyptian history.
Source: National Geographic