The kind of wealth King Ahmose I had at his command to enable him to build the elaborate barque for Amun would eventually appear miniscule when compared to the riches amassed by the priests of Amun at Thebes and elsewhere. By the time of Amenhotep III (1386-1353 BCE) the priests owned more land, had more cash on hand, and were almost as powerful as the pharaoh. Amenhotep III introduced religious reforms in an attempt to curb the power of the priesthood, but they were fairly ineffective.
His most significant reform was the elevation of a formerly minor deity, Aten, to his personal patron and encouraged the worship of this god alongside Amun. The cult of Amun was unaffected by this, however, and continued to grow. Aten was already associated with Amun and with Ra as the solar disc representative of the sun’s divine power. The symbol of Aten simply became another way in which to express one’s devotion to Amun, and the priests continued to live their comfortable lives of privilege and power.
This situation changed dramatically when Amenhotep IV (1353-1336 BCE) succeeded his father as pharaoh. For the first five years of his reign Amenhotep IV followed the policies and practices of his father but then changed his name to Akhenaten (meaning “successful for” or “of great use to” the god Aten) and initiated dramatic religious reforms which affected every aspect of life in Egypt. Religious life was intimately tied to one’s daily existence and the gods were a part of one’s work, one’s family, and one’s leisure activities.
The people relied on the temples of the gods not just as a source of spiritual comfort and security but as places of employment, food depots, doctor’s offices, counseling centers, and shopping centers. Akhenaten closed the temples and forbade the traditional worship of the gods of Egypt; he proclaimed Aten the one true god and the only deity worthy of veneration.
He had a new city built, Akhetaten, and abandoned Thebes as his capital. Historian Marc van de Mieroop comments on this, writing:
With the move to Akhetaten, Akhenaten no longer just ignored the other gods of Egypt, but started to persecute them, especially Amun, whose name and images he had removed…many people continued their previous religious practices in private although no official cults but Aten’s were tolerated.
When Akhenaten died in 1336 BCE, his son Tutankhaten took the throne, changed his name to Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BCE), and moved the capital of Egypt back to Thebes. He reinstated the old religion and opened all the temples. On his death, the general Horemheb (1320-1292 BCE) ruled as pharaoh (after a brief power struggle) and obliterated the memory of Akhenaten and his family from the historical record as he raised the old gods to their former heights. The power of the Aten cult and Akhenaten’s religious movement seems to have continued, however, and it has been suggested that the great Hebrew law-giver Moses was a priest of Aten who left Egypt with his followers to establish a monotheistic community elsewhere. This theory is explored in depth in Sigmund Freud’s work Moses and Monotheism.
The Continued Popularity of Amun
After the reign of Horemheb, Amun’s cult continued on as it had before and was just as popular. It gained widespread acceptance throughout the 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom and, by the time of the Ramessid Period (c. 1186-1077 BCE) the priests of Amun were so powerful they were able to rule Upper Egypt from Thebes as pharaohs. The power of the priests of Amun, in fact, is a major factor in the fall of the New Kingdom. The Cult of Amun continued to exercise control from Thebes during the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE) even as the Cult of Isis gained more followers.
A custom elevated by Ahmose I was the consecration of royal women as “divine wives of Amun” who would officiate at festivals and ceremonies. This position existed prior to Ahmose I but he turned the office of God’s Wife of Amun into one of great prestige and power. This position was given even greater importance later and, Wilkinson writes, “the Kushite kings of the 25th dynasty continued this practice and their rule actually led to a resurgence in the worship of Amun as the Nubians had accepted the god as their own” (97). When the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal sacked Thebes in 666 BCE Amun was worshiped widely throughout Egypt, and afterwards, the god remained just as popular. Wilkinson notes,
The worship of Amun also extended to the non-formal veneration of popular religion. The god was regarded as an advocate of the common man, being called “the vizier of the humble” and “he who comes at the voice of the poor” and as “Amun of the Road” he was also regarded as the protector of travellers.
Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) had once claimed Amun was her father and thereby legitimized her reign. Alexander the Great would do the same in 331 BCE at the Siwa Oasis, proclaiming himself a son of the god Zeus-Ammon, the Greek version of the god. In Greece, Zeus-Ammon was depicted as the full-bearded Zeus with the ram’s horns of Amun and associated with power and virility through imagery including the bull and the ram. The god was taken to Rome as Jupiter-Ammon where he was venerated for the same reasons as elsewhere.
Amun’s popularity declined overall in Egypt as Isis became more popular, but he was still worshiped regularly at Thebes even after the city fell into ruin following the Assyrian invasion. His cult took hold especially in the region of the Sudan where, as in Egypt, his priests became powerful and wealthy enough to enforce their will on the kings of Meroe. As in the Amarna Period of Egypt’s history, when Akhenaten moved against the priests of Amun, King Ergamenes of Meroe could no longer tolerate the power of the priests of Amun in his country and had them massacred c. 285 BCE, thereby breaking ties with Egypt and establishing an autonomous state.
Amun continued to be revered in Meroe and elsewhere, however, as a potent deity. The cult of Amun would continue to attract followers well into the period known as classical antiquity (c. 5th century CE) when, like all the old gods, he was eclipsed by the new religion of Christianity.