A city as a monument?

Amarna tomb

Some cities have very personal connections with a single person. Here in London, we might think of Christopher Wren, whose stamp is still visible in some spots of the City, although are the remaining Wren churches monuments to him or to a city of people who have survived? Ebenezer Howard’s philosophy may still be observed around the globe in existing garden cities, although perhaps these cities are more living experiments than monuments to Howard. William Penn’s religious and commercial aspirations for an urban hub in colonial Pennsylvania shaped early Philadelphia, but it has grown well beyond Penn’s ideal vision of the ‘green country town’.

Amarna centre

Remains of central Amarna, photo by Kurohito

My nominee for this topic is Ahketaten, the ancient Egyptian city on the east bank of the Nile, now called Tell el-Amarna or Amarna, and Akhenaten, a pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty.  Barry Kemp’s The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its people on the archaeology of Amarna, helps us look at the city as the expression of Akhenaten’s own ideas on religion and life, with Amarna even serving as a monument to Akhenaten. (Maybe I say this because we have monuments on the brain here at Senate House Library right now?)

Am I writing as town mouse again? Yes, as Barry Kemp’s book is the history of a city. In chapter eight, he even compares Amarna to pre-industrial cities. Indeed, we should forget some of our modern ideas to imagine a historic city without walls and where the houses of the elite were scattered throughout the city, allowing them to be leaders in their local communities rather than living in segregated neighbourhoods of privilege. (p. 268)

Although Amarna was only occupied for sixteen or seventeen years, we are reminded that the city was not merely Akhenaten’s physical expression of his religious devotion to the Aten or sun-disk, but a place where roughly 30,000 people lived. The portable goods and furniture discussed in chapter six are the record of their daily lives, and a 2006 study of bones from a cemetery on the edge of Amarna hints at the quality of their lives, suggesting high levels of nutritional deficiency and a shorter-then-average life span, with seventy percent of people dying before the age of 35.

But Kemp’s work is also the history of a man, Akhenaten, and his beliefs expressed as a city.  Perhaps calling Amarna a monument is something we can only do because, thanks to Barry Kemp and other archaeologists, we know about the city and can look at its remains as a commemoration of Akhenaten’s spiritual and social aspirations. Furthermore, Akhenaten’s tomb remains in Amarna, although his remains were likely reburied in the Valley of the Kings later. The royal tomb that remains in Amarna is a monument in a literal (and sepulchral) sense, while the city itself can be viewed as a monument in a more historical sense.

Tomb of Akhenaten in Amarna, photo by David Schmid

Kemp’s own work in Amarna has continued for thirty-five years, and, as he states in his prologue, he himself is a ‘piece of oral history’. (p. 7) His encompassing knowledge of the city makes this book easy to read and never less than interesting, especially when he challenges some assumptions we may have about Akhenaten, his religious beliefs and the city he founded. The ruins at Amarna can only give us a glimpse of life in an ancient Egyptian city due to Amarna’s ephemeral occupation, while the cities mentioned above have continued through their own dynamic histories. But Kemp’s decades of work and his account of Amarna give that glimpse understanding and meaning, providing insight that can indeed give us leave to call Amarna a monument to Akhenaten.

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