* * * One must not imagine that Akhnaton’s position as an absolute “non-imperialist” at the head of an empire was an easy or a pleasant one. He suffered, in order to maintain it, and to leave the world the unique example which he left, even in what appeared to be an all-round failure. The modern commentators of his history seem to forget this fact, when they hasten to tax him with “supineness and apathy.” He suffered; and no man having a heart can remain unmoved at the idea of the superhuman courage with which he stood to the end, in the midst of increasing disaster and hatred, firm in the truth which he had realised.
It is true that, far from experiencing the greed of a conqueror, he was alien to that particular pride which many great rulers seems to have drawn from the tranquil possession of other people’s territory. Even his own territory he regarded first as “his Father’s” — as the domain of the Sun, where man and beast were to thrive in love and happiness; not as the property of any earthly monarch. “Hills, deserts, embankments, high-lands, low-lands, islands, villages, men, beasts . . . all things which the Aton produces, and on which His rays shine, they shall be for the Father, the living Aton . . .” had he said in one of the boundary-inscriptions when he had laid the foundations of his sacred City — the model of a world governed by his spirit. And one may believe, from his attitude towards his dominions, that he regarded them, too, from the beginning, not as his personal property, nor as an annexe of Egypt, but as lands of the Sun — as were, in his eyes, all lands on earth; as countries that existed, not for a few Egyptians to draw profit out of them, but for them themselves to flourish and be happy, with all the creatures that the One Sun of the whole world nourished upon their surface. To believe in the “rights” of one nation over others would have been to him (from all we know of his religion) a return to the idolatrous worship of local gods. He did not, he could not, regret the loss of Syria and Palestine in themselves.
But he could not lightly brush aside his feelings for his subjects who struggled and suffered there, in the midst of the turmoil of civil war, supporters of Egypt against the supporters of Amor or of the Hittites. His vivid imagination, of
which we have a proof in his poems, must have brought before his eyes, so as to say, all the horror of the battles and sieges which the messengers described to him with the eloquence of despair. And he knew he could put a stop to that horror, and bring back peace and normal life to Syria whenever he liked, with one single order. Only that order would have implied that the loyal vassals fighting for him had more the right to rule Syria than the disloyal ones, fighting for themselves (or, unknowingly, for the king of the Hittites); that Syria was his, because his fathers had conquered it, before being, like all the world, the free land of Him Who made it and fed it — the Sun’s. Such an order he could not give. The universal fatherhood of the Sun meant, to him, the universal brotherhood of nations no less than of individuals. To him there could not be two standards of behaviour: one for individual men and the other for States. One nation could not overrule another, unless the people of that other were happy to remain under its domination. One man — even he; nay, especially he, the conscious Son of the Sun — could not assert his suzerainty over others against their will as clearly expressed as was the will of the Syrian and Canaanite princes in their long-stretched anti-Egyptian agitation. Such overlordship bred hatred, even as conquest itself bred hatred. It was an expression of separateness; a denial of the world’s unity. He, Akhnaton, Son of the Sun, and one with the One Father of all life, could not go against the law of love which was the great law of life, revealed to him from within.
On the other hand, he could not abdicate — run away from the pressing empire problems. He could not say: “I have not conquered the empire; it is no concern of mine.” The facts were there; he had to face them, if his lofty religion was to be of any meaning in the living, struggling world. By remaining in constant and painful touch with the realities of a widespread colonial revolt — the consequence of conquest, that is to say of greed, that ultimate source of all wars — and yet by refusing to keep his empire by force; by retaining to the end a non-imperialistic attitude, he had to demonstrate that the law of love and freedom, in which he believed,
should be and can be the basis of international relations. He had to remain deaf to the cries of distress of those who loved him and wanted his rule, in order to allow all the princes of Syria to have their say and play their part in the affairs of the land of their fathers, and to put, once for all, an end to the situation which had led to the anti-Egyptian unrest — to the injustice and hatred resulting from the Egyptian conquest. In order to be true to the Sun, his Father, Who made all lands and favours none, he had to take the course which he took.
But it was not a pleasant course — far from it. Akhnaton stood aloof from the war that was raging throughout his Asiatic dominions; he did not remain unmoved. On the contrary, one cannot but believe that the desperate letters he received from his faithful servants were to him “as so many sword-thrusts,” and “one may picture him praying passionately for strength to set them aside.”1 He gladly sacrificed the riches of Syria to the central idea of his religion and to the consistency of his life. He accepted the loss of the cities which, like Byblos, contained “a quantity of gold and silver and a great amount of property of all sorts.”2 It was less easy for him to forsake, even in the name of the same high principles, the men who were dying for the cause of imperial Egypt on the ramparts of those cities, with the love of his name in their hearts. Those alone who can realise the depth of his love — and they are not many — can hope to realise something of that “very Agony”3 which he suffered when reading the lamentable despatch from the people of Tunip, or Ribaddi’s last messages from the midst of a starving city. And what added to his suffering was, no doubt, the fact that it was impossible for him to make anyone understand the motives of his apparently strange attitude. Nobody, not even those who professed to be his followers, could, it seems, make out why his devotion to Aton, the One Sun, the One God, should clash with his imperial “duties.” For
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 209.
2 Letter K. 137, quoted above.
3 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 207.
they could not realise what the One Sun meant to him. They thought that he who had built in Syria a town destined to be, like Akhetaton itself, a radiating centre of the new faith, would naturally do anything in his power to keep Syria under control, that he might win it over entirely to his God. They could not realise that Akhnaton’s impersonal God, the Energy within the Disk, was not one to whom worshippers can be brought by a show of force; that knowledge, genuine religious experience, the vivid consciousness of universal unity and universal order were at the basis of his cult, and that the hatred generated by conquest and kept alive in the conquered people by measures of violence, was utterly uncongenial to the creation of those conditions. The far-sighted logic of his attitude was alien to them. Even his beloved queen, Nefertiti, could probably not follow him. She just accepted what he did, out of personal devotion to him, without judging him, and kept her confidence in his mission, till the end, because she loved him.
And if his closest friends and disciples could not transcend with him the deep-rooted imperialism of their time (and of many a time to come), how was he to justify his attitude in the eyes of the men who were fighting for him in faraway Syria, most of whom still clung (as their letters show) to the national gods that he had abolished? How was he to tell the messenger who brought him the distressed letter from Tunip, why he was sending him back without a promise of help? How was he to explain to Ribaddi’s son why he could send no troops to his father or to anyone? (That is perhaps the reason why he kept the young man waiting three months and a half before deciding to speak to him.)
Still, he himself could not help seeing both sides of the conflict. He felt sympathy for his faithful vassals; he could not help feeling sympathy also for the “unfaithful” ones who were seeking to overthrow his rule, as his fathers had once overthrown the rule of the foreign Hyksos kings in Egypt. He could not help knowing that, at the root of all the trouble, lay the hatred that conquest always generates in a conquered people.
The One Father — the Sun — had made all nations “distinct
in speech and in the colour of their skin,” and He poured His life-giving rays over all of them. All were to live, happy and beautiful, and at peace. Conquest, the fruit of greed, was, like all forms of outrage, conceivable only to those who did not love the One Sun enough to love all His creatures impartially. And he, the Son of the universal Father — he who felt His divine Energy vibrating through his own nerves — could not lend himself to the holding down of a restless conquered land. He could not prolong a state of things which ignorance, self-pride, and greed had once created. He was to have nothing to do with “imperial duties” that were in contradiction with the principle of impartial love. It was not for him, who lived in Truth, to defend an order based upon falsehood.
* * * Akhnaton died prematurely. And it is possible that the grief he felt for those whom he appeared to be abandoning hastened his death. “With him,” writes Breasted, passed away “such a spirit as the world had never seen before,”1 and we add: such as was never to reappear since. Eleven hundred years after him, India’s great emperor Asoka was one day to renounce war in the name of the Buddha’s message of universal love. But the question did not arise for him to retain or to lose for its sake the lands he had inherited from his fathers. He was allowed to die leaving his vast dominions prosperous and whole. Akhnaton seems to be the one king in history who, for the sake of a philosophy which logically excluded the support of any form of aggression, actually lost a great empire. The tragic circumstances which we have tried to recall and, on the other hand, the tremendous might and wealth that the young Pharaoh could have used to defend his imperial rights, make his sacrifice all the more remarkable.
And his message of love as a basis of international relations, in the place of the time-honoured law of violence; his refusal to subscribe to conquest as a fait accompli of which the
1 Breasted: Cambridge Ancient History (Edit. 1924), Vol. II, p. 127.
advantages to the conquering nation should be maintained anyhow — an attitude too modern for most rulers of men in our times — are all the more impressive precisely because they were proclaimed, not from a demagogue’s platform by a handful of hungry mob-agitators, but from a throne, by the hereditary owner of the greatest empire of his days; by an absolute monarch, fully conscious of his immense wealth and power; by an emperor, whom his subjects were taught by tradition to look upon as divine — without their realising how truly godlike he actually was.
CHAPTER X THE REWARD OF WAR It is clear from the evidence of the Amarna Letters that, had he consented to use violence, Akhnaton could easily have stemmed the tide of events and saved the Egyptian empire, thus giving a different direction to the whole political evolution of the Near East for many centuries.
Several modern writers have criticised him for not having done so, some indeed with as much bitter vehemence as though they saw in his “pacifism” a dangerous example to the present-day owners of foreign empires. But none seem to have noticed that, apart from all political considerations, the very history of civilisation in the Near East — and subsequently in the West — would probably have been much altered had the young Pharaoh cared to quell rebellion in his Syrian dominion in the fourteenth century B.C.
However useless it may appear to ponder over possibilities which have never materialised, yet we may be excused for doing so if the sheer vision of such possibilities helps us to realise more completely the true meaning of an extraordinary man, and to interpret his decisions with a keener knowledge of their remote consequences.
* * * So let us suppose for a moment that, unlike himself, Akhnaton had yielded to the supplications of his few loyal vassals and sent them timely help against the Amorite chieftains and their supporters. Let us even suppose that he had marched in person into Syria, with archers and chariots and all the awe-inspiring apparel of war, as any of his fathers would have done.
It is highly probable — practically certain — that in such a case the “sons of Abdashirta” would have been utterly
defeated from the start, and the Syrian rebellion nipped in the bud. In spite of long years of peace, Egypt was still a first-rate military power and, moreover, the aid that was needed to re-assert her prestige was, in the beginning, extremely slight. (Let us remember Ribaddi’s letter to Akhnaton, before his position in Byblos became tragic: “May it seem good to the king my Lord to send me but three hundred soldiers and twenty pair of horses, and I will hold the city. . . .”)
The youthful Founder of the Religion of the Disk would have returned in triumph to his capital, and the new City of the Horizon of Aton would have gazed upon one of those impressive displays of warrior-like pomp such as Thebes had witnessed in former days. And the bitterness and resentment caused by the erasure of the name of Amon from every stone and by the king’s other decrees, and by his whole struggle against the national gods, would have been forgotten in a cry of victory; and Egypt would probably have accepted the rational worship of Aton, the One and Only God, without further murmurs.
Not that the people or even the nobles would have understood it, or felt its beauty, any better than they actually did. But they would have accepted it, as the expression of the sweet will of a popular king. The fact that, in spite of his revolutionary decrees, not a single rising is reported against his government in Egypt during all his reign, proves that Akhnaton was popular enough among his subjects, although of course hated by the priests. The only thing the Egyptians could not bring themselves to do for his sake was to renounce their traditional objects of worship in favour of a higher one. The only force that could have — and probably would have — led them to forsake even their beloved gods, at the command of him whom they still regarded as a god incarnate, was the prestige of victory added to that of royalty.
The orders of a monarch who has brought an empire to ruin, even if he be of divine descent, do not indeed carry the same weight as those of a triumphant king. There is, in armed success, a magic that commands respect, whatever be the personal views of the lucky warrior. One has seen in
modern times, nay, in our own days, men inferior by far to Akhnaton in genius and in character succeed in stamping their will upon a reluctant nation, just because they had, first, led that nation to victory upon the battlefield. And we believe that nothing would have reconciled the unwilling Egyptians to the new order installed by their inspired ruler as the knowledge that he had saved them and their empire from imminent danger. And if it be true, as some have suggested, that shadowy elements of treason lurked at the very court of Akhetaton,1 then nothing would have confounded the hopes of the king’s enemies at home so much as the sight of their Syrian accomplice, the crafty Aziru, led in chains through the streets of the capital, with some hundreds of other captives of rank.
The more we think of the situation created in Egypt by Akhnaton’s zeal for truth, the more we are convinced that brilliant military achievements beyond the Sinai Desert were the one and only means for him to secure the lasting success of his reforms at home.
* * * The enduring success of Akhnaton’s religion in Egypt would have meant more than a change of cult. It would have meant new standards in art and in behaviour; sincerity of thought, freedom of expression, a critical, disinterested, truth-loving attitude in all walks of life; in one word, a new life.
What is left of the Amarna sculpture and painting shows us the beginning of an amazing return to personal inspiration in art, to naturalness, to freedom. With the failure of the Religion of the Disk, the artistic movement linked with it was stifled to death at its very outset. What it would have been, had it lived, is difficult to say. But one may imagine, from its earliest creations, which are well known to us, that it would have anticipated ideals of beauty that we now call “modern,” putting far greater stress upon expression than upon lines,
1 J. Baikie: The Amarna Age (Edit. 1926), p. 362.
and striving to reveal the inner nature, the “meaning,” so as to say, of things, rather than their exact or embellished physical likeness.
We can somewhat picture to ourselves the subsequent development of Egypt had her art, henceforth, been inspired by the Amarna standards, had her religion remained that which Akhnaton preached, and had there appeared, from time to time, especially among her ruling classes, true disciples of the One-who-lived-in-Truth, who would have modelled their lives upon his; had, in one word, her whole civilisation retained, even to a faint degree, the double mark of rationalism and of universal kindness and the essentially aesthetic outlook on life that characterised her only truly divine king. Then, even making the indispensable allowances for human wickedness and stupidity, the country, merely by seeking to walk in the trail of such a man as Akhnaton, would have put itself far ahead of all the neighbouring nations. It would have been a modern country in the midst of the Ancient World — but a modern country retaining all that was lovely in ancient life; a modern country without the horrors that our world of to-day has brought into existence by the import of greater technical efficiency combined with less reason, less inspiration, and less love.
* * * But Egypt was not alone concerned. She occupied in the world, then, the position of a great power. Her gods, like those of all leading nations, were worshipped beyond her boundaries. It is possible, even probable, that the cult of Aton had not reached, in Akhnaton’s days, the limits of the Egyptian dominions. The elders of Tunip do not seem to have heard of it, otherwise how could they write to the king that “the gods of Egypt” dwell in their city? But there is little doubt that, had it once been able to establish itself firmly in the Nile Valley, the Religion of the Disk would have spread throughout the empire and even to allied countries; to all lands where the power of the Pharaoh was dreaded and his name held in reverence. From Napata to
Carchemish, over a stretch of twenty degrees of latitude, the name of Aton, the God above all gods, would have become familiar to people of the most various races; to the sturdy mountaineers of the regions bordering Assyria; to the subtle, mystic, pleasure-loving people of Syria; to the fair Northerners of Aryan descent who ruled the land of Mitanni, as well as to the dusky Nubians and Ethiopians, and to the Negroes of the farthest South.
How little those myriads of men would have grasped of the true spirit of Akhnaton’s Teaching it is useless to say. But even a partial and altogether outward knowledge of it would have sufficed to impress upon them the idea of the excellence of a natural worship, of cosmic significance, over their thousand and one man-made cults of local scope. It would have sufficed, also, to inspire all those who were susceptible of some refinement with the feeling of the beauty of the world and of the unity of all life.
And possibly Egypt and the adjoining countries would have remained, to this day, faithful to the cult of the One God manifested in the Sun. It seems indeed doubtful whether any later monotheistic creed would have found adherents among thinking people already acquainted for centuries with Akhnaton’s Teaching.
* * * And that is not all. The worship of Aton, had it remained the State-religion of Egypt — of a victorious Egypt, mistress of her empire — would have undoubtedly influenced the whole evolution of Western thought and culture.
Even in her decline, after every sort of originality had been killed in her priest-ridden people, Egypt, which had sunk to the level of a third-rate nation, still exerted a lasting influence upon Greece. What would that influence have been, had Egypt remained powerful a few centuries longer, and had the simple and rational Sun-worship preached by Akhnaton continued to hold sway over her, instead of the more and more formal, the more and more fossilised cult of her primitive gods? A glance at these possibilities will be
enough to show what Akhnaton could perhaps have done, had he but consented to utter a word in favour of war.
As we have already many times remarked, the whole of the young king’s Teaching is characterised by an unusual rationality, allied to an overwhelming sense of beauty. It is probable that, in the days of its Founder — two hundred years before the Trojan War — no account of it reached the shores of Greece. And had, by chance, some exiled Egyptian ever carried it there, we do not know what impression it would have left upon the people of Tiryns and Mykaenae. But had the scientific-minded leaders of Grecian thought come in contact with the Teaching some centuries later, at the time Greece was ready to enter the maturity of her classical age, then, we believe, the history of Western civilisation would have been different.
The sceptical Athenian mind, while continuing to pay a customary allegiance to “the gods of the city,” would have welcomed that rational creed that put stress upon nothing which is outside the reach of man’s experience; that related no incredible deeds, no childish fables. The few who aspired to something more than intellectual certitude would have recognised the truth in a Teaching that implied the oneness and sacredness of life. And the Greeks at large would have felt in Akhnaton’s worship — and in his hymns, and in the story of his life, also — a thing of beauty unsurpassed even in their own land of light and harmony.
And slowly the time would have come for a great change in the consciousness of the ancient world; the time when, tired of conflicting philosophies as well as of rites and mysteries of which they had forgotten the sense, the Greeks would have begun to aspire to Something unknown which they could neither define nor invent; the time when, in one word, the need of a broader and kinder outlook even than that of the best Athenians would have begun to be felt throughout the Hellenised world. Then, instead of turning her eyes to any new creed, perhaps Greece would have simply drifted from the worship of her many gods to that of the Only One revealed to men and to all creatures through the flaming Disk of the Sun. And without sacrificing anything
of her passionate love of life and visible beauty, without also forcing herself to accept any dogmas “beyond reason” or “above reason” — or against reason — perhaps she would have made the fourteen-hundred-year-old Religion of the Disk the creed of her people for all times to come.
There would have been no conflict between an “old” and a “new” order, but merely a gradual absorption of the popular religions of Greece and Rome into the decorous simplicity of a more rational, more spiritual, and more ancient one, already held in regard by the elite of the Greek-speaking East.
And slowly but steadily, along with the culture and learning of the Mediterranean, the antique worship of Aton would have spread over barbaric Europe, replacing the popular cults of the North after those of Asia Minor, Greece and Italy. On the borders of the Danube and of the Rhine, on the misty shores of the Baltic and of the North Sea, temples containing no image but the Sun Disk with rays ending in hands would have been erected in honour of the One God — Cosmic Energy.
And one day, the Spanish caravelles would have carried the lofty symbol across the Atlantic, and the Religion of the Disk would have become the religion of the West.