“Perhaps the legacy of Akhenaten, that changer of religion yet “Dweller in Truth” (with a capital “T”), lies in that all humans ought to search for the truth; it may be that then they will discover religion quite unexpectedly.”
Weakling or Warrior? An Analysis of Mahfouz’s Akhenaten
“You will never accuse me of meekness hereafter, Father, for I am swept by a sacred desire, strong as the northern winds, a desire to know the truth and record it, as you did in the prime of your youth,” declares Meriamun, the protagonist of Nobel Prize-winning Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth.
Meriamun is a man on a quest: he wishes to understand the mysterious circumstances of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s rule in the days of his father in the eleventh century, B.C.(2) Akhenaten is known to Meriamun as “the heretic,” the crazed Pharaoh who brought destruction to his kingdom by declaring monotheism. To understand the life and rule of the infamous Akhenaten, Meriamun travels throughout Egypt with a letter of introduction from his father and interviews fourteen people closely associated with Akhenaten, including a high priest, relatives, friends, harem member, advisers, and the former queen herself, Nefertiti.
Reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ format in his classic The Moonstone, the case to determine Pharaoh Akhenaten as sage or madman is intricate and even contradictory at times. Mahfouz helps readers negotiate the evidence through his treatment of religion, his integration of Egyptian cultural-historical norms, and his challenge against a modern tendency to believe every dilemma can be answered with a single value judgment.
Religion is absolutely a major theme of Akhenaten. Meriamun’s interviews are often reduced to characterizations of Akhenaten as a pious martyr or as a weak madman unworthy of the throne.
Religion itself is treated respectfully, but the real (and intrinsic) question is whose religion is right? Though many criticize Akhenaten harshly for his failures as a Pharaoh, something any honor culture understands, Mahfouz also integrates terminology similar to that of modern Abrahamic religions. Ancient Egypt’s unusual monotheistic King Akhenaten, the “first priest of the One and Only God” (as Meri-Ra, a devout priest of Akhenaten’s God says) (106), is particularly ridiculed for his closure of the temples; Akhenaten declares, “The priests are swindlers” and the “temples are brothels, and there is nothing they hold sacred but their carnal desires” (107). The phrase “One and Only God” seems to have a high correlation with Egypt’s predominant religion—Islam—today, as it exemplifies the fundamental concept of Tawhid (the oneness of God) as based on the one hundred and twelfth Surah of the Quran, Surah al-Ikhlas: “He is Allah, [the] One”(Hilali and Khan). Deuteronomy 4:35 also confirms monotheism: “Yahweh, He is God; there is no other besides Him” (ESV).
With his clear monotheistic motifs, Mahfouz creates an impasse. He is no longer speaking just of an obscure Pharaoh and a decision to change his country’s religion; he is raising the more universal question of the acceptability of religious compulsion. One can believe the accounts of so many people who paint Akhenaten as a “heretic” (11, 79, 131, 133) and who emphasize his “frail” constitution (133), his “repulsive appearance” (11), his “feminine nature” (11),and his “ugliness” (80). One can believe that Akhenaten was indeed a “mouse that fancied himself a lion” (80) (read: “a fool”); in this case, the minister of Akhenaten’s chamber, Nakht, is right in his sad lamentation, “This is a story of innocence, of deception, and infinite grief” (131).
But Nakht also believed Akhenaten a man “noble, truthful, and compassionate” (93). Like Akhenaten’s personal physician, Bento, he believed that the Pharaoh was more than met the eye . . . “no gentle spring breeze, but a winter storm” (137). Bento remembers Akhenaten’s last words to him before his passing: “They think my God and I are defeated. But he never betrays not does he accept defeat” (142). These are the last words of the book, and they reveal something about the way people treat religion today.
Meriamun’s quest for truth is an approach with which many can identify. Every man negotiates his idea of truth in one way or the other; if he does not “choose” his religion, he at least makes decisions informed by a worldview that he accepts. Before beginning his quest, Meriamun quotes Qaqimna when he says,“’Pass no judgment upon a matter until you have heard all testimonies’” (3).
It is interesting that Meriamun searches for truth, not religion. While in the end he is uncertain if he has found the truth, he has discovered more religion. The book ends with only two real conclusions—Meriamun is certain of his “growing fondness for the hymns of the One God, and [his] profound love for the beautiful Nefertiti” (172)1. Perhaps the legacy of Akhenaten, that changer of religion yet “Dweller in Truth” (with a capital “T”), lies in that all humans ought to search for the truth; it may be that then they will discover religion quite unexpectedly. Akhenaten may be soft, but perhaps this is precisely what distinguishes him from his ancestors. The Pharaoh of the Biblical Exodus account hardened his heart again and again, exchanging the truth of God’s miracles in exchange for the lies of his magicians (Exodus 7:222, Romans 1:253). For anyone who has found himself following tradition before truth, Meriamun and Akhenaten make striking, if difficult to judge, characters.
Beyond common human experience, Akhenaten provides glimpses into a more specific cultural-historical context. Mafouz’s choice of setting seems calculated; it is at once identifiable with the Egyptian people, yet so far removed from daily experience that it provides the same veiled pith of a critical joke. Someone familiar with Cairenes might recognize archetypal characteristics of an honor culture. Indeed, Pharaoh Akhenaten’s choices seem criticized the most because they are shameful to his people. For instance, the high priest ruefully recalls the young Pharaoh: “He was rather dark, with dreamy eyes and a thin, frail figure, noticeably feminine. His features were grotesque and disturbing. He was a despicable creature, unworthy of the throne, so weak he could not challenge an insect, let alone the Master Deity. I was disgusted but said nothing” (18).
Egypt is a visual culture, and appearances, particularly in public, are emphasized. There are certain conventions people must follow, even if it is as simple as the statuary domestic cup of tea. No wonder Mubarak remains ever-young, or that people keep silent until the time that they can call out dishonor without endangering their own reputations. It happens with shopkeepers. It happens with government. And it happens with Akhenaten.
The beauty of literature, and particularly Mafouz’s novel, is that people and ideas have some universal qualities. The only ambiguity for the casual reader might be the events themselves, as they are rooted in the politics of the period. Nevertheless, Mafouz makes his book highly accessible and imprints it with a particularly Egyptian ethos. The point hardly seems to be the events themselves, since they are often told out of sequence and from many different perspectives; more important is the search for truth and the characters who believe they know it. The players only become more difficult to judge, however, when they are more than figures on a search for truth—they are reflections in a modern mirror.
Values and Moral Dilemma
The universal qualities of religion and culture in Akhenaten also extend to values. Although cultural values can be relative (precisely because they are uniquely cultural), value judgments made by individuals in the novel are similar to the values many hold today. For instance, every interviewee volunteers his own (often differing) opinion of Akhenaten. As Ay, the sage and former counselor of Akhenaten says, “[Life] is a sky laden with clouds of contradictions” (27). Meriamun’s search reveals shared value systems—systems that value strength, religion, and loyalty.
Some condemn Akhenaten as weak; others recognize a quiet strength. Some see Akhenaten’s move to monotheism as religious suicide; others see it as the beautiful and right religion. Some see Akhenaten a betrayer of the people’s trust, an Oedipal adulterer, and his wife Nefertiti conniving, unloving, and disloyal (99); others see Akhenaten as a friend despite differences, a steadfast husband who neglected his entire harem (72) for Nefertiti, “beauty and brilliance combined,” who believes in his cause and does everything she can to stand by her husband (124). Throughout these conflicts, Mahfouz weaves his tale such that readers can empathize with any one of the characters because their actions may be dictated by experiences to which readers would respond no differently. The plot, as the cliché goes, thickens.
If Akhenaten lived so basely, then those who stuck by him because it was their duty are laudable for their sacrifice in service of the system; those who abandoned him entirely did what they thought was best for the kingdom.
For instance, the most captivating woman of Akhenaten’s inherited harem, Tadukhipa, is revolted by his weakness and decision to neglect the concubines, for harem women lived “an unbearable and utterly degrading life that bred further perversity,” and “when it became known that the idiot king wanted to fight sin with love instead of punishment” the women turned to each other and to the palace guards (74).
So who is right, the man Akhenaten who says he knows who God is, or the gregarious, hardened woman Tadukhipa, disgusted with the moral decline resulting from the Pharaoh’s rule? Few chose the former, and those who did live in the shadows of others’ doubt for the remainder of their lives.
The enigmatic Nefertiti says that she left her husband’s side only when she thought it would save his life; she thought that if she left, “he might falter and take the advice of his men” (170). Akhenaten did not falter. Those who followed Akhenaten to the end seemed to believe in conscience, they believed in God before and despite of His weak messenger (142). The people of Akhenaten could be anyone, for while history changes, moral dilemmas do not.
Meriamun’s interview with the high priest ends with a long silence. Finally, the priest concludes, “We are still healing. We need time and serious effort. Our loss, inside and outside the empire was beyond estimate. [. . .] That is the true story. Record it faithfully. Do carry my sincere greetings to your dear father (25). Mahfouz imitates life when he does not give readers all the answers; he simply provides the records necessary for the gnawing discomfort of uncertainty.
Sure, arguments can be made to favor the dichotomy. Akhenaten was a weakling because he said thus! Akhenaten was a warrior because he did thus! But then, too, maybe he was both weakling and warrior. Or neither at all. As Iranian author Azar Nafisi notes in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil” (131). Through Mahfouz’s craft, suddenly Akhenaten has little to do with the dilemma at all, for the conflict lies in the hearts of the people interviewed and splashed undecidedly in the minds of the readers.
Thanks to Shadows & Dust website