For my mother, Jean,
and also my grandmother,
Mary Fabian Featherstone.
“To speak the name of the dead
is to make them live again.”
(Egyptian Funerary Inscription)
Some of these poems have appeared in Meanjin (Writers in the Park issue), Pictures from an Exhibition (Mattara Poetry Prize Anthology 1989), Editions, and Salt.
My primary source has been the work of the notable Egyptologist, Cyril Aldred, in particular his Akhenaten (Abacus 1972) and Akhenaten (Thames and Hudson 1988). In some instances I have drawn my own conclusions from his invaluable research.
I would also like to thank Lyn Hughes for her generous editorial contributions.
This work was assisted by a writer's grant from the Australia Council, the Federal Government's arts funding and advisory body.
INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST EDITION
Akhenaten was king of Egypt from 1378 B.C. to 1362 B.C. I first saw him in a museum in West Berlin in 1976. I had come to see the famous bust of his wife, Nefertiti, but it was the smirking, distorted, oddly beautiful face of Akhenaten that put out tentacles to my imagination. A strange confession from a feminist poet.
Akhenaten would have been an anomaly in the history of any country. He is credited with establishing the world's first monotheistic religion—the worship of Aten represented by the Sun Disk. He was a visionary and poet. To celebrate his religious revolution he initiated and encouraged an equally bold adventure in the arts. He was fascinated with himself, ecstatically aware of his own uniqueness. His family life, including his love for wife Nefertiti, his six daughters and his younger brother, Smenkhkare, was illustrated in painting, inscription and sculpture all over Egypt. For a profoundly conservative people like the ancient Egyptians, comfortable with a relatively static culture thousands of years old, it was all too much.
Akhenaten only ruled for seventeen years. In that time he smashed the tolerant and flexible pantheon of gods and goddesses, insisting in his last years, with all the fanaticism of an iconoclast, that only Aten could be worshipped. He removed the seat of government from Thebes to his new city, Akhet-Aten, where he isolated himself and his court and let the running of the kingdom slide into military neglect and economic ruin. On his death he was execrated as a heretic, his name removed from monuments, his city abandoned and used as a quarry. The old gods, notably, Amun, the powerful god of Thebes, were restored to their past wealth and glory. The Egyptians wanted to forget the heady Akhenaten years as quickly as possible.
In 1987 I began writing this book. In 1989 I went to Egypt and stood before his colossal hermaphroditic statue in the Cairo Museum. A week later I stood on the emphatically laid out foundations of his city, now known as Tell el Amarna. Nearby a mourning wheatear, flickered its black and white tail on the stone stump of a temple column. Akhenaten always said the souls of the dead came back as birds.
3rd April 1991
INTRODUCTION TO THIS EDITION
Outside it's not Egypt. I'm looking at a playing field coated with frost. In the distance there are the magnificent stone spires of Cambridge. It's a ripe English autumn and the trees are moulting showers of golden and red leaves. The light is a faintly pearly blue, very gentle on the eyes. It's not Egypt.
But it's here, yesterday, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, that I stared again into Pharaoh Akhenaten's hypnotic stone face. It had been mutilated. It was a tantalising fragment, just a hint of his old head. His enemies had smashed away his swollen forehead, his narrow eyes, his fine aristocratic nose. The marks of their determination to totally obliterate this heretic king, this detested iconoclast, are still plain. It reminded me how much this man had been hated. His freakish, explosively creative, regime lasted a mere seventeen years—a speck on the rolling millenia of Egyptian dynastic history.
There's something almost viral about Akhenaten's face. You only need to be exposed to it briefly and it will replicate itself potently in your mind. His face, safely in the museum cabinet, with only lips and chin intact, was infecting me again. It's his smirking mouth, lush with arrogance. For seventeen years he had and did it all.
I finished writing this book seven years ago and I thought I'd finished with Akhenaten, Pharaoh, beloved of the Sun God Aten, visionary poet, ardent husband of Nefertiti, designer and builder of a jerry-built dream city, enemy of the Gods, pervert and megalomaniac. Like his enemies, I underestimated his lingering, obstinate charm. He's back.
30th October 1997