Originally written in Arabic and first published 1985, Akhanaten: Dweller in Truth, written by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mafouz; is about the ‘heretic pharaoh’, the most infamous pharaoh in Egypt’s history.
Years after his death, a young man is swept by a strong desire to know the truth about the heretic pharaoh and his rather tragic and lonely end. Meriamun, travelling with his father is fascinated by the ruins of Akhataten, a city built by the heretic for his one and only god. Merianum has heard many stories about the young pharaoh who rejected his ancestor’s heritage, but on seeing the ruins he decides to seek for an impartial perspective of the events at the time.
Akhenaten was the son of the great pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. He is portrayed as a sickly being with repulsive features, neither male nor female. As he grows up, he shows great wisdom, far beyond his years. Inspired by the divine voices he hears, he scorns Egypt’s traditional pantheism and declares his devotion to the one and only god, the god of love. His new religion angers most people in Egypt including his parents. They all hope it is but a passing phase. But this is not so, once he is king, he decrees the whole empire to abolish traditional gods and follow his religion; and this marks the beginning of his downfall. He dies tragically and alone.
But is this the whole truth? That’s what Merianum wants to find out. His father writes him a letter of introduction to Akhanaten’s contemporaries that will help him in his search of the truth. He had been taught to “Pass no judgement upon a matter until you have heard all testimonies” and his father advises him to
“be like history, impartial and open to every witness. Then deliver a truth that is free from bias for those who wish to contemplate it”.
It is therefore not surprising that there are fourteen witnesses including the heretic’s archenemy the High priest of Amun, his counselor Ay, physician Bento, Bek the sculptor, Meri-Ra the High priest of Akhataten city, and more importantly his wife Nefertiti; among others.
It is through these witnesses’ narratives that the reader will learn more about the heretic. All characters tell the same story albeit differently and it is rather interesting to read how the characters reveal much about themselves in describing him. Some will call him insane while others will say they had never met any person with a soul so pure and full of love. The author allows the reader to decide what the truth about Akhenaten was.
Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth is a compelling short novel, and the author’s prose is unique, it keeps the reader hooked but it’s a book one will appreciate if they are conversant with the history of Egypt. The book was translated to English by Tagreid Abi Hassabo.