Naguib Mahfouz; trans. Tagreid Abu-Hassabo
Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth paints a composite portrait of Akhenaten, also known as the “Sun King,” an Egyptian pharaoh credited with being the first monotheist. Written by Naguib Mahfouz, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, the novel is translated into English by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo.
Akhenaten’s portrait is revealed through a series of interviews conducted by Meriamun, the son of a high official in the Egyptian court. Armed with a letter of introduction from his father, Meriamun seeks individuals who knew Akhenaten to learn the truth about this mysterious pharaoh who was dubbed “the heretic pharaoh” by some and a wise and gentle pharaoh by others. Among those Meriamun interviews are a high priest of the established religion, Akhenaten’s mother, his in-laws, friends, physician, military leader, and body guard. He concludes his investigation by traveling to Akhenaten’s now deteriorating city and interviewing his wife, Nefertiti, a virtual prisoner in the palace.
Akhenaten’s claim to fame is his declaration that there is only one God and all should worship Him. Although he was initially willing to accept the presence of other gods, once he became a pharaoh, he set about trying to eradicate the worship of other gods by destroying their temples and erasing their names from monuments. His action was considered heresy, especially by those within the establishment who stood to profit financially from Egypt’s polytheistic culture.
Not surprisingly, the portrait of Akhenaten that emerges is multi-faceted. He was labeled a heretic, weak, effeminate, a mad man who posed a serious threat to the state, and a fool who believed in the power of love to overcome adversity. Others describe him as highly intelligent, spiritual, gentle, kind, compassionate toward the weak and poor, and a divinely inspired believer in the one God. Each perspective adds a subtle detail or nuance to the portrait. But what emerges from the prism of each interview reveals more about the interviewee than Akhenaten, himself. Ultimately and in many ways, the Sun King remains an enigmatic figure.
This is a quick and easy read with an interesting structure. It illustrates how prejudices and predilections can impact perceptions. Two individuals can view the same event or interact with the same individual and arrive at entirely different interpretations. Truth is never easy to ascertain. The novel also illustrates how an individual or a movement that dares to defy established norms is castigated by contemporaries and loved by others.
Recommended, especially for those interested in historical fiction about ancient Egypt.