OTC 3: "Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth" -- Egypt
My third book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge 2009 is Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo, and originally published in 1985. Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
The historical Akhenaten (originally Amenhotep IV but he changed his name), who was pharoah for about 17 years during the 1340s and 1330s B. C., challenged the authority of the existing religion of Egypt, the worship first and foremost of Amun but of other gods, as well, and created a new religion which centered on the worship of a single god; he eventually outlawed the older religion and moved the capital of Egypt from Memphis to a city he ordered built, Akhetaten. After his reign, the older religion was restored, his religion was banned, his city largely abandoned, and all public records were defaced to remove any trace of his existence or that of his religion.
Mafhouz's novel takes place after Akhenaten's death, when the removal of his recorded existence is already underway. Meriamun, a young Egyptian of noble family who was only a child during the latter part of Akhenaten's reign, becomes curious about this individual whose very existence is being expunged from the records, and decides to learn and to record the truth about Akhenaten so that later generations will know who he was and why he has been deleted from official history. So, with the blessing of his father (and his father's assistance in the form of letters of introduction to important political and religious figures), Meriamun sets out to learn the truth by interviewing all those who are still alive who knew and were associated with Akhenaten. The novel itself consists of his interviews, faithfully and accurately recorded.
What Meriamun comes to learn during this process is that there isn't one clear truth; there are as many truths as there are individuals with whom he speaks. He talks to friends, companions, relatives, servants, opponents, and outright enemies, culminating with his interview of Nefertiti, Akhenaten's beloved wife who had mysteriously abandoned him toward the end of his life; in the process, he learns not only about many different Akhenatens but also a great deal about those he interviews, often as much about why they believe what they do as what they believe. In the end, Meriamun leaves it largely to the reader to draw his own conclusions about just who Akhenaten was and what were his accomplishments, but does give us in the closing lines some indication of what he has come to think.
Because the novel was written in the early 1980s, some of the historical information in the novel has been outdated by more recent archeological findings and is no longer entirely reliable. But that's not particularly important; the novel is really about the kind of person Akhenaten was (at least as Mahfouz imagines him), and the book (which is short, only 168 pages) does an excellent job of presenting the reader with a fascinating portrait from multiple perspectives of the title character. I highly recommend Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth.