site of the New Kingdom capital of the eighteenth dynasty king Amenhotpe IV/Akhenaten (r. 1372–1355 BCE), built to honor his sole god Aten, located in Middle Egypt (27°38′N, 30°53′E). The large mud-brick and stone expanse of the city, as well as the cuneiform clay tablets found there within a state archival office, have made Tell el-Amarna important to archaeologists and essential to historians of the Near East interested in the Late Bronze Age.


The remains of Tell el-Amarna today stretch some 10 kilometers (7 miles) north to south on the eastern side of the Nile River. The ancient city and environs occupied nearly twice that distance on both sides of the river and were together called Akhetaten, “the Horizon of the Aten [sun disk].” The name was given by the city's founder, Akhenaten, on a series of boundary stelae placed to delimit Tell el-Amarna. The city within Akhetaten may have had a separate designation or more than one, and the monumental buildings that Akhenaten had built within the city also had discreet appellations (for some of these see below).

The name Tell el-Amarna is a misnomer, for the site has no visible mound that characterizes tells in the Near East generally. Modern names and spellings have shifted since Western expeditions arrived there in the late eighteenth century. First designated El-Tell by the Napoleonic expedition of 1798, the site was called by several names (for example, Till Bene Amran, used by Robert Hay in 1829). European travelers conflated the villages of et-Tell (or Till) and el-Amariya with a tribe settled in the region called Ben Amran. The name Tel(l) el-Amarna first appeared on a publication by John Gardner Wilkinson, who mapped the site and published his map in 1830.

Occupational History.

Tell el-Amarna, or el-Amarna as it is now more commonly termed, consists principally of the capital built for King Akhenaten, about 1360 BCE, on land that he believed to be previously unsettled. (Son of Amenhotpe III, Akhenaten had ascended to the throne as Amenhotpe IV in 1372 BCE but changed his name a few years later.) Some areas of the site had been occupied, however, during other ancient eras. The earliest remains are known from several Paleolithic areas, with flint concentrations, and a few Neolithic (Predynastic) artifacts suggest pre-third millennium occupation in the region.

Akhenaten's city within Akhetaten was largely abandoned within a dozen years of his death in 1355 BCE. The ruler who succeeded Akhenaten for a year or two, Smenkhkare, appears to have resided in el-Amarna, and Tutankhaten, who soon changed his name to the more familiar Tutankhamun, is well attested at the site for at least another two years. Building activity is documented also in a workers' village in the period following Tutankhamun's abandonment of Middle Egypt and return to the region of Thebes. The full seventeen years of Akhenaten's reign, together with the dozen or so years comprising Smenkhkare's, Tutankhamun's, and Ay's rules, are often referred to as the “Amarna period,” although el-Amarna was not inhabited during all of it.

Amarna, Tell El-

Amarna, Tell el-. Plan of Tell el-Amarna.

In one region of southern el-Amarna, near the Nile, are the remains of a town that survived the abandonment of the main city. Fragmentary architecture of late New Kingdom date or later are mixed there with potsherds of the Amarna period. Although originally identified as the “river temple,” the bits of structures have recently been relabeled as house remains. A few burials of the twenty-second and twenty-third dynasties were found in the early 1920s near the workers' village, and in 1984 a burial of the twentieth to twenty-first dynasties was excavated in the same area. Sherds of the Late period (end of eighth century–332 BCE) were found near the southern tombs of Akhenaten's nobles. These may have belonged to burials of a population that lived in the general vicinity (possibly the river town) or may indicate transient activity through the area for various purposes, possibly even illicit ones, that is, tomb robbery. In the Roman period, several settlements existed at the site of el-Amarna, and Coptic Christians later converted tombs there for housing and worship.

Research and Excavation.

The largest of the few preserved Egyptian cities, el-Amarna has been frequently explored and studied. Recent surveys and comparisons with the earliest maps of the region indicate that el-Amarna has always been visible to interested visitors. Areas destroyed by illicit digging appear to have been only slightly less disturbed in the mid-1800s than today.

As early as 1714, Father Claude Sicard, a French Jesuit missionary, published a drawing of Amarna Boundary Stela A at Tuna el-Gebel. The Napoleonic scientific expedition visited the region in 1799, and Edmé Jomard produced a plan of El-Tell in the pioneering study Description de l'Égypte, published in 1817. John Gardner Wilkinson visited el-Amarna in 1824 and 1826 to draw, plan, and copy the buildings and tombs, and he produced plans of the entire city. Other travelers in the 1820s and 1830s, such as Robert Hay, James Burton, and Nestor L'Hôte, made copies of the tombs of Akhenaten's nobles. The royal Prussian expedition led by Richard Lepsius drew plans of the city of el-Amarna between 1843 and 1845.

The first modern archaeological work at el-Amarna took place in 1891–1892 when William Matthew Flinders Petrie opened excavations in a variety of locations at the site. Several expeditions followed in rapid succession, culminating in the methodical survey and excavations of Ludwig Borchardt (1907, 1911–1914), carried out for the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft. Some of the best-known works of Amarna art were uncovered during that period, including the famous bust of Nefertiti, which is now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin (Charlottenburg), and numerous other statues found in the house and workshop of the sculptor Thutmose in the main city/south suburb. The Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF; now Society) of London copied and published the private tombs and boundary stelae between 1901 and 1907. They resumed work at the site in 1921 under a succession of well-known directors, including Thomas Eric Peet, Henri Frankfort, Francis Llewellyn Griffith, and John D. S. Pendlebury. The EEF explored nearly all the areas of the site, moving from peripheral regions such as the workers' village, the “river temple,” and the northern palace to later extensive excavations in the central city that lasted until 1936.

In the early 1970s, Geoffrey T. Martin reinvestigated the royal tomb at el-Amarna and published on the numerous but fragmentary objects associated there with Akhenaten and Nefertiti. In 1977, the Egypt Exploration Society resumed work under the direction of Barry J. Kemp and has worked at the site since. Kemp commenced excavation at the workers' village that once housed artisans employed in the royal tomb. His team found that the village may have been abandoned and then reinhabited in the time of Tutankhamun by guardians of the royal and private necropolises. Research has focused on identifying patterns of activity sited within the village, as well as the interdependence between the village and the central city. Kemp has moved his investigations into the main city area since 1987 but continues to be interested in the interrelationships between public and private buildings and their peripheral economic dependencies.


The fifteen boundary stelae of Akhenaten delimiting the territory of el-Amarna, like the remains of the city they describe, are important monuments. Some of these boundary markers consist only of a stela and others of an actual rock shrine containing statuary. They provide further information about the site, however, for three preserve the text of a proclamation made by Akhenaten in the first months of his fifth regnal year, in which he describes and names numerous buildings and complexes to be constructed at Akhetaten. Some of these (e.g., the great Aten temple, the “mansion of the Aten,” the royal tomb) can be identified with excavated structures; some cannot with certainty (e.g., the “house of rejoicing and sunshade of the great queen”), and some others appear never to have been completed (e.g., the tomb of the Mnevis bull of Heliopolis). The identifiable buildings correspond to complexes and tombs built throughout much of the 10-kilometer north–south stretch of el-Amarna, a fact that confirms the original design of the city as a long narrow town accommodated to the Nile and the eastern bay of limestone cliffs by a royal road. This road was later redirected in part but remained the primary route linking north areas to the central city.

Amarna, Tell El-

Amarna, Tell el-. View of Tell el–Amarna. (Courtesy of David P. Silverman)

At its northern end, el-Amarna had a mud-brick northern river palace oriented on its western side to the royal road that travels southward for 6 kilometers (3.7 miles). This palace may have been the principal residence of the king. A group of administrative buildings lies just south of it along with a residential quarter also oriented to the road. Farther south is the northern palace, also built to face the royal road—a tourist attraction today. There, around courts with pools and shaded garden porticoes, lived at least two queens, including Meritaten, Akhenaten's daughter, who resided there after a predecessor, perhaps Nefertiti or Kiya.

The northern suburb is located to the east of the royal road orientation, and the parts excavated (those farthest north from the central city) appear to have been a late addition. Areas of residence between the northern suburb and the central city have not been excavated but could reveal in time whether this is a natural northern extension from the central city or grew up later in a separate but parallel fashion.

The central city contains most of the buildings whose material remains, architecture, and preserved decoration may suggest a center planned for state administration and worship. Oriented to the royal road, it contained from north to south, the enormous precinct of the great Aten temple (“house” or “estate of the Aten”); the king's house, connected by a bridge to the great palace; the smaller Aten temple (the “Mansion of the Aten”); and the Smenkhkare hall. On the eastern side of the road, the king's house and smaller Aten temple were the westernmost of a complex of buildings that were crucial to state functions. Kemp considers the king's house to be the most likely siting for the “window of appearance” pictured in numerous private tombs of Akhenaten's officials (Kemp and Garfi 1993, p. 59). A series of scribal offices lay east of the king's house, including one identified by stamped bricks as the “place of the pharaoh's correspondence.” In this archival office were found the majority of the Amarna Letters, famous as the correspondence between the Egyptian rulers Amenhotpe III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun with kings and city-state rulers from Mesopotamia and the Levant. To the east of the offices lies a garrison block with animal stalls and barracks, as well as separate storage areas for rations. This security complex is not oriented toward the royal road. Being on the eastern edge of the city, it may have had more association with the desert and the wadi due east, leading to the royal tomb.

The best-known compound in the central city, the great Aten temple, likewise comprised several structures. The Gempaaten (“the Aten is found”) was a multicourted stone building near the western end of the temple precinct. It was entered from a western gateway through high pylons giving on to stone colonnades that themselves led to a series of unroofed courtyards. Within and beside these courts were arranged bread-offering altars, made of stone (within the courts) or brick (south of the courts). More than 750 altars were placed within the Gempaaten, and some 920 brick tables lay to the south of the building. Another 920 may once have existed on the northern side. The formal colonnaded setting appears to have been the primary offering area for Aten state worship but not the actual sanctuary of the temple. Between Gempaaten and a second stone structure to the east, the sanctuary, was a “butcher's yard” with tethering stones and an enormous open area. A separate northern entrance to the open area before the sanctuary was elaborated as a gateway pavilion. A stela of quartizite, perhaps evoking the Heliopolitan benben stone, was set up on a line with this entrance. The sanctuary building was flanked to the north by more bread-offering altars, but excavations to the south of the building and just outside the enclosure wall have revealed indications of different ritual activities as well. In a dump, Petrie and Pendlebury found plain everted-rim bowls with burnt resins inside. In 1986, Kemp confirmed that the bowls with burned “incense” were common in the dump area along with “beer-jar” shapes and other offering vessel types (Kemp 1989, vol. 4, pp. 116–121). Kemp found fragments of storage jars, and Pendlebury had found seals and labels in the area. Kemp has identified this dump as a significant locale for the sanctuary's refuse. It provides evidence for the libations and offerings of incense made within the neighboring building. Kemp has noted the placement of large bakeries on the southern side of the enclosure wall opposite the Gempaaten. The hundreds of altars there would have held loaves from those bakeries; Kemp believes that a segment of the city's populace offered to the Aten on the brick tables to the south of the Gempaaten while the king and family officiated inside the temple proper (Kemp and Garfi 1993, p. 55). Despite Kemp's contributions, the ritual connection between the sanctuary and the Gempaaten, as well as the use patterns for the complex generally, remain uncertain.

In the main city or south suburb are residential and administrative quarters. Large-scale unexcavated complexes of undoubted administrative nature lie in this sector, largely to the west of more domestic structures. The state and temple institutions operated their own economies and necessarily housed the resources, both perishable and nonperishable. Kemp believes that government workshops may have been situated in those large centers, but he also notes that large institutions appear to have been made up of a number of complexes, often not located together. The designation of industrial centers without inscription as “royal,” “temple,” or “private” thus becomes problematic (Kemp and Garfi 1993, pp. 67–69; Kemp 1989, vol. 5, pp. 56–63).

The house and workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, famous for the many statues and plaster masks of royal family, are located in the south suburb near other sculptors' shops. Thutmose's precise economic and administrative association with his patrons is difficult to ascertain. Whether individual artisans were contracted directly by the court, through court-sanctioned patrons, or both, is unknown. For example, some obviously nonroyal estates appear to have housed royal workshops, perhaps as a subcontract from the crown.

Architecture is not always a clear indicator of function. Archaeological research has demonstrated the often diverse patterns of use for both residences and specialized buildings, such as “magazines,” which, as Kemp has found, were used both for production and for storage (Kemp and Garfi 1993, pp. 67–69). Nearly all areas of el-Amarna held residences (royal, temple, private), and those residences nearly always contained separate storage facilities, wells, often industrial centers. The degree to which these separate facilities indicate independent economic behavior is unknown.

To the south of the main city/south suburb is Kom el-Nana, oriented to the original royal road since it was laid out before the growth of the main city. Kom el-Nana is a temple complex with supporting buildings for food production and storage. Kemp believes that this is the third of three major institutions described in the early proclamation, the “sunshade of the great queen” (Kemp and Garfi 1993, p. 79). Even farther south and entirely isolated is the Maruaten, a site that houses enclosures with altars and shrines along with pools and surrounding gardens. It is clearly linked with queens, including Akhenaten's daughter Meritaten.

Other areas of southern el-Amarna include the above-mentioned river settlement, which is a residential area, and el-Hawata in the far south, also near the Nile. Little remains in this sector. On the opposite end of the site are a number of architectural remains not part of the city proper. Three large desert altars in the northeastern desert, nearly opposite the northern palace, are oriented toward the royal road. These mud-brick structures with ramps once held pavilions, perhaps for large-scale royal receptions of dignitaries, such as are pictured in two private tombs. Above these altars are the northern tombs of private residents of el-Amarna. A second set of such tombs exists in the southern cliffs. A total of forty-three tombs was excavated in whole or part. The most elaborate had colonnaded inner halls, and in those that were decorated (many were left incomplete) the royal family and the architecture of Akhetaten figured prominently in painted relief sculpture.

The royal tomb and a few uninscribed smaller tombs were located in a wadi reached through a larger wadi running eastward opposite the central city. Unusual relief scenes of mourning over corpses on beds appear on the walls of the royal burial chamber and on a side chamber used for the burial of Akhenaten's daughter, who may have died in childbirth. The royal funerary goods left at the site were smashed into pieces, but remains of the royal sarcophagus and canopic box have been studied (Martin 1974). At the mouth of the eastern wadi was the workers' village, which was apparently used for the building of the royal tomb and later, during the reign of Tutankhamun, for guarding the same area. The villagers in the time of Tutankhamun had not only self-sufficient residences but also shrines where families gathered to eat and commune with recently deceased relatives. These shrines would also have been memorial chapels for a household or several related households. The second phase in the workers' village is one of the latest excavated, representing the later reign of Akhenaten through the reign of Tutankhamun, including the time after the court's departure from el-Amarna. The activity of the guards living in the village in the last phase therefore reflects a mixture of religious beliefs with various traditional gods reappearing in shrine images. Following the abandonment of the workers' village, the city of Amarna was both used as a quarry, especially for the Ramessid temple at Hermopolis, and deliberately mutilated. Statuary was destroyed in situ or dragged away and dumped. A similar pattern of reuse and destruction can be seen in the earlier complex at East Karnak, which Akhenaten built both before and after his change of name from Amenhotpe.


  • Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt: A New Study. London, 1968. Pioneering historical and art historical study of the ruler, presenting Aldred's arguments for a prolonged coregency between Akhenaten and his father Amenhotpe III. Revised and reissued in 1988.
  • Bomann, Ann H. The Private Chapel in Ancient Egypt: A Study of the Chapels in the Workmen's Village at El Amarna with Special Reference to Deir el Medina and Other Sites. London, 1991. Identifies the close relationship between el-Amarna chapels and Deir el-Medina private chapels used for personal cult worship, differentiating these from chapels strictly attached to tombs, which the author considers to be for the ka of the deceased.
  • Kemp, Barry J. Amarna Reports. 5 vols. London, 1984–1989. Annual reports of work by the Egypt Exploration Society under Kemp's direction. Each volume includes contributions by expedition members on topics such as pottery analysis, ancient wells, survey work, ancient ovens, faunal and botanical remains, etc. Kemp's offerings are always written with the reader in mind, but some authors allow the technical side to dominate.
  • Kemp, Barry J. “Tell el-Amarna.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 309–319. Wiesbaden, 1985. Encyclopedia article encapsulating work at the site, with references to 1985.
  • Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1989. General work on the cultural life of ancient Egypt, with a lengthy chapter using el-Amarna as “Egypt in microcosm.” Contains analysis of work up to 1988.
  • Kemp, Barry J., and Salvatore Garfi. A Survey of the Ancient City of El-‘Amarna. London, 1993. Survey sheets of the site with accompanying text. Kemp offers a number of recent thoughts, particularly on provisioning within el-Amarna, and provides summaries of earlier analyses within the technical descriptions of the sheets.
  • Martin, Geoffrey T. The Royal Tomb at el-Amarna I. London, 1974. The tomb objects from museums all over the world gathered together for study.
  • Martin, Geoffrey T. A Bibliography of the Amarna Period and Its Aftermath. London, 1991.
  • Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore, 1992. Retranslation and annotation of the famous correspondence between the rulers of el-Amarna, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. Eminently readable.
  • Murnane, William J., and Charles C. Van Siclen III. The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten. London, 1993. Publication of the refound, recollated, and researched boundary stelae, forming an important reference work for historians and philologists of el-Amarna.
  • Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten the Heretic King. Princeton, 1984. Chapter 7 contains Redford's summation of the city. Archaeologically much has been revised since that time, but Redford has a spirited style and links the site with East Karnak, where he excavated Akhenaten's early temples.
  • Van de Walle, Baudouin. “La découverte d'Amarna et d'Akhenaton”. Revue d'Égyptologie 28 (1976), 7–24. History of the early researches at el-Amarna.

Betsy M. Bryan