It was hot. I was the only passenger steaming up the Nile on The Sudan. All rich wood and polished brass. Built in 1885 for King Fouad.
But in September 2016, my host and guide was a young, hot-headed, surly intellectual, who loved his country. Ashore, amidst the ruins, he’d yank me off to some desolate spot so forcefully that I was at first concerned. However, what he wanted was to whisper conspiratorially about his favorite pharaoh, Akhenaten. He started with how Akhenaten was the only pharaoh with enough defiance to insist that his far-from-perfect body be sculpted exactly as it was…not the Ken-doll, assembly-line hunk body that was used for every other pharaoh no matter what their bodies actually looked like.
The dust of not centuries, but millennia, blew through the ruins around us. The sun, symbol of Akhenaten’s ultra-revolutionary idea of a single god, beat down. This urgent, fervent young Egyptian kept on whispering about Akhenaten. It was magic.
And it was for that magic that I rose from my seat to applaud Philip Glass on December 7, 2019, when he appeared on stage for the final Metropolitan Opera performance of his Akhnaten. Note that Mr. Glass chose to omit a vowel from Akhenaten’s name, and that’s not all he omitted. Sometimes, as he most certainly proves with his music, less is more.
Apparently there exists in Egypt a very long tradition of confining one’s comments about Akhenaten to conspiratorial whispers. Millennia have been devoted to erasing his memory. Finally, in the 19th century, Freud credited him with launching our belief in a single god. Freud went on to postulate that the biblical story of Moses had its roots in the historical exodus from Egypt of Akhenaten’s followers when the Egyptians vehemently rejected this belief after Akhenaten’s death.
For the Egyptians of the time, their belief in many gods fostered the peaceful acceptance of what we now call diversity. There was always room for one more… But to suddenly believe in just one god introduced religious intolerance, and all the violent discord that came with it, into a society where this was so alien that they didn’t even have the words in their language to describe what to them was an absolute given, religious tolerance.
Was Akhenaten “good”? Was he “bad”? The Philip Glass opera Akhnaten refuses to comment. After all, who are we, so very many years later, to think we could know. What’s left to us? Perhaps it’s what the opera Akhnaten expresses best: the magic.