Belgian Egyptologists discover the secret of pharaoh Akhenaten


The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, best known for his wife Nefertiti and successor Tutankhamun, had a huge new capital city built in the desert between 1350 and 1335 BC. Egyptologists wondered for a long time how Akhenaten managed to erect an entire city in 15 years’ time. Leuven-based researchers discovered that a large industrial area immediately next to the city, with hundreds of stone quarries and an extensive road network, made this possible. The discovery shows that the construction of Amarna must have been a huge project of unprecedented dimensions.

The intriguing events during the lives of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti and their successor Tutankhamun made the Amarna period one of the most researched periods in Egyptian history. ‘Amarna is very interesting for Egyptologists’, Professor Harco Willems from KU Leuven explains. ‘However, most research focuses on the city itself, whereas we have found something interesting just outside the city. At the time, many large buildings and palaces were built in the city, but not much is left of these. Until now, we did not know how they were able to build a city of that size in such a short period of time. Now it turns out that there was an actual industrial area next to the city. We have discovered where they got all that stone to build the city so fast. Before getting to the actual city centre you first reach the industrial outskirts. We have never seen this before in Egypt.’

The team of Professor Harco Willems (KU Leuven) already found remains of industrial outskirts last year. Now it turns out that the industrial area extends 12 kilometres north from the city. There, Egyptologists have discovered hundreds of stone quarries where talatat blocks were produced. This smaller type of building blocks was only used during the Amarna period. The quarries are so large that the Egyptians could have extracted millions of such building blocks.

In the quarries Professor Willems and his team have also found countless texts and dates left there by the workers. They have also discovered quite some graffiti, which include images of the sun god.

The industrial area was crossed by tens of roads and paths. With the help of satellite photographs the researchers were able to map this entire network. Most paths led to the Nile, where it is assumed that there were several small ports over a length of 10 kilometres. One area was located so high up in the desert that these blocks were transported to Amarna by road.

Professor Willems started his research about six years ago. At first, this mainly focussed on the stone quarries themselves. Later, satellite photography was used to map the road network. ‘When one thinks about Egypt, one thinks about pyramids and other large monuments. What we are doing is try to map entire regions and the connections between these’, Willems clarifies. ‘You can compare it to a Belgian medieval city, such as Ghent. There, not only St Nicholas Church must be studied, but also what the medieval street plan looked like.’