"[…] the tombs of the 'Great (s) of Seeing' and the 'Divine Fathers' of Aten, and the priests of Aten, … the tombs of the officers, shall be made in the Orient mountain of Akhetaten, and they shall be buried therein". So says Akhenaten on a border stele bearing the first decree founding the city of Akhetaten (Amarna).
Despite this declaration of the sovereign, only about fifty tombs were started and only 24 have inscriptions (sometimes reduced to a few lines). None have been completed and only one served in a funeral (although again, one cannot be sure).

These tombs are poorly known compared to those of Luxor, firstly because of the remoteness of the site in relation to major centres, secondly because of their unattractive character: the gray walls, often very damaged, have lost their colours and do not attract the eye. Yet they are very interesting monuments due to their originality and whose study is indispensible to understanding the Amarna period. Indeed, their architectural changes, quirks in representation and changes in the decorations allow us to penetrate the heart of the theological system created by Akhenaten who is at the centre. Not to mention that it is only here that all the hymns to Aten are to be found (Great Hymn and Small Hymns).

From a practical point of view, one must remember that the photographs available to us have the difficulty of being often dark or greenish tinted because of harsh lighting. We cannot provide better.

Why so few tombs?

We are reduced to theorising, because the short period of site occupation does not explain everything:

It is assumed (without being absolutely certain) that the privilege to create a tomb in his holy city was granted by Akhenaten himself, who perhaps has not given many such permissions.

A major obstacle was the low number of available artisans.

Many officials exercised their office in Memphis (20 km from Cairo) - which has always remained the administrative capital of the country - and they have probably chosen the cemetery of this town, the site of Saqqara. Alain Zivie has found several tombs of the Amarna period, including those of the nurse of Tutankhamen, Maia and the Vizier Aper-el while Geoffrey Martin found the before his accession to the throne. In 2001, Maarten Raven discovered, among other tombs of the era, that of Meryneith alongside that of Horemheb; the former person changed his name from Meryre and moved to Amarna, where he began another tomb. Finally, he returned to Saqqara, resuming his name as Meryneith () and continued the work in his first tomb…

Notables coming from this province have certainly preferred to be buried in the familiar cemetery of their Nome rather than in this corner of the desert where their funerary cult had little chance of their being kept up.

It is likely that a number of officials were sceptical about the future of religious reforms introduced by Akhenaten and any long term survival of local burials.

Consideration should be given also to the remarks of Owen & Kemp: "It is a common view of the ancient Egyptians that preparing for death was an overriding priority, at least for their elite. But the way that they actually proceeded rather tempers this view. A fine tomb was not, in fact, made an absolute priority in the allocation of available resources, and the attempt to provide one was pursued with a good measure of wishful thinking."
It seems that, for many, a beautiful house was better than a good tomb! This is true at Amarna as the number of large mansions in the City far exceeds that of decorated tombs.

The Theban tombs dating from the first part of the reign

Before we consider the tombs on the site of Akhetaten (Amarna), we must remember that 'there are in Thebes (Luxor) some tombs dating back to the reign of Amenhotep IV-Akhenaten, when he still resided in the city of Amun: TT 55 (Ramose), TT 188 (Parennefer, who also has a tomb in Amarna), , TT 46 (Ramose), TT 136 (Ipy), . Their study displays the transition between the traditional style and the Amarna style.


It was John Gardner Wilkinson, who in the 1820s was the first to notice the originality of the Amarna tombs. Then Robert Hay and Nestor L'Hote also copied some reliefs. The first significant publication was that of Karl Lepsius in his Denkmäler.
The standard publication on the Amarna tombs remains that of N. de Garis Davies, "The rock tombs of el-Amarna", published in six volumes in the early twentieth century. By this time, Davies had to rely on previous descriptions including those by Lepsius to restore areas that had meanwhile disappeared.
These rock chapels have suffered due to the poor overall quality of the rock, wilful destruction in the post-Amarna period (persecution of the memory of Akhenaten), Coptic monks and modern looters, squatters and vandals.


A- Akhetaten, the city of the Sun

The city of Akhenaten ("Akhet-Aten', "Horizon-of-the-Aton" or "Horizon-of-the-Solar-disk ") was created from nothing by the will of the pharaoh Akhenaten expressed in year 5 of his reign. It is located on the site of Tell el-Amarna, about halfway between Thebes (Luxor) and Memphis. The city was occupied for fifteen years before being abandoned and dismantled. It was occupied by from 20 to 40 000 people, and was built in a vast sandy and inhospitable semi-circle, not previously inhabited. It is bordered for the most part of its circumference by hundred metre high cliffs, which dominate a high desert plateau. There are 12 kms between the two furthest points, north and south, of the semi-circle where cliffs almost reach down to the Nile; the maximum distance between the river and the cliffs is about 5 km. These plateau and cliffs are interrupted here and there by dry valleys or wadis (river beds), one of which leads to the royal necropolis. South east, the plateau descends into an irregularly flat tongue of desert of about 3 km wide.

B- The tombs

The tombs of notables are excavated in the cliffs that encircle the city, "The great and venerable hill of Akhetaten"; "The mountain east of Akhetaten, the place of Maat". They are divided into two groups, north and south of the wadi leading to the royal necropolis. Each group represents the end point of a network of interconnected slopes with the city.
Davies thought that, based on the successive forms of the name of Aton, the tombs of the southern group were earlier than those of the northern group. However, this traditional criterion of dating is unreliable, and it appears that both sites were used simultaneously.
Authority to create a tomb was doubtless given by Akhenaten himself, but it is not known who selected the location of the concession, nor what criteria. Note that, besides the numbered graves, there are as many unnumbered: sometimes barely noted, we know nothing of their owners ().

1) - Tombs of the northern group

( and )

Located northeast of the city and near border stele V, they are divided into two groups separated by a wadi, tombs No. 1 and No. 2 in the north, and No. 3-6 south. They are at a height of 85m carved out at the base of a vertical cliff overlooking a slope formed from rocky debris. Most were made with two rooms in succession, with a niche for the statue of the deceased at the end of the second room. These tombs were occupied by Christian monks, who have sometimes added rooms and who converted the large tomb, No. 6 Panhesy, into a church.

a) - Six tombs are numbered

(only the main titles of the owners are mentioned here) :

Tomb (TA) 01 : Huya is "Overseer of the Royal Harim and of the Treasuries, and Steward of the Great Royal Wife, Tiye".

Tomb (TA) 02 : Meryre (II) is "Royal scribe, Steward, Overseer of the Two Treasuries, Overseer of the Royal Harim of Nefertiti."

Tomb (TA) 03 : Ahmes is "True Scribe of the King, Fan-bearer on the King's Right Hand, Steward of the Estate of Akhenaten.".

Tomb (TA) 04 : Meryre is "High priest of the Aten in Akhetaten, Fanbearer on the Right Hand of the King". His case is very interesting, as we have seen, as he is probably the same person as Meryneith, owner of a tomb at Saqqara.

Tomb (TA) 05 : Penthu is "Royal scribe, First under the King, Chief servitor of the Aten in the Estate of the Aten in Akhetaten, chief of physicians".

Tomb (TA) 06 : Panehsy is "Chief servitor of the Aten in the temple of Aten in Akhetaten". So this is the High Priest of the Aten.

b) - The desert altars


This term describes a group of three mud brick structures, aligned along the northern slope. Each consists of a platform which is accessed by a one or four ramp (s). Their function remains hypothetical, but it is likely that they are related to the funeral cult of some of the northern tomb group deceased which included two priests, Meryra (Tomb No. 4) and Panhesy (tomb No. 6). It is possible that the delivery ceremony of the tribute in year 12 was held here (see page 3).

2) - Tombes of the southern group

This is the largest group, with 19 numbered tombs.
They were excavated in a series of low cliffs to the south and east of the city () in a very poor quality rock. Their entry, usually at a lower level (), is regularly silted up. Their plan is more diverse than that of the northern group tombs, but they are less impressive.

The most important are:

Tomb (TA) 07 : Parennefer, is "Royal craftsman, Washer of hands of His Majesty". This is the only person we are sure had already started a tomb in Thebes (TT 188), which he abandoned to begin another in Amarna.

Tomb (TA) 08 : Tutu is "Chamberlain, Chief servitor of Neferkheperura-waenra (the King) in… (damaged text)… of the Temple of the Aten in Akhetaten, Overseer of all works of His Majesty, Overseer of silver and gold of the Lord of the Two Lands".

Tomb (TA) 09 : Mahu is "Chief of police of Akhetaten".

Tomb (TA) 10 : Ipy is "Royal scribe, Steward".

Tomb (TA) 11 : Ramose is "Royal scribe, Commander of troops of the Lord of the Two Lands, Steward of Nebmaatra (Amenhotep III) ".

Tomb (TA) 12 : Nakhtpaaten is "Prince, Chancellor, Vizier.".

Tomb (TA) 13 : Neferkheperu-her-sekheper is "Mayor of Akhetaten".

Tomb (TA) 14 : May est "Fan-bearer on the right hand of the King, Royal scribe, scribe of recruits, Steward of the house of Sehetep-Aten, Steward of the house of Waenra in Heliopolis, Overseer of cattle of the estate of Ra in Heliopolis, Overseer of all the works of the King, General of the Lord of the Two Lands".

Tomb (TA) 15 : Suti is "Standard-bearer of the guild of Neferkheperura (Akhenaten) ".

Tomb (TA) 16 : It has no decoration and thus no indication as to who owned it. Nonetheless it contains a handsome and finely carved columned hall brought almost to completion.

Tomb (TA) 19 : Setau is "Overseer of the treasury of the Lord of the Two Lands".

Tomb (TA) 23 : Any is "Royal scribe, Scribe of the offering-table of the Aten, Steward of the estate of Aakheperura (Amenhetep II) " .

Tomb (TA) 24 : Paatenemheb is "Royal scribe, Overseer of soldiery of the Lord of the Two Lands, Steward of the Lord of the Two Lands".

Tomb (TA) 25 : Ay is "God's father, Fan-bearer on the right hand of the King, Overseer of horses of His Majesty". It is he who will succeed Tutankhamun and whose reign will end the "Amarna period".

The architecture and the work in the tomb

1) Architecture

1) The typical rock chapel of the eighteenth dynasty comprises of two separate sets of parts connected by one or more passage (s), overall with an inverted T shape. The outer part forms the crossbar of the T while the inner part forms a longitudinal bar.

The plan of Amarna tombs moves away from this classic pattern. There is no standard model, but it seems that, ideally, parts of the chapel must contain columns, transforming the space into a veritable small temple, sometimes very impressive (). The fluted columns are complex and finish up as architraves, sometimes coupled with a ledge ‘neck’. These cornices are also found in the door frames, which were designed to be monumental, such as in the tomb of Ay. With these tombs, temples are found a continuation of a trend initiated shortly before Thebes (the tomb of Ramose TT 55, is a good example). In practice, the graves vary in their dimensions, their plan, the presence or absence of columns…

According to Arp, the size of the tomb, or the existence of a columned hall, are not related to the importance or number of titles of the owner, but with the location of the tomb and the quality of the rock. Thus the general Ramose, who lived in one of the largest mansions in Akhetaten, has only a modest tomb, no 11.  An important element of the Amarna tomb is the niche, which is upon the axis of the entrance at the back of the chapel, so in the east as the entrance is to the west; the best preserved is that of the tomb of Any. His is an ’engaged’ statue (= directly carved into the rock) of the deceased receiving the offerings of his family members.

No tomb was completely finished, it has been said. The first priority of the owners was to finish - more or less completely - the entrance and the first room. The second priority was to decorate the walls of the niche with funeral themes.

Underground structures are sometimes funerary pits, sometimes stairs (), which are found most often in the first room. None is complete.

2) Work in the tomb

Sseveral separate types of trades occur on the site. They do not work as teams, but are detached from a common pool without coordination.

Quarrymen start the work. They begin the first part working at ceiling level, and then they cut out the stone downwards, almost to the level of the future floor. This is precision work because it requires them from the beginning to have an overview of the room and mentally to leave enough surplus rock to allow for the finer work that follows. At this stage the rock fissures are filled with plaster already.
Then follows another team of stonemasons, who refine the work of the Quarrymen to reduce the diameter of the columns to that they will have at the end of the work.
A third team provides the final proportions, the most important work since it provides the final appearance. Chisel marks are removed by abrasion and by using plaster coating.

Plasterers The plaster must cover all surfaces other than the floor. These two teams employ highly skilled workers who can work "by eye".
Then come the artists, who sketch the scenes and hieroglyphics to be painted in black ink. A master artist then made the corrections in red ink. some of these sketched scenes still remain, for example in the tomb of May.
Next engravers come in to work. They carve scenes and texts in the plaster and sometimes in the underlying limestone. Their role is primarily to give permanent shape and contours for the work of the colourist, which explains why these engravings are not of exceptional quality.
Finally, colourists paint the scenes, hieroglyphs and the ceilings. It is hard to imagine these with the grey aspect most of the walls now present, but originally they were painted in colors as vibrant as the Theban tombs. It is the fall of their plaster and soot trails from lamps… that make their décor often uninviting.

3) The scarcity of labour

Obtaining these work crews had to lead to fierce competition amongst tomb builders and was thus certainly a good mark of the favour enjoyed by the tomb owner from the sovereign. The gradual completion of the main monuments of the city had certainly freed up some categories of workers. However, the vast work program launched by Akhenaten in the royal necropolis had to mobilise for itself at least two special trades in the work of the tombs, the quarrymen and plasterers. Thus, it was the skilled labour shortage, not abandonment of the city, that led to the tombs being unfinished. The small number of artisans also explains the remarkable unity of style among these tombs.