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Tell el Amarna, Beni Hassan and Hermopolis

Everything You Need to Know for a Visit to Tell el Amarna, Beni Hassan and Hermopolis

Tell el Amarna, also known as Akhetaton or Ajenaton, was the capital of Ancient Egypt during the mid-14th century BC (18th Dynasty, New Kingdom) for a brief but transformative era. Built by the pharaoh Akhenaten, this mysterious city is now an open-air archaeological park that attracts Egyptologists, Egyptophiles, and tourists alike. 

Akhenaten was the pharaoh who built Amarna and in these lines we will see why, as it is a key aspect to enjoy the visit of this archaeological site, which today is an open-air archaeological park. On this page, we provide all the information you need for a visit to Tell el Amarna, as well as nearby sites of interest, such as Beni Hassan and Hermopolis, which make great complements to full-day excursions. Our agency can also plan a customized trip to Middle Egypt for you, including transportation, accommodation, local guides and all the details you need to have an enjoyable experience.

Table of contents

Clarification On the Names

When it comes to Egypt, and particularly Ancient Egypt, names can often be a source of confusion. To avoid any ambiguity, it’s important to be clear on the following terms:

  • Akhetaton (or Ajetaton): The original name of the city built by the pharaoh Akhenaten. It means “horizon of Aton,” referring to the god of the solar disk Aton, the only deity promoted by the pharaoh.
  • Amarna (or Tell el Amarna): The current name of the area where the ruins of Akhetaton are located. It’s the name used most often today, although the ancient Egyptians never called the city by this name. The name probably refers to the Bedouin tribe of Beni Amran, who settled here later.
  • Akhenaten (or Ajenaten): The name given to himself by the pharaoh who built Amarna. It means “the one who pleases Aton,” as he considered himself a prophet of the aforementioned god of the solar disk. However, before this name, he had others, as we will see below.
  • Amenhotep IV: A name equivalent to Amenofis IV. In fact, Amenhotep IV is the transcription of his name in hieroglyphics, while Amenofis IV is the Hellenized name.
  • Amenofis IV: The name the pharaoh who built Amarna had before triggering the religious schism by establishing the unique worship of Aton. Therefore, Akhenaten and Amenofis IV refer to the same person, but at different times.

In summary: Akhetaton, Ajetaton, and Amarna refer to the same place, while Akhenaten, Ajenaten, Amenofis IV, and Amenhotep IV refer to the same person, namely, the pharaoh who built Amarna.

Tell el amarna

Where is Tell el Amarna Located?

Finding Tell el Amarna on a map can be challenging, as there is no town with that name in Egypt. Instead, it is an area located on the eastern bank of the Nile River, opposite the small town of Bani Omran (or Bani Umran). As such, it is considered part of Middle Egypt, which covers the Nile Valley between Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt. This places it approximately halfway between Cairo and Luxor.

For reference, here are some distances to help you locate Amarna:

  • 300 km south of Cairo
  • 60 km south of Al Minya
  • 15 km south of Mallawi
  • 80 km north of Asyut
  • 180 km north of Sohag
  • 400 km north of Luxor

Like the rest of the Nile Valley, Amarna experiences a warm desert climate. We recommend consulting the “Climate in Egypt” page for more information to help you prepare for your visit.

History of Tell el Amarna

To fully appreciate a visit to Tell el Amarna, it is essential to understand its history. This includes knowing which pharaoh built the city, why they did it, and what happened afterward. If you book a tour with Egipto Exclusivo, our knowledgeable guide will provide context and detail during your visit. Here is a brief introduction to the history of Tell el Amarna:

Background: Splendor and Tensions

Let’s go back to the 14th century BC, during the New Kingdom of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. This was a time of great economic prosperity and dominance over past adversaries and contemporary neighbors, such as the Hyksos, Nubians, and Canaanites. And all of this resulted in a period of great economic splendor, especially during the time of Amenhotep III.

However, tensions began to arise within the country and between different powers, due in part to the growing power of the clergy of Amun in Karnak (Tebas, present-day Luxor). These tensions had already been felt by Amenhotep III, but they escalated with his successor, Amenhotep IV, who later became known as Akhenaten.

A New Era, A New City

During the reign of Amenhotep IV, the official religion of Ancient Egypt underwent a significant transformation. The pharaoh made it practically monotheistic, subordinating all gods to the sun disk god, Aten, who thus achieved supremacy. To have total control over the new religion, Amenhotep IV proclaimed himself an intermediary or prophet of this divinity and changed his name to Akhenaten.

The break was accompanied by a change in political, administrative, and religious capital. The pharaoh decided to abandon Thebes and establish his court in a new city called Akhetaten (Amarna). Located about 400 km north of Thebes, everything was built in record time, including his palace and the Great Temple of Aten, which became the reference religious building.

It is difficult to estimate how long the capital remained in Amarna, but experts agree that it was at least 15 years. This period was frenetic, intense, and revolutionary in many ways, including politically, religiously, socially, and artistically. Despite its short lifespan, Amarna remains a fascinating and unique chapter in Ancient Egyptian history.

During the reign of Akhenaten, the art in Amarna flourished and is usually considered one of the pinnacles of Egyptian art due to the adoption of less rigid and more naturalistic canons. The subject matter of some works also shows a certain preference for earthly matters over supernatural ones, suggesting a certain joy and delight in existence. Some of the few testimonies that allow us to imagine what life was like in the city are mural compositions in tombs and the so-called Amarna Letters, which are diplomatic documents on clay tablets found here.

However, such a drastic change in religion and capital inevitably faced resistance from the established social strata and individuals who saw the displacement of their gods as an affront. Therefore, it was difficult for Akhenaten’s legacy to continue for long.

The End and Fall of Amarna

The end of Amarna was as abrupt as its emergence. After the death of Akhenaten, very little is known about the city’s fate. It is believed that the population, including the royal family, was hit by an epidemic, which accelerated the city’s decline. Semenkhkare briefly succeeded Akhenaten, but his role is not entirely clear. Tutankhamun, son of Akhenaten, then came to power, and despite dying young, he initiated a process of religious, political, and social restoration.

The last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, Horemheb, was more radical. He promoted the complete destruction of Amarna, which had been abandoned during Tutankhamun’s reign. Akhenaten was considered a true heretic, and his names and any trace of him were attacked. According to Egyptian religion, damaging someone’s name also causes harm in the afterlife, truncating their eternal life.

This systematic attack on Akhenaten’s life and work led to the almost total loss of any vestige of Amarna. Even the stone blocks of its buildings were used for other constructions, resulting in virtually no standing structures in the current archaeological park.

Akhenaten, the Pharaoh Who Built Amarna

Much of the mystery and fascination surrounding Tell el Amarna is due to Akhenaten, the pharaoh who built this city. It’s worth taking a moment to imagine what he was like since you’ll see his representations throughout the site and in other places in Middle Egypt, such as the Akhenaten Museum in Al Minia.

Akhenaten is probably one of the most distinctive pharaohs of all time, and not without reason: the artistic revolution he championed resulted in more naturalistic portraits, particularly in statues. They all share certain features: a protruding skull, a slim and elongated feline face with full and plump lips. But perhaps what is most striking is the gender ambiguity in his appearance, particularly in his ample hips and buttocks.

Scholars have debated whether the pharaoh who built Amarna may have had a degenerative disease. However, the current consensus is that this ambiguity was a stylistic convention to combine masculine and feminine traits, as was the case with the composite deity Aten.

This remains a mystery as his mummy has never been found. He was buried in his tomb in the Royal Valley of Amarna for an unknown period, possibly with some of his daughters. Later, he was possibly moved to the Valley of the Kings, and some believe he is related to a mummy found in the KV55 tomb, although this has not been confirmed.

Nefertiti, the Enigmatic Great Royal Wife

If Akhenaten is known for his enigmatic nature, the same can be said of his Great Royal Wife: Nefertiti, who played a crucial role in the schism that marked the Amarna Period. Not only was she the pharaoh’s favorite, but she also held significant influence over him. Some studies even suggest that she may have been the person behind the name Semenkhkare, which would make her one of the few queen-pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.

Her importance is also reflected in the numerous artistic representations in which she appeared. It was common for her to be portrayed accompanying Akhenaten in adoration to the sun disk Aten. On many occasions, she was depicted with their daughters, a truly innovative move because family scenes were not typically associated with representations of the pharaohs.

Nefertiti had two names. The most commonly used, Nefertiti, corresponds to her birth name and means “the beautiful woman has come”. Her throne name, Neferneferuaten, was in line with her husband’s and could be translated as “beautiful are the beauties of Aten”.

However, her fame largely rests on the famous bust of Nefertiti, which perfectly embodies the stylistic canons of the Amarna Period, such as stylization of facial features, elongated neck, and naturalism. For many, it is the supreme icon of female beauty, even almost 3,400 years later! The bust is currently housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin and is considered a masterpiece of universal art, with a magnetism comparable to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Thutmose crafted the sculpture in his workshop in Tell el-Amarna, but it left the country in the early 20th century. The Egyptian government still hopes to recover it someday and pair it with that of her husband in the Akhenaten Museum of Al Minya.

What is there to see today in Tell el-Amarna?

Unfortunately, little remains of the ancient city of Akhetaton in Tell el-Amarna. This is due to the passage of time, the transfer of artifacts to other museums (both Egyptian and foreign), and most importantly, the extensive destruction that was promoted as punishment for Akhenaton’s heresy. Therefore, as in any other archaeological park, it will be helpful to have expert guides who can help you interpret the ruins properly. You can contact Egipto Exclusivo for this, but in the following lines, we will briefly describe the main points of interest in this large site.

  • Great Temple of Aton: An open-air temple built with smaller-than-usual talabat blocks, the Great Temple of Aton was designed to allow sunlight to penetrate with all its strength. Another notable aspect was its construction using smaller-than-usual stone blocks, called talabat, making their transport and use in construction easier. It had a large hypostyle hall, offering tables, and other ritual spaces.
  • Small Temple of Aton: Likely built before the Great Temple of Aton, the Small Temple of Aton boasted several courtyards and a sanctuary filled with offering tables and chapels.
  • Royal Palaces: The central area of the city housed the Great Palace for the kings and princesses, while those located to the north featured gardens and ponds. Maru Aton, located approximately 3 km south, was one of the most impressive, featuring a solar temple, an artificial island, a pier, housing for court workers, and other pavilions. Fragments of ceramic decoration from this site help us understand the naturalistic style that prevailed during this period, with scenes of local flora and fauna.
  • Pharaoh’s Correspondence House: This administrative building housed the clay tablets called Amarna Letters, used for communication with other contemporary rulers.
  • Northern Tombs: Hypogeums adorned with colorful frescoes depicting daily life in Akhetaton, highlighting the tombs of Huya and Meryre I.
  • Southern Tombs: Another section of hypogeums with similar characteristics for members of the court, highlighting the tomb of Ay for its beautiful murals.
  • Royal Valley of Amarna: Located about 10 km east of the city, this valley was where Akhenaten and his family planned their eternal rest, replacing the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. The most advanced tomb in the valley was the Royal Tomb for Akhenaton (TA26), which is notable for the absence of scenes of Ra and his journey through the underworld, so common in other royal tombs but which would contradict the cult of Aton here. Although his sarcophagus was sealed, his body was never found, as we mentioned above.

Apart from these sites, there are other fascinating points of interest in the Amarna archaeological park, such as Kom el-Nana, a walled enclosure located to the south that may have had a similar function to Maru Aton, or the village of workers in the city. 

Amarna-Beni Hassan-Hermópolis

Beni Hassan: A Perfect Complement to Your Visit

A visit to Tell el-Amarna can be perfectly complemented by exploring other nearby places of interest. To fully appreciate these sites, private transportation is highly recommended, and Egipto Exclusivo provides an excellent service for this purpose. One of the most noteworthy destinations to consider is the rock-cut tombs of Beni Hassan, located approximately 50 km away by car. These tombs date back to the XI and XII dynasties and are known for their richly decorated walls depicting daily life scenes.

While not as grandiose as the tombs found in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes (Luxor), the Beni Hassan tombs offer a unique insight into the lives of local nobles and governors of the time. Only a few of the tombs are currently accessible, but their hypostyle halls are still of great interest to visitors. The tomb of Jnumhotep II, a nomarch during the Middle Kingdom, is particularly noteworthy for its scenes of hunting and agricultural work. Nearby, visitors can also explore the temple dedicated to Pajet, a deity associated with coronation, whose cult was established in the area by the queen-pharaoh Hatshepsut. 

Hermopolis Magna, the Birthplace of Creation in Egyptian Religion

A visit of immense interest near Amarna is Hermopolis Magna, situated approximately 25 km north on the west bank of the Nile. This city, known as Jnun in ancient times, was the capital of nome XV and a significant religious center dedicated to the god Thoth, the deity of wisdom, healing, and writing. The Greeks identified Thoth with Hermes, which is how the city got its present name (El-Ashmunein in Arabic). Thoth was often depicted as an ibis or baboon, and his worship was widespread in ancient Egypt.

According to one of the most popular cosmogonies in Ancient Egypt, everything began in Hermopolis Magna. The Hermopolitan tradition holds that eight primordial gods (Nun-Naunet, Heh-Heket, Kuk-Kauket, and Nia-Niat) were located in this area, in four liquid pairs whose imbalance triggered a cataclysm. The god Thoth and a mound with a cosmic egg emerged from this primordial Big Bang, from which the god Ra emerged.

Although little remains of the great center of worship in Hermopolis Magna today, the remains from the Greco-Roman period, such as a Christian basilica from the 5th century, are still visible. Hermopolis Magna may not be as spectacular as other archaeological sites in Egypt, but it would be the most prominent monument in many Western cities. 

One of the main challenges it has faced as a tourist destination is strong competition from other nearby archaeological sites and looting in the past by treasure hunters, which resulted in some of its most representative pieces being held in museums like the British Museum in London.

Tuna el-Yebel, the Necropolis of Hermopolis

As expected from such an important city as Hermopolis, it had its own necropolis: Tuna el-Yebel, located about 9 km west of Hermopolis (El-Ashmunein) and about 30 km from Amarna.

This necropolis is home to interesting remains, some of them in very good condition, such as the Temple of Petosiris, which are actually catacombs that show the unmistakable style of the Late Period, reminiscent of others like that of Dendera, also in Middle Egypt. Petosiris was a high priest of the god Thoth of the 4th century BC, whose sarcophagus is currently in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The interior frescoes of the catacombs showcase an original mix of Egyptian and Greek details.

The oldest vestige preserved here is a boundary stela from the time of Akhenaten, carved into a mountain in the area to mark the limits between Amarna and the surrounding territory.

For those who still want to delve into these sites and wish to contemplate some pieces found in the mentioned sites: Amarna, Hermopolis, and Tuna el-Yebel, the Mallawi Museum is another proposal to consider. Although it was looted in 2013, it was able to reopen in 2016 with some recovered pieces.

How to Visit Tell el-Amarna

If you want to know how to reach Tell el-Amarna, you can refer to the directions provided on our page dedicated to Middle Egypt. There, we explain that there are several airports in the region, with Asiut being the closest. Other options include taking a bus or Nile cruise, but the train is not the most recommended mode of transportation.

However, the best way to reach the site is via private road transportation, such as a taxi or medium-sized vehicle with a driver at your disposal. This is especially useful for traveling to nearby cities like Al Minia or distant ones like Cairo or Luxor, as well as moving around within the Amarna archaeological park and towards other complementary sites like Beni Hassan, Hermopolis, and Tuna el-Yebel.

If you want your trip to be well-planned and comfortable, contact Egipto Exclusivo. We can organize a tailor-made program that suits your needs and ensures your safety throughout your journey.

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