Few historical figures evoke such strong and varied opinions as the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt for just 17 years in the mid-14th century BC. To the ancient Egyptians, Akhenaten was known only as the "Great Heretic", his name and image having been erased from all records and public monuments. In modern times, however, especially in the West, he has been admired and revered as the first monotheist, a poet-king whose devotion to the one true god took precedence above all else.
So, was Akhenaten a megalomaniac or a visionary? This is the question raised in this eye-opening episode of Timewatch, which focuses on the 30-year excavation of his capital at Amarna, conducted by archaeologist Barry Kemp on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society.
Born into the golden age of Egypt's New Kingdom, Akhenaten was the son of Amenhotep III, a popular ruler who presided over a long reign of peace and prosperity. Akhenaten, however, did not enjoy the same popularity, and this may have contributed to his extraordinary decision to abandon the dynastic capital of Thebes early in his reign and build a new city in the desert, dedicated not to the ancient Egyptian gods, but to one god only - the solar deity Aten.
Constructed over ten years, the city was inhabited for just two decades, leaving few traces. Painstaking work during the past century has gradually revealed a sprawling complex of palaces, temples and administrative buildings, as well as affluent dwellings and the humbler homes of the poor. It's the cemeteries, though, that form the focus of this programme, and the evidence they provide sheds new light on what life in Amarna was really like for the workers who built the city and kept it running.
Painted reliefs in the tombs of the nobility represent life in the city as idyllic and bountiful. The royal family, raised to the status of living gods, are pictured as loving and beneficent. The offering tables in the temples are piled high with offerings, suggesting a plentiful supply of food. However, according to Jerry Rose, an anthropologist from the University of Arkansas called in to examine the excavated remains, the bodies of the workers - many barely into their teens - show signs of overwork and malnutrition, telling quite a different story. A visit to the quarries where the stone for the city was cut, underscores the reality of hard, brutal labour on a massive scale, while the discovery of more than 1,800 offering tables and quantities of animal remains in Amarna's main temple provides a clue as to where all the food went.
A refreshingly clear-eyed re-evaluation of the Amarna period, this programme concentrates on the facts, rather than relying on the soft-focus speculation beloved of Egyptian programme-makers. Michael Praed's intelligent commentary is enhanced by illuminating interviews with team members, while the occasional reconstructions of ancient life are convincing (no tea-towel headdresses here). Not only that, but the disciplined use of CGI enhances, rather than detracts from, the programme.
At last, proper Egyptology on the telly! More please! Delia Pemberton