Back to the future: Akhnaten and Nefertiti meet the Obamas

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Are the president and first lady reincarnated from Pharaoh Akhnaten and Queen Nefertiti of ancient Egypt? Photos of them side by side on Andre Heath’s The Alien Project blog might at least momentarily bewilder even the toughest skeptics of reincarnation and Jungian archetypes.

The mysterious Akhnaten, father of King Tutankhamen, attempted to buck tradition and forge a monotheistic religion during his 17-year reign, ending around 1334 BC.


This month he’s back in the news. Philip Glass’ 1984 opera, “Akhnaten,” the last of his three portrait operas -– (the others are “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha,” about Gandhi) -- is finally being given its West Coast premiere by Long Beach Opera on March 19 and 27.

It’s all part of an ongoing Philip Glass Festival that continues March 10-12 in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, with Carl St.Clair conducting several works in a program called “The Passion of Philip Glass.” On Saturday, there’s a talk with the composer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

While researching the opera, we came across the blog post from 2009 and it piqued our curiosity. Even Glass himself got interested.

What did Akhnaten actually look like? No one knows for sure. Egyptologists at UCLA mulled over the question at a symposium Saturday called “Akhnaten and His World.” Afterward, Anne Austin, who spoke on “Art and Akhnaten,” and who had seen the comparison pictures, noted “striking similarities” between Akhnaten and Obama. But she thought Obama looked more like a middle kingdom pharaoh, Senusret III, who has a similar careworn, attentive face and big ears. As for the Michelle Obama-Nefertiti comparison, Austin said in fact she sees a similarity between the first lady and Tiye, Akhnaten’s mother.

‘Nefertiti is routinely placed behind Akhnaten or made smaller than him,’ Austin said. ‘They maintain their own genders in respect to each other, but when taken individually, they are shown as ambiguous or representing both masculine and feminine traits.’

By contrast, Tiye clearly took on a masculine role, and was asked by foreign kings to keep her unruly son in order. ‘She may have even been the one calling the shots for a while,’ added Austin, ‘but we can see she and Michelle have a lot of influence and are shown in the arts as powerful for that reason.’


During her talk, Austin compared Akhnaten’s hourglass figure to that of Marilyn Monroe. A suspected genetic abnormality apparently gave Akhnaten womanly features. And during the Q&A, John Papadopoulos, department chairman of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, said that Akhnaten’s “pulled-back facial features,” feminine body, death at a young age and outlandish moving of Egypt’s capital city to a Neverland called Amarna, suggested Michael Jackson.

According to Glass, speaking by phone Monday from New York, Akhnaten, whose role in the composer’s opera is sung by a countertenor, was indeed “a weird looking dude.”

Asked if he’d seen the comparison pictures, he laughed. “Oh, my God. What a funny idea. But there’s another angle to this, which I’m very pleased about. When I wrote ‘Akhnaten,’ it was seen as another off-the-wall downtown thing. Now what I’m hearing is that the richness of the subject matter is perennial. It doesn’t go away. We dip into it all the time.”

-- Rick Schultz

Images courtesy of The Alien Project