Noon on a broad and barren plain; a single pillar stands erect. An arm-span away the broken base of a companion column sits squat on its limestone pedestal. As we stand before these two ancient forms, they seem to frame the far horizon, pointing to a break in the distant cliffs. “You see that gap?” our guide Mhamed asks us. “From that small crack in the skyline, every morning the sun is born.”

We are standing in the remains of a temple to the Aten, the ancient Egyptian deity of the sun disc. Three thousand years ago, the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his magnificent wife Nefertiti declared that there was no god but Aten, and that they were his prophets. “They still come here,” Mhamed continues, “the sun-worshippers. They come from all over – Russia, France, America. They wail and chant and throw themselves to the ground when the sun appears between the pillars.”

But today the only sound to break the desert silence is the shuffling feet of our armed escort – and the excited observations of our guide, who himself seems a little awed to be here. “Akhenaten would have stood right here to pray to the sun,” he tells us, “while all around, thousands of servants piled offerings on rows of altars. He was the first monotheist – before Jesus, before Mohammed; some even think he was Moses.”

Looking around, it is clear why the most controversial of Egypt’s pharaohs chose this site for his new capital. The plain, which runs some 10km north to south and is 5km wide, is bordered on the west by the Nile and on all other sides by rocky crags marking the start of the Eastern Desert. A natural amphitheatre, it was the perfect stage to play out the rituals of his new religion.

He christened his city “Horizon of the Aten”, a fitting name for a place that so spectacularly sets off the daily drama of the rising sun. But today it is better known as Amarna, after the tribe of Bedouin nomads who settled here two millennia later. It is a city that has been lost and found and lost again. Excavations have uncovered spectacular treasures, such as the world-famous bust of Queen Nefertiti found here in 1912. But the past century’s wars and revolutions often saw Amarna abandoned to the sands of the encroaching desert.

The city was most recently lost – at least to most visitors – when the rise of Islamic extremism made all of Middle Egypt, including Amarna, a no-go area for tourists. Lying halfway between the major sites of Cairo and Giza in the north, and Luxor and Karnak in the south, the city of the Aten was already off the beaten track. With the added threat of fundamentalism, for the past decade it has been left to a handful of archaeologists and the most determined of solar cultists. But in January this year, the Egyptian government lightened the travel restrictions, once again opening up this beautiful region to the intrepid sightseer.

Our journey to Amarna began at 5am in Minya, the provincial capital some 60km to the north. Everywhere the face of Nefertiti stared serenely out at us: in the hotel lobby, from every roundabout, restaurant and carpet-seller. “She should be here,” Mhamed whispers, meaning the celebrated bust that now resides in faraway Berlin.

Sitting next to our guide in the minibus is the inescapable Tourist Police escort. This armed officer riding shotgun is intended as a confidence-building measure, given the region’s reputation for anti-western feeling. As long ago as 1935, the British archaeologist John Pendlebury wrote that “Amarna is not usually included in the itinerary of a visitor to Egypt …due to the not undeserved reputation for wickedness on the part of the inhabitants.”

Our experience, however, is the opposite: since arriving in Minya, we have been overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people. Smart families, football-playing children and old ladies stop us in the street to say, “Welcome to our city!”

As the sun rises, we rattle through the villages and fields that cling to the Nile. Here donkeys are still the major mode of transport, and the men wear the long djellaba robes that keep out both dawn’s chill and the midday sun. Abruptly our way is blocked by camels, heaps of sugarcane lolling from side to side on their backs. We stop to watch them; they stop to watch us.

Amarna is reached by an ageing ferry from the village of Deir Mawas. It is crowded with local traders, idle children and a welcome vendor of hot roast yams. Arriving on the east bank, we see the shell of a cavernous building that is due one day to be a visitor centre. The Egyptian government is well aware of the site’s importance but, with limited funds and a country strewn with crumbling antiquities, progress is slow.

When Akhenaten and Nefertiti built their city, this was a virgin site, untainted by the old gods. So it seems again, after 3,000 years of pillaging and the desert wind have reduced this one-time city of 50,000 souls almost to dust. But the outline of many buildings – including vast complexes such as the Royal Palace and the Great Temple of the Aten – remain engraved in the ground. The surviving frescoes and statues demonstrate the naturalistic, uncannily modern aesthetic for which this brief period of Egyptian history is uniquely famous. And around the great plain, the tombs of the nobles and the pharaoh himself, built deep into the hills, tell Amarna’s story in their rich and beautiful wall carvings.

We are lucky: when we visit, Professor Barry Kemp is here, working on the excavations that he has been leading since 1977. We spot him silhouetted on the horizon – a bearded figure with scarecrow hair, beside him a skull protruding from the sand. It is the everyday lives of the ancient Egyptians that fascinates him, Kemp tells us. Amarna is special not only because of its glamorous founders but because it is one of the very few ancient cities not subsequently built over. The Cambridge academic’s most recent research has been on the city’s cemetery – and what he has unearthed suggests that all was not well in Akhenaten’s utopia.

A little more than a decade after this pharaoh made Amarna capital of his great empire, first his queen Nefertiti, then he, disappeared. Experts still debate what happened: a plague seems to have struck, perhaps a rebellion. Shortly thereafter, the ill-fated Tutankhamun – Akhenaten’s son-in-law and probably also his son – came to the throne and was forced to abandon Amarna for good. With the boy-king’s early death, a new dynasty took power and systematically set about destroying all traces of the heretic pharaoh and his sun god.

Which makes it ironic that today images of Akhenaten and his family – the bust of Nefertiti, the golden death mask of Tutankhamun, the unearthly features of the Great Heretic himself – are among Egypt’s most iconic images. In Amarna, too, they continue to reign: we end our visit by driving east along the valley that leads to the royal tomb. Here, in the vivid engravings that line this monumental vault cut deep into the rock, Akhenaten and Nefertiti can still be seen reaching out for the sun’s life-giving rays. By the time we emerge, Aten is already setting on his one-time city.

…………………………………………

Venturing into Middle Egypt

Middle Egypt has many other fascinating sites alongside Amarna, including the fabulous painted tombs of Beni Hasan. Though none are quite on the scale of the Great Pyramid or the Temple of Karnak, visitors can at least enjoy them without the bustle found on the more beaten track. Largely untouched by tourism, the region also gives a real insight into modern Egypt.

But despite the recent easing of travel restrictions, Middle Egypt remains challenging for independent travellers – it is therefore easier to use a travel company experienced in the area. We travelled with Gateway to Egypt (www.gatewaytoegypt.com; tel: +20 10 999 0377). Founded by a team of professional egyptologists, they source locally and sustainably, and give a part of their profits to supporting local charities. Gateway to Egypt run both group tours and individually tailored trips to Amarna and other sites in Egypt.

In Minya, we stayed in the four-star Hotel Nefertiti and Aton (+20 86 2331 515) which, despite its prefab feel, is probably the city’s best. Though the Tourist Police presence might suggest otherwise, Minya is a friendly and pleasant city. For independent travellers, the tourist office will help arrange trips to Amarna and other local sites.

The Amarna Project (www.amarnaproject.com), led by Professor Barry Kemp under the auspices of Cambridge University, is a charitable foundation, and reliant upon private donations for its continued work in uncovering the city of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

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