A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the early years

Narmer palette (source: Wikimedia Commons).

Egypt is in all respects the land of the Nile. Africa’s longest river creates a narrow fertile valley between the Sahara desert in the west and the rocky terrain along the Red Sea in the east. Between 25,000 and 10,000 BCE, so in the closing stages of the late Old Stone Age (Late Paleolithicum), groups of people entered this valley and settled there. Over the course of several millennia these hunters and gatherers transformed themselves into sedentary farmers. They established contacts with the Middle East at an early stage, a region that was far ahead of Egypt as regards agriculture and urban development. The Egyptians furthermore had ties with the region south of Egypt, which is usually called Nubia or Kush. It should be noted that Egypt itself was far from united, and that from their early days the Egyptians themselves made a sharp distinction between Lower and Upper Egypt. Somewhat confusingly, Lower Egypt is the region in the north, approximately covering the Nile Delta. This region has a slightly softer climate and enjoys more rainfall that Upper Egypt, which starts south of the Nile Delta. The northern part of Upper Egypt is sometimes called Middle Egypt.

Early cultures

During the New Stone Age, Lower and Upper Egypt saw cultures come into existence which are known as the Merimde culture in Lower Egypt (ca. 4800-4300 BCE) and the Badarian and Naqada cultures in Upper Egypt (ca. 4400 BCE-3800 BCE and ca. 4400-3000 BCE). The Naqada culture is usually split into three separate phases. Together these cultures have left archaeological traces in the form of hand axes, pots, dishes, small bottles and eventually also figurines of men and women. The important Naqada culture has furthermore left us images of animals and plants, as well as pictures of oared ships, an early indication of traffic on the Nile river. There were extensive trade contacts with Palestine in the north and Nubia in the south, with the latter region providing the Egyptians with all kinds of raw materials such as ivory, copper, precious stones, wood and hides. Contacts with the north are evident from a truly magnificent piece of art: a knife made of ivory and flint showing a man in Mesopotamian dress. The final phase of the Naqada culture is also referred to as the proto-dynastic period. Several settlements were founded and one of them was Hierakonpolis or Nekhen, where the falcon god Horus was worshipped.

Wall painting in Hierakonpolis (photo: Francesco Raffaele, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Map of Egypt with important settlements (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Here in Hierakonpolis we find the oldest Egyptian tomb that has wall paintings, the so-called Tomb 100 from ca. 3300 BCE (see the image above). The wall paintings feature ships and hunting parties, but also battles. An extremely important image is that of a warrior with a mace executing three bound prisoners. The first is grabbed by the hair and his skull is smashed. An image of this atrocity can be found here. The warrior or warlord would soon be replaced by the pharaoh, and images of victorious pharaohs grabbing defeated enemies by the hair and personally smiting them are omnipresent in Egyptian art. The rise of the pharaoh is closely connected to the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt, a process that – at least according to tradition – was completed under the first pharaoh, Menes. This Menes is often mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions. His name appears first on the Abydos King List and on a similar list in the Ramesseum in Thebes. However, it should be noted that the former list dates from the reign of pharaoh Seti I (ca. 1290-1279 BCE) and the latter from that of his successor Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE). It follows that both lists were compiled almost 2000 years after the assumed reign of Menes. According to the Greek historian Herodotos (ca. 484-425 BCE), the first pharaoh was a man called Min (Book 2.4 and 2.99). It is clear that our historian was referring to Menes, but Min was actually a fertility god who was worshipped in Coptos and other places.

United Egypt and the first pharaohs

It is possible that Menes was the same king as Hor-Aha, a king who is counted among the pharaohs of the First Dynasty. Sometimes he is equated to Narmer, although Narmer is more often seen as the father of Menes/Hor-Aha. This makes him the last ruler of the proto-dynastic period, also called Dynastie 0. There is no reason to doubt the historicity of Narmer. His tomb in Abydos has been located and in Hierakonpolis the famous Narmer palette (ca. 3100 BCE; see above) was discovered. On one side of this palette, we see, among other things, the goddess Hathor, two snake-necked panthers and a lugubrious spectacle of ten executed prisoners. Their heads have been cut off, making the Narmer palette perhaps the oldest decapitation video in history. The other side of the palette features Narmer smashing an enemy’s skull with his mace. We have more than enough archaeological evidence to conclude that warfare was anything but exceptional during the proto-dynastic period. Other palettes that have been discovered feature animals destroying towns, loot that has been gathered and prisoners that are being taken away. The so-called Libyan palette from ca. 3150 BCE is evidence of a conflict with Libya, the region west of Egypt.

Ninetjer, pharaoh of the Second Dynasty (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

The pharaohs of the First and Second Dynasties hailed from the town of This or Thinis, and this town is often referred to as their capital. The precise location of This is still unknown, but it must have been in the vicinity of modern Girga. The royal cemetery was situated a bit further to the south, at Abydos (or more correctly: Abdju). As was already mentioned above, this is where Narmer found his final resting place. The tombs of two of his predecessors, Ka and Iry-Hor, can also be found at Abydos. Just a stone’s throw from these tombs stood that of pharaoh Hor-Aha (who, as was argued above, may be equated to Menes). His presumed son and successor Djer was also laid to rest here, as were Djer’s children Djet and Merneith, who are presumed to have been not just brother and sister, but also to have lived as husband and wife. After Djet’s death his sister and wife Merneith probably acted as a regent for her son Den for a while. Den’s reign was followed by that of Anedjib, Semerkhet, Qa and several others, whose reigns must have been fairly short. Qa is actually the last pharaoh of the First Dynasty who found his final resting place at Abydos.

Around 2890 BCE, the Second Dynasty took control of Egypt. It is now no longer possible to establish under what circumstances its first pharaoh, Hotepsekhemwy, ascended the throne. On the other hand, a remarkable shift of power from Upper to Lower Egypt can be noted. During the Second Dynasty the administrative centre was moved from This and Abydos to Memphis, a town which according to tradition had been founded by Menes himself. At Saqqara, just west of Memphis, a new royal cemetery was laid out which features several of the large rectangular tombs that are known as mastabas (which is Arabic for ‘benches’). The architectures of these tombs clearly betrays Middle Eastern influences.

Pharaoh Khasekhemwy, last king of the Second Dynasty (photo: Geni/Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, CC BY-SA 4.0).

The first three pharaohs of the Second Dynasty were laid to rest in Saqqara, but for reasons that cannot be adequately explained the last two pharaohs of this Dynasty, Seth-Peribsen and Khasekhemwy were buried in the Abydos necropolis again. It is not inconceivable that during the final years of the Second Dynasty, Egypt fell apart into its constituents parts, Lower and Upper Egypt. The two regions may very well have continued as separate political entities with their own administrations. On the plinth of a small statue of Khasekhemwy, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and dating from ca. 2710 BCE, we read about a military campaign in the Nile Delta by this pharaoh. During the campaign, a grand total of 47,209 enemies were supposedly killed. Whether this number is correct or not is not that relevant; it indicates that the Egypt of the first two dynasties was anything but a pacifist society. Not only were there internal tensions, the pharaoh also used his army to impose his will on the inhabitants of neighbouring regions. An important development was, for instance, the construction of a fortress at Elephantine in the south, near the first cataract of the Nile (see the map above). Elephantine was – and is – situated on an island in the river and allowed the Egyptians to control traffic on the Nile.

Sources

  • Stephan Seidlmayer, ‘Egypt’s Path to Advanced Civilization’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 9-23;
  • Stephan Seidlmayer, ‘The Rise of the State to the Second Dynasty’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 25-39.

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