Category: Egypt


The emergence of civilization in the Nile Valley at the end of the 4th millennium BC was to affect, in one way or another, not only the following 3000 years of Egyptian history but also many of the subsequent civilizations of the ancient Near East. Prior to that date, prehistoric people had roamed the river swamps and the high desert gebel, but why, suddenly, should Egyptian civilization erupt almost like the lotus flower from the primeval waters in one of he old creation legends, and where did it come from? The full answers to these questions have yet to be found. Arguments still rage as to the origins of the first kings – were they from Central Africa or what was later to be known as the Fertile Crescent? What historical, though later, sources there are all seem agreed that the first kings came from This, an area somewhere near Abydos in middle Egypt, and were called the Thinite kings. Whatever their origins, they had the foresight and the power to match it, to mold the first two dynasties. Such is the gap in time, that we can only speculate, in many instances on the political and economic situations and high level of technology, artistic achievement and religious awareness which, within about 500 years, laid down many of the concepts that were to govern later thought in ancient Egypt.

Dynasty ‘0’ (3150-3050 BC) and Dynasty 1 (3050 – 2890 BC)

Egyptian civilization began, according to Manetho, with the Unification of the Two Lands, namely Upper and Lower Egypt, under one king. A date often used is c. 3100 BC, largely arrived at by working backwards from known astronomical dates, tied in with such early regnal dates, or sequences, that are known. The essential question is, who was the first king who unified the two kingdoms? Tradition ascribes this feat variously to Narmer or Menes, who may well have been one and the same person. There is also a king ‘Scorpion’ who appears on the scene. Some would place him and Narmer sequentially in a ‘Dynasty 0’, from 3150 to 3050 BC.


History of Ancient Egypt: Neolithic Period to the Early Dynastic Period Including Menes, Narmer, Egyptian Heiroglyphs, Thinis and more


The physical evidence for this comes from the discoveries of J.E. Quibell, excavating at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, in 1897 – 98. Hierakonpolis was the ancient city of Nekhen on the west bank of the Nile north of Aswan and dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. The site of the Early Dynastic town is known as Kom el-Ahmar, literally the ‘red mound.’ Excavations here produced some remarkable finds, including a gold-headed hawk representing the town deity Horus, and an almost life-size, hollow-cast copper statue of Pepi I and his son Merenre of the 6th Dynasty. The major find in relation to the Early Dynastic Period was made in a pit, labeled the ‘Main Deposit,’ located between the walls of an Old Kingdom and a later Middle Kingdom temple. In the pit, Quibell found objects which have since proved to be the most important ‘documents’ of the Early Dynastic Period. The principal objects consisted of sculpted palettes and maceheads, although it is not totally clear from the excavator’s accounts whether the major piece, the Narmer Palette, was found here or in a level nearby. Representations on the pieces, and also early-style hieroglyphs, identified ‘Scorpion’ and Narmer. The objects had been deposited long after the period in which they were made, possibly over 1000 years later towards the end of the Old Kingdom.

‘Scorpion’ and Narmer

On the fragmented so-called ‘Scorpion’ Macehead, a king is seen in full ritual dress with the ritual bull’s tail hanging from the back of his belt, wearing the tall White Crown (hedjet) of upper Egypt and performing a ceremony using a hoe or mattock. Possibly he is opening the dykes ritually to begin the flooding of the fields, or he could be cutting the first furrow for the foundation of either a temple [here at Hierakonpolis] or of a city (as Roman emperors more than 3000 years later are depicted on coins ploughing the outline of a city at is foundation). Before the king’s face, and therefore presumably signifying his name, is a scorpion with a seven-petalled flower above it. The decorative frieze around the remaining top of the macehead has lapwings hanging by their necks from vertical standards. This little bird, rekkhyt in hieroglyphs, means ‘common people’ and their fate would seem to indicate that they have been overcome by the victorious King ‘Scorpion.’


History Channel Presents The Real Scorpion King (The History Channel Presents)


Whatever the ceremony being performed, two things seem clear: King ‘Scorpion’, wearing the White Crown, is king only of Upper Egypt (unless the missing side of the macehead depicted him with the Red Crown [i.e. as king of Lower Egypt as well]); and there has been a battle and the lapwings have been conquered. The interpretation must be, therefore, that the event is taking place before the unification of Egypt, placing ‘Scorpion’ before Narmer.

Two major pieces from the ‘Main Deposit’ at Hierakonpolis refer to Narmer: the Narmer Palette and the Narmer Macehead. The Palette, a monumental piece of dark green slate is the earliest historical record from Egypt. It shows a victorious king whose name appears within a serekh – the early form of presenting royal names – at the head of both sides between facing heads of the cow-faced goddess Hathor. The hieroglyphs of the royal name are a mud fish depicted horizontally above a vertical chisel, read as the name of Narmer. Narmer is shown in two aspects, wearing respectively the White Crown of Upper Egypt (the hedjet) and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt (deshret), implying that he is now king of both lands. Later, the dual monarchy was to be shown by both crowns being worn together, one inside the other, and forming the Crown of Upper and Lower Egypt (the shemty). The principal scene, (i.e. the more dominant artistically, has a large figure of Narmer wearing the White Crown and smiting with upraised mace a prisoner whom he grasps by the forelock. This is the earliest occurrence of what was to become an ‘icon of majesty’ throughout the rest of ancient Egyptian history, right down to Roman times. However, this side of the Palette should be the reverse since, on the other side, is cut a shallow depression that indicates the humble antecedents of this magnificent piece: it is the scoop in which cosmetic powder, probably green eye paint, kohl, was crushed. This must then be the upper or obverse side. Here the king is shown in the Red Crown, in smaller stature but still the dominant figure, being larger than any of the other participants.


The Prehistory of Egypt: From the First Egyptians to the First Pharaohs


It is notable that on both sides of the Palette the king is shown barefoot, with his tiny sandal-bearer (who also appears to have been his seal-bearer, to judge from the cylinder seal suspended around his neck) following behind carrying a pair of sandals and what might be a small water jar. The king is twice represented in obviously symbolic and ritual contexts and it may be that the events are taking place in a sacred area, and the king is ritually barefoot, rather like Moses some 1800 years later (Exodus 3:5). Certainly the god Horus is the king’s god, on his side, for as a falcon he holds an enemy, ready for the king’s attention, by a rope uncomfortably threaded through the captive’s nostrils.

The frontal face of the goddess Hathor is the dominant aspect of the top of both sides of the Palette, and must surely have deep significance in such a prime position. Although Horus was the god of Hierakonpolis (Nekhen), and it may be presumed that the principal temple was dedicated to him, it is possible that he is shown on the Palette as the younger Horus who was the son of Hathor, which would explain his mother’s dominant role in the Palette’s religious iconography. To draw analogies from much later in Egyptian history, the two finest remaining temples (both from the Ptolemaic period) are built on much earlier foundations and are respectively dedicated to Horus (at Edfu) and Hathor (at Dendera), and their rituals involved an exchange of processions between them.

The Narmer Macehead also shows ritual scenes, principally the celebration of the heb-sed (jubilee) festival of renewal, where the king is seen seated, wrapped in the appropriate cloak, within a pavilion. A cow (Hathor?) and her calf also have a prominent place in the iconography. The king here wears the Red Crown and his sandal-bearer is again in attendance, although the king’s feet cannot be seen because of his ground-length ritual robe.


The name of Narmer occurs on other objects, generally scratched on pot shards and the like, and we can be sure that he was a historical personage. Hor-Aha, his successor, and therefore probably his son, possibly by Queen Nithorep, stood to inherit a unified kingdom, both by right and by conquest. He took the nebti name (the second royal name) of Men, which means ‘established,’ and this could be the origin of the later record of the first king as being called Menes. For present purposes we may look on Hor-Aha as the first king of the 1st Dynasty. An interesting piece of evidence is a small broken ivory label found in the tomb of Queen Nithorep at Naqad. Although schematically represented, the busy scene on this tiny piece seems to show two humans celebrating a ceremony called ‘Receiving the South and the North’ over an unidentified object (possibly the first representation of the later symbolic tying of papyrus and lotus stalks). The king’s name, meaning ‘Fighting Hawk’ – an allusion again to Horus – indicates his Upper Egyptian origin and rule. His adoption of men as his nebti name for ruling over both parts is indicated on the ivory label by the fact that his Horus name (his first and principal name) Hor-Aha, and his nebti name, Men, appear side by side. Other similar small labels from Early Dynastic tombs indicate that his was not an easy reign. There were campaigns to be fought and rebels to be subdued in Nubia, recorded on a wooden label from Abydos, and another label records his foundation of a temple to the goddess Neith at Sais in the Delta. Her warlike aspect was signified by a pair of crossed arrows and her worship continued into Roman times when she was identified with Athena at Sais.


The Development of Royal Funerary Cult at Abydos: Two Funerary Enclosures from the Reign of Aha (Menes)


Hor-Aha’s greatest achievement was the founding of the capital city at Memphis, just south of the apex of the Delta. This was to endure throughout Egypt’s history and become one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. The site was obviously chosen initially for its geographical and thus political importance in a newly unified country, rather than its situation as a good building site, which it was not. Herodotus records that Menes dammed the Nile just south of the future site of the city, diverting it so that he could build on the reclaimed land. A strict watch was kept on the dam – the Persians, he said, strengthened it every year because, should it be breached, Memphis would have been overwhelmed. Recent deep soundings taken by the Egypt Exploration Society expedition to Memphis have shown that the course of the Nile has been gradually moving eastwards in historical times.

According to Manetho, Hor-Aha (there called Menes) reigned for 62 years and met his end when he was carried off by a hippopotamus. He must have been of a great age and presumably out hippopotamus hunting. The Palermo Stone records a hippopotamus hunt in the reign of Udimu (Den), later in the dynasty, and their savage attacks on crocodiles are represented in a number of reliefs in later Old Kingdom, 6th Dynasty tombs.

After Memphis was founded the early Egyptian kings began to construct their tombs at the sacred site of Abydos in middle Egypt and the nobles theirs on the edge of the desert plateau at Saqqara, overlooking Memphis. Controversy has raged as to whether the king built at both sites. Archaeological evidence is quite scarce with regard to specific attributions since the structures at both sites were badly damaged and heavily robbed throughout the ages. Those at Abydos were literally ransacked by the Frenchman Amelineau and much evidence destroyed at the end of the last century. Flinders Petrie took over the re-excavation and recording of the site, recovering plans of the early substructures and the meager yet often important leavings of the earlier robbers, such as the wood and ivory labels referred to. Professor W.B. Emery excavated the Saqqara site, mainly between 1936 and 1956 (except for the war years). He, likewise, found only pitiful remains of once fine funerary provision.

The tombs at Abydos and Saqqara are not decorated, so evidence of their owners can come only from material remains, largely in the form of seal impressions, rolled out from cylinder seals on the wet clay stoppers of wine jars and the like. They may have the name of the high official responsible for the burial, on a occasion a royal name, but it is not necessarily that of the tomb’s occupant. In the light of recent analysis of the clay sealing’s, and the re-excavation of a number of the early tombs at Abydos by Professor G. Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute, Cairo, Egyptological opinion now favors Abydos as being the site of the royal tombs. At Abydos there is also now recognized from the later Predynastic Period a sequence of tombs that leads into the early royal tombs and their evolution can be traced through the succeeding reigns. The large tombs at Saqqara are those of the nobles of the period; so mighty were some that it would seem they could, in several instances, emulate their royal masters and have satellite (sacrificial) burials associated with their tomb.

In the early cemetery at Saqqara, Emery located a large rectangular tomb (no 3357) that he ascribed to Hor-Aha (but his tomb is now B 19 at Abydos). It had 27 storerooms at ground level for funerary equipment, and five rooms below ground. The mudbrick exterior was paneled all round in a style referred to as the ‘palace façade,’ which it resembles. This was to be copied later as a decorative element in jewelry and for the first time in stone nearby in the 3rd Dynasty complex a Djoser. On the north side of the structure, a brick-built pit had once held a wooden solar boat. At Abydos, in October 1991, a fleet of 12 boats dating from about 3000 BC were found buried side by side. The boats – the oldest surviving large-scale vessels in the world – were up to 100 feet in length and their superstructures had been protected by mudbrick structures protruding slightly above the desert surface. Several individual, and now empty, boat pits were later provided around the Great Pyramid at Giza in the 4th Dynasty and one discovered there in 1954 was found still to contain a wooden boat. All these boats and boat pits were presumably connected with royal funerary ritual, although their precise function remains unknown.

Hor-Aha’s tomb in Abydos (B 19) is the largest in the north western section of the cemetery, and another tomb close by produced small labels with the name Berner-Ib, literally ‘sweet –heart.’ It is possible that the lady was Hor-Aha’s queen, and her name also appeared on items from Naqada, the site of the great tomb of his possible mother, Queen Nithotep.

Djer, Diet, and Den

Djer (probably Manetho’s Athothis) succeeded Hor-Aha and is said to have reigned for 57 years. Once more, we rely on the evidence of the ivory and wood labels from Abydos and Saqqara for information. The hieroglyphs on all these labels are at an early stage in the development of writing and are often difficult to make out and prevent us from being positive as to their full meaning. One of these – an example in ivory from Abydos – has four lines of characters which include two ships, the sign for town and Djer’s name in a serekh. It appears to record a visit to the northern Delta cities of Buto, one of the early capitals of Egypt, and to Sais, already noted for its temple to the goddess Neith. The other label bearing his name, which is wooden and comes from Saqqara, seems to record some kind of religious event that may have involved human sacrifice. In the early period of Egyptian history, sacrificial (satellite) burial occurred (as at the Royal tombs of Ur in Mesopotamia), but this wasteful practice was soon abandoned and, much later, mummiform figures called ushabtis were provided to perform the necessary menial tasks required in the next world.



Around Djer’s large tomb at Abydos (Tomb O) were over 300 satellite burials of retainers who had gone to the grave at the same time as the principal interment. Some of these were provided with simple wooden coffins and grave markers. Military expeditions were obviously still necessary since a schematic rock drawing near Wadi Halfa shows enemies cast into the water beneath the keel of a ship whilst another enemy is seen tied to the front of an Egyptian warship (just as Ahmose the admiral, son of Ebana, ascribes in his later tomb at el-Kab). To one side of Djer’s Horus name is inscribed within a serekh.

Djer’s successor is generally give as Djet (also referred to as Uadji) but it seems possible, to judge from the size and location of a tomb at Saqqar (no. 3503) and a large tomb at Abydos (Petrie’s Tomb Y), that there was a queen who either reigned alone between them or was later regent for a short period. The name on the large stone grave stele found at Abydos tomb is Merneith, at first thought to be that of a king but later identified as a queen (consort of Djer). Her name has recently been found at Abydos on a clay seal impression that gives the names of the early kings in order from Narmer to Den, confirming her status and giving her the title of ‘Kings Mother,’ presumably of Den for whom she may have acted as regent during his minority. Around her Abydos tomb were 41 subsidiary burials of servants, the office of many of them in the queen’s service being indicated by the grave’s contents.

Djet’s tomb at Abydos is Tomb Z. The one at Saqqara (no. 3504), formerly ascribed to the king and virtually twice the size of the Abydos structure, is now recognized as that of the noble Sekhem-kha, whose sealing’s were much in evidence in the debris. There was a number of subsidiary (sacrificial) burials made around both monuments, 174 at Abydos and 62 individual burials at Saqqara. Djet’s great stone funerary stele from Abydos is a consummate piece of sculpture. The Saqqara tomb of Sekhem-kha (no. 3504) also produced surprises: running round the outer edge of the palace façade was a low bench with a series of about 300 clay bulls’ heads modeled in relief, each provided with a pair of real bull’s horns. As previously mentioned (Palette of Narmer), the bull was a potent symbol of royalty and it seems curious for it to be found decorating the plinth around a noble’s tomb.

With the next king, Den (or Udimu), the historical record becomes stronger. There are many labels and inscriptions on stone vases which cite this king and events in his reign. There is also an interesting correlation across to the Palermo Stone. We can identify Den (Udimu) via his throne name, Semti, as king of the Two Lands (nsw-bt), with a king in the Abydos King List called Hesepti. From her we turn to Manetho for a correlation with his Usaphaidos with a reign of 20 years. On the Palermo Stone, with its annual records cited via principal events, there are several which tally with similar events for Den from surviving labels. Those on the Palermo Stone relate to an unidentified king, but run sequentially for 14 years and appear to refer to the later years of the reign. There is a fair probability, therefore, that the Palermo Stone sequence relates to Den, and the subsequent listings to his successors. These we know to be Anedjib, Semerkht and Qa’a in that order, for they appear thus following Den’s (Udimu’s) name on an inscribed stone vase from the galleries beneath the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. This sequence takes us to the end of the 1st Dynasty and has recently been confirmed by the sequence given on a clay sealing from Abydos.

A particularly interesting ivory label from Abydos, inscribed for Den, probably from a pair of sandals, records ‘the first time of the smiting of the East’ with Den shown, mace upraised in the classic pharaonic posture, clubbing a foreign chieftain. This appears to correlate with the “Smiting of the Troglodytes’ recorded on the Palermo Stone, as the second year within a sequence of 14 years of an unidentified king.

Professor W.B. Emery found a tomb (no. 3035) at Saqqara in 1935 that, despite the numerous jar sealing’s present of Hemaka, the king’s great chancellor, was at first thought by many to be the tomb of the king, Den, by virtue of its great size and the magnificent finds. The tomb has now been reassigned to Hemaka. Although much destroyed, the collection of objects recovered, the largest group of excavated Early Dynastic material, was of supremely high quality.

Den’s Abydos tomb (Tomb Z) was much smaller than the Saqqara tomb previously ascribed to him and it had 174 satellite burials around it. On the grounds of architectural similarity, Emery considered that a badly destroyed tomb found at Giza, almost as large as Hemaka’s at Saqqara, and which had the graves of sacrificed servants around it, might be the tomb of Den’s queen, whose name is not known.

Anedjib, Semerkhet, and Qa’a

The next king of the 1st Dynasty reigned for 26 years, if we identify Anedjib with the Miebidos of Manetho. There is some evidence at this period of a dynastic struggle, of north versus south. Anedjib seems to have come from the area of Abydos known as This and is recorded as a Thinite king on the Saqqara King List from the tomb of Thunery. Many stone vases bearing his name had their inscriptions erased under his successor Semerkhet, who was himself omitted from the Saqqara List. The Saqqara tomb of the noble Nebitka, previously ascribed to Anedjib (no. 3038), has an interesting architectural feature, also present in the earlier Saqqara tomb of Queen Merneith. Concealed within the normal rectangular palace façade mastaba was the base of a stepped structure, a curious juxtaposition of two quite different forms. (Mastaba is an Arabic word for ‘bench,’ given to the early tombs since their low flat form resembled the bench found outside the door of village houses.) Possibly here, and in the tomb of Merneith, we have the beginnings of the fusion of southern and northern styles that was to lead, ultimately to the Step Pyramid.



Anejib’s tomb at Abydos (Tomb X) is one of the worst built and smallest amongst the Abydos royal tombs, although it had a burial chamber constructed entirely in wood. The surrounding 64 graves of retainers were also of low standard.

The next king Semerkhet, reigned for nine years according to the Palermo Stone, or 18 according to Manetho, who notes that there were numerous disasters during the reign. These may have been connected with the problems in relation to his predecessor, it having been suggested that Semerkhet was in fact a usurper because he erased the name of his predecessor from stone vases and was himself omitted from the Saqqara King List. His tomb at Abydos (Tomb U) is vastly superior in size and quality to that of his predecessor, with its brick-lined burial chamber and the well-built servant’s graves. Unusually, no large tomb has been identified at Saqqara to his reign.

The last king of the 1st Dynasty, Qa’a (Qa’a-hedjet), may have reigned for 26 years, but Manetho’s name of Bieneches, whom he gives as the last king of the dynasty, hardly equates with Qa’a. A large tomb found at Saqqara by Emery in 1954 (no. 3505) was ascribed to Qa’a, but we now believe it to be that of a priestly noble, Merkha, whose large limestone stele giving his name and titles has one of the longest texts extant from the period. The size of the tomb was such that it led emery to suggest that Merkha had been granted the honor of burial close to his royal master.

The large tomb of Qa’a at Abydos (Tomb Q) was re-excavated in 1993 by the German Archaeological Institute, Cairo. They revealed that the tomb had been subject to numerous alterations and enlargements, starting from the simple brick-lined burial chamber. Small by Saqqara comparisons, it had a lesser number of satellite burials, only 26. It is notable that the practice of satellite (sacrificial) burials seems to have stopped in Qa’a’s reign in the north, although some are still present, but not in such vast quantities, in the south at Abydos.



Petrie assigned the tomb at Abydos to Qa’a not only from the usual jar sealing’s but also from two fragmentary stele he found on the east side of the tomb that gave Qa’a’a Horus name in a serekh. A superb limestone stele of the king acquired by the Louvre in 1967 shows him wearing the tall White Crown of Upper Egypt and embraced by the falcon-headed Horus. The White Crown also forms part of his name within the serekh above the two heads, possibly indicating the final triumph of the south, Abydos.

The change of dynasty normally indicates a break in the line of the ruling house, yet Manetho tells us that the kings of the 2nd Dynasty also came from This, being Thinite kings, from near Abydos, as were the last kings of the 1st Dynasty.

Dynasty 2 (2890 – 2686 BC

Manetho tells us that the 2nd Dynasty consisted of nine kings, ruling for 302 years, but it is difficult to reconcile his statement with the surviving archaeological and written evidence. According to current thinking, six kings reigned in the 2nd Dynasty, which lasted little more than 200 years. The names and sequence of the first three rulers were inscribed on the back of a statue of a priest called Hotep-dif.

Hotepsekhemwy, Raneb, and Nynetjer

Hotepsekhemwy is little known. Sealing’s with his name have been found near the later 5th Dynasty pyramid of Unas at Saqqara and may indicate that the remains of his tomb are nearby. There is no evidence of his having built at the southern site of Abydos like his predecessors. According to Manetho he had a long reign of 38 years, but there is little to show for it.

His successor Raneb had a slightly longer reign, 39 years if Manetho is to be believed, but, once again, only the tell-tale sealing’s in the same area of the pyramid of Unas might point to the location of his tomb. There is a granite stele from Abydos with his name in the usual serekh.

An interesting point that Manetho adds about Raneb is that he introduced the worship not only of the sacred goat of Mendes but also of the sacred Bull of Mnevis at the old sun-worship center of Heliopolis, and the Apis bull at Memphis. (In fact scholars now believe that an earlier king was responsible for founding the latter cult, which is attested on a stele dating from Den’s (Udimu’s) reign.



The third king, Nynetjer, ruled for 47 years according to Manetho’s calculations. Little happened during most of these: the Palermo Stone records events between Years 6 and 26 of his reign, including various feasts of gods; a ‘running of the Apis bull’ in Year 9; a military campaign in Year 13 when there occurred the ‘hacking up of the city of Shem-Re’ and the ‘House-of-the-North;’ and in Year 15 the birth of Khasekhemwy, next king but one. Manetho also adds that it was decided that women could occupy the throne, but Merneith had apparently pre-empted this in the previous dynasty.

The fourth king of the dynasty came to the throne under the name of Sekhemib and reigned for 17 years. During his reign, however, the simmering rivalry between north and south reached boiling point once more, and a period of internal unrest ensued. The conflict was of a politico-divine nature, legitimized in part by the mythological struggle between the two gods Horus and Seth, who fought for control of the kingdom of Egypt. It was of the utmost significance, therefore, that Sekhemib dropped his Horus name in favor of a Seth name, Seth-Peribsen – indicating perhaps that the followers of Seth gained the upper hand. Peribsen’s granite funerary stele from Abydos is clear evidence of this change in allegiance, since the falcon above the serekh of his Horus name has been replaced by the animal of Seth, with its pointed ears. A later king, Khasekhemwy, was obviously a religious diplomat because he incorporated the names of both gods with his, and apparently managed to mollify both factions.

Manetho inserts three kings between Peribsen and Khasekhemwy: Sethenes (Sendji), Chaires (Neterka), and Nephercheres (Neferkara), reigning respectively for 41, 17, and 25 years. The evidence for these kings is slight and archaeological remains are non-existent. Khasekhemwy was the last king of the dynasty, although some authorities name, Khasekhem. Other opine that they are one and the same person who reigned for 30 years. According to this theory, Khasekhem changed his name to Khasekhemwy after had had put down various rebellions and thus united the land, meaning ‘The Two Powerful Ones appear,’ the new name incorporated both the Horus falcon and the Seth animal on the serekh.

Prior to the restoration of peace, it appears that northern enemies struck south, since an inscription on a stone vase records: ‘The year of fighting the northern enemy within the city of Nekheb.’ The vulture goddess Nekhbet, shown in the inscription, was the patron deity of Nekheb (now known as el-Kab) – on the opposite, eastern bank of the Nile to the ancient capital of the southern kings, Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) – and was much revered by the rulers of that city. The fighting must have been desperate if northerners could get so far south and into the capital city. The number of northerners killed is given as 47,209, represented as contorted bodies around the bases of two seated statues of Khasekhemwy. The statues, one of schist and the other of limestone come from Hierakonpolis and show the king closely wrapped in his heb-sed cloak. In both he wears the White Crown of Upper Egypt, indicative of his victory over northern Lower Egyptian enemies. They are each remarkable artistic studies at this early period.

Khasekhemwy died in about 2676 BC, and his huge tomb at Abydos is unique: it is trapezoidal in shape, with a stone burial chamber almost in the center. The robbers missed one prize item in their looting – the king’s scepter of gold and sard, as well as several beautifully made stone pots with gold-leaf lid coverings. About 1000 yards away from the tomb in the desert at Abydos is the Shunet el-Zebib, a vast rectangular mud-brick structure. It’s walls, with their articulated palace façade, are up to 16 feet thick and almost 66 feet high; they are an incredible survival, being nearly 5000 years old. It is not known what the exact purpose of the building was, much as it may look like an impressive fort. Excavations revealed evidence of complicated internal buildings, and it may have been connected with the provision made for the king’s ka (soul) in his tomb nearby.

As the dynasty ends with Khasekhemwy so, through him, the next one starts. He apparently married a northern princess to cement the good relations between the followers of Horus and Seth. She was called Nemathap and a jar-sealing gives her title as “The King-bearing Mother.’ Late ages saw her as the ancestral figure of the 3rd Dynasty, much as Queen Aahotep was regarded as ancestress of the New Kingdom.


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God Kings of the Nile

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Egyptian civilization was one of the greatest in the ancient world, and certainly the most long lived, lasting more than 3,000 years. In the popular mind the immediate images are those of the pyramids, the great Sphinx at Giza, the enormous temples and the fabulous treasures that have been preserved in the dry sand of Egypt. But what of the people who were responsible for such splendors?

The ancient Egyptian pharaohs were god-kings on earth who became gods in their own right at their death. They indeed held the power of life and death in their hands – their symbols of office, the crook and flail, are indicative of this. They could command resources that many a modern-day state would be hard pressed to emulate.

The known 170 or more pharaohs were all part of a line of royalty that stretched back to c. 3100 BC and forward to the last of the native pharaohs who died in 343 BC, to be succeeded by Persians and then a Greek line of Ptolemy’s until Cleopatra VII committed suicide in 30 BC.

Following the 3rd-century BC High Priest of Heliopolis, Manetho – whose list of Egyptian kings has largely survived in the writings of Christian clerics – we can divide much of the enormous span of time into 30 dynasties. Egyptologists today group these dynasties into longer eras, the three major pharaonic periods being the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, each of which ended in a period of decline given the designation ‘Intermediate Period.’

Manetho: A Study in Egyptian Chronology : How Ancient Scribes Garbled an Accurate Chronology of Dynastic Egypt (Marco Polo Monographs, 8)

In Chronicle of the Pharaohs, the emotive and incandescent 3,000-year-old thread of kingship is traced, setting the rulers in their context. Across the centuries the artist’s conception reveals to us the god-like complacency of the Old Kingdom pharaohs, the care-worn faces of the rulers of the Middle Kingdom, and the powerful and confident features of the militant New Kingdom pharaohs. Such was their power in Egypt, and at times throughout the ancient near east.

Many books are published each year on ancient Egypt, on different aspects of its history and culture. For the first time, an overall view is taken of those incredible people, the pharaohs who, although human after all, were looked upon by thousands as gods on earth and whose very achievements were, and even today still appear to be, the creation of gods themselves.

In the early 6th century BC Solon (c. 640-560 BC), the Athenian statesman and legislator, travelled to Egypt. There he visited the temple in the city of Naucratis in the Delta, a city recently settled by Greeks from Miletus. Solon, as a great statesman from a great city, was justly proud of Athens and its long history, but he was discussing history when they tartly reminded him: ‘You Hellenes [Greeks] are but children.’ They meant, and rightly so, that Greek history could not in any way equate in time and content with that of Egypt.

From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC (Routledge Classics)

In this they were correct, but it is interesting to reflect that the priests themselves were only the inheritors of a long historical tradition that stretched back almost 3,000 years. Whilst they obviously had sources to hand which are no longer extant today, they were living at a time when the grandeur of ancient Egypt was long past and we do not know exactly what historical records were then available to them. That some detailed records existed is proved by the fact that Manetho, a Graeco-Egyptian priest born at Schennytos in the Delta, was able to write a detailed history of Egypt 300 years later in the 3rd century BC.

Manetho’s Egyptian History [also known as Notes about Egypt] gives us the basic structure or skeleton of Egyptian chronology that we use today. He divided Egyptian history into dynasties [essentially, ruling houses] and we recognize 30 of them from the unification of Egypt in c. 3100 BC down to the death of the last native Egyptian pharaoh, Nectanebo II, in 343 BC. Sometimes the last phase of ancient Egyptian history after this date has two dynasties added – the 31st and 32nd – which are the Second Persian Period, and the Macedonian rulers linked with the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ends with the suicide of the last of the Ptolemy’s, Cleopatra VII, in 30 BC.

Berossos and Manetho, Introduced and Translated: Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt

Curiously, although great reliance is placed on Manetho, no full text of his work survives. Perhaps one day a papyrus edition will be found, possibly coming from one other cities of the Faiyum which have produced so much literary and historical material on papyri from the Graeco-Roman period. Manetho’s History is known to us only by chance since it was highly thought of in antiquity and several writers whose works have survived quoted extensively from it. Principal amongst these was Josephus [writing in the late 1st century AD], in his Jewish Antiquities and Contra Apionem, and the Christian chronographers Sextus Julius Africanus, whose Chronicle comes down to c. AD 220, and Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, whose writings add another 100 years into the early 4th century. Some 500 years later, the work of the last two writers was used as a basis for a history of the world by George the Monk who was secretary [hence his also being known as Syncellus] to the Byzantine Patriarch Tarasius (784-806). All these authors took what they wanted for their own purposes from their sources and so Manetho’s account only exists in fragments within these later works.

Manetho’s sources were very mixed. He obviously had access to temple records, since we know that he was a priest in the temple at Heliopolis [the Biblical city of On]. His name itself has overtones of learning because it appears to be associated with Thoth, the ibis-headed god of wisdom, who invented hieroglyphs. It may mean ‘Beloved of Thoth’ or possibly ‘Gift of Thoth.’ He had sources such as the official papyrus histories, the sacred books in the temple and, not least, the historical inscriptions on the temple walls such as the king lists described below, Ramesses III’s account of his battles with the Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu, and many more that have not been preserved. To all these possible sources, however, he added a lot of popular traditions and stories of the kings, some of which are far from credible. He was also, obviously, conversant with the writings of Herodotus, the Greek historian from Halicarnassus, who had visited Egypt around 450 BC and written much about the land and its history in Book 2 of his History.

Egyptian Chronology: The Evidence From Inscriptions

From and incomplete and variously corrupt literary history it is possible to examine some of the actual written sources. Whilst these had survived from ancient Egyptian times, after about the end of the 4th century AD they could no longer be read. The latest dated inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs occurs on the temple of Philae in AD 394. Thereafter the ‘key’ was lost although many scholars during the European Renaissance, and later the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), made valiant attempts at decipherment, often with incredible results. In 1761 another priest, the Abbe Jean Jacques Barthelemy, published a paper in which he suggested that the oval rings in which a number of the hieroglyphic signs occurred enclosed royal names. It was working from those ‘ovals,’ now called cartouches, that Jean Francois Champollion was able to ‘crack the code’ of Egyptian hieroglyphs with the Rosetta Stone. This odd-shaped slab of black basalt was found by a French officer of engineers, Lieutenant P.F.X. Bouchard, serving with the Napoleonic Expedition in Egypt, at Fort Julien at the Rosetta mouth of the Nile in 1799. It is inscribed with three scripts representing two languages. The upper portion is written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the center in the Egyptian demotic script, and the lower section is in Greek. The latter was easily translated, revealing that the inscription, the Decree of Memphis, is a decree of Ptolemy V, dated to Year 9 of his reign, 196 BC. With this as a base Champollion was able to work toward his eventual epoch-making paper, Lettre a M. Dacier, in 1822 which opened the floodgates to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt (Wonders of the World)

Apart from priestly inscriptions such as the Rosetta Stone, the Shabaka Stone and others such as the Sehel boulder inscription No. 81, there are only a few sources with actual lists pertaining to Egyptian history and chronology. References to small, specific areas of chronology, often only reflecting an individual’s part in it, occur, but the evidence is slight and often difficult.

The earliest evidence surviving is the Palermo Stone, which dates from the 5th Dynasty (2498-2345 BC). One large section of this black diorite slab is in the Palermo Museum in Sicily and smaller fragments are in the Cairo Museum and the Petrie Museum, University College London. The Palermo fragment is inscribed on both sides and records some of the last Predynastic kings before 3150 BC followed by the kings through to Neferirkare in the mid-5th Dynasty.

The Royal List of Karnak [now in the Louvre] has a list of kings running from the first king down to Tuthmosis III (1504-1450 BC0. It has an added advantage in that it records the names of many of the obscure kings of the Second Intermediate Period (Dynasties 13-17).

Ancient Records of Egypt: The First Through the Seventeenth Dynasties, Vol. 1

The Royal List of Abydos is still in situ on the walls of the corridor in the Hall of Ancestors in the magnificent temple of Seti I (1291-1278 BC). It shows Seti with his young son (later Ramesses II0 before a list of the cartouches of 76 kings running in two rows from the first king to Seti I (the third row of cartouches on the wall beneath these merely repeats Seti’s own). The kings of the Second Intermediate Period are not given (hence the value of the Karnak List, above), neither are there the cartouches of the kings at the end of the 18th Dynasty after Amenhotep III, who were not considered acceptable because of their association with the Amarna ‘heresy’ (Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun and Aysee). A badly damaged duplicate of this list, but arranged in three rows instead of two, was found in the nearby temple of Ramesses II. Known as the Abydos King List, it is now in the British Museum.

One other list inscribed on stone is the Royal List of Saqqara, now in the Cairo Museum. It was found in the tomb of the Royal Scribe Thunery at Saqqara and has 47 cartouches (originally it had 58) running from Anedjib of the 1st Dynasty to Ramesses II, again omitting those of the Second Intermediate Period.

Egyptian Chronology: The Royal Canon of Turin

The finest record of the chronology of the Egyptian kings is unfortunately the most damaged and now incomplete. It is a papyrus known as the Royal Canon of Turin, in which museum it is to be found. Originally the property of the king of Sardinia, tragically, it was baldy packed and severely damaged during transportation. The list of the kings, originally over 300 of them, is written in a fine literate hand in the hieratic script on the back of along Ramesside papyrus which has accounts on the front, or recto side. This dates it to having been written about 1200 BC. Like the scraps remaining from Manetho, and the first line of the Palermo Stone, it begins with dynasties of gods which are followed by those of earthly kings. A useful aspect is that it gives the exact lengths of each reign in years and even months and days. Its condition is such that piecing the fragments together is like solving a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing, so that what would have been the premier source for Egyptian chronology is an epigraphist’s nightmare.

The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt: History, Archaeology and Society (Duckworth Egyptology) (Duckworth Egyptology Series)

Even with the chronological information available, as outlined above, it may come as a surprise to realize that it is extremely difficult to fix true or absolute dates in Egyptian chronology. Most of the information given in the inscriptions mentioned is relative, in that it shows a sequence of kings relative to each other with sometimes a length of time between each reign, but to fix them in an absolute framework is a different matter altogether. Absolute dates from ancient Egypt rely on astronomical dating. This is done by reference to the civil and astronomical calendars in a complicated calculation involving the Sothic cycle of 1460 years, based on the heliacal rising of Sirius, or Sothis, the ‘dog star.’ The ancient Egyptians knew that the year consisted of 365 days, but they made no adjustment for the additional quarter of a day each year – as we do with Leap Year every four years at the end of February. Hence their civil and astronomical calendars were gradually moving out of synchronization and could bring about extremes of dating between the two. Eventually, every 1460 years, the two calendars coincided and were correct for a short time, until they gradually became out of step again until the end of the next cycle.

The heliacal rising of Sirius was, ideally, supposed to coincide with New Year’s Day in the civil calendar, but did so only every 1460 years. The 3rd-century AD grammarian Censorinus records that in AD 139 the first day of the Egyptian civil year and the heliacal rising of Sirius did actually coincide – this being the end of a Sothic cycle. This phenomenon is also confirmed by a reverse type on the billion tetradrachms issued at the mint of Alexandria with the standing figure of a haloed phoenix and the Greek word AION (indicating the end of an era); it is also dated by the characters L B to regnal year 2 of the emperor Antoninus Pius, which fell between 29 August AD 138 and 28 August 139. It is possible, working backwards, to deduce that comparable coincidences had occurred in 1317 BC and 2773 BC.

Unwrapping the Pharaohs: How Egyptian Archaeology Confirms the Biblical Timeline

The occurrence of a heliacal rising of Sirius is recorded in the 7th year of the reign of Senusret III (1878-1841 BC) of the 12th Dynasty. The event is dated to the 16th day of the 4th month of the 2nd season in the 7th year of the king. (There were only three seasons, not four, in ancient Egypt: inundation, sowing and harvest; then the cycle started again.) By calculating from the ‘coincidences’ of 1317 BC and 2773 BC, this rising can be fixed at 1872 BC. Another such sighting recorded occurred on the 9th day of the 3rd month of the 3rd season in the 9th year of Amenhotep I (1551-1524 BC); this produces a date somewhere within a 26-year range in the second half of the 16th century BC, since it cannot be quite so closely tied as the Senusret date.

This shows just how fluid Egyptian chronology can be, essentially calculated on a structure of regnal years for each king (where known) and which, by counting backwards and forwards, are basically anchored to the three heliacal risings of Sirius mentioned. It is generally accepted that Egyptian chronology is on a firm footing from 664 BC, the beginning of the 26th Dynasty (Saite Period) and the reign of Psammetichus I. There are then outside links to the chronology of historical Mediterranean civilizations which become firmer as the full classical and Roman periods are reached. Margins of error in the dynasties prior to the 26th are variable; whilst in the New Kingdom 20 years might be acceptable, this will increase as earlier periods are reached so that dates around the unification and in the Early Dynastic Period (Dynasties ‘0’-2) could be subject to fluctuations of anything between 50 and 200 years.


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