Cities in ancient Egypt grew out of the development of agriculture and the emergence of the state as the unifying and predominant form of political organization. However, even as early as 3500 BC, towns and cities (if they can be called such), consisted of regional capitals linked to the population centers of smaller administrative districts. The term we most frequently apply to these districts is nome, which was actually not used to describe a province until the Greek Period. During the New Kingdom, the Egyptian word for "city" was niwt, a term which in the earliest texts of the 1st Dynasty refers to "settlement". As early as the 5th Dynasty, the term for a "town" or large village was dmi. The term for "village", which was apparently linked to the word for "household", was whyt.
Unfortunately, our knowledge about Egyptian cities, and settlements in general is limited. Every aspect of of ancient Egyptian cities conspires to limit our understanding. Settlements and cities were located on the floodplain, with a preference for proximity to the Nile, in order to receive goods by boat and for its source of water. Unlike temples and tombs, most housing and public buildings in these cities and settlements were made of mudbrick throughout pharaonic times and shifts in the course of the Nile, the build-up of the floodplain by the annual deposition of silt and the impact of high Nile floods have all led to their destruction, which has sometimes been complete. Many cities, such as Thebes, have been built over by modern settlements, and even when some remains have survived, the mudbrick has been harvested by farmers to use as fertilizer. Finally, archaeological investigations since the nineteenth century have focused on temples and tombs, with their rich and spectacular art, sculpture and architecture, rather than the few less thrilling ancient Egyptian towns.
Early prehistoric settlement sites in the Nile Valley vary in size from as little as about 16 meters. The largest sites probably represent repeated occupations, with lateral displacement through time. By contrast, the Predynastic villages were the result of permanent occupation with a vertical build-up of deposits.
Prior to about 5000 BC, the inhabitants of the Nile Valley were mostly foragers who practiced fishing, fowling, hunting and collecting wild plants. The first known farming community then occupied a site at the edge of the floodplain of the Nile Delta at Merimda Beni Salama, about twenty-five kilometers to the northwest of Cairo. This was a large village, consisting of about 180,000 square meters and it remained populated for about 1,000 (one thousand) years, until about 4000 BC. At the end of this period, the dwellings consisted of clusters of semi-subterranean huts made from mud with mud-plastered walls and floors. The village had residential areas interspersed with workshops and public areas. Even though the orientation of huts in rows seems to suggest some organizational order, there is really no indication of elite areas or any pronounced hierarchical organization. Initial estimates of the village population were around 16,000, but more recent investigations suggest that it more likely had between 1,300 and 2,000 inhabitants, provided the whole of the area was simultaneously occupied.
Around 3500 BC, the village of Maadi was established about fifteen kilometers south of present day Cairo, probably as a trade center. The site shows evidence of huts, storage magazines, silos and cellars. We believe that Maadi was at the end of an overland trade route to Palestine, and was probably inhabited by middlemen from the Levant at that time, as evidenced by house and grave patterns. In fact, trade items including copper and bitumen from southwest Asia have been unearthed in this location. There were also artifacts discovered that associate the site with Upper Egypt, suggesting that Maadi was a trade link between the south and the Levant. Maadi seems to have been about the same size as Merimda Beni Salama.
At about the same time in the Nile Valley, the two towns of Hierakonpolis and Naqada became much more important, growing in relationship to neighboring villages. Hierakonpolis was contained in an area of about 50,000 to 100,000 square meters, which is comparable in area to the area known as South Town in the Naqada region. Excavations at Hierakonpolis reveal that over time, the village shifted to the northeast, suggesting that older areas were abandoned and used for disposal. At any one time, there were probably between 1,500 and 2,000 inhabitants.
Prior to the emergence of South town in the Naqada region, the area was dotted with small villages and hamlets between the edge of the floodplain and the desert margin. Dating to around 3800 BC, these villages, often spaced about two kilometers apart, consisted mostly of flimsy huts. However, by about 3600 BC, one of those villages began to build up into a true town. No other villages at the edge of the desert are known from that time. Of course, as the town grew, some of the rural population was incorporated into the emerging urban center, and a low Nile flood level caused some shifting of village communities closer to the river. South Town possibly developed into an urban settlement because of its association with a religious cult and shrine, which became a center for solidarity among the villages, which were probably organized by kin-related lineages and clans. It probably developed into an early administrative center, where food exchanges and trade transactions among the villages and even nearby nomads of the Eastern Desert were overseen. The villages of Naqada seem to also have established trade with Hierakonpolis, where the development of an urban center was possibly most related to its trade with Nubia and the Near East by way of Maadi.
A decline in the Nile flood discharge and an increase in demands for trade goods by expanding urban dwellers, beginning from around 3500 to 3300 BC, led to the integration of neighboring communities into larger political units, with territorial chiefdoms and petty kingdoms. This also led to some sporadic warfare and therefore, fortified walled cities. Each of these became associated with a territorial standard representing the tribal or ethnic groups. In Mesopotamia, this evolution led to the emergence of city states, but perhaps because of the linear arrangement and limitations of the Nile Valley, this did not happen in Egypt. Instead, the course of the Nile Valley urbanization followed a political transformation that we believe, around 3200 BC, led to the emergence of some sub-national unity.
Abydos, north of Naqada and Hierakonpolis, existed as a locus of proto-national power that even controlled parts of the Delta some two centuries before the emergence of the 1st Dynasty. The royal necropolis of Abydos continued as a significant religious establishment well after the emergence of Memphis.
By 3000 BC, the unification of all the administrative districts under a single theocratic dynasty was accomplished, we are told, by Menes. Memphis was a result of this unification. The fist kings of Egypt's 1st Dynasty, by consolidating their power at Memphis, diminished the possibility of the rise of rival urban centers. These early kings display considerable brilliance in their consolidation of power at Memphis, developing a royal ideology that bonded all the districts to the person of the ruler, rather than to any given territory. Furthermore, some of the most powerful local deities were included in a cosmogony at Memphis that removed them from their local political districts. Unfortunately, we know very little about ancient Memphis itself. Though it remained an important population center throughout pharaonic history, Memphis remains mostly a mystery, though recent investigations using new technologies are beginning to provide some enlightenment. For example we now know that the city, over its vast history of some three millenniums, shifted eastward in response to the invasion of sand dunes and a shift in the course of the Nile.
Later, other royal cities emerged to become royal capitals, though Memphis always seems to have been an administrative center. Tell el-Dab'a, located in the northeastern Nile Delta, was the residential site of Egyptianized Canaanites and elite Delta administrators. This town was possibly established on the site of an earlier estate, established at the beginning of the 12th Dynasty, as a royal palace of Amenemhet I. The town became the capital city of Egypt during the Hyksos dynasty from about 1585 to 1532, probably because of its favorable location for trade with the coastal Levant and the administration of mining activities in the Sinai. Then, this city's name was probably Avaris. Later, during the Ramessid era, the new capital of Piramesses was located nearby.
Obviously, during the New Kingdom, Thebes became very important, certainly rivaling Memphis. However, the city of Thebes is now completely covered by modern Luxor, and remains almost completely unknown except for the information derived from its temples and monuments, and from some rare excavations. We do know that the Middle Kingdom town consisted of an area of about 3,200 by 1,600 feet, made up on a grid plan and surrounded by a wall measuring some twenty feet thick. That city appears to have been almost completely leveled at the beginning of the New Kingdom, to accommodate the creation of the Great Temple complex of Karnak with a new residential area and suburbs that perhaps spread as far as eight kilometers from the city center.
During the Third Intermediate Period, Tanis, which is located about twenty kilometers north of Piramesses became an important royal city, and during the Late Period, Sais, which is situated on one of the western branches of the Nile and which is one of the earliest prominent settlements of the Delta, became a powerful capital. Of course, during the Ptolemaic (Greek) Period, Alexandria, located northwest of Sais, became Egypt's capital until the Arab invasion.
However, the cities of ancient Egypt, including their locations, functions and organization, were related to various dynamics that shaped the course of Egyptian civilization based on both internal and external forces. There were many specialized cities such as those based on trade. Others, for example, were made up of artisans, craftsmen and workers related to various royal projects. Some of the best preserved of these are four different workers villages have survived to some extent, all of which were situated somewhat off of the Nile. The village at Deir el-Medina is perhaps one of the best known, located on the western bank of the Nile opposite Thebes. It does provide an idea of the organization of a specialized village, as well as a somewhat distorted view of village life. Another workers' village is located at Illahun, on the eastern end of the 12th Dynasty pyramid complex of Senusret II. That town was later occupied by officials of the king's mortuary cult. A third workers' village was discovered at Tell el-Amarna, the capital city built by the heretic king Akhenaten. It was build on the edge of the desert to the east of the Nile, and because the city was abandoned early on, provides one of the clearest indications of village design and construction, though it may not be completely reprehensive of other settlements. A final workers' and surprisingly, one of the last to be excavated, is found at Giza just outside Cairo
The town of Illahun (Kahun) is also representative of various settlements that existed where priests and others were responsible for the rituals and observances related to the mortuary cult of the king, as well as the foundation estate created to finance such cults. Some of these also became administrative centers, in addition to their responsibilities for maintaining the cult.
Another clear example of specialized Egyptian towns were the fortress towns, of which some of the best known were in Nubia and date to the Middle Kingdom. However, there were other similar towns in the northeast and probably even the northwest, particularly later, that protected the borders from Asian and other invaders, as well as from massive immigration. The Egyptian state had also assumed a strategy to control the exploitation and flow of goods from Nubia, where these fortresses were built on either flat land or hills. One of the largest was the fortress excavated at Buhen, abut 250 kilometers south of Aswan. It consisted of a fortress built on an Old Kingdom site that consisted of an inner citadel, surrounded by a mud-brick enclosure wall some five meters thick and eight to nine meters high, all overlooking the Nile. These fortresses in Nubia were developed into towns, with temples and residential areas. Residential areas surrounded the citadel and were adjacent to a temple.
As Egyptian civilization progressed, there appears to have been some seventeen cities and twenty-four towns in an administrative network that linked them to the national capital. Though of course the population varied over time, it has been estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 people. The populations of provincial capitals and towns were perhaps fairly small, ranging from 1,400 to 3,000 inhabitants. We believe that Illahun, Edfu, Hierakonpolis and Abydos would have been populated by 2,200, 1,800, 1,400 and 900 people, respectively. Tell el-Amarna, on the other hand, as a royal capital would have had a population of between 20,000 and 30,000. Older capitals, such as Memphis and Thebes, may have reached a level of between 30,000 and 40,000 inhabitants at the peaks of their occupation.
The population of these cities and towns were not urban in a modern sense, but perhaps more similar to today's provincial Egyptian towns, which have unmistakable rural aspects to them. The residents consisted not only of urban dwellers, but also of rural people, such as farmers and herdsmen who went out to the countryside each day. Urban inhabitants included artisans, scribes, priests, tax-collectors, servants, guards and soldiers, entertainers and shopkeepers. The kings, nobles and the temples possessed estates that employed a variety of personnel, many of whom were rural workers on the agricultural land. These cities and towns certainly had a hierarchical organization, which included not only palaces, mansions and temples, but also the humble dwellings for the functionaries and peasants, along with workshops, granaries, storage magazines, shops and local markets, all the institutions of residential urban life.
Irregardless of their size, towns and cities became centers of power. In these urban centers, both priests and nobles provided the fabric of the state ideology, as well as the administration of major economic and legal affairs. It was the cities of ancient Egypt that allowed the country to grow into an empire and assume the sophistications of a world power.
|Akhenaten: King of Egypt||Aldred, Cyril||1988||Thames and Hudson Ltd||ISBN 0-500-27621-8|
|Atlas of Ancient Egypt||Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir||1980||Les Livres De France||None Stated|
|Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The||Wilkinson, Richard H.||2000||Thames and Hudson, Ltd||ISBN 0-500-05100-3|
|Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The||Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul||1995||Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers||ISBN 0-8109-3225-3|
|Early Dynastic Egypt||Wilkinson, Toby A. H.||1999||Routledge||ISBN 0-415-26011-6|
|Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, The||Arnold, Dieter||2003||Princeton University Press||ISBN 0-691-11488-9|
|History of Ancient Egypt, A||Grimal, Nicolas||1988||Blackwell||None Stated|
|History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C.||Badawy, Alexander||1968||University of California Press||LCCC A5-4746|
|Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The||Redford, Donald B. (Editor)||2001||American University in Cairo Press, The||ISBN 977 424 581 4|
|Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The||Shaw, Ian||2000||Oxford University Press||ISBN 0-19-815034-2|
|Ramesses II||James, T. G. H||2002||Friedman/Fairfax||ISBN 1-58663-719-|
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011
Last Updated: June 13th, 2011