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Egypt: History - Pharaonic Dynasty I


First Dynasty


Egypt's 1st Dynasty saw the emergence of a unified land stretching from the Delta to the first cataract at Aswan, a distance of over one thousand kilometers along the Nile Valley.

The memorable years which gave Egyptologists their first glimpse of the predynastic period also brought them face to face for the first time with the earliest dynasties, which commenced areound 3,000 BC. The pioneer in this field was E. Amelineau, a Coptic scholar with no previous experience of excavating. Supported by funds from private sources he started operations at Abydos in 1895, working westwards until he reached a low spur of the desert known as Umm el-Ka'ab 'Mother of Pots' after the innumerable potsherd covering the surface. In this remote spot, a full mile distant from the cultivation, he came upon a cluster of brick pit-tombs which subsequently proved to have belonged to the kings of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties. According to his count they were sixteen in number, and since, so far as he could see, the royal names were all of the Horus-name type while none of them corresponded to the names in Manetho and the king-lists, he naturally concluded that his new kings were those 'Followers of Horus' whom the Turin Canon of Kings gives as predecessors of Menes (the first king of the Unified Upper and Lower Egypt) and whom Manetho describes as Demigods of Manes. Closer study by competent philologists quickly dispelled this error. Amelineau's excavation was badly conducted and badly published, and it was fortunate when, in 1899, Flinders Petrie obtained a permit to investigate the site once more. The highly successful results of his work were made accessible very quickly in several memoirs published by the Egypt Exploration Fund. The cemetery was found to have been sadly devastated long before Amelineau added to the confusion. The burnt wooden linings of the tombs and the wide scattering of broken fragments were tracked down to Coptic Christians of the fifth or sixth century. In spite of these disadvantages Petrie was able, besides making plans of the tombs, to recover a vast multitude of important objects, including inscribed stone vessels, jar-sealings, ebony and ivory tablets, as well as several superbly carved stele of imposing size.

Meanwhile scholars in Europe went to work on the inscriptions found by Amelineau. Griffith in England and Sethe in Germany were among the first to recognized that they were in the presence of the remains of Manetho's 1st and 2nd Dynasties. An epoch-making article by Sethe (1897) drew special attention to the facts that in some cases the Horus-name of the king was accompanied by another introduced by the title 'King of Upper and Lower Egypt' or by this followed by the Two-Ladies title. It was these secondary names which corresponded to those in the Ramesside king-lists and in Manetho. Thus the Usaphais whom Manetho gives as the fifth king (Den) of the 1st Dynasty was traced back to a hieroglyphic group probably to be read as Zemti, while Manetho's sixth king (Anedjib), Miebis, was unmistakably written as Merpibia. The seventh one (Semerkhet), Manetho's Semempses, appeared as a priestly figure holding a stick at Umm el-Ka'ab and a scepter in the Abydos king-list, while the eighth and last king of the dynasty, using Ka'a (Qa'a) as his Horus-name and occasionally also his personal name, was only slightly, and quite comprehensible, disguised as Kebh in the Abydos list and the Turin Canon. It should be noted that this discussion assumes the list of kings in the 1st Dynasty to include Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djet, Den, Anendjib, Semerkhet and Qa'a, though many current texts list Narmer as belonging to Dynasty 0 prior to unification, so that there would only be seven kings during the 1st Dynasty.) The historic sequence of these four kings was luckily confirmed by two incised stone vases discovered many years later. This opportunity is taken to note that the transcription of hieroglyphs belonging to the earliest period is a matter of great difficulty, so that names are apt to be rendered very differently by various scholars, as will be apparent from two Horus-names of the 1st Dynasty. That belonging to the fourth king (Djet) read as Zet by Petrie clearly equates its bearer with the cobra-goddess, whose name probably sounded more like Edjo than like Uadji as advocated by some. On the other hand, if for the fifth king Petrie's Den is here preferred to Sethe's widely accepted Udimu (Den) meaning 'the water-pourer', it is because this is highly speculative and it seemed better to retain their usual values for the two alphabetic signs with which the name is written.

The problems raised by the first four kings of the 1st Dynasty, with Menes at their head, are less easily solved and demand a wider perspective than has sufficed for the last four. It is desirable, therefore, here to provide some account of some excavations prior to Petrie's decisive discoveries at Abydos, In 1897 Petrie's partner J.E. Quibell had been digging at El-Kab, an important site on the east bank some distance to the north of Edfu. Here the local goddess was the vulture Nekhbet who shared with the cobra Wadjet of Buto in the Delta the honor of providing the Pharaoh with his Two-Ladies title. In view of the great antiquity of that title an important find might have been expected, but Quibell's results were disappointing. All the more exciting, therefore, was the success awaiting him in the following year at Kom el-Ahmar across the river. This was known to be the ancient Nekhen mentioned in certain Old Kingdom official titles, and the Greek Hieraconpolis on account of the falcon-god Horus who was the principal deity worshipped there. The great prize was the famous slate palette of Na'rmer. It needed but little study to recognize in this object an indisputable link between the late predynastic and the earliest dynastic periods. Material, design, and subjects of palettes now familiar to the reader, and on the other hand the Horus-name Na'rmer was soon to make its appearance at Umm el-Ka'ab. The only other remains of him are votive offerings found in the temple of Hieraconpolis.

One of the most interesting finds during this period was a most impressive large, broken mace-head of hard limestone carrying scenes in high relief attributed to a leader we know refer to as the Scorpion king. The main scene is ceremonial, as on most similar memorials of the 1st Dynast, and has as a central figure the king wielding a hoe in both hands. He wears a tunic fastened over his left shoulder and the bull's tail, a common attribute of royalty, attached above the girdle. On his head is the crown of Upper Egypt. Of greater historical importance are the representations in the upper register. Here is seen a procession of military standards surmounted by the emblems of various nomes or provinces, including those of Min and the animal of Seth. Tied to each standard by a rope passing round its neck is a dead or almost dead lapwing. Facing in the opposite direction, was another procession of standards having bows similarly attached, but only one complete standard is preserved. The general meaning is clear. The Scorpion king claimed victories over the Nine Bows, meaning the various people in and on the borders of Egypt, and also over a later often mentioned part of the Egyptian population known as the Erkheye or 'Lapwing-folk' who were held by many Egyptologist to have been the subjugated inhabitants of the Delta. It is significant, however, that in spite of the widespread victories of which the Scorpion boasts he makes no pretense of having been the king of a united Egypt.

That honor was reserved for Na'rmer, who on one side of his palette wears the white crown of Upper Egypt, while on the other, as well as on a mace-head of almost equal importance, he has assumed the red crown of Lower Egypt, apparently the first Egyptian monarch to do so. It is precisely this fact which justifies the belief that Na'rmer was none other than Menes himself. It is needless to comment at great length on scenes which to a large extent explain themselves, but two features of the palette are too interesting to be passed over in silence. To the right of the figure of Na'rmer with arm upraised to brain the enemy whom he holds by the forelock is an enigmatic group of emblems combined into a single whole. It is clear that as yet the learned men of the county had not developed the power of writing complete sentences. The most they could do was to exhibit a complex of pictures which the spectator would then translate into words. That the falcon of Horus represents Na'rmer is evident, and the rope attached to the head of a bearded enemy and held in the falcon's hand needs no commentary. The bolsterlike object from which the prisoner's head protrudes is obviously his native country, and it is now held that the six papyrus plants growing out of it represent Lower, Egypt, of which the papyrus was the symbol. Thus the entire complex would mean 'The falcon-god Horus (i.e. Na'rmer) holds captive the inhabitants of the papyrus-country'. It is perhaps not fantastic to interpret the device occupying the middle of the verso as symbolizing the union of the two halves of Egypt. The two long-necked felines appear to be restrained from fighting by a bearded man on each side. Up above, Na'rmer, as King of Lower Egypt, is seen inspecting the results of his victory. In front of him are the standards of his confederates and there is a ship which appears to have brought him to the place where his decapitated enemies are still lying. Thus this splendidly devised and executed votive palette may reasonably be understood as commemorating the very events upon which rest the fame of Menes as founder of the Pharaonic monarchy.

Nevertheless the identity of Menes remains the subject of scholarly controversy, and it will not be superfluous to review the reasons that have been advanced. Among the jar-sealings discovered at Umm el-Ka'ab there was one in which the signs mn without preceding title were found immediately adjacent to the Horus-name Na'rmer, and this was taken as a proof that Na'rmer and Menes were identical. Similar reasoning appeared to equate the Horus Djer and the Horus Edjo (Djet) (Petrie's Zet, the Serpent King) with the kings given as Iti and Ita in the Abydos list. Unfortunately, as both Griffith and Sethe pointed out, a like argument would furnish us with two distinct names of the Horus 'Aha, neither of them found in the king-lists, and there are other objections of the same kind. Consequently this criterion is worthless, though of course its rejection does not prove Na'rmer to have not been Menes. Of far greater interest is the ivory tablet that was found by De Morgan in 1897 in a huge recessed tomb at Naqada, the scene of Flinders Petrie's earlier prehistoric discoveries. There is no dispute concerning the nature of this object. It is a label intended to indicate the date and the contents of some vessel receptacle to which it was to be tied. In the top row to right of the center is the Horus-name of King 'Aha ('The Fighter') occurring also on jar-sealings from the tomb and in various other places. Behind the serekh is the ship in which the king was doubtless supposed to have been faring. In front is seen a group of hieroglyphs enclosed in a sort of booth or pavilion, and it is upon this group that the divergent opinions of scholars have been concentrated. There can be no question that the vulture and cobra over two basket-like signs constitute the Two-Ladies title which, as has been seen, was often used to introduce the personal names of 1st Dynasty kings. It was unreasonable to deny, as several scholars have done, that the hieroglyph beneath is the draughtsboard reading mn or that it gives the personal name of Menes. L. Borchardt was the first to recognize the latter obvious facts, but he unfortunately jumped to the conclusion that 'Aha and Menes were identical, a view accepted also by Sethe. It was consequently assumed that the Naqada tomb was that of Menes himself. To this interpretation there are two serious objections: In the fist place it ignores the boothlike structure within which the name of Menes is written, and in the second place it overlooks the fact that the hieroglyphs of the Two-Ladies title here face towards the right, whereas it was elsewhere the universal rule to make the signs of the Horus-name and the king's personal name face one another. Add to these objections the consideration that this top register ought to commemorate some outstanding event by which the year of the tablet's fabrication could be remembered, and it must be concluded that 'Aha is here depicted as visiting some place connected with Menes. Grdseloff, to whom, following a suggestion by Newberry, has the credit of having insisted upon these points, ingeniously quoted a passage in the Pyramid Texts where the king is described as erecting the temporary structures needed for a royal funeral, and this may possibly have been the actual ceremony depicted on the tablet. Here, then, although there is no proof that Na'rmer was Menes, we at least obtain the assurance that Menes was not 'Aha, but must have been his predecessor. The choice certainly lies between Na'rmer and 'Aha, whose Horus-names share the peculiarity of showing the falcon in a crouching form and usually as resting on a curved boat-like base, whereas the later kings of the 1st Dynasty depict the falcon as upright and having a straight line at the top of the serekh. A further ground for rejecting the identity of 'Aha as Menes is that, if they were identical, we should have expected to find 'Aha mentioned at Hieraconpolis, whereas no trace of him has been found there. We can here only allude in passing to a mysterious King Kaa (Qa'a) whose Horus-name occurs at Uum el-Ka'ab and a few other places, and is written in the archaic way just noted; no one has put forward his name as a candidate in the issue here discussed, and we may safely disregard any such possibility.

The unanimity with which all later authorities proclaim Menes to have been the first of the Pharaohs receives virtual confirmation from the famous 'Palermo Stone'. The top row of the recto gives only the rather fantastically written names of a number of kings concerning whom the annalist had no further information to offer. It cannot be doubted that the second row began with Menes, though the portion mentioning him is lost. The analogy of the two other kings of the 1st Dynasty recorded in the large Cairo fragment makes it almost certain that both his Horus-name and his personal name would have been found there, presumably accompanied also by the name of his mother. The year-spaces below the heading doubtless attributed to each year of his reign what was considered to be its outstanding event, though for this the chronicler of so remote an age may possibly have had to draw upon his imagination. It would have been interesting to know whether the unification of the Two Lands was explicitly mentioned; which was of all events the momentous achievement which in the eyes of the Egyptians marked the beginning of human history. A remembrance of it is found in the words 'Union of Upper and Lower Egypt; circling the wall(s)' on the Palermo Stone and elsewhere the first year of each king was characterized. This evidently referred to the ceremony which legitimized him as descended from the founder of his line. The walls here alluded to will have been those of Memphis, the foundation of which is ascribed to Menes by Herodotus and with some confusion by Diodorus. Also the Rosetta Stone, referring to Memphis, speaks of the ceremonies customarily performed there by the king on assuming his high office. Thus the removal of the royal residence from somewhere in the south to this admirably situated position at the apex of the Delta must be viewed as a direct consequence of the establishment of the double kingdom. The other important acts attributed to Menes by Herodotus have been discussed by Sethe with great ingenuity. They are the creation of a great embankment which protected Memphis from being overwhelmed by the Nile-flood and the building of the Temple of Ptah to the south of the fortified walls. Confirmation of the later event is implied by a palette of the 19th Dynasty mentioning the Ptah of Menes. Other facts connecting Menes with Memphis cannot be enumerated here.

The importance of that great city of of the 1st Dynasty. has been strongly underlined by the excavations conducted at the edge of the western desert some three miles farther north. The long row of brick mastabas unearthed by W. B. Emery since 1935 differ from those found at Abydos by Petrie through their greater complexity, and are on average nearly twice as large. Their structure as disclosed in the plans, as well as the inscribed objects found in them, proclaims them all to belong to the 1st Dynasty, with the oldest dating from the reign of 'Aha. A rapid development is visible, but leaves the main features unaltered. A great brick rectangle showing the characteristic palace-facade paneling on the outer side encloses a number of sepulchral chamber which tends to go deeper in course of time, and to be reached by a descending stairway starting at or near the enclosure wall. In the earliest examples there is no connection whatever between the compartments, so that their contents must have been stored there before the superstructure was added. In the end, the compartments disappear and are replaced by a sepulchral chamber of increased size. There are wooden floors and roofs, and there is some use of stone. Sometimes the walls exhibit painted geometrical patterns.

For the historian the point to be emphasized is the homogeneity of the remains in both parts of the country. Architecturally there are indeed certain differences between north and south, the greatest perhaps being the absence of the palace-facade paneling at Abydos, though it is present in the great Naqada tomb. In both areas there is much variation between the various tombs. In all other archaeological respects the similarity amounts almost to identity, and this applies alike to furniture, stone vessels, tools, and the tablets or labels used for dating. In the jar-sealings the similarity is particularly apparent. The same patterns and the same hieroglyphic combinations occur at both Memphis and Abydos. No more convincing testimony to the unity of the land could be desired. There is evidence too of identical customs that tend to corroborate the connection with Mesopotamian culture. Many of the great tombs are surrounded by long lines of small burial chambers adjoining one another, and the contents of these attest the immolation of servants or other living creatures to accompany their lord in the hereafter. In one of Emery's tombs at north Saqqara attributed on slender grounds to a Queen Merneit many adult skeletons were found in the same contracted position all facing in the same direction. Emery tells us that:

"No trace of violence was noted on the anatomical remains, and the position of the skeletons in no case suggested any movement after burial. It would therefore appear probably that when these people were buried they were already dead and there is no evidence of their having been buried alive. The absence of any marks of violence suggests that they were killed by poison prior to burial."

Emery goes on to say that some of the objects found in these intact tombs suggest definite professions, and he tells us of the presence of model boats in one case and in another that of a copper chisel contained in an alabaster vase. At Abydos the corresponding subsidiary graves contain rough stele giving personal names sometimes accompanied by hieroglyphs indicating sex, condition, or the like. Many of the occupants were women. Some of them captives of war and there were several dwarfs and even a few dogs. A title often found on cylinder seals seems to show that some of the buried were above the rank of menials, and in one case for which there is a still more remarkable counterpart among Emery's finds, both dating from the reign of King Ka'a (Qa'a), an imposing stele bears title clearly belonging to a personage of much distinction.

In view of such information about people who at best were subordinates it is tantalizing that certain knowledge concerning those in whose honor their lives were sacrificed is denied us in every case. Only with jar-sealings, scratchings on jars, and the like have been left to us as basis for our conjectures. Of profound interest as Emery's revelations have been, they also have proved most unsettling. The discoveries at Abydos had convinced scholars that they were there in possession of the actual burial-places of the earliest Pharaohs, and confirmation seemed forthcoming from Manetho's statement that 1st and 2nd Dynasty Kings were of Thinite origin, for the Egyptian town of Tjene was in the near neighborhood of Abydos. But now the greater size and magnificence of the Memphite tombs raised the suspicion that these were the true royal tombs of the period, and the matter was still further complicated by the existence of other not less important isolated mastabas of the same period of Tarkhan, some miles south of Lisht, at Giza, and farther north at Abu Roash.

Could these really only be the tombs of fine noblemen outdoing in splendor the sovereigns of whom they were the vassals? Such was the inevitable first impression given by an immense 'palace-facade mastaba' at north Saqqara with which the series of discoveries opened. This was attributed by Emery to a provincial administrator named Hemaka on the strength of many jar-sealings there found. But the Horus Den, the fifth king of Egypt's 1st Dynasty,, was also prominent upon the jar-sealings, which mention too a 'seal-bearer of the King of Lower Egypt' with a name compounded with that of the goddess Neith. Now Hemaka is again found in conjunction with King Den at Abydos. Of his importance there is no shadow of a doubt, but it may here be said once and for all that jar-sealings are almost useless as evidence for the ownership of a tomb, though if they give, as they often do, the name of a king they are good evidence for the date. By way of illustration we may recall the tomb at Naqada where the tablet of Menes was found. This tomb is only a trifle smaller than that ascribed to Hemaka, but three times larger than the largest of the supposed royal tombs at Abydos.

The tomb at Abydos which Petrie doubtingly attributed to King 'Aha is an insignificant single chamber which can hardly have been his. At Naqada, sealings of the Horus 'Aha are numerous, the serekh sometimes standing alone, but sometimes accompanied by the hieroglyphs for ht and sometimes by three identical birds. Since these birds occur alone on several stone jars it has been suggested that they gave the name of the noble who owned the tomb. But there are two more plausible candidates for the ownership, firstly 'Aha himself and a secondly a Queen Neit Hetepu. The name of the queen is written in a most interesting way. The element Hetepu is enclosed in a serekh surmounted by the crossed arrows which were the archaic way of writing the name of Neith, the goddess of the Lower Egyptian city of Sais. The analogy with the Pharaonic Horus title is complete, and we find both at Abydos and at Saqqara the name of another queen or princess Merneit. The element -neit at Abydos in the names of some the sacrificed slave-women, provides a plausible conjecture that diplomatic marriages were arranged between royal ladies from Sais and the conquering king from Upper Egypt. Doubtless the queen-to-be was accompanied by other women as concubines, accordingly, but it is by no means improbable that the Naqada tomb was that of 'Aha's spouse, though why she should have been buried in this remote spot is inexplicable. There was a supposition that the tomb was that of 'Aha himself, when he was at first thought to be Menes. This has been rendered most unlikely by Emery's discovery at Saqqara of a vast mastabas in which the sealings almost all showed the name of the Horus 'Aha either alone or accompanied by the above-mentioned signs for ht or else by hieroglyphs. They appeared to read 'son of Isis', though it would be surprising if the consort of the god Osiris were really named at so early a date. Thus there seems considerable likelihood that the Saqqara tomb is really that of 'Aha.

The facts concerning the three tombs which have been claimed as his burial-place have been discussed at length merely to serve as an example of the difficulties with which their excavators have confronted us. Emery's highly successful digs have brought to light no less than fourteen great palace-facade mastabas extended in a line along the edge of the escarpment, and in all of them jar-sealings of the 1st Dynasty kings have disclosed the approximate dates. Apart from Na'rmer, only Semempses (Semerkhet) is missing, and the large Cairo fragment of the Palermo Stone shows that he reigned no more than nine years. Emery is convinced that he has discovered the actual tombs of the other six kings of the dynasty from 'Aha onwards, and since we have reason to believe that Menes moved from the south to make Memphis his capital his hypothesis is highly probable. But Djer is mentioned in two tombs and Den in four or even five, while the great tomb known as Giza V has almost as good a claim as Saqqara to have belonged to Edjo (Djet) the Serpent King. Two of the tombs are perhaps rightly thought to have been those of queens, and it is possible after all that the tomb ascribed to Hemaka may have actually been his. This possibility arises with regard to a magnate named Sabu under 'Andjyeb, though not to the prince Merka under Ka'a (Qa'a). In none of the fourteen tombs is there absolute certainty. Also there are still scholars who maintain that Abydos was the authentic royal cemetery, and they can point as proofs to the magnificent stone stele which stood in front of the great burial chambers and among which that of the Serpent King in the Louvre is the finest.

They Egyptians of much later date may themselves have believed that their earliest kings were buried there, for they placed in the Abydene tomb of Djer a huge sarcophagus representing the god Osiris, the prototype of all dead Pharaohs. Emery's belief, for which there is much to be said, is that the tombs at Abydos are cenotaphs due to the theory that the Pharaoh ought to possess separate tombs King of Upper and King of Lower Egypt respectively. That an Egyptian king could erect for himself two huge pyramids, and those even in the same neighborhood, was seen in the case of Snofru. For written testimony to the existence of cenotaphs the reader may be reminded of what is stated about Queen Tetisheri.

Among the skeptics who doubt Emery's contention H. Kees is the most eminent, and in a review he has gone some distance towards demolishing as evidence the criterion of size, and has shown that no argument can be drawn from the presence or absence of subsidiary graves of sacrificed subordinates. He also lays stress on the existence at other sites of tombs identical with those at Saqqara in structure and contents. At one moment the astonishing discovery on ledges around the Saqqara tombs of bull's heads modeled in clay, but fitted with actual bulls' horns, might conceivably have been guessed to indicate royal tombs, but of the three examples thus far laid bare two appear to have belonged to queens, while there is no evidence that the third belonged to a king. We cannot leave the topic of Emery's great finds without referring to the exquisite beauty of may of the objects found. The craftsmanship and artistic design of the stone vessels excel everything that was achieved later. An extraordinary and unexplained fact about all the tombs both at Saqqara and at Abydos is that in every case they had been willfully destroyed by fire, whereas the same is not true of the tombs of the 2nd Dynasty.

The events chosen as a means of dating both on the tablets or labels and on the Palermo Stone are mostly of a religious character. Every second year saw the occurrence of a 'Following of the Horus' which, whether as an actual Royal Progress by river or as a merely reminiscent ceremony, certainly recalled those historic voyages in which the king proceeded northwards to bring about the unification of the Two Lands, as depicted on the palette of Na'rmer. There the king is shown already wearing the crown of Lower Egypt, while the military standards which accompany him are the equivalents of the gods of the various nomes allied with him. A later misinterpretation of these 'Followers of Horus" was mentioned above. Another totally unexpected kind of event which was evidently regarded by the earliest Pharaoh as of sufficient importance to serve as the name of a year was the fashioning of some great cult-image. This was expressed by such terms as 'Birth of Anubis', 'Birth of Min', the word for 'birth' being the consequence of the belief that the statues became really alive after the 'Opening the Mouth' ceremony had been performed over them. The inauguration or visiting of certain buildings seems to have loomed equally large n the eyes of those responsible for finding names for the years. It is only rarely that warlike achievements are mentioned.

Under King Djer the large Cairo fragment of the Palermo Stone mentioned a 'Smiting of Setje', a geographical expression which we must render approximately as 'Asia', and under a later monarch we read of a 'Smiting of the Iuntyu' an equally vague designation of the peoples living to the north-east of the Delta. An exceptionally fine tablet formerly in the MacGregor collection represents King Den in the act of massacring an Asiatic who is shown inhabiting the sandy desert presumably of Sinai. The accompanying hieroglyphs present no difficulties of interpretation, reading clearly 'First time of smiting the Easterners'. Perhaps even more interesting than this reference to what may have been no more than a border incident is this evidence of the rapid development of hieroglyphic expression. Before the end of the 1st Dynasty it will have become possible to convey the gist of whole sentences by sequences of separate signs.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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