Egypt: Early Dynastic Kings, Part I - First Dynasty Kings, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Early Dynastic Kings, Part I First Dynasty

By Marie Parsons

Aha, probably the son of Narmer and his queen Nithotep, is thought to be the first king of the 1st Dynasty. A tomb at Abydos is attributed to him. It is the largest in the northwestern part of the cemetery, and another tomb close by contained labels with the name Berner-Ib, or "Sweetheart," possibly his queen.

Djer, whose name may have meant "Horus who Succors," is said to have reigned for 57 years. Nine years from his reign are recorded on the main Cairo fragment of the royal annals, describing the royal progress, or the "following of Horus," the fashioning and dedication of cult statues, and an expedition to Western Asia. These were the first records of military expeditions outside of the Two Lands. Forces were sent east into Sinai and perhaps beyond. The annals refer to one regnal year being called "The Year of Smiting the Land of the Stjt", a word later referring perhaps to Syria-Palestine.

The sciences may have flourished at this time, because Djer was remembered later on as a great physician. Manetho claims that Djer wrote on anatomy and treatment of diseases in circulation 3,000 years after his death. One of his prescriptions was for hair strengthening.

Djers tomb lies at Umm el-Quab, at Abydos. It was a subterranean brick structure containing a wooden inner chamber, much more elaborate than those of his predecessors Aha and Narmer and other kings from Dynasty 0 so far known. Djers burial area also includes 300 retainer graves, more than do the earlier ones. Fragments of at least a dozen vessels of Syro-Palestinian origin were found in the tomb, confirming trade contacts between Egypt and its neighbors.

Although the tomb had been robbed, Flinders Petrie discovered an arm near the entrance, still wearing four bracelets. Three of these were composed of gold, amethyst, turquoise and lapis beads, the fourth consisting of 13 gold and 14 turquoise alternating plaques, with a pair of gold cone end pieces. The arm has been lost, but the bracelets are now in the Cairo Museum.

Ivory and wood labels are best direct evidence for the existence of Djer, since writing was still in its early stages. One example is an ivory label found at Saqqara. A Horus-falcon surmounts the serekh containing the kings name. Small figures advance to the serekh carrying offerings, while a mummy, or perhaps a statue, follows. Others carry a fish, a bird and a great spear to the falcon. At the other end of the label, two figures are shown, one whose arms appear to be drawn back or pinioned, and another apparently plunging a knife into the first. The figure wielding the knife also holds some sort of vessel, perhaps to catch the flowing blood.

Another ivory label includes characters for two ships, the sign for "town" and Djers name in the serekh. The label may record a visit to the Delta cities of Buto and to Sais.

Merytneith, or Merneith

Around this time MerytNeith, or Merneith, meaning "Beloved of Neith," seems to have taken the throne, either to rule alone after Djer, or perhaps after his successor Djet, as regent for her son Den, if she was Djets wife. On a clay seal impression the names of the early kings from Narmer to Den are inscribed, and MerytNeith is given the title of "Kings Mother." At this time the Queens, or more properly, Great wives, since there is no word for "queen" in the Egyptian language, bore the titles "She who unites the Two Lands" and "She who sees Horus and Set." The inclusion of the name Neith, or Nit, goddess of Sais in the Delta, would seem to indicate that MerytNeith at least had strong northern connections. A later necropolis seal belonging to Qaa, last king of the first dynasty, omitted MerNeiths name from the list of kings.

Early Dynastic Kings, Part I

MerytNeith was buried at Abydos and the building associated her reign at Saqqara, with 41 subsidiary or servant graves, indicates the pomp and solemnity generally accorded to the King.

Horus Djet

King Djet, the Horus Cobra, used the name sign of the serpent. His stela is now in the Louvre, and shows his name sign shows the rearing serpent, suspended in the sky above fortified battlements. Djet may have had a short reign, less than 20 years. All that is known about him was that an expedition made its way to the Red Sea and perhaps beyond.

Early Dynastic Kings, Part I

His tomb lies at Abydos. The building at Saqqara formerly attributed to his reign is now thought to be that of a noble named Sekhem-kha, whose sealings were found in the debris. The room was originally paneled in wood, inlaid with strips of gold plating. The building itself was surrounded by a low platform on which were mounted some 300 bulls heads modeled in clay with the actual horns. The same display is made around the tomb of Queen Her-Neith, perhaps Djers consort who was buried after the reign of King Djet.

Horus Den

Djet was followed on the throne by Den, Horus who Strikes, also called Udimu. Den probably had a long reign, since he possibly celebrated not one but at least two Sed-festivals or jubilees. His chancellor was Hemaka, known from the discovery of his tomb at Saqqara. Hemakas tomb was particularly rich, yielding artifacts such as inlaid gaming discs and a wooden box containing the oldest papyrus to survive from Egypt.

Early Dynastic Kings, Part I

Dens throne name, or nisu-bity (literally meaning "the sedge and the bee,") was Semti. This was the first time this title was used. For the first time the Double Crown, that is, the Red and White Crowns together, is shown being worn by the king. Like Djer, Den too was thought of as a physician, and a prescription recorded in the Ebers medical papyrus is attributed to him. One of the medical studies thought to date from this time had to do with the treatment of fractures.

The name Smti was written with the sign for high desert or foreign land, perhaps reflecting his preoccupation with the northeast frontier. Den apparently campaigned to the East. Five labels record military activity in southern Palestine, though perhaps at least some of these expeditions may have been symbolic. The Palermo Stone records that in Year x+2 of his reign Den smote the Iwnw, a word usually indicating the nomads of the eastern or western deserts. Eight years later the annals record the destruction of a possibly Asiatic locality named Wt-k3.

Another innovation of this reign was the use of stone in tomb-making, as his tomb possessed a granite pavement, and granite blocks supported the wooden roof.

Horus Anedjib

After Den came Enezib, or Anedjib, "Safe is his heart," who according to the Saqqara king list was named the first king of united Egypt. There may have been a dynastic struggle between north and south (an event which seems to have happened on and off during the Early Dynastic period ever since Narmer "unified" Egypt. Anedjib adopted the "Two Lords" title, anticipating Khasekhemwy in the 2nd Dynasty. He may have had a long reign, since two stone vessel fragments from Saqqara and Abydos make reference to a Sed festival.

For all that, little is known of this king. Though his own tomb was modest compared to those of Den and Djet, Anedjib installed sixty-four servants in subsidiary graves. But he was quite possibly overthrown, his name on stone vases erased, probably by his successor Semerkhet.

Horus Semerkhet

Manetho records that in the reign of King Semerkhet, meaning "Thoughtful Friend," a great calamity came to Egypt. It has been suggested that he was a usurper with a dubious title to the kingship, though he was the first to use the "Two Ladies" or nbty name, of Irynetjer. His tomb at Abydos contained a number of stone vessels originally inscribed with the name of Anedjib, that were re-inscribed for Semerkhet. However, stone vessels from Djosers Step Pyramid in the 3rd Dynasty are inscribed with the kingly sequence of Den-Anedjib-Semerkhet-Qaa; that is, Semerkhets name was not omitted, as was Merneiths name later on, for example (or Hatshepsuts as a New Kingdom example.)

Early Dynastic Kings, Part I

Semerkhet reigned for only nine years. Though the royal annals preserved a complete record of his reign, the events listed are nothing more than the biennial royal progress (if that is the correct interpretation of the "following of Horus," of ritual "appearances of the king," and of dedicating divine images. Trade continued between the Near East and Egypt, evidenced from fragments from 10 or 11 imported Syro-Palestinian vessels found in Semerkhets tomb, and from a grave dated to the same period, found at Abusir, in the form of a painted, handled flask typical of Early Bronze Age vessels also from Syro-Palestine.

Horus Qaa

Qaa, meaning "His Arm is Raised," succeeded Semerkhet, and was the last king of this 1st dynasty and reigned for 26 years. Qaa built the last tomb and funerary enclosure at Abydos until the last two kings of the 2nd Dynasty returned to build their own tombs there. Several large mastabas at North Saqqara are dated to his reign, and a fragment of a siltstone bowl from Saqqara which mentions the kings second Sed-festival, suggesting Qaas reign may have been a long one.

Year labels discovered at his tomb record events from the royal progress to the collection of timber, from the foundation of a religious building to the celebration of cultic festivals, such as the running of the Apis bull and the festival of Sokar.

A rock-cut inscription near the city of el-Kab in Upper Egypt shows Qaas serekh facin a figure of the regnal goddess Nekhbet.


Chronicle of the Pharaohs by Peter A. Clayton

Early Dynastic Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to