Sep 21

EGYPT BEFORE THE PHARAOHS

 

The period of time we normally think of as ancient Egypt is the time when Egypt was ruled by the pharaohs, after 3000 B.C. A question many people ask is who lived in Egypt before the pharaohs? In the early Stone Age people in Egypt lived high up on the land above the Nile from the Delta to Aswan. From about 5000 B.C., settlers arrived from Palestine and Syria, from the Libyan tribes living to the west, and from Nubia in the south. Sometime after 3000 B.C., traders from southern Iraq also sailed to Egypt. Soon these early settlers started to grow crops such as barley. They also started to build small villages.

 

THE UNION OF THE TWO LANDS

Ancient Egypt had two parts called Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt . Upper this was in the south, stretched for more than five hundred miles from the first cataract to the north to the beginning of the Nile delta. Lower Egypt which was in the north was the Nile delta itself. Though it was only a hundred miles long Lower Egypt is many times wider than Upper Egypt.

Crowns Of Egypt

By about 3300 B.C., both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt had kings. The king of Lower Egypt wore a short, boxy looking, red crown with a tall spike at the back and a curlicue at the front. The king of Upper Egypt wore something quite different, he wore a tall, white, pear shaped crown.

Most of the things we know about prehistoric Egypt is all mixed up with legends . One of the famous legends tells about King Menes who ruled Upper Egypt.

Menes

According to ancient sources, Menes was the founder of a unified Egypt, the first king of the 1st Dynasty. Actually, Menes is the Greek form of the name provided by the third century BC Egyptian historian, Manetho. Alternative forms include Min (provided by Herodotus), Minaios (provided by Josephus), and Menas (provided by Diodorus Siculus), and there are other variations as well.

Menes is one of the archaic Egyptian kings bearing the name Scorpion. Some sources say he was the son of Narmer while others say he was Narmer. There is no tangible proof either way. At around 3100 B.C., King Menes defeated the king of Lower Egypt. After this he united both lands and called himself king of both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.

 

The legend goes on to tell you how King Menes even designed a new crown to celebrate his victory. This double crown was there for the union of the two lands. King Menes and his family formed the first ever Egyptian dynasty. A dynasty is when you have a series of rulers who all come from the same family. After King Menes died his son became king, when his son died his grandson became king. It went on like that and throughout the history of ancient Egypt thirty different dynasties had ruled. The Egyptians believed that the royal family descended from the gods and had the same royal blood, because of this sometimes, people had to marry their brother or sisters.

King Menes chose the city Memphis to be the capital of his country. Memphis is surrounded by desert and the Mediterranean Sea.

Some people believe that "Menes" of this legend may have been a real king, possibly Narmer. They also believe it wasn't King Menes who first wore the red and white crown, but a later one.

The identification of Menes with one of the archaeologically attested kings of Early Dynastic Egypt has been a matter of debate among Egyptologists for quite a long time and has not yet been resolved. Some identify Menes with Narmer (3300 - 3100 B.C.), others with his probable son, Aha and others yet still see him as a mere legendary figure. The most important document pertaining to the unification of Egypt is the Narmer Palette.

 

MENES AND THE NARMER PALETTE

Narmer Palette

Front and Back of the Narmer Palette

The Narmer Palette, now one of the many exhibits at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, was discovered in 1898 by the archaeologist James E. Quibell in the Upper Egyptian city of Nekhen (today's Hierakonpolis), believed to be the Pre-Dynastic capital of Upper Egypt. Quibell was excavating the royal residences of various early Egyptian kings at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt when he discovered that large ceremonial palette of King Narmer with other objects.

The palette, which has a shield-shape, is decorated on both sides. It was once erected for display in the temple of Horus in Nekhen. The Narmer Palette was cut out of one piece of dark-green-coloured schist, approximately 64 cm (or 23 in.) in height and dates to approximately 3200 B.C. It has survived intact. The palette was a votive or gift offering by the King to his "father", the god Amun-Ra. Not only does it hold one of the oldest known specimens of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, its well-preserved decoration also shows us a chapter of Ancient Egyptian history: the unification of Egypt. This is announced in a very clear and simple way: in the front, the sovereign is wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and in the back, the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Narmer would then be the first king to reign over both lands.

Despite its small size, this document is one of the most important sources informing us about Early Dynastic Egypt. It marked an early example of a prevalent trend in Egyptian art to glorify the king. The message is conveyed not through narrative but through symbolic imagery and relies on some basic artistic conventions. The Egyptians had a marvelous knack for distilling an idea to its purest form in an abstract and powerful way.

The Narmer Palette reveals several important social aspects about how the Egyptians lived and were structured. It reveals the meaning of hierarchy of Egyptian life. It has been suggested that the art, which developed during those years, which showed the king as a distant figure, away from his subjects, was the correct view of the ever-growing power of the king.

The Palette also shows their value in recording historical events - with such items of war and political power struggles being 'newsworthy' events. It would be a mistake however, to read the Narmer Palette as a mere tale of conquest. Through military conquests however, Narmer was able to lay the political foundations of the kingship which endured thereafter as long as a king wore the two crowns. The actual finding of a palette proves that the Ancient Egyptians had established a written form of communication, now known as the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The palette was depicted however by Egyptian scribes using a complex combination of ideograms and phonetic signs.

The back of the Narmer Palette is divided into two scenes.

Narmer Palette Back

Above the top scene, the king's name is written inside a serekh (ancestor of the cartouche),flanked on each side by a cow's head, in exactly the same manner as on the back.

The top scene takes up most of the recto of the Narmer Palette. Dominating the scene is a large figure of the king, with a ceremonial beard and wearing the White Crown (which is said to represent Upper Egypt), as well as the symbolic bull's tail. All the important features of the body are present: the whole eye is seen within the profile of the face; shoulders, arms and hips are frontal while the legs and feet are in profile. A solid and static, almost monumental feeling is obtained by having the weight evenly divided on both legs with one leg well in advance of the other.

In his right hand the king wields a mace, ready to smash the skull of a kneeling man (possibly a Libyan) whom he holds by the hair with his left hand. The name of this kneeling man (wash) written in hieroglyphs above his head suggests that he may have been important or that it may be referring to a group of people. Above the victim's head and in front of Narmer's face, the falcon Horus of Nekhen - symbol of Egyptian royalty and protector of the king - is sitting upon the plants of a personified papyrus marshland. The papyrus blossom in early hieroglyphs stands for the numeral one thousand - this group therefore means that the king had captured six thousand enemies. This is frequently used to symbolize Lower Egypt.

Therefore the meaning of this part of the scene is quite clear : the Upper Egyptian king tramples the Lower Egyptian marshlands. As on the back, Narmer is followed by a smaller person carrying his sandals. He is thus walking on sacred ground and is barefoot out of respect for the gods and goddesses, in order to perform the ritual act of execution. Narmer, in this way, may be dedicating his victim to the gods and goddesses perhaps thanking them for their help in conquering his foes.

Below the feet of the king, below the main scene, are two naked, fallen Deltaic enemies lie helplessly on the ground, and a representation of their walled town. They too confirm the victorious imagery repeated all over the Narmer Palette.

The front of the Narmer Palette is divided into three levels.

Narmer Palette Front

Above the top level, the king's name, "Narmer" (n'r - fish, and mr - chisel, which translates into 'Catfish'), is written inside a serekh. This serekh is flanked on each side by a cow's head, possibly a reference to either the goddess Hathor or another named Bat ["it is doubtful that there was even a goddess named Bat, although she may have been a nome deity" (Jonathan Van Lepp, personal communication)], often represented as a cow. If they do represent one, she would be the oldest known goddess of Ancient Egypt. The association of Hathor, usually represented with inwards horns, and as mother of the king is seen in most of the Egyptian art and literature. Its disposition in the upper part of the palette gives it a celestial character and prooves the high esteem of the pharaoh towards her. The Narmer Palette displays the earliest known representation of Hathor with the king.

On the left hand side of the top level, the king, followed by a smaller figure carrying his sandals - known as the Sandal Bearer - is represented wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. In his left hand, he holds a mace, in the other a flail, symbol of his royalty. His name is repeated just before his face. He is preceded by his vizir, and by a female figure called Tjet, holding a kind of sceptre in her left hand. All the people are represented smaller than the king.

The entire procession is walking towards ten decapitated bodies - divided in two rows of five persons each, lying on the ground, with their disembodied heads between their legs. They represent the king's vanquished enemies.

In the central scene, two persons tie together the elongated necks of two feline animals, which could be alluding to panthers, symbol of the eastern and western heavens. The two felines are often interpreted as the two parts of the country tied together, since they symbolize harmony and unity. It is believed that the circular depression created by the curved necks may have used to hold or make cosmetics on the palette - if ever it was really used to handle cosmetics.

In the bottom scene, the Apis bull is represented trampling a scared, naked bearded Deltaic foe. The symbolism of this scene is made clear: the bull represents the king's masculinity and vigorous power, while destroying his enemies with the force of a strong bull. Some later kings would add a title such as "Victorious Bull" to their titulary. The dominant theme however is the victory of the god incarnate over the forces of evil and chaos. The King's role was that of the preserver of unity of land and to overcome the enemies of Ma'at, goddess of Truth, Order and Justice.

The unification of Egypt was not the work of one single man, but, like most important historical events, a process of time and evolution - of which alliances and marriages were part. Somewhere at the end of the Fourth Millennium B.C., the unification of Upper Egypt became a fact.

The interpretation of the Narmer Palette seems clear: Narmer is represented wearing both Egyptian crowns; he conquers lands and overthrows the enemy. He is inspecting the victims of his war. The Narmer Palette deals with a war, but also dramatically indicates one of the most important events in the history of Ancient Egypt: the unification of the two lands, the first attestation of this event.

REFERENCES

Midant-Reynes, Béatrix, 1992. Préhistoire de l’Égypte. Des premiers hommes aux premiers pharaons, Paris : Armand Colin Éditeur.

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