Early dynastic Egypt
Sometime around 3,150 BC, Egypt was united and history begins. There is some confusion as to what actually happened. Manetho, the Egyptian priest who in the third century divided up Egyptian history into 30 dynasties said that the pharaoh Menes united Egypt and put him at the head of the first dynasty. His judgement – and probably he was merely following conventional wisdom – is confirmed by our other sources of Egyptian history.
First there is the Palermo stone, an inscribed stone now mostly in the museum at Palermo, which lists the pharaohs of the first five dynasties and their exploits, starting with Menes.
The story is confirmed by the Turin Canon, originally a huge papyrus scroll which survives only in some 160 fragments in the Turin Museum, but which lists all the pharaohs of Egypt down to the 14th century BC, and most importantly, the length of their reign. However the Narmer palette, which was discussed above, appears to suggest that it was Narmer who united Egypt. The modern consensus is that Narmer and Menes were the same person, though many Egyptologists postulate what is called ‘Dynasty 0’ to cover the confusing final years of the Pre-dynastic period, and have Menes/Narmer as the last pharaoh of Dynasty 0, and his successor Aha as the first pharaoh of Dynasty 1.
This union of the two halves, of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, was the crucial ingredient of ancient Egypt. Occasionally the two halves split apart – that is what happened in the two ‘intermediate’ periods. But there was a great symbolism in the union of the two halves: the Pharaohs wore an elaborate double Crown combining the symbols of the two parts. Furthermore, each Pharaoh had five names which combined names from both upper and lower Egypt.
Somehow one expects that this great event should have been followed by the major achievement of ancient Egypt: that is the building of the pyramids. But this is not so. The first pyramids were not built for another 450 years, when the Old Kingdom begins. Thus we have a long period of some 450 years which are usually called the Early Dynastic period. What was going on in this time?
One of the most interesting, but little discussed features was that power seems to have shifted from the South to the North. Hitherto the development of predynastic Egypt had been taking place in the South, around Naqada and Hierakonpolis, but now power shifted to the North to the new town of Memphis. How did this happen? Judging by the Narmer palette, with its row of beheaded enemies, it would appear that the union of the two halves was a bloody affair and that the South conquered the North forcibly. But gradually, over the course of the first two dynasties, power shifted to the North to the new town of Memphis, which became the capital of Egypt – certainly this is where the great pyramids were built.
Memphis lay some 20 miles south of modern capital of Cairo, and in the same geographical position, where the Nile in divides to form its huge delta. According to Herodotus, it was founded by Menes who diverted the River to form a suitable site. Memphis became the biggest town in ancient Egypt, but little is known of it as the Nile has shifted its course destroying much of the old town. Bore holes sunk by the Egypt Exploration Society, suggest that what remains of the old kingdom town is situated below the water leve l of the Nile and would be extremely difficult to excavate. But the early tombs were placed on the higher ground to the West.
This shift from south to north can be seen by following the burial places of the Pharaohs. Most of the first dynasty Pharaohs were buried at Abydos, in the South as a follow-on to the burials of the predynastic rulers. However of the five Pharaohs of the second dynasty, only the last two were buried at Abydos, and the other three were probably buried in the North at Saqqara. A number of very grand tombs with elaborate facades imitating palaces were established at Saqqara in the First dynasty. They were excavated by W. B. Emery from 1936 to 1956, and he argued that they must be the burial places of the Pharaohs. However the subsequent excavations at Abydos have made it clear that the Abydos tombs must be the burials of the pharaohs, and that the tombs at Saqqara must have been the burial places of very powerful officials.
Quite why the new capital was founded in the north remains unknown. The dominant state had hitherto been in the south, and the rulers were buried at Abydos. Was it a magnanimous gesture to reconcile the conquest by founding a new city in the North? Or did the rulers in the south grow weak and the rulers in the north made a power grab? According to Manetho, the capital in the first dynasty was situated at Thinis, which appears to be a somewhat insignificant town near Abydos, and this period is sometimes called the Thinite period. It would appear that the shift to the North was slow and complex.
But this is the time when Egypt was slowly but steadily consolidating and getting ready for the huge achievements that are marked by the building of the great pyramids. This is the period when the Egyptian state was forming: just what was happening?
A fashionable reason in the past has been what is known as the hydraulic hypothesis put forward by Kurt Wittfogel in 1957, who argued that the reason for the rise of the Pharaohs was the control of the water supply. However, his hypothesis does not seem to work in Egypt, where the inundation came every year and would wash away any dams and canals, and the fertile silt was deposited without any human intervention.
It is often said that this was the time when towns were being formed and the population was consolidating. The evidence for towns at this period is in fact thin. Barry Kemp has an alluring hypothesis beginning with the formation of three ‘proto-states’ in the south starting from Naqada, then a bigger state forming to the south around Hierakonpolis, and then moving to a third agglomeration around Abydos and Thinnis, further north. A further proto-state may have sprung up in northern Egypt in the Memphis area, perhaps around the prehistoric site of Maadi, a dozen miles north of Memphis, while there may have been a further early proto-state in the delta around Buto. Other traces of early towns have been located notably at Elephantine, a border town with Nubia to the south. But even if Memphis, and perhaps Thinnis emerged as the capitals of the two kingdoms, nevertheless this was a time of the emergence of substantial towns along the whole length of the Nile.
This period also sees the emergence of writing. The origin of the Egyptian hieroglyphs is much debated. Was it introduced from the north from the rising civilisation in Mesopotamia? Probably not: there was a slow build up of impressions on clay seals throughout the proto-dynastic period, and the hieroglyphs as a system of writing evolved from the clay seals sometime around the time of the First Dynasty. Indeed it is tempting to argue that writing and the First Dynasty are connected, and that when the learned scribes of a later dynasty set about describing the history of Egypt and the system of dynasties, the First Dynasty was the first for which they could read the records with any confidence. Thereafter writing developed rapidly: first the hieroglyphs and then the hieratic cursive writings in which most records were actually recorded.
But perhaps the major feature of state formation was the increase in complexity: the fertility of the Nile was bringing huge benefits, the peasant population produced a surplus of food which meant that the upper classes, if one may use this term – perhaps one should say elite – were able to withdraw from the vulgar necessity of actually producing food and devote their time to organisation and religion — and the pharaohs benefited most of all. This period of the First and Second Dynasties are separated off by modern scholars from the Old Kingdom and are called the Early Dynasties, lasted for some 450 years, – a similar period of time to the length of the Old Kingdom which comprised the Third to Six Dynasties in which the building of the Great Pyramids took place. It takes longer than one realises for a great empire to get up steam.
On to The Old Kingdom