The Two Lands: Archaic Egypt: 3100-2650 BC

Narmer on the Narmer palette   From 3900 to 3100 B.C., the villages along the Nile valley grew in wealth and power. Two of these villages became particularly powerful and wealthy, so much so that it is not an exaggeration to think of them as cities. In the north, the city of Nekheb (named by the Greeks, Hieraconpolis or "city of the falcon") grew powerful, while in the south, Nekhen grew powerful. Around 3000 BC, the rivalry between these two towns erupted into war.   Upper Egypt would emerge victorious in this war and dominate all of Egypt. We are told that this unification was brought about by the warrior-king Menes, whose name in Egyptian was Narmer. Of all the kings of Egypt, Narmer is among the most legendary; for according to Egyptians, he united the two parts of Egypt and became the first king of the Two Lands, Upper and Lower Egypt. The unification of Egypt, however, probably took a few generations. Whatever the truth, the history of Egyptian kings begins with Narmer (Menes) who founded the first dynasty of Egyptian kings. The symbol of this unification are the two crowns of Egypt, the white crown (Upper Egypt) and the red crown (Lower Egypt); these crowns would be combined to form the single crown of the king.

   The unification of the two lands was the single most important event in Egyptian history. It allowed for a centralization of authority which then undertook massive administrative and building projects. Large-scale irrigation projects were begun as well as large-scale distribution of food and regulation of trade. Egypt's wealth increased exponentially. The first kings of Egypt were so successful, that they could build expensive tombs for themselves; these tombs, called mastaba were dug into the ground and covered by a rectangular building. They were larger and wealthier than anything ever seen before.


Egypt
Medu netcher
   At the same time, the Egyptians invented writing. Large-scale bureaucracy and the need for record-keeping certainly motivated this invention. This early form of writing which took the form of pictures (pictographic writing) eventually developed into hieroglyphics or medu netcher ("words of the gods") in ancient Egyptian.


World Cultures Glossary
Legitimation of Authority
   But perhaps the most important consequence of unification of the invention of a state system. In order to legitimate the authority of the king, the early dynastic kings and their administrators invented an institution which transcended the individual king or his administrators. The king became a divine king, a living god incarnate in the king, who brought about fertility and life to the people he ruled. Egypt, then, was a theocratic ("theo"=god, "cratic"=ruled by) state. To question the authority of the king was blasphemy.


   As nice as this sounds, being king wasn't easy. The living god participated in the same cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death that every other living thing participated in. He ruled only because he could provide life, food, and protection to his people. When his health declined or his body aged, he was no longer capable of fulfilling his proper functions. The early kings of Archaic Egypt had to yearly prove that they were physically capable of ruling Egypt in a festival called the Sed ("slaughter," "slaying") festival. The king would have to run a course for each of the provinces (nomes) that he governed; if he failed to adequately run the course, he would be sacrificed in a religious ritual.

   By the start of the Old Kingdom, this practice disappeared (would you want to take the job?), but the concept that the king must be physically capable to rule still remained. While it was a crime against the universe to kill a god, it was not a crime to let a god die. So the king was rarely treated for disease or age but allowed to die in order to allow a more fit king to take his place.

   The institution of the divine king lasted for almost 3000 years and gave to the Egyptian state a stability unseen by any other early civilization. And it would be some of the first of these divine kings, the earliest kings of the Old Kingdom, that would build the greatest monuments to the institution of the Egyptian king ever seen.


Next . . .
The Old Kingdom: 2650-2134 BC


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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-27-97