The Pyramids and the Sphinx stand as monuments of time in a land known for its antiquity. When Napoleon visited the Pyramids, it was two-thousand years after Alexander the Great’s trip which was two-thousand years after they were built. The Pyramids of Egypt are the only standing monuments of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egypt, however, is about more than pyramids. It is a land of mystery, of obscure origin that has captivated the world for almost five thousand years.
Ancient Egypt (often referred to as the gift of the Nile) was a gift to humanity bequeathed to Western Civilization by the Greeks, Romans and Hebrews. This great civilization shines through the Greco-Roman and Hebrew windows casting light on a much greater antiquity. Before the “Glory, that was Greece” and the “Grandeur that was Rome”; Egypt played a critical role in the development of the pillars of Western Civilization. For Abraham, Joseph and Jacob, it was the Land of Plenty where famine victims found food. For Moses, it was the Land of idolatry and of the enslaved wanting to be free. In this regard, it served as a canvas from which the portrait of greater antiquity was drawn.
The classical writers of Greece and Rome saw Egypt as a land of wonder, a paragon of technical excellence and a source of arcane knowledge and wisdom. Its pyramids continue to stand not only as a testament of time but to the greatness of the race and the people that erected them. Greece lasted five hundred years, Rome lasted a thousand years; but Egypt lasted for almost three thousand years. Even though Egypt has been studied in great detail since the hieroglyphics were deciphered almost two hundred years ago, we are just beginning to understand the origins of this ancient empire.
The Gift of the Nile
In Africa, there is a great river known to us as the Nile. It rises from the heart of Africa, from the continent that gave birth to humankind. For thousands of miles, it makes its journey, through rocky terrain and desert sands flowing continuously through the land like time flowing through our existence; perhaps its journey is a metaphor for life itself. The waters of the Nile like all rivers seek the path of least resistance, and when it reaches the delta after its arduous journey of four thousand miles its spreads its wings like a majestic bird gliding to its final destination.
Just about everything in Ancient Egypt centered around the Nile River. The Nile, in many ways, is unique among the rivers of this earth. It covers one-sixth of the earth’s circumference. It is almost twice as long as the Mississippi River. It is longer than the Tigris, Euphrates and Colorado Rivers combined. The Nile is so long that it could run across the continental United States and still have a thousand miles to go. For centuries, the source of the floods that gave the Nile its rebirth was unknown. The Ancient Egyptians believed the source to be the mourning of Isis for her murdered husband Osiris and that the shedding of her tears into the river made it overflow.
We so often associate the flooding of a river as a disastrous event often bringing destruction and death. Notwithstanding, the flooding of the Nile was a predictable annual event. Egypt was a land that was void of rain and therefore totally dependent, not only on its river, but its cyclic flooding to bring life to its inhabitants. In ancient times, the flooding of the Nile was inaugurated with the appearance of the bright star Sirius (Egyptian Sopdet meaning she who is — referring to Isis) on the horizon as if the gods had blessed this annual event. It was from watching the heliacal rising of Sirius (which took place around the Summer Solstice) for over 1,460 years that the Egyptians accurately measured the length of the solar year and developed a calendar that forms the basis of the calendar that we use today. However, instead of leaping a day every four years, they leaped an entire year every 1,460 years.
For centuries, the source of the flooding of the Nile was unknown. Scholars contend that the source was the heavy rains from the tropical regions to its south, from June to September, that caused the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands and the White Nile in central Africa to rise to produce the annual flood of the Nile in which the Egyptians cherished as a gift from the gods. It could, therefore, be said that it was Ethiopia that gave geographical birth; to Ancient Egypt and throughout history; these two nations have been geographically and culturally linked. It was from this annual event that the religion of the Egyptians sprung like the crops that they planted in the rich soil. The flooding of the river not only brought water, but it also carried with it rich sediment that restored the fertility of the soil.
It is important to note that since Egypt was dependent on the flooding and the receding of the Nile River, its seasons were oriented accordingly. A twofold harvest was a general aim. As a result, the Egyptians developed methods for regulation and irrigation of the water supply. Unlike other areas, rain is particularly nonexistent in Egypt, and this created a dependency on the river that was uniquely Egyptian.
Before the Pharaohs
As more information regarding the predynastic period unfolds, we take deeper steps into the past in search of the beginning of this magnificent civilization. Although the waters of time have washed away some of its footprints, it has also washed ashore fragments of its greatness hitherto unseen or misunderstood. Unlike previous theories of its origins, which attributed the source of Egypt’s greatness to outside influences, most scholars now believe that the origin of Ancient Egypt was indigenous to Africa.
In an attempt to detach Ancient Egypt from the African continent and its people, scholars of the Victorian era went in search of outside origins and ignored signs that it was an indigenous African civilization. For example, every kingdom, the Old, the Middle and the New emerged from the South and moreover form a contiguous cultural and technical chain (if the Intermediate Periods are removed).
Although Ancient Egypt’s history is three thousand years, its story starts much further back. In the millennia after the last Ice Age (about 10,000 BCE), the Nile Valley was an area that attracted populations from the Sahara and North East Africa. We know little about the denizens of the-Ice Age Sahara. However, with the advent of recent technologies most noted various kinds of satellite imaging; we may be able to bring this picture into sharper focus. During the Pleistocene era (2,600,000–11,700 BCE) the Nile Valley was frequently swampy and the river levels much higher. As the Sahara dried up, it became less hospitable and as a result, more and more people migrated to the Nile Valley area.
On the periphery of the Sahara Desert, several sites date back as far as 15,000 years BCE. Furthermore, flint blades from Egypt and Nubia show traces that they were used for gathering grasses. This is probably the earliest indication of cereal consumption known in the world earlier than Syria-Palestine. We so often ignore the climate and geographical impacts that play such a vital role in the social, cultural and innovative developments of civilizations. Egypt is the progeny of the Nile, but it is also the progeny of events that led to the drying of the Sahara Desert.
The predynastic culture of Ancient Egypt (now referred to as Dynasty 0) is identified as a necropolis north of Thebes known as Naqada. The predynastic period is traditionally assigned to the period between 4000 and 3100 BCE and broken into three chronological periods: Naqada I (4000–3500 BCE) Naqada II (3500–3250 BCE) and Naqada III (3250–3100 BCE). All three periods are contiguous and depict an evolutionary trail that led to Pharaonic Egypt. During the Naqada I Period, the South (Upper Egypt) was a cultural and technological monolithic society, while the North (Lower Egypt) was a patchwork group technically and culturally inferior to the South.
One yardstick used to determine the level of technology and culture of predynastic Egypt is to evaluate the pottery found at burial grounds. When scholars compare Naqada I and II of Upper Egypt with the coeval Maadi cultures (3750–3250) of the Delta region in Lower Egypt, it is clear that Upper Egypt was the innovator. It is also clear that the Delta region was influenced by Mesopotamia as their form of government was arranged around city-states and not a central government. It is at the end of Naqada II and the beginning of Naqada III that the vestiges of Egypt’s dynastic system occurred five hundred years before the unification of Egypt.
The Ancient Egyptian state revolved around a semi-divine individual known as the pharaoh. And it is from this basic premise that it became the Axis Mundi of the Bronze Age world. Before Upper and Lower Egypt were unified, the South was united under one king. He is referred to as Horus Scorpion. The evidence seems to suggest that before the conquering of the North by the South militarily; most of the North was conquered socially via cultural diffusion from Upper Egypt to Lower Egypt during the Naqada periods. Furthermore, no evidence suggests that pharaonic Egypt emerged from roots outside of the African continent as previously thought.
From the onset of its history starting with its first pharaoh, Ancient Egypt was a Theocratic monarchy based on ancestral worship. One in which the ruler was considered a god or a representative of god per the divine right of the monarch. The Ancient Egyptians thus believed that their pharaoh was both a god and a man. The etymology of the term pharaoh is Per-aa which means Great House and would be analogous to calling the president of the United States the White House. The Egyptians word for their leader was nesewt.
One of the problems in understanding Ancient Egypt is that we often look at it from the eyes of an outsider. Many of the names, such as the Sphinx are Greek words, which are unrelated to its true name, in this case: (Horus on the Horizon). When the Egyptian name is used, the association is apparent. The sun has graced the face of this African carved in stone on the horizon every morning for almost five thousand years. It wasn't, however, until the Rosetta Stone was deciphered in 1822 by the French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion (with help from the Englishmen Thomas Young) that the Egyptian voice, silent for nearly two thousand years, was heard.
To the Ancient Egyptians, the power of their gods was absolute and divinely ordained. The pharaoh was the earthly embodiment of the god Horus, the son of Osiris who himself was a pharaoh that was killed by his evil brother Seth and then deified. It was expected that when the pharaoh died that he (Osiris) would join his fellow gods in the hereafter and continue to rule his living subjects through the living incarnation of the pharaoh (Horus) who was the son of god. Scholars contend that this tradition could be traced to the Proto-dynastic (Dynasty 0) rulers of the South as the name Horus Scorpion indicates. Furthermore, Osiris is always shown wearing the white crown of the South as seen below.
Nubia, (often referred to as Kush or Ethiopia) lies to Egypt's south and is a country much like Egypt divided between its upper and lower parts with a coeval yet different history. The history of Nubia can be divided into four major periods, Lower Nubia: The A-Group (3500–2900 BCE) which corresponds to Egypt’s predynastic and early dynastic periods. Lower Nubia: The C-Group (2400- 1550 BCE). Upper Nubia: The Kerma State (2400–1500 BCE) which corresponds to the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate periods. Lower and Upper Nubia (1550–1050): which corresponds to the Egyptian New Kingdom, The Napata Kingdom (850–650): includes the 25th Dynasty that conquered Egypt.
The Egyptians called Nubia Ta-Seti “land of the bowmen”. The bowmen of Nubia were expert archers and they were vital to the Egyptian army. Although Nubia, throughout most of its history, remained hidden in the shadows of Egypt’s greatness; it had its own unique history. In fact, when Egypt was strong, Nubia was weak and vice versa. Many scholars believe that there was strong contact between predynastic and early dynastic Egypt with the Nubian A group. Although there was some borrowing, it is clear that the A group was distinct from Egypt with its own identity. The A group pottery consists of motif and shapes that are very different from those found in Egypt during this time. It is from this state that the Kerma culture emanated.
Discoveries in Nubia substantiate a common origin and strong nexus between Nubia and Upper Egypt during the predynastic and proto-dynastic periods. For example, the Royal Scene from Gharb Aswan and the Qustul Incense Burner clearly show iconography such as the white crown that became cornerstones first in Upper Egypt and after the conquest of Narmer of Lower Egypt and central to pharaonic Egypt throughout its long history.
The Qustul Incense Burner is perhaps one of the most intriguing and contentious objects associated with the prehistoric Nubian culture. It was discovered by the late Professor Kevin Seele in 1964 and currently resides at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Detailed analysis of this object began only after its restoration in 1977 by Professor Bruce Williams, who dated the object to the era of state-building in Upper Egypt and believed that it was evidence of the world’s first kingship which originally evolved into pharaonic Egypt. It is interesting to note that the white crown depicted in the Qustul Incense Burner and Royal Scene from Gharb Aswan predates the white crown shown on the scorpion macehead which is considered the start of Dynasty 0.
The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago states the following regarding the Qustul Incense Burner:
This incense burner is distinctively Nubian in form. Carved in the technique of Nubian rock art, it is decorated on the rim with typical Nubian designs. It was found in the tomb of a Nubian ruler at Qustul and incorporates images associated with Egyptian pharaohs: a procession of sacred boats, the White Crown of Upper Egypt, a falcon deity, and the palace facade called a serekh. It appears to represent a ritual that involved a royal procession by boat to a palace. Scholars at the Oriental Institute assert that is now apparent that around 3600 BCE, Hierakonpolis (known in ancient times as Nekhen) was a local center of power that probably encompassed part of Upper Egypt and into Nubia. This strongly suggests that the idea of kingship manifested in dynastic form happen at Hierakonpolis five hundred years before the Narmer Palette. [Teeter, Before the Pyramids]
Unification of Egypt
It has been known for some time that prior to dynastic Egypt the South and the North were socially, culturally and possibly racially different. Although Egypt would be united as one nation; vestiges of the North and the South were apparent throughout its long history with the South being the most revered. The South referred to itself as (Kmt) Kemet (the black land) and the North was referred to as Dashre (the Red Land). In time, all of Egypt was referred to as Kemet and the white crown of the South although integrated with the red crown of the North was more symbolic of the union between the two than anything else. It is the South that placed its indelible stamp on Egypt, not the North as previously espoused.
The Narmer Palette is the world’s first historical document. Many scholars believe that Narmer and Menes are the same Pharaoh called by different names. This is confirmed by the writings of Herodotus and Manetho. It was Menes that founded the great city of Memphis. The first name of this city was Ineb-hedj “White Wall” and late in the Old Kingdom, it became Men-nefer “Enduring of Beauty” which finally became the Hellenized Memphis.
The Narmer Palette displays in art form the conquest of the North by the South and the unification of the two kingdoms. On the first side of the Narmer Palette, the king of the South wearing the white crown of the South defeats his northern counterpart. On the reverse side, Narmer leads a triumphant parade wearing the red crown of the North.
Egyptologists believe that the unification by King Narmer occurred somewhere around 3150 BCE. This would become a leitmotif throughout Egypt’s long history. Through the ebbs and flows, it was always the South that restored Ancient Egypt to its greatness and continued to be the source of its great innovations.