November 16, 2012

Narmer and Early Documents in Ancient Egypt

Early Documents
The Palette of Narmer is entirely symbolic in its message. Writing had not yet developed. But there are indications that before the first Egyptian dynasty isolated miniature images of men, ships and animals depicted on pottery had become pictorial representations of the objects themselves. Gradually these picto- graphs came to represent phonetic sounds (phonograms) which could be grouped together to form words. In English for example, a bee and a leaf might be combined to read belief; the phonograms had no relation to the original pictorial representation, apart from representing a similar sound. Series of phonograms would form sentences.

Some of the earliest written documents show that the years were numbered by some outstanding event, often a journey, the erection of a building or some royal ritual. Gradually lists of year-names were kept. These formed the basis of the historic archives, of which the Palermo Stone was the first. Among the five small fragments discovered is a record of the founding of a temple to Neith in Sais in the Delta by Narmer’s successor. Neith was a huntress-goddess of the early tribes of the north who undoubtedly had quite a large following by the early dynastic period. In raising a temple to a popular Delta Egyptian goddess the Upper Egyptian conquerors set a precedent that was followed throughout dynastic history: that of calculated tolerance for political gain. There appears to have been an effort to create a common culture by uniting opposing factions and combining the traditions of Upper and Lower Egypt. Unfortunately the efforts were to no avail. There is evidence of national discord for some 200 years after the so-called unification.

Consolidation of Unity
Resistance against Upper Egyptian domination was undoubtedly aggravated by a natural antipathy between the settlers of Upper and Lower Egypt arising out of their cultural differences. In fact earlier traditions had repeatedly to be recognised in order to emphasise a single rule over the Two Egyptian Lands. For example the pharaohs (who traditionally bore a ‘Horus name’) adopted, during successive reigns, a nebty or ‘Two Ladies’ title (which was a combination of the cobra- goddess of Buto in Lower Egypt and the vulture-goddess of Nekheb in Upper Egypt), the Double Crown (a combination of the White and Red Crowns) and a ni-sw-bity title which also combined two traditions, being a combination of the pre-dynastic symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt, the sedge and the bee.

Egyptian People unfamiliar with ancient Egyptian history find it difficult to realise how vitally important titles are in tracing the course of events. Most of the records and inscriptions of the early dynastic period have perished and little is known of the activities of the pharaohs of the first two dynasties. Yet during this vitally important formative period many traditions were established. For example the Horus name, the nebty and ni-sw-bity titles, were never abandoned in later periods, though others were added to the royal titulary to denote different loyalties or political currents.

The geographical and climatic differences in Upper and Lower Egypt which had resulted in the development of two different cultures were reflected also in the entire political structure of the country; for despite the effort to weld them together, the ‘Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt’ were to remain two united political entities rather than a single political unit. Dualism was finally seen as unavoidable and was used to emphasise unity. There never was a King of Egypt, nor cabinet, nor treasury. There was a King of Upper and Lower Egypt, a Double Cabinet, a Double Granary and a Double Treasury. Even the ‘Great House’, the palace, which was the seat of the ancient government, had a double entrance representing the two ancient kingdoms, and the hieroglyph for ‘Great House’ was frequently followed by the determinative signs of two houses.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the pharaohs of the first dynasty all had two tombs, one constructed on the plateau above Memphis and the other near Abydos in Upper Egypt. These may have represented the pharaoh’s dual capacity as King of Upper and Lower Egypt; alternatively the structure in Memphis may have been the actual tomb and that in Upper Egypt a cenotaph where relatives could more easily provide the food offerings for the afterlife. Tomb construction advanced during the 1st dynasty. Excavations indicate that the royal tombs were large, shallow trenches, hewn of bed-rock and divided into a series of chambers by cross walls. The central chamber was the tomb. Others were store-rooms for the provisions for the afterlife: funerary furniture, ornaments, Egyptian jewellery and games. Some of the underground chambers were brick- lined ; others were lined with woven reed mats. The substructure was roofed with wooden beams and planks and surmounted by an impressive superstructure with recessed panelling. The royal tombs at Memphis had large rectangular plaques depicting the deceased at a table of offerings, which became the pattern for representations in funerary temples. The royal tombs in Upper Egypt had funerary stele or tombstones rectangular slabs, tall and sometimes rounded at the top, placed vertically in the ground and inscribed with the names and titles of the pharaoh.

The bodies of the dead were not mummified, in the early dynastic period, but were wrapped lightly in strips of linen. Sometimes the limbs were bound separately and then a bandage was wrapped round the whole body before it was placed in a wooden sarcophagus. Close to the royal tombs were subsidiary tombs, probably of dependants in the household of the pharaoh or artisans in the boat-building, carving, painting and pottery trades. The occupants were possibly interred to serve the king in his afterlife, and may have been killed when he died, whether they succumbed willingly to their fate we do not know, though the lower classes may have believed that to be buried with their masters would ensure them a better afterlife themselves.

A 5th-dynasty inscription records the levels of the Egyptian Nile for every year back to the reign of Djer, the third pharaoh. Since the cycle of agriculture depended on the Nile flood, the time of the inundation was vitally important and progress in astrology was undoubtedly stimulated by the desire to forecast its arrival. It was observed that the rising waters coincided with certain aspects of the stars: when Sothis the dog-star rose with the sun between 19 and 20 July. An ivory tablet dating to the 1st dynasty explicitly mentions ‘Sothis, Opening of the Year, the Flood’ and a primitive sighting instrument made on a datepalm has been found. Once the arrival of the flood could be predicted, its waters could be controlled and channelled. Records of the levels were strictly maintained, at first on stairways built into a wall or quay. Untold years of recording and observation resulted in a 365-day calendar (12 months of 30 days and 5 extra feast days) the basis of which, in only slightly altered form, has descended to us today.

Though little is known of the activities of the pharaohs of the 2nd Egyptian dynasty it seems that there was even more active resistance against unity. One pharaoh (Per Ibsen) may have formed a breakaway government in Upper Egypt, for he significantly abandoned his traditional ‘Horus’ title and adopted a ‘Set’ title: in other words he exceptionally surmounted his royal emblem with the ancient desert god of Upper Egypt. This move of revolutionary proportions was quashed by his successor, who managed to re-establish the Horus tradition in Upper Egypt, and a Horus and Set title was temporarily adopted. Like the nebty and ni-sw-bity titles, and also the Double Crown, this combined two ancient traditions: Horus and Set as gods of Upper and Lower Egypt.

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