King Narmer: Egypt’s First Pharaoh

Before the pharaoh Narmer came to power in 3100 B.C., Egypt was divided into small areas called nomes. Feuds between nomes and crime in general went mostly unchecked since there was no centralized state to enforce laws. In 3100 B.C., however, Narmer succeeded in uniting the country of Egypt. He first gained control of Upper Egypt (where the river Nile begins in the South) and then defeated a coalition from Lower Egypt (where the Nile spreads into the delta region in the North).

How do we know that Narmer was responsible for the unification of Egypt? Fortunately, archeologists discovered a stone carving in the shape of a shield that documents Narmer’s achievements. The carving is called the Narmer palette.

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Front of Narmer palette, known as “the smiting side”

 

The front of the palette shows Narmer as the largest and most central figure. He is identified by the hieroglyphs at the very top of the palette. His figure is very muscular, and he is preparing to smite an enemy with his upraised mace. On this side of the palette, he wears the white cobra crown that signifies his rule over Upper Egypt. Below the king are two naked enemies that are trampled beneath his feet. Since Narmer already wears the crown of Upper Egypt, the enemies are likely from Lower Egypt.

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Back of Narmer palette

The back of the palette shows Narmer wearing the red vulture crown of Lower Egypt. He has clearly vanquished the enemies seen on the front and is celebrating his victory. Royal standard bearers walk ahead of the king in a procession. The procession stops in front of ten beheaded enemy bodies.

Thanks to the discovery of the Narmer palette, we have documentation for Egypt’s unification. The palette also emphasizes the strength and dominance of the pharaoh. In fact, the so-called smiting scene on the front appears repeatedly in ancient Egyptian art when a pharaoh wanted to document a victory.

 

 

 

 

Nefertari: Queen of Egypt

Queen Nefertari was Ramesses II’s first and favorite wife. Archeologists know that she was not born a princess, but this wouldn’t have bothered Ramesses since his father Seti I became pharaoh after his birth. During their twenty or so years of marriage, Nefertari had six children. Since Ramesses II reigned for 66 years, however, none of these children outlived their father. Fortunately, he had other wives and over 100 children. Yet none of these family members got the same recognition as Nefertari.

Nefertari is shown alongside her husband during royal ceremonies but doesn’t take a particularly active role. No records exist that describe her personality. We do know that Ramesses II favored her, however. She was sometimes referred to as Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. Usually the king called himself ruler of the two lands of Egypt and did not share the title with his queen.

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Nefertari’s Temple at Abu Simbel. Photo by Hedwig Storch, Jan. 16, 2009.

The other reason we know Ramesses was especially fond of her was because of the monuments he dedicated to her. At the Lesser Temple of Abu Simbel in Nubia, there are four enormous statues of Ramesses and two of Nefertari. Unlike temples given to other queens, Nefertari’s statues are of the same size and scale as her husband’s. Just in case anyone doubted Ramesses’ affection for her, he had the temple inscribed: “Ramesses II has made a temple, excavated in the mountain, of eternal workmanship…for the chief Queen Nefertari beloved of Mut…Nefertari…for whom the sun shines.”

In addition to the temple at Abu Simbel, Nefertari has one of the most elaborate and beautifully decorated tombs in the Valley of the Queens. The Valley is west of Thebes, which was Egypt’s capital during Ramesses II’s reign. The sarcophagus that held Nefertari’s body and her grave goods are long gone, but the paintings on the tomb walls are stunning. The images in the tomb are only meant to ease Nefertari’s passage into the afterlife. There are no details about her life on earth. In fact, the paintings were never meant to be seen by humans after Nefertari’s burial.

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Nefertari and goddess Isis from Nefertari’s tomb.

Various gods and goddesses are shown leading Nefertari on her journey to the afterlife. Nefertari’s image is youthful. She wears a flowing white gown with pleats tied at the waist. On her head is a crown with golden feathers which she wears on top of her dark wig. In one scene, she is led by hand by the goddess Isis to the god Khepri, who symbolized the sun. Another wall shows Nefertari bringing offerings of food to Osiris (god of the afterlife) and Atum (the creator god). The deities assure Nefertari that a place has been prepared for her in the afterlife.

In a later scene, several gates that lead to the underworld are shown. The nearby hieroglyphs function as a sort of cheat sheet, providing the names of the gates and their guardians so that Nefertari will pass though them easily. The journey to the afterlife is a difficult one, but Nefertari is ultimately successful.

Letters from the Past: Back to School in Ancient Egypt

Hi, I’m Rahmose, and like many of you, I’ll be starting school soon. I’m nine now, which means that I have three more years to go before I can be a scribe for the pharaoh. This year I’ll learn to write hieroglyphics.

As a young boy, I watched my father perfect his hieroglyphic writing before chiseling the final copy on the walls of royal tombs. He dipped his reed pen in ink and drew tiny birds, sheaths of corn, and odd looking lines on papyrus. Sometimes I copied what he wrote, or tried to, on pieces of ostraca. My mother says I used to break her pottery on purpose so I could have something to write on! She was relieved when I turned five and she could send me to the House of Instruction in the Royal Palace.

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Name of Ramesses II in hieroglyphs at his temple Abu Simbel

 

 

I was so excited to start school. Finally, I would learn what the symbols in the tombs and temples meant. Imagine my disappointment when the teacher told us we weren’t learning hieroglyphs right away. Instead, we had to master hieratic. In case you haven’t seen it, hieratic is a curly looking script that reads from right to left. Most Egyptians who can write use hieratic because it’s not as time consuming as hieroglyphics. It’s not as beautiful, either.

 

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Example of hieratic writing. Document known as Papyrus Sallier

 

 

Our teacher gave us reading assignments from the Kemyt. The assignments were hard and boring. The Kemyt was filled with advice for young students and included Egyptian phrases.

When we finally finished the Kemyt, the other boys and I moved on to the Wisdom Texts. I thought that with a name like the Wisdom Texts, this new text must be more interesting. Maybe I would become as wise as my father after I read it. But no, we’re just reading about how much better off scribes are than men in other occupations. I had to memorize and copy out this passage: “there is no worker without an overseer except the scribe, who is his own boss.”

Sometimes I wonder if other jobs are as bad as our teachers say. It might be fun to work outside and grow crops. My father says that farming would make me dependent on the flooding of the Nile, though. As a scribe, I’ll rely on my knowledge, not nature.

Even if I get bored sometimes, I still want to become a great scribe like my father. Writing has so much power in Egyptian culture. When someone dies, their mummy is buried with their possessions. Still, the objects in the tomb aren’t as important as the hieroglyphics. If the tomb is robbed but the name of the owner is still carved on the wall, the spirit of the dead person can live on. The worst thing that could happen to anyone is to be forgotten by the living and have their name disappear from the earth.

I am so proud that someday soon I will be preserving the spirits of the pharaoh’s family.

 

 

Why Isis the Ancient Egyptian Goddess has nothing in common with ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)

Before the name ISIS (an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) became synonymous with public executions and terror, a goddess with the name Isis was popular in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptian goddess Isis represented many positive values, such as protection, healing, and the importance of family. Clearly, she had nothing in common with the ISIS we read and hear about today.

According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis was the wife and sister of the god Osiris. Osiris ruled Egypt, and Isis supported his endeavors. Unfortunately for the couple, Osiris’ brother Seth wanted his brother’s power so badly that he murdered and then dismembered Osiris. Isis and her sister Nephthys mourned Osiris, but they did not sit around crying for long. Instead, the two women travelled to the ends of the earth to find Osiris’ remains and revive him: “Rise up, Osiris, for Isis has your arm and Nephthys your hand.” After Osiris’ resurrection, Isis conceived a son with him whom she named Horus. Osiris left Isis to care for their son and became the god of the underworld.

Osiris and Winged Isis, Isis Temple, Philae Island, Egypt. Photo by Remin.

Osiris and Winged Isis, Isis Temple, Philae Island, Egypt. Photo by Remin.

Proving that a woman’s work is never done, Isis now had to hide her son from the evil Seth. She proved to be a wonderful and protective mother. For example, she healed Horus when a scorpion stung him. Isis continued to watch over her son until he was old enough to fight Seth. Horus successfully avenged his father’s death and became king of Egypt, but he couldn’t have done it without his mother.

Ancient Egyptians associated Isis with motherhood, especially as the mother of Egyptian kings. Early Pyramid Texts state “the king drinks milk from his mother Isis.” At first the goddess could only be called upon to help Egyptian pharaohs, but later the nobility and even commoners could ask Isis for assistance. In a time with high mortality rates, ancient Egyptian mothers often recited spells that included the goddess in the hope that Isis would heal their sick children.

In addition to her role as a mother, Isis also served as the protector of the dead in the afterlife. She was often depicted on the sides of royal coffins with winged arms. With the wings of the goddess to carry their deceased loved ones to next world, Egyptians felt comforted even though they mourned the dead.

A faithful wife, loving mother, a healer of children, and a comforting presence to those who mourn—all qualities that the ancient Egyptians gave to their Isis. Unfortunately, the organization that now uses her name stands for none of these admirable traits.

Sources:

Daughters of Isis by Joyce Tyldesley

The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Richard Wilkinson