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.

Narmer_Palette_smiting_side

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.

Narmer_Palette_serpopard_side

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Animals in Ancient Egypt

Maybe you have a pet at home, but did you know that the ancient Egyptians also had pets? Some of their pets were similar to those we have today, while others now live in the wild or in zoos.

Like families today, many ancient Egyptian families had a dog. Most ancient Egyptians owned mutts, but some of their dogs resemble breeds that still exist. On the walls of tombs, wealthier Egyptians sometimes included likenesses of their pets. Some of the dogs seen in tomb reliefs include a breed similar in size and shape to the greyhound, as well as a dog that resembled the dachshund. Ancient Egyptians named their dogs. In English, some of the names translate to “Ebony” or “Good Watcher.” One pharaoh’s dog was named “Cook-pot” because of the dog’s love of food!

Dogs provided loyal companionship and performed useful work like hunting and guarding. Owners with close bonds to their dogs had their bodies mummified after the pets died. The ancient Egyptians believed that by preserving the body of their beloved animal, it could join its owner in the afterlife.

Not all ancient Egyptians liked dogs, however. A dog’s loyalty and obedience was considered a sign of weakness. Cats got respect because they didn’t depend on humans like dogs did and they were more likely to ignore their owners. Like dogs, cats had multiple functions in ancient households. They served as pets but also kept mice and snakes away. Cats were most often portrayed in the tombs of women, though at least one Egyptian prince had a fondness for his cat, which he named “Miss Kitty.” In fact, the prince loved his pet so much that he commissioned an elaborate sarcophagus when she died. The images on the sides of the coffin showed Miss Kitty making offerings to the Egyptian gods.

Contrary to what some early historians believed, ancient Egyptians did not worship their pet cats. Some goddesses could take the shape of a cat, however. The goddess Bast, for example, had the head of a cat. Her cult became especially popular in during ancient Egypt’s decline. At Bast’s shrine, cats roamed freely.

Though they were not as common as cats and dogs, monkeys also became pets in ancient Egypt. Pictures in tombs show monkeys swinging from chairs and playing with children. On occasion, a monkey sat by his owner’s chair, but it’s doubtful that these creatures stayed still for long. Despite their mischievous nature, one pharaoh felt so attached to his pet monkeys that he mummified five of them so he would see them in the next life.

This post is not a complete list of pets of the ancient Egyptians. Some households also had geese as well as younger versions of larger animals such as gazelles. Young children probably played with a wide variety of baby animals until the animals got too large for them to handle.

Wife of the Pharaoh: The Role of Ancient Egyptian Queens

The pharaohs decided how much we know about their queens because men commissioned the building of monuments like temples and tombs. Unfortunately, most wives did not have much written about them. Yet the Egyptians left us with a blueprint for the perfect Egyptian queen in the story of their goddess Isis and her husband Osiris. After her husband’s brother killed Osiris so he could steal the throne of Egypt, Isis searched for Osiris’ body. She brought him back to life long enough so they could have a son named Horus. Isis then protected her son from her jealous brother-in-law until he was old enough to reign as pharaoh.

Like Isis, Egyptian queens were supposed to support their husbands and bear children. Yet in times of crisis, they could be called upon to act on behalf of their husband or son. Some queens ruled their country temporarily while their husbands were away on military campaigns. Others stepped in as Queen Regent for a son who inherited the throne at a young age. Mainly, however, a queen’s role was defined by her relationship with the king.

Following the tradition of Isis and Osiris, all pharaohs were expected to marry.  Pharaohs married wives that were chosen for them, but there is no record of how they were picked. Many came from the royal family so the king would have a wife who was trained to help in a crisis and who was supposedly trustworthy. Queens like Nefertiti and others were born commoners, however, so the idea of a non-royal wife for a pharaoh was apparently acceptable. Perhaps commoners received acceptance because in the story of Isis and Osiris, relatives were not always loyal.

In ancient Egypt, the word queen is translated as King’s Wife. Yet Egyptian pharaohs were polygamous, meaning they had more than one wife. Polygamy demonstrated the wealth of the pharaoh and provided insurance that he would have an heir. Only one wife, known as the King’s Great Wife, would be featured in official records. She hoped to earn the title King’s Mother by giving birth to a son who would become pharaoh. If she did not accomplish this, another lesser wife might receive the title.

While she lived, however, the King’s Great Wife served as the embodiment of Isis—the perfect complement to her husband who was thought to be half god and half human. Together, she and the king would serve the gods and rule their people, keeping order in their kingdom.