Pharaohs are practically synonymous with ancient Egypt. This isn’t some accident of modern scholarship or a structural bias built into our understanding of the past by the survival of visible monuments of kingship like the pyramids; it’s a reflection of how the Egyptians themselves saw and understood the world around them.
The king was the personification of Egyptian unity, the person who brought together Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley) and Lower Egypt (the Delta). He stood between the Egyptian people and the gods, though he shared much more in common with the divine than his merely human subjects. Symbols and reminders of kingship were everywhere, and not just in the vast monuments that still stud the Egyptian landscape. Even the passage of time was marked by the king’s actions - his participation in festivals or ritual processions, for example - which defined the year for all of his subjects.
The pharaohs literally made Egypt. The Nile is generally understood as the unifying thread running through Egypt and Egyptian history, but there was no particular reason why the Nile Delta and Nile Valley had to belong to the same political unit. Their unity - Egypt’s unity - was inherently political, rather than ecological, forged by the act and fact of kingship. Prior to their political unification, the Delta had often had more in common with the archaeological cultures of the Levant to the east, while groups in Upper Egypt had shared common cultural characteristics with groups far to the south in today’s Sudan.
In this sense, the emergence of the pharaohs marks the emergence of Egypt. With kings came hieroglyphic texts and some sense of a sequence of events, rather than just the material record. Again, this was literally true: The earliest known hieroglyphic signs were carved into bone tags found in a royal tomb, symbols meant to describe the items accompanying the king into the afterlife.
We don’t know which king these items, or the bone tags, belonged to. Tomb U-j at Abydos, in which the tags were found, predates the first named kings in the record by around a century. It certainly belongs to one of the first king’s predecessors, though. In this period immediately preceding the emergence of a unified Egypt, from roughly 3300 BC to 3100 BC, there were probably several regional kings ruling along the Nile Valley. Those holding power at Abydos eventually emerged victorious in a regional power struggle, extending their rule from the cataracts of the Nile all the way to the Mediterranean.
The king later Egyptians considered the founder of the First Dynasty, and thus the unifier of Egypt, is known as Narmer. Narmer wasn’t the first king of Abydos; what Egyptologists call “Dynasty 0” preceded him. We even know several of the names of Dynasty 0 rulers, like Iry-Hor and Ka, and they may have held sway in the Sinai Peninsula and at least part of the Delta. One of them may have been King Scorpion, the inspiration for the Rock’s so-bad-it’s-good 2002 movie, which I’ll watch anytime it’s on. Here’s the Scorpion Macehead, an artifact associated with this otherwise little-known king:
The upshot is that while the later king-lists held that Narmer was the first, we don’t actually know how much of a break from the past Narmer was. He was buried in Abydos, in the same cemetery as prior kings, in a tomb just like theirs - subterranean mud-brick rooms filled with grave goods.
Yet even at this incredibly early date, around 3100 BC, Narmer was recognizably a king like those who came later. This remarkable artifact is called the Narmer Palette:
On the left we see a smiting scene, the characteristic action of Egyptian kingship: the ruler bashing a defeated enemy over the head with a mace as a sign of his, and Egypt’s, obvious superiority. Scholars disagree, but the Palette is generally read as referring to Narmer’s forceful unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. He wears the distinctive crowns of each region, the White Crown of Upper Egypt on the left and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt on the right.
We know this Palette belonged to Narmer, or was made on his orders, because of this serekh in the top-center of the right side:
A serekh is a representation of a palace or enclosure - that’s the carved pillars or niched facade at the bottom - containing the king’s name. The catfish is a phonetic sign for n’r, the chisel below it a phonetic sign for mr; put the two together inside a serekh, and you have “King Narmer.”
Interestingly, the Narmer Palette both looks ahead to the future and back to the distant past. In iconography, it’s of a piece with what would come over later centuries and millennia, the symbols recognizable 1,000 or even 2,000 years later. In shape, however, it’s a palette, an artifact used for holding paints and other items used for bodily adornment. In that sense, it’s a throwback to the long-lost past of wandering herders in the Nile Valley, who carried their wealth and identity on their bodies.
Narmer inaugurated what’s known as the Early Dynastic period, the first era of Egyptian unification and kingship. Several of the early pharaohs practiced human sacrifice, with dozens or even hundreds of people buried with them in their tombs. This is a practice that scholars somewhat euphemistically call “subsidiary burial,” but it’s an open question as to whether these secondary tombs contained people who had gone to their deaths willingly. That seems unlikely to me, but maybe I’ve just never found a king worth accompanying into an eternal afterlife.
Assuming Narmer came to the throne around 3100 BC, the Early Dynastic period - which lasted until 2686 BC - was roughly as long as the time that separates us from the foundation of Jamestown and the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. That’s a pretty shockingly long period of time. As you might expect, things changed over that long stretch. The pharaohs of the Second Dynasty didn’t practice subsidiary burial, for example, and may have held less centralized sway over Egypt. As the Second Dynasty came to an end, so too did the Early Dynastic period. What replaced it was the Old Kingdom, the time of the pyramids, and the flowering of Egyptian civilization.
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