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According to the Ancient Egyptian tradition, voiced by the Kinglists, Herodotos and Manetho, the 1st Dynasty was founded by a king named Meni, or, in Greek, Menes. The same tradition has credited Menes with many deeds, among them the conquest of the Nile delta (Lower Egypt) thus unifying Upper and Lower Egypt; the founding of Memphis as the united country's new capital; the building of dams and the founding of many new cults and temples.

There has been a lot of debate as to the identity and even the existence of this seemingly legendary king, as the archaeological record does not mention any king of that name. The basis of this problem lies in the royal titulary and its evolution. The oldest known sources that mention a king only refer to him using his Horus-name. From the Old Kingdom on, however, kings would be identified by their Prenomen and/or their Nomen. As the Kinglist tradition was based on these later additions to the royal titulary, the chroniclers had to come up with a Prenomen for the Early Dynastic Kings. Although from the reign of the Horus Den on, they often took the kings' Nebti-names as their Prenomen, the relationship between the names in the Kinglists and those mentioned on the archaeological sources is not always clear. This is the case for all kings preceding the Horus Den, the first four kings of the 1st Dynasty.

Several sources have been interpreted as providing the link between a Horus-name and the name Men(es), but every interpretation is questionable at the very least. The Naqada Label was once believed to show that Men(es) was the Nebti-name of the Horus Aha. The absence of any further Nebti-names during the reigns of Aha and his two successors, however, makes this interpretation unlikely.

The interpretation of a type of seal combing a Horus-name with some additional hieroglyphic signs as a Prince's Seal, which would show that the Horus Narmer had a son named Men(es), is too far-fetched to be taken serious. The additional signs on the seal need not per definition refer to a name and even if they do, this name can have belonged to any high official or member of the ruling elite.

The archaeological sources have not allowed us either to relate any of the deeds traditionally credited to Menes, to one single archaeologically attested king. Several of these deeds actually belong to the repertoire of the ideal king who was supposed to ensure the regular flow of the floods by building dams, to appease the gods by creating cults for them, to destroy Egypt's enemies, ...

The Narmer Palette has long been interpreted as evidence that the Horus Narmer was the one who conquered the Nile delta and united Upper and Lower Egypt. Indeed, Narmer is shown wearing the White Crown, traditionally associated with Upper Egypt, while striking down an enemy identified as living in the marsh-lands (image to the left). On the other side of the Palette, Narmer wears the Red Crown, traditionally associated with Lower Egypt (the Nile delta), while inspecting the bodies of decapitated enemies.

A mace-head shows Narmer wearing the Red Crown during a census in Lower Egypt. This representation has often been viewed as further evidence that Narmer seized control on this part of the country and imposed his authority on it.

 

A Nebti Name?

The presence of a sign group looking like a Nebti-name on the Naqada Label has led many Egyptologists to believe that Menes is to be equated with the Horus Aha (more...).

Narmer's presumed predecessor, the Horus Ka (or Sekhen), however, levied taxes in the Nile delta and must therefore have had at least partial control over this part of the country. The mace-head of a king identified as 'Scorpion', assumedly a predecessor or perhaps a contemporary of Narmer, has also been brought into the debate, as one reconstruction might show that 'Scorpion' too may have worn both the White and the Red Crowns.

The assumption that king's before Narmer may have ruled over a united Egypt, and their tentative identification of Menes as the Horus Aha, has led several authors to believe that there was a Dynasty '0' before the rule of Menes. This hypothetical dynasty would have been composed of 'Scorpion', Ka, 'Mouth' and Narmer. 'Scorpion', however, has only been attested at Hierakonpolis and 'Mouth' may not even have been a king at all.

It must also be noted that the identification of Menes as the Horus Aha is not supported by any evidence and that the Red Crown may initially have been of Upper Egyptian origin before it became the symbol of Lower Egypt, at the latest during the early 1st Dynasty. A pot-shard found at Naqada in Upper Egypt and dated several generations before the reign of Narmer bears the representation of the Red Crown. This is now believed to be an indication that the Red Crown was of Upper Egyptian origin.

But perhaps to learn more about the beginning of the 1st Dynasty, we should first have a look at its end. A palace vessel found underneath the Step Pyramid of the Horus Netjerikhet at Saqqara lists the Nebti-names of four kings. These names correspond well to the last four kings of Manetho's 1st Dynasty.

 

Detail from the Macehead of 'Scorpion', showing the king with the White Crown (more...).

 
A vessel with the names of 4 kings  


A stone vessel found at Saqqara lists the Nebti-names of the 4 last kings of the 1st Dynasty.

 

From other archaeological sources, we know that these four kings correspond to the Horuses Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qa'a respectively. It is thus safe to conclude that these four archaeologically attested kings correspond with the last four kings of Manetho's 1st Dynasty.

The next clue to the identification of Menes and a confirmation of the chronology of the 1st Dynasty is provided by two seals found in 1985 and 1995 at the royal cemetery at Umm el-Qa'ab. The first, dated to the reign of the Horus Den, lists the kings Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djet and Den. The list ends with the mention of the royal mother Meretneith, the mother of Den who took up regency of the country during Den's childhood. The names of the first three kings in the list are preceded by the name of the god Khentamentiu, the protector of the cemetery.
 

   
Den Seal Impression
The second seal is dated to the reign of Qa'a, the last king of the 1st Dynasty. It starts with Khentamentiu and then lists Qa'a, Semerkhet, Anedjib, Den, Djet, Djer, Aha and Narmer. The royal mother Meretneith is no longer included, probably because her regency was no longer viewed as an independent rule.
 
   
Qa'a Seal Impression
What makes these two seals so important is the fact that, if placed in chronological order, they both start with Narmer. With Narmer's predecessor Ka also buried at the cemetery, this can only mean that later generations considered Narmer as an important king, important enough to make him head the list of kings. This view is confirmed by the fact the the oldest royal name found on the vessels underneath the Step-Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara was Narmer's. It is also important to note that the second seal lists the same number of kings as the traditional Kinglists and Manetho.

Our knowledge of the history of the 1st Dynasty itself is, because of its remoteness in time and the lack of clear written sources, fairly limited. The few sources we have are hard to interpret and have often led to ambiguous or even contradictory conclusions.

Before the reign of Narmer, the local rulers of Thinis, located near Abydos in Upper Egypt, already appear to have had large parts of the country, including at least parts of the Nile delta, under their control. A ruler several generations before him had intense contacts with the region of Bubastis, in the south-western Delta. The precise nature of these contacts is not known. The Horus Ka, Narmer's presumed predecessor, levied taxes in the Nile delta. If there ever was a conquest of the Nile Delta by an Upper Egyptian monarchy, it had occurred long before Narmer's time.

   
There may have been a rival dynasty based at Hierakonpolis, in the south of Upper Egypt during Narmer's reign.  A king known as 'Scorpion' is only attested at Hierakonpolis. From a stylistic point of view, his mace-head would belong to about the same time as the Horus Narmer. At the latest during Narmer's reign, the region of Hierakonpolis was added to the territory of the Thinite dynasty. In view of the different animals on the 'Cities Palette', it is also possible that this 'Scorpion' was also identified by other animals, perhaps, even Narmer's catfish. If the latter assumption is correct, then 'Scorpion' may have been none other than Narmer himself!

Narmer is shown on his palette and other sources as a warrior king. The extent of his military campaigns is, however, not certain. The palette shows him victorious over a people living in a marshland and it is tempting to associate this with the Nile delta. If the interpretation of some signs on the palette as the name of the Mareotis region is indeed correct, the palette may refer to some military activity in the eastern delta.

There may have been a brief regency by queen Neithhotep, presumably Narmer's (principal) wife, at the beginning of Aha's reign. Her name was sometimes written within a serekh, which could indicate that she had royal power. One document shows her name, in a serekh, behind the name of Aha. This is the traditional position for the royal mother and may indeed confirm her regency. This might suggest that Aha was but an infant when he inherited Narmer's empire. Neithhotep was buried in an impressive tomb at Naqada, a surprising location if one knows that the other members of the 1s Dynasty were buried at Umm el-Qa'ab.

Aha is also the first king who may have had some of his servants buried with him, in subsidiary tombs next to his own. This experiment in absolutism was to last until the end of the 1st Dynasty. Two sources may also point at the ritual sacrifice of humans during this period. Another indication to the absolutism of royal power during the 1st Dynasty has been found on the island of Elephantine, near the modern-day city of Aswan. A military stronghold, intended to keep the Nubians out of Egypt, was built on the island, overshadowing a nearby local temple.
 

 

The 'Cities Palette'

The 'Cities Palette', palette dated to the early 1st Dynasty, or perhaps before, shows the founding of several cities by a king who is symbolised by different animals, among them a scorpion, a lion and a falcon.

Den's reign too started with a regency by his mother, the queen Meretneith. Her name is attested on several sources, written within the serekh showing that she had royal power. She was honoured with an important tomb at the royal cemetery at Umm el-Qa'ab. Den at least fought one battle against the "east", presumably some Bedouin in the eastern desert. His reign is also marked by reforms in the administration and by the addition of a second title, the Nebti-name, to the royal titulary.

According to Manetho, a very great calamity befell Egypt during the reign of Semerkhet, the penultimate king of the 1st Dynasty. This has often been interpreted as that his reign may have been illegitimate. His name is, however, mentioned on the seal listing all 1st Dynasty kings and in the Kinglists.

Qa'a was the last king who appears to have had several of his retainers buried with him, a practice that seems to have been introduced during the earlier part of the 1st Dynasty by Aha. The fact that Qa'a's successors abandoned this exercise in absolutism may indicate a change in the royal ideology or in the religious beliefs. That Qa'a's reign marked the end of an era is also shown by the move of the burial grounds of his successors from Umm el-Qa'ab in Middle Egypt to Saqqara, near Memphis. These changes may have prompted Manetho to consider Qa'a as the last king of the 1st Dynasty.

The mention of a Horus-Ba (?) in some rare inscriptions believed to date to this era hints at some upheaval during the reign of Qa'a or at the end of it. It is, however, not clear whether Horus-Ba was another name used by Qa'a, or the name of an obscure king. The name of Qa'a's successor, Hotepsekhemwi, meaning "the two powerful ones are at peace", is sometimes interpreted as an indication that this king reunited a divided country. On the other hand, Hotepsekhemwi did bury Qa'a, which means that he was Qa'a's immediate successor. It would thus seem unlikely that Qa'a's death was followed by any turmoil.

The table below lists the kings that are placed in the 1st Dynasty.

 

Den strikes down a foe

Den striking down a foe. His Horus-name is written in front of him, in the serekh.

 
  Name Manetho Kinglists Dates
Click for more information about Narmer Narmer Menes Meni No dates can be given for the individual kings of the 1st Dynasty.
  Aha Athôtis Teti / Itet
  Djer Kenkenês Iti
  Djet Uenephês Itiu(i)
  Den Usaphaidos Semti / Septi
  Anedjib Miebidos Merbapen
  Semerkhet Semempsês Semsem
  Qa'a Ubienthês Qebeh(u)
  Early Dynastic Period   Narmer Palette   Herodotos
  1st Dynasty   Naqada Label   Manetho
  2nd Dynasty   Scorpion Macehead   Royal Annals (Palermo Stone)
      Retainer Sacrifice   Turin Kinglist
      Memphis    
      Umm el-Qa'ab    


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