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The Ancient Egyptians

By the same author

Coptic Egypt
History and Guide
The American University in Cairo Press, rev. ed. 1990
The Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai
History and Guide
The American University in Cairo Press, 1991
Aswan and Abu Simbel
History and Guide
The American University in Cairo Press, 1993
Ancient Thebes and the Necropolis
Sakkara and Memphis
The Necropolis and the Ancient Capital
Upper Egypt and Nubia
The Antiquities from Amarna to Abu Simbel
Ancient Egyptians
Life in the Old Kingdom

Jill Kamil

New and Completely Revised

Maps and Illustrations by
Elizabeth Rodenbeck

The American University in Cairo Press

Dedicated with love to my granddaughters
Natasha, Nadine,
and Dina

Copyright © 1984, 1996 by

The American University in Cairo Press
113 Sharia Kasr el Aini
Cairo, Egypt
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise,
without the prior written permission
of the publisher.

Dar el Kutub No. 3724/96

ISBN 977 424 392 7
Printed in Egypt
at the Printshop of the American University in Cairo

Acknowledgments vn

Chronology vm

Introduction I

I Beginnings 5
The Gift of the Nile • Hunters and Gatherers • Adjusting to the Environ-
ment • Semi-Nomadic Settlers • A Settled Way of Life • The Nile and Soci-
ety • Burial Practices in Upper Egypt • Leadership • On the Threshold of
Civilization • Cultural Exchange • Toward Unification • The Predynastic
Legacy • Origin of Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs • Sense of Cosmic

II Growth 36
Search for the Earliest Kings • Divergence of Opinion • Early Records •
Royal Cenotaphs and Tombs • Unity Consolidated • Loyalty Won • Cult
Centers • Artificial Development of Cult Centers • Keepers of the Cult
Statue • Local Prestige • Threat of the Use of Force • Provincial Celebration
• Creating a Tradition • Unified Artistic Expression • Anthropomorphic
Gods • Zoser's Step Pyramid • Preparing for a National Festival

III Control 71
The Great Pyramid Age • The Economic Structure • Recruitment of Labor •
Funerary Estates • The Giza Group • How the Pyramids were Built • Wor-
kers' Accommodation • The Cult of the King • Cult Statues • The Sphinx •
The Egyptian Religion • Significance of the Pyramidal Shape • The King is
Dead, Long Live the King • The Kingship Ideal
IV Organization 99
Sun Temples and Solar Worship • Abu Sir Archives • All the King's Men •
The Power of Pepi • A Boy on the Throne • To Protect a Heritage • King
Lists • The Pyramid Texts • Propagating the State Dogma • Guardians of a
Tradition • The Final Collapse

V Travel 117
The Watery Highway • Sea Voyages • Movement Overland • Rural Move-
ment • Journey to the Afterlife

VI Living 129
Enjoyment of Life • Noble Men and Women • Food and Drink • Clothing
and Accessories • The Ideal Family • Right and Wrong • Children • Peasant
Farmers and Laborers • Piety of the People • The Royal Family • Honor of
Ancestors • Class Mobility

VII Work 154

The Earliest Industries • Medical Practice • Mummification and Priests •
Scribes and the Law • Papyrus Production and the Bureaucracy • Art and
Architecture • Shipbuilding • Stone and Pottery Vessels • Textile Manufac-
ture • Viticulture • Other Industries • Wages • The Farming Masses • Ani-
mal Husbandry • The Bucolic Afterlife

VIII Leisure 175

Entertainment • Outdoor Sport • Indoor Games • Folk Tales and Myths •
Rural Festivals

Conclusion 187

For Further Reading 190

Index 192


For this new and updated edition I have received advice, en-
couragement, and help from many sources, particularly from
Dr Kent Weeks, professor of Anthropology and Egyptology at
the American University in Cairo, and Dr Zahi Hawwas, direc-
tor of the Giza plateau. I would also like to thank Lyla Pinch
Brock for her patient editing of the manuscript and invaluable
critical analysis. I would like to add that the hypotheses pre-
sented here - on the creation of cults, the importance of festi-
vals, and the significance of ancestor worship - are not neces-
sarily shared by these scholars.


Prehistoric Egypt
(All dates are approximate and some periods overlap)

Lower Paleolithic (early Old Stone Age) 100,00 - 50,000 BC

Middle Paleolithic 50,00-20,00080
Late Paleolithic 30,000 -10,000 BC
Final Paleolithic 12,000 -6000 BC
Neolithic 6000 - 3 400 BC

Early Dynastic Period

First Dynasty 3ooo - 2 890 BC
Second Dynasty 2890 - 2686 BC
Third Dynasty 2686-257560

Old Kingdom
Fourth Dynasty 2575-246560
Senefru • Khufu • Redjedef • Khafre • Baufre • Menkaure • Shepseskhaf •

Fifth Dynasty 2465-2322 BC

Userkaf • Sahure • Neferirkare • Shepseskare • Neferefre • Nyuserre •
Menkauhor • Djedkare • Unas

Sixth Dynasty 2181-214560

Teti • Userkare • Meryre (Pepi I) • Merenre • Neferkare (Pepi II) • Mer-
enrell • Menkure

Ancient Egyptian chronology remains a controversial issue among scholars

and is subject to variation. Guidance here is taken from the Department of
Anthropology and Egyptology of the American University in Cairo, which
divides the Early Dynastic Period into three dynasties (3000-2575 BC). The
Old Kingdom (the period covered by this book) extends from the Fourth
Dynasty to the end of the Sixth (2575-2145 BC).
This page intentionally left blank

Egypt's ancient history covers some three thousand years from

Narmer, the legendary King Menes (3000 BC) who united the Two
Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt, to the conquest of Alexander
the Great (33230). This period has been roughly divided into
thirty dynasties, which have been grouped into three great peri-
ods, the Old, Middle, and New kingdoms. The first period, the
Old Kingdom or 'pyramid age' (2575 to 2145 BC), is the subject of
this book. It traces the origins of Egyptian civilization from the
earliest settlers in the Nile Valley through the rise and fall of an era
unparalleled in grandeur, power, wealth, and prestige. During the
Old Kingdom the core of Egyptian thought and institution was
formed. It was a time to which the ancient Egyptians themselves
looked with pride and regarded as a model throughout their his-
Since the 19605, archaeologists have taken a keen interest in the
origins of the ancient Egyptian civilization.They have studied the
lifestyle and culture of Predynastic communities based on discov-
eries made in the Nile Valley by scholars before and around the
turn of the twentieth century - among them Flinders Petrie at
Naqada and Quibbell and Green at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) -
along with a vast amount of information which has come to light
from more recently excavated sites in the Delta and Upper Egypt.
As a result, we now know more than ever before about the
growth of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
In view of this, it is surprising how few books have been writ-
2 Introduction

ten for non-professional readers to bring them up to date on re-

cent discoveries. Many outdated theories still dominate popular
literature and there is a tendency, even in some specialized publi-
cations, for early concepts to persist that are now known to be
mistaken. The boundaries of our knowledge are rapidly opening
up but publication has fallen behind the progress made. This ne-
glect is largely responsible for the impression that little of value is
known about the rise of the first class-based society.
This book attempts to remedy the situation. My aim is to syn-
thesize a vast amount of information that has been revealed on the
earliest human occupation of the Nile Valley by describing the
formative years of the dynastic civilization, pursuing the ideals of
the expanding state in the Old Kingdom, and tracing its fall at the
end of the Sixth Dynasty.
This work differs from earlier histories in concentrating on a
single period, the Old Kingdom, and in including national festi-
vals, religious rites, and mortuary rituals as part of the narrative.
Two themes in particular are developed: i) that ancestor worship
lay at the root of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, and 2) that a
well-devised plan to establish cult centers created both a common
religious and cultural tradition and a reciprocal service relation-
ship between the central government and distant communities.
Today we tend to ask the very same questions about ancient
Egypt once posed by the earliest travelers and scholars. Who were
the first inhabitants in the Nile Valley? What led them to a settled
existence? How was unification between Upper and Lower
Egypt achieved in a land that physically did not lend itself to cen-
tralization? What triggered the growth of a complex and highly
stratified society in which a ruling class created monumental
works of art by extracting surplus production and labor from the
masses? How were the administration, judiciary, and religion or-
ganized and maintained? How did the ancient Egyptians live,
work, and travel? How did they spend their leisure time? Today,
Notes on Chronology and Terminology 3

we might raise additional questions: What was the role of women

in ancient Egypt? What do we know of childhood and education?
What was the attitude of the affluent elite toward the masses?
How were the latter recruited for large-scale building construc-
tion? Did the ancient Egyptians have a pacific or aggressive social
ideal? Did they have a moral code? What was the cause of the re-
markable homogeneity and continuity of their ancient civiliza-

Notes on Chronology and Terminology

The latest subdivisions of Manetho's royal dynasties have been
adopted here. The Early Dynastic Period covers the first three
dynasties (3100-2575 BC) and the Old Kingdom the Fourth to
Sixth dynasties (2575-2145 BC). In the most ancient King List, on
the Turin Papyrus, there is no interruption in the line of Narmer
(Menes) until the end of the reign of Unas in 2345 BC, a period of
six and a half centuries.
The word 'pharaoh,' derived from per-aa 'great house,' is not
used here, so that a distinction may be made between the 'Great
House' - the palace hierarchy and its associated departments,
which owned the land, monopolized trade, and formulated a state
religion - and the king as an individual. The words 'province' and
'governor,' as well as the Greek 'nome' and 'nomarch,' are aban-
doned in favor of 'cult center' and 'local leader' to distinguish the
latter from the officials - usually members of the royal family -
who were later given power in the settlements by royal decree.
Only toward the end of the Old Kingdom did provinces exist in
the true sense of the word.
The Predynastic site commonly known by its Greek name Hi-
erakonpolis is here referred to by its Egyptian name Nekhen, in
order to relate the 'souls of Nekhen' and the 'souls of Pe' (origi-
nally sacred centers of ancestor worship) as parallel political insti-
4 Introduction

tutions. The word 'emblem' is used rather than 'totem' to de-

scribe the images depicted on flagpoles on Predynastic pottery
and early ceremonial palettes and maceheads, because 'totem' has
associations with worship, of which there is no evidence. Finally,
Greek spellings of the kings' names (Cheops, Chephren, and
Mycerinus) have been abandoned in favor of the ancient Egyptian
spellings as transliterated by Sir Alan Gardiner: Khufu, Khafre,
and Menkaure.

The Gift of the Nile

Egypt, which produced one of the great literate societies of the
ancient world, lies in the northeast corner of the African conti-
nent. It is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and by
large tracts of barren desert to east and west. The Western (or
Libyan) Desert and the Eastern (or Arabian) Desert are separated
by the River Nile. The longest river in the world, the Nile
emerges from the lakes of equatorial Africa and flows 6,671 kilo-
meters to the sea. It cascades over Egypt's granite threshold
(known as the First Cataract) at Aswan and flows northward
along its narrow valley in Upper Egypt toward modern-day
Cairo. About 320 kilometers before it reaches the sea, the Nile
fans into a wide triangle, the Delta, forming Lower Egypt.
The 'Two Lands,' one of the ancient Egyptian terms for the
country, is geographically true. Physically isolated from neigh-
boring countries - buffered by sea, sand, and the First Cataract
- the land is internally divided: Upper Egypt is mostly' barren
apart from the narrow ribbon of verdant land flanking the Nile,
while Lower Egypt is completely fertile. In Upper Egypt maxi-
mum temperatures range from 5O°C in summer to 2O°C in winter,
whereas the Delta has a temperate climate with maximums of
35°C in summer and i3°C in winter. Upper and Lower Egypt
were united in ancient times only in their uniform dependence on
the River Nile, the basis for the great productivity of the soil. Pri-
6 Beginnings

or to the construction of the High Dam at Aswan in the 19605 the

river annually brought a copious deposit of rich silt from the
tableland of Ethiopia. Because rainfall was almost nonexistent in
Egypt, the people were entirely dependent on the river to water
their crops. It was ultimately upon this regular and abundant wa-
ter supply, with its rich alluvium deposits, that the ancient civi-
lization was based. When the Greek traveler and historian
Herodotus came to Egypt around 445 BC he aptly described
Egypt as "the gift of the Nile."
In order to trace the earliest known human habitation in Egypt
it is necessary to go back in geological time to the ancestor of the
modern Nile. For hundreds of thousands of years the river had
poured its heavily charged waters over the sloping plateau of
northeastern Africa. Not until Miocene times did a cooling of the
world's climate and a reduction of forested areas affect the land-
scape of Egypt. The swiftly flowing water found depressions and
channels in the limestone plateau and began to carve its bed. This
did not occur in one continuous movement but in sharply defined
stages. Each lowering of the riverbed resulted in the formation of
terraces, which were left high above the newly formed river val-
ley. The highest terraces, over a hundred meters above the river,
date from between 650,000 and 5 50,000 BC. They reveal no signs
of human life. It is only at the thirty-meter level of terraces in
some parts of Upper Egypt that we can break from purely geo-
logical dating and trace the earliest known human occupation of
the country.

Hunters and Gatherers

Hand-axes, fist-wedges, and other primitive implements dating
back to the period known as the Lower Paleolithic, between
100,000 and 50,000 BC, have been found in widely separated areas
Hunters and Gatherers


Kufra £££$;.

Gilf Kibir =

Gabal Uwenat ^ &-

Lake .
500 km Victoria

The Nile Valley

8 Beginnings

from northern Sudan to the region of Asyut in Middle Egypt.

Such tools were fashioned to provide a grip for the hand and were
used for chopping, digging, skinning, crushing, and probably
stabbing. Tool development from the Lower to the Middle Pale-
olithic (around 50,000 to 20,000 BC) was a slow process; hand-
axes disappeared and more refined tool-manufacture appeared.
This was a period in which people and animals alike migrated
over vast areas of northern Africa. The humans sometimes lived
in camps and caves around main sources of food like the oases of
the Western Desert and in the Fayyum depression. There was a
tendency to form groups, sometimes of several families, and es-
tablish a home base. These groups did not produce their own
food; they simply collected wild plants when available and devel-
oped hunting aids, such as the thigh bones of animals for clubs
and spears.
During most of the Late Paleolithic (30,000-6000 BC) there
was a marked decrease in local rainfall, and the White Nile was
joined by the Atbara and the Blue Nile to bring an increase in the
annual summer flood. This swollen water - the direct result of the
rains in Ethiopia - poured toward Egypt. It covered most of the
early terraces in Upper Egypt, buried the river channel, and large-
ly obliterated the discarded implements of early human settle-
ment along the banks. When the flood water reached Kom Ombo
it was no longer confined by sandstone cliffs to the east and west
but spread out to form lakes and marshy tracts along the banks of
the river. Its velocity diminished and the increasingly sluggish riv-
er was able to deposit some of its dark, mineral-rich silt along its
banks. It carried the surplus alluvium northward to the Delta.
The climate during this time was somewhat cooler than today,
and possibly more humid. Plants grew in the enriched soil and
much of Egypt became fertile. It was a semi-tropical environment
with trees and swamps extending from Sudan in the south to
Dakhla Oasis in Egypt's Western Desert. Animal life was not
Hunters and Gatherers 9

much different from that of East Africa today. Fossilized bones

reveal the presence of elephant, cheetah, giraffe, ostrich, lion, wild
ass, buffalo, gazelle, and hyena. They roamed around the water
holes, which hosted a profusion of waterfowl. These ideal condi-
tions also existed along parts of the western bank of the Nile as far
north as the shore of Lake Qarun in the Fayyum, where fish,
shellfish, crocodile, and hippopotamus flourished.
Despite such attractive conditions for a sedentary existence in
the Nile Valley, most groups continued a nomadic life. They ex-
ploited natural sources of food, moving over extensive areas. Evi-
dence of elaborate flint-mining between Qena and Asyut, with
advanced tools like retouched blades, indicates that more perma-
nent hunting and fishing camps were established along the banks
of the Nile, but rock drawings at various sites in the Eastern and
Western deserts attest to a continued nomadic existence.
Comparative studies of early societies reveal that people do not
become sedentary unless compelled to do so for environmental or
other reasons. The groups that gravitated toward the Nile did not
consciously choose to settle there. Increasing desertification in
northern Africa eventually forced many hunters to abandon the
plains, follow sources of water, and move toward the valley. This
occurred gradually, and a semi-nomadic pattern continued well
into the Final Paleolithic era (12,000 to 6000 BC).
Some of the groups, especially those that moved down to
Egypt from the south, may have been cattle-breeders - like the
Nuer in present-day southern Sudan - only drawing near the riv-
er to water their herds. Others, moving in from the Sahara, may
have gradually given up large-game hunting for small-game hunt-
ing and eventually set up camp on the edge of the desert above the
floodplain. There they could continue to hunt as well as exploit
the river's resources. Experiments in the trapping and domestica-
tion of birds and animals were probably carried out and tech-
niques developed for making more specialized tools and
io Beginnings

weapons. Large concentrations of knife-blades, chisels, awls, and

scrapers have been found between Qena and Sohag, along with a
bola, a rope with a stone attached for catching animals.

Adjusting to the Environment

The dramatic desertification of the Western Desert, which caused
lakes to shrink, fauna to perish, and considerable denudation, has
only occurred within the last five thousand years. In tracing hu-
man settlement in Egypt we can see a slow and steady adjustment
to local conditions, but it remained precarious. The Nile flood
came with regularity, but like the searing sun that drove hunters
and gatherers from the savanna, the river could also be a destruc-
tive force. Too high a flood could cause destruction, sweeping
away shelters and livestock; a series of low floods could cause
famine. The rise and ebb of the flood, however, occurred with
tireless regularity, and a similar rhythm gradually developed in
the lives of the people who depended upon it.
In spring when the river was low, the land was left bare to the
fury of the hot, dry, desert winds, the khamasin. Seasonally flood-
ed depressions dried out, vegetation - with the exception of
hardy acacia, tamarisk, and sycamore along the edges of the Nile
Valley - began to diminish, and the earth became scorched and
ashen dry. Animals on the fringes of the valley may have moved
southward or scattered into the desert in search of food. Fishing
was limited to the permanent pools, side channels, and the river
itself; wooded areas near the water offered turtles, rodents, and
Nile clams, which were collected in large amounts. July marked
the peak of summer, when the Nile became swollen with the an-
nual flood and spilled out over the land. The people withdrew
with their animals to the higher land which flanked the valley. As
the low-lying desert became progressively submerged, they
Semi-Nomadic Settlers 11

moved again to outcrops on the dry rim of the plateau, where

they waited until the water had reached its full height, toward the
end of August. When the river began to recede it left behind a fair-
ly uniform deposit of silt, as well as lagoons and streams that be-
came natural reservoirs for fish. A variety of plants including wild
wheat, brush, bulrush, and papyrus formed lush vegetation in the
newly enriched soil. Thus began the season of abundance. The
people gathered together their possessions, rounded up their ani-
mals, and went back to the floodplain. The level of the river con-
tinued to fall, until by April it was at its lowest level. Vegetation
diminished and seasonal pools dried out. Then in July the Nile
started to rise again, and the cycle was repeated.
This annual movement of people, mirroring changes in the lev-
el of the Nile, continued until the middle of this century when the
construction of the High Dam at Aswan put an end to the floods.
A strong bond between the people and the land, with its three dis-
tinct seasons - the drought (shemu)^ the inundation (akhet), and
the growing or 'coming forth' (peret) - is an important, and early
established, feature of Egyptian civilization.

Semi-Nomadic Settlers
Seasonal settlements can be traced to many sites, including those
along the northern fringe of the Fayyum's Lake Qarun; at Merim-
da on the southwestern edge of the Delta in Lower Egypt; and at
Badari, Hammamiya, and Tasa near Asyut in Upper Egypt. These
cultures, named after the sites where they were first identified,
were not necessarily the earliest - or the only - herding and farm-
ing settlements. Countless others in Upper Egypt were doubtless
obliterated by the swirling waters of particularly high floods in
ages long past or, in the Delta, submerged beneath successive lay-
ers of alluvial soil. Despite these lost settlements, available evi-
12 The Beginnings

dence attests to varying phases of development at different sites

but little, if any, contact between them. For thousands of years the
communities who lived near the banks of the Nile appear to have
remained independent of one another.
The oldest known seasonal settlements are in the Fayyum. The
depression was filled by the Nile around 8000 BC, creating a con-
siderable lake with a much higher water level than it has today.
(Dimeh, for example, an ancient site now isolated in the desert,
may originally have been an early settlers' camp on the northern
shore.) Then the level of the lake gradually fell. Mud huts were
built on mounds along its north and northeastern shores where
the land was fertile and, beginning around 5,000 BC, emmer,
wheat, barley, and flax were cultivated and harvested using sickle-
flints set in wooden handles. Judging from the great care given to
their storage, crops were plentiful. Underground silos lined with
basketry were constructed on ground well above the level of the
lake. The people also buried their dead here, in simple graves un-
der the dry desert sand. Traces of cloth reveal that they wove linen
clothing, probably worn beneath an outer garment of leather.
Stone beads and pendants show that they had also developed
drilling techniques. Pottery made of coarse clay was fashioned
into a variety of simple shapes.
As well as the cultivation of grain and flax, sheep, cattle, and
pigs were kept. Hooks, spears, and harpoons were used to catch

Reed basket,
Fayyum culture
Semi-Nomadic Settlers 13

fish in the shallow waters of the lake and, despite increases in ani-
mal husbandry, expeditions into the desert to hunt large mammals
A seasonal, semi-nomadic existence can also be traced in Upper
Egypt. Burial grounds of the 'Badarian' culture have been identi-
fied at many sites south of Asyut. They most likely date to about
the same period as early occupation in the Fayyum, around 5000
BC. The actual settlements, probably built on natural levees along
the banks of the river, have long disappeared. The burial grounds,
however, were constructed in the desert above the floodplain,the
bodies laid to rest in the fetal position in shallow oval graves in the
sand surrounded by basketry, skins, and objects of daily life.
These have been well preserved and provide evidence upon which
to base our knowledge of early society. Ivory spoons, figurines,
and small copper objects - hammered, not cast - were among the
grave goods.
Remnants of clothing show that the people wore kilts, some-
times with decorative girdles, and feathered headgear. Strings of
blue-glazed beads, anklets of shells, and bracelets of ivory were
also buried. Oval slate palettes which bear traces of red ocher or
green malachite were probably used to grind body paint for cere-
monial purposes. Indeed, some of the characteristic red-brown
pottery of these sites - blackened around the rim - bears traces of
the prepared pigment.

Ivory carvings,
Fayyum culture
14 Beginnings

A Settled Way of Life

The earliest evidence of fully sedentary village life in Egypt can be
found at Merimda, a sandy rise in the Western Desert on the edge
of the Delta near the Rosetta branch of the Nile. Radiocarbon
readings reveal evidence of occupation from 4440 to 4145 BC, al-
though some scholars suggest a date of as early as 5040 BC for the
first Merimda settlement. Groups of small, flimsy, pole-framed
huts made of wicker were built on spurs overlooking large
stretches of arable land. Many were oval in shape and most were
too small to accommodate an adult. They were clearly not houses.
The fact that few habitations of this period have been found in ei-
ther Upper or Lower Egypt suggests that in a climate as gracious
as that of Egypt shelter was less important than in other regions of
the world. The huts may have been used for much the same pur-
pose as in rural communities in Egypt up to the present day: for
storing food and tools rather than for human habitation. These
lightly-constructed shelters may have further provided shade for
workshops and cooking areas.
The granaries at Merimda were not separated from the com-
munity as in the Fayyum, but scattered through it: storage was as-
sociated with individual farmsteads, which suggests that each
family was responsible for its own food production. The burial
practices at Merimda also differed from those of the Fayyum: the
dead were buried around their shelters. This was a practice quite
alien to the nomadic, or even semi-nomadic, way of life. The bod-
ies were laid in shallow oval graves with pottery, garments, spin-
dles, and, for the first time, flowers: a bouquet was found on the
chest of a body in one grave. A molded clay head - the oldest
known sculpture from Egypt - was also found. In almost all buri-
als a pottery jar was placed in front of the contracted body of the
deceased, whose head lay toward the south and whose face was
directed toward the west. The earliest pottery was coarse mono-
A Settled Way of Life



.. . .- -Ballas,
Abydos .^J —.... ..
NaqadaJ Coptos


sites and '
ancient routes
16 Beginnings

chrome ware in simple shapes. Large jars to store domesticated

grain - specifically emmer, which originated in western Asia-
were later buried up to their necks in the ground.
Subsequent stages of settlement can be traced to several sites in
Lower Egypt including Omari, north of Helwan at the mouth of
the Wadi Hof in the Eastern Desert; Maadi, opposite the Saqqara-
Abusir necropolis; Heliopolis; and Buto, in the north central
Delta. Spinning and weaving were well developed at Omari; both
coarse- and fine-weave garments were produced and there is evi-
dence of leather-working. In contrast to the early settlers of the
Fayyum and Merimda, those of Omari seem to have used more
jewelry for personal adornment, including pendants and neck-
laces. Their granaries contained wheat and barley, and there is evi-
dence that they baked a sort of cake of crushed emmer and barley.
They used ostrich eggshells for containers and even cooking pots.
Refuse heaps composed of ashes, flint implements, and animal
bones have been found along with hearths.
Dietary habits and social patterns were in transition and some
of these early settlements were to develop into important com-
munities. Maadi, for example, a settlement of farmers and stock-
breeders who raised beef-cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, later de-
veloped into an important trading center; Heliopolis became a re-
ligious capital; and Buto (Tell al-Fara'un), grew to be the major
Delta settlement.

The Nile and Society

The period from 5000 to 340030 was characterized by the im-
proved preparation of stone tools and weapons to suit an increas-
ingly sedentary existence. With an increase in settled farming,
bringing an increase in economic security and leisure, there was a
marked rise in population. Arts and crafts began to flourish. What
The Nile and Society 17

is known as the Naqada culture, overlapping with the Badarian

culture, developed over a span of nearly a thousand years - from
4000 BC to the beginning of the dynastic period. This was a crucial
time, during which many of the components of what we call 'civi-
lization' were laid. One of the highlights of this period was the
formation of a 'class-based society,' a term used by anthropolo-
gists today to denote early civilization prior to the introduction of
The Naqada culture was widespread in Upper Egypt from
Nekhen (Greek Hierakonpolis, opposite al-Kab) in the south, to
Abydos in the north. It was named after Naqada (opposite Qift)
and fell into three stages, Naqada I, Naqada II, and Naqada III.
Precise stratigraphic techniques in contemporary archaeology
have facilitated a better understanding of this culture, which was
characterized by slow and continuous change in the economy and
social organization, as well as the stylistic evolution of grave ob-
jects. Both Naqada and Nekhen are important sites in tracing Pre-
dynastic development in Upper Egypt.
Naqada was situated within the loop of the Nile north of Lux-
or where the river most closely approaches the Red Sea. Some of
the earliest settlers may have set up camp on levees at the edge of
the river, but all evidence has since disappeared. Either the camps
were built of perishable materials and swept away by the flood, or
they were depleted by modern farmers digging away at the en-
riched soil to fertilize their fields - a practice that continues to this
day. At the edge of the Naqada floodplain, however, one of the
earliest and largest settlements in the Nile Valley was found. It
spread over a ninety-meter-square area, with a vast adjacent bur-
ial ground of over two thousand graves packed into seventeen
acres. The Predynastic settlement of Nekhen, revealed in recent
excavations, was considerably smaller. Its graveyard comprised
some two hundred individual burials extending for three kilome-
ters along the edge of the desert. Both Naqada and Nekhen were
18 Beginnings

ideal locations for settlement. They were situated at the edge of

wadis (dried-out waterways) where the people could plant wheat
and barley, as well as hunt and herd animals.
How long such a life would have continued had it not been for
climatic change is difficult to say. Recent geological studies have
shown that there were fifty-year fluctuations in the level of the
Nile flood: extended periods of relatively high annual floods were
followed by equally long periods when the annual high-water
level fell below the average. When a period of low water coincided
with a decline in rainfall, pasturage shrank, wadis dried up, and
the river failed to cover the inner floodplain. The repercussion
was that people drew together into larger settlements as they were
forced to move nearer the valley, and there was consequently
more interaction among them.
An awareness grew of the need to make lasting and economical
use of the flood waters. Large-scale cultivation of grain, necessary
to feed the growing communities, required group effort. The ear-
liest steps in water management probably involved reinforcing
natural embankments along the edge of the Nile as soon as the
flood reached its peak in order to retain it on the floodplain. By
subsequently erecting lateral embankments (dikes) the entry and
exit of the flood could be controlled, and the water could even be
guided to land quite distant from the river. Basins were dug to re-
tain the water long enough to produce a crop. And with the help

Unconventional pottery
with incised geometric
lines, Naqada I
Burial Practices in Upper Egypt 19

of such basins, a channel could be dug toward the low-lying

desert, which was then brought to productivity. When the 'black
land' (the silt-rich soil) spread over parts of the 'red land' (the arid
desert), the settlers became peasant farmers: Egypt's soilbound
and conservative fellahin. Great care was given to the communal
storage of grain, a concept that grew from the need to assure food

Burial Practices in Upper Egypt

The earliest graves at the Naqada burial grounds, like those of the
earlier Badarian sites, were shallow. The bodies, sometimes two in
a single grave, were covered with coarse matting, twigs, or animal
skins. With the development of larger settlements and a more
stratified society, grave pits were replaced by well-constructed
brick-lined tombs and the grave goods reflected a more highly de-
veloped standard of living. The quality and range of these goods
clearly show a developing artistic sense among a growing com-
munity of professional craftspeople. Clay figurines, carved ivory
plaques, ivory and bone combs, and a huge variety of polished
pottery were produced. Some pottery items were black-topped,
others took fancy forms such as double vases or square contain-
ers, and others were fashioned into the shapes of birds and fish.

Bone hairpins and

combs, Naqada I
2O Beginnings

In the next stage of development (Naqada II), the graves be-

came larger. They were rectangular pits, often lined with woven
branches and brush, roofed with sticks and matting, and covered
with mounds of earth. The bodies of both men and women show
that they braided or plaited their hair and wore necklaces of shells
and stone beads. Although the bodies were covered with no more
than mats and hides, they remained remarkably well-preserved.
Some continued to be placed in the contracted position, and cer-
tain burial rituals were becoming standard. Burnished pottery
was invariably placed at the north end of the tomb, for example,
while the southern end was reserved for wavy-handled jars. Vary-
ing sizes and positions of tombs show, for the first time, an associ-
ation between social status and burial custom. While most people
continued to be interred in shallow graves covered with mats and
hides, important people were buried in larger graves, segregated
from their poorer neighbors. This tendency continued through to
dynastic times.

As sprawling, semi-sedentary settlements began to coalesce into
more heavily populated communities, leadership became an in-
creasingly vital part of social development. This is especially ap-
parent at Nekhen, where there are five unusually large graves
among the burials. One in particular, in the eastern part of the
cemetery, was more elaborate than the others. It was brick-lined,
plastered, and decorated with images of people, boats, and ani-
mals in red, white, and black on a yellow background. Referred to
as the 'painted tomb' at Hierakonpolis, it is now lost, but it was
important for several reasons. Firstly, both the leader and the
site became sacred through the very act of building such a large
structure and Nekhen retained its importance throughout an-
Leadership 21

cient history. Secondly, its brick walls and floor made this tomb a
fore-runner of the large brick-lined tombs of the early dynas-
ties. Thirdly, it had the earliest known attempt at mural decora-
tion, and it is interesting to note the emergence at so early a date,
of certain motifs that were to become part of the artistic tradit-
ion in dynastic times. There is a victor - whether local leader or
king - smiting bound enemies with a raised club; a leader stands
beneath a sunshade; and the owner of the tomb is shown larger
(that is, more powerful) than the accompanying figures. In ad-
dition, representations of high-prowed boats with deck-cabins
have their prototypes on the Predynastic pottery found at this
site. A figure holding two lions, on an ivory knife-handle from
Gebel al-Arak, is thought to be of Mesopotamian origin - strik-
ing evidence for cultural diffusion.
Nekhen and Naqada both bear marks of having developed into
communities of substantial influence in Predynastic times. Each
was strategically situated with direct connections through large
wadis: west to Kharga Oasis and east to the gold-bearing region
between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. Each eventually became
a cult center, of Horus (the hawk) and Set (a mythical desert ani-
mal) respectively. Their rulers came to exemplify the emerging
ideology of power and were probably buried in the so-called roy-
al tombs in the Predynastic cemeteries in both places.
Abydos is another site where lasting associations of leadership

From the 'painted

tomb' at Nekhen
22 Beginnings

developed. Royal monuments of the First and Second dynasties

were found here and recent excavations have revealed, among
other things, a Predynastic cemetery. Abydos developed a sacred
aura and was later believed to be the burial place of Osiris - the
god depicted in mythology as an earthly leader who ruled in Pre-
dynastic times.
In settled societies where the deceased are buried close to the
living, there is a great awareness of and respect for the dead, which
can become a form of ancestor worship. The myth of Osiris as an
ideal ruler (see chapter in) occurs in so many different forms that
it must contain an element of truth. It is not beyond the bounds of
reason, therefore, to suppose that he was originally a leader who
exercised ingenuity and led his people to an understanding of the
benefits of water control. Perhaps he judged cases of disputed em-
bankments, canals, or catchment basins because he was associated
throughout dynastic times with water as a source of fertility, the
soil, sprouting vegetation, and judgment. Over the millennia peo-
ple paid homage through pilgrimage to Naqada, Nekhen, and
Abydos, the three sites associated with early leaders.

On the Threshold of Civilization

Between about 3400 and 3000 BC Egypt entered the last stage of
its Predynastic experience. Evidence of the Naqada III or
Gerzean culture - named after a village north of Meidum in the
Fayyum where it was first identified - can be found at numerous
sites throughout Egypt. In contrast to the slow pace of earlier de-
velopment, rapid advances were now being made. Craft special-
ization was one direct result of food sufficiency: flint of fine qual-
ity was obtained from beds in the cliffs along the Nile Valley and
fashioned with unsurpassed skill into ripple-chipped knives
which, far too delicate for utilitarian use, were obviously orna-
On the Threshold of Civilization 23

mental. Although art, in today's sense of the word, did not exist,
people were skilled in the execution of their work. Slate palettes
for grinding paint were carved in decorative fish, bird, and animal
designs. Amulets were produced in a larger assortment of stones
and in different designs. A keen artistic sense can be seen in the
way that the roughly-made slates of Badarian times were now
formed into bird, hippopotamus, and fish designs. Ivory stat-
uettes have been found, although it is not known whether these
were fertility figures - since some were carved with exaggerated
sexual characteristics - or toys like the small stone balls, game
pieces, and a kind of chessboard that were often buried with chil-
dren. Furniture was placed in tombs: low stools made of stone
and wood-frame beds with mattresses of woven linen lashed to
the frame. Decorative ware included small boxes of ivory, or
wood inlaid with ivory, to hold a woman's possessions. One of
particularly fine execution has its lid carved with a human figure
in low relief and its sides decorated with geese. Clearly the owners
of such objects were no longer primarily concerned with survival.
At a more practical level, tools like axe-heads, adzes, hoes, chis-
els, daggers, and knives of beaten metal were produced. The
Gerzean period was also known for its vases produced from a va-
riety of hard and brightly-colored stone: basalt and alabaster,
white limestone, red breccia, marble, diorite, and granite. The
stone was shaped by skilled artisans using stone drills. These ob-

Decorated ivory box,

Naqada III or Gerzean period
24 Beginnings

jects were made to serve a growing elite, whose tombs underwent

change during this period. They were lined with matting, wood,
or mud-brick and extra chambers were added to accommodate
grave goods. The simple mound over the tomb of previous times
became enlarged into a low rectangular superstructure to which
the Arabic word mastaba (bench) has been given. These con-
tained a complex of rooms, also frequently lined with matting or
strengthened with wooden planks.
In the late Gerzean period a distinctive ware developed - wide-
lipped, buff-colored - in addition to the black-topped pottery.
These vessels were fired in an improved kiln in which higher
temperatures could be produced and better controlled. This re-
sulted in the manufacture of uniform texture and color that pro-
vided a suitable surface for decoration. Drawings were made on
the pots in manganese before firing and the designs - some remi-
niscent of the 'painted tomb' at Nekhen - cast considerable light
on ancient society. They include drawings of boats, hills, plants,
animals, and humans. The boats - invariably rowing boats - were
each identified with emblems on poles, sometimes with two
streamers hanging from them. These ensigns were visible marks
of tribal identity. Being represented on boats, they further suggest
increased river trade among different communities to acquire all
that was needed to enhance the status of local leaders. Some of the
boats appear to have cabins, which may have served as shade for
an important traveler.

Cultural Exchange
Trade in luxury goods became a royal business in dynastic times.
In the Gerzean period, however, the importation of raw materials
for the development of industries seems to have been a local affair.
Because of their strategic location, some of the settlements were
Cultural Exchange 25

destined to acquire more wealth than others. Upper Egypt be-

came rich from the procurement of stone and minerals from the
Eastern Desert. Copper and turquoise mined in Sinai brought
wealth to some of the Delta settlements. Trade with Nubia saw
the flow into Egypt of copper and incense from the lands lying
even further south. The presence of cedarwood, used in tomb-
construction, boat-building, and furniture-making in Egypt, sug-
gests trade with Byblos on the eastern Mediterranean.
Maadi, twelve kilometers south of modern-day Cairo, devel-
oped into a Predynastic commercial community. That is to say, its
main activity was not agriculture - although herding and farming
were practiced there - but commerce. It enjoyed a favorable posi-
tion for trade with Sinai and western Asia via Wadi Digla, which
runs eastward to the Bitter Lakes. Attractive and well-made
products carved from a wide variety of stones, as well as large
quantities of copperware, have been found at Maadi. These may
have been trade items. Huge amphorae found in large cellars be-
low the forty-five-acre site strongly resemble those of Palestine.
They are characterized by ledge or wavy handles that have no
prototypes in the Nile Valley. Their contents included perfumed
vegetable fat and other items imported from the east. Small paint-
ed pots, evidently imported from Palestine, form the most dis-
tinctive link between the two regions. Underground houses, not
found elsewhere in Egypt, suggest that Maadi may even have ac-

Pottery with elaborate

decoration, Late Gerzean
26 Beginnings

commodated foreign merchants, whose wares were transported

in this distinctive pottery to other parts of the country.
Cultural diffusion is a natural process following commercial
contact. Its evidence has been found in Egypt in the forms of
cylinder seals, motifs of fantastic animals with intertwined necks
depicted on the handles of weapons and palettes, recessed panel-
ing in tomb architecture, and the facade of a building in Tell al-
Fara'un (ancient Pe [Buto], which developed into a major settle-
ment in the Delta) featuring cones that have their prototypes in
Mesopotamia. Objects of early Egyptian manufacture have also
been found at Byblos on the Mediterranean in present-day
Lebanon. The land bridge of Sinai facilitated the free flow of trade
and culture. A similar exchange occurred between Egypt and Nu-
bia to the south. Egypt's rich agricultural surplus, linen, and hon-
ey were exchanged for mining rights in Nubia and access to trade
routes beyond the Second Cataract.

Toward Unification
As certain settlements became richer - and consequently larger -
than their neighbors, their leaders prospered. In Upper Egypt,
Nekhen came to enjoy particularly strong leadership. In Lower
Egypt the formation of a major settlement is not so clearly de-

Wavy handled vases

of Palestinian type
Toward Unification 27

fined, because many Delta settlements were submerged by flood

deposits in relatively recent times. Now, however, excavations at
many sites in the eastern and central Delta - including Tell
Ibrahim Awad, Tell Samara, Tell Farkha, and Tell al-Kabir - cast
light on settlements of the same time span as the late Gerzean in
Upper Egypt. Tell al-Fara'un has now been identified as Pe
(Buto), the traditional counterpart of Nekhen in Upper Egypt.
Products of Upper Egyptian origin began to appear in the
Delta during the Late Predynastic Period and pottery from the
Delta made its way to Upper Egypt. This long-distance internal
trade did not lead to a uniform material culture, however. On the
contrary, toward the end of the Predynastic Period the Two
Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt - later to form the basis of the
country's political organization - stand out as separate entities
with greater clarity than ever before.
The thrust toward unification was spearheaded by Upper
Egypt, but the reason remains obscure. One cause might have
been the economic attraction of the Delta: Upper Egyptians, con-
fined to the narrow and - in view of the changing climatic condi-
tions - increasingly hostile environment of the Nile Valley, may
have been encouraged to move northward toward the temperate
climate and abundant food supply of the Delta. Awareness of the
benefits of contact with the countries of the eastern Mediter-
ranean may have been an added inducement. Whatever the rea-
son, the leaders of Nekhen first extended their influence toward
Naqada and then farther north to Thinis (modern Girga), just
north of Abydos.
Political expansion was not without warfare, judging from the
number of maces with disc-shaped heads in hard stone found
alongside an unusually large number of broken bones among the
bodies of the dead at Naqada. Confrontation between various
settlements is also suggested by decorative motifs on two palettes
of this period found at Abydos. One, the Battlefield Palette,
i8 Beginnings

shows slain captives being preyed upon by lions, while the Towns
Palette is thought to represent different clans destroying walled
settlements. The possibility of internal conflict is also suggested
from oral traditions. Myths, once dismissed as unreliable, are
now being recognized as reflections of important historical and
social realities. The many myths describing battles between Ho-
rus of Lower Egypt and Set of Upper Egypt may, in their earliest
form, have been based upon actual conflict between the two
strong Upper Egyptian settlements: Nekhen, where the hawk
was the emblem, and Naqada, associated with the Set animal. Po-
litical integration was extremely slow. Several centuries passed
before objects of Upper Egyptian origin replaced those in the
Delta and until the names of Ka and Narmer - two of the earliest
kings identified in Upper Egypt-were found at Tell Ibrahim
Awad in the Delta.

The Predynastic Legacy

Civilization, until recently, was equated with literacy, and because
the earliest known records of ancient Egypt were those dating to
the First Dynasty, 'civilization' and 'First Dynasty' became syn-
onymous. Today it is known that the origins of the world's earli-
est civilizations predate the appearance of written records. In
Egypt, there is evidence not only of a class-based society but also
of the invention of writing long before the dynastic period. A par-
tially robbed Predynastic tomb at Abydos, dating to around 3200
BC, provides evidence that the hieroglyphic script was developed
much earlier than archaeologists had previously supposed, mak-
ing Egyptian one of the world's oldest written languages. Rough-
ly painted inscriptions on the seals and labels of funerary equip-
ment were precise records - trademarks that revealed the owner's
identity, the contents of a vessel, or the quality of the contents.
The Predynastic Legacy 29

The leaders who lived during the crucial years immediately pri-
or to unification identified themselves with names like Ka and
Iryhor or with symbols like the elephant and the scorpion.
Only in dynastic times did the names and titles of kings be-
come standardized. The early pictographic records were most ex-
plicit, however. One 'scorpion' leader left a fascinating record on
a pear-shaped macehead (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), a large
object, apparently used for ceremonial purposes, and carved in
three registers. Dominating the central scene is the scorpion king
He wears the distinctive headgear that has become known as
the White Crown of Upper Egypt and his tunic has a bull's tail,
which became a common attribute of kings. He is depicted in an
agricultural setting breaking the ground with a hoe. Behind him
are fan-bearers and people rejoicing. Below is another agricultural
scene, while the top register shows dead lapwings, associated with
various tribes on the borders of Egypt, hung from standards bear-
ing their emblems. The event is an unmistakable record of mili-
tary triumph by a leader whose attributes included physical

Relief scene
on macehead
of King Scorpion
30 Beginnings

prowess and bravery - inherited from his ancestor, the tribal

hunter - and whose obligations included water control and en-
suring the fertility of the land.
Along with the invention of writing, breaking the bonds im-
posed by the lunar month was another important Predynastic
legacy. Ancient Egyptians were dependent upon the annual flood,
as it signaled the start of the whole agricultural cycle. To forecast
its arrival would obviously be advantageous but difficult, as no
fixed number of lunar months corresponded to the agricultural
year. Countless years of living in an environment of rhythmic cy-
cles eventually led to the observation that the rising flood waters
were accompanied by a heavenly sign. Sothis, also known as Sir-
ius or the dog-star, was the brightest of all fixed stars in the night
sky. Its position changed as the earth moved around the sun, caus-
ing a shifting point of observation. At one stage during the lunar
cycle, the light of Sothis was entirely swallowed up by the bright-
ness of the sun and the star became invisible for a period of seven-
ty days.
A night would come at the end of this period when Sothis be-
came visible in the eastern sky just before dawn, in the glow of the
rising sun. This sighting is referred to as the 'heliacal rising,' and
was witnessed just before the flood waters began to rise each year.
It was an astronomical event of great importance because it her-
alded the promise of the land's rebirth and the beginning of an-
other agricultural year. The new Egyptian calendar was based on
a year of three seasons, starting with the sighting of Sothis. The
earliest written evidence of the heliacal rising appears on a small
ivory tablet belonging to Djer, the second king of the First Dy-
nasty (around 3000 BC). It reads: "Sothis, Opener of the Year, In-
undation, i."
The ability to anticipate the flood level was an important means
by which a leader could vindicate his power, thus the invention of
the nilometer was another important legacy. In its most primitive
Origin of Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs 31

form, a nilometer was merely a scale consisting of a series of hori-

zontal notches marked on a convenient rock. As soon as the water
crested on the southern border, the cataract region at Aswan, in-
formation regarding its height could be rushed by courier to all
parts of the country, where other nilometers were still registering
its rise. Preparations could then be made to maximize the water's
use. This simple invention may have led to the concept that the
king was divine: he governed the crops and the seasons. He was a
provider who had power over that powerful force of nature, the

Origin of Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs

It is not possible to trace religion as a vehicle of reverence in Pre-
dynastic times because the only sources of reference are burial
grounds, and despite the abundance of material remains there is
no indication of the extent to which the idea of divinity - outside
the power of natural forces - was formulated. Whatever it was
that encouraged devotion and emotional com-mitment is so far
unknown, apart from the certainty of life beyond the grave. This
is clearly demonstrated at all Predynastic sites and remained one
of the most basic aspects of the ancient religion. In contrast to
other early societies where rites of fasting ensured the annual re-
generation of the land, Egyptians took it for granted. The cyclical
regularity and predictability of the environment gave them faith
in their own immortality. Death seems not to have been regarded
with fascination and fear as the final, supreme crisis of life but as
the necessary prelude to rebirth.
The discovery of some burials in both Badari and Naqada
where the body was laid prone with the head pointing south (the
source of the Nile and the annual flood) and the face turned to the
west has led to the notion that Egyptians early regarded the west-
32 Beginnings

ern horizon, the place of the setting sun, as the gateway to the af-
terlife. Certainly the sun and the river, which together formed the
dominating means of survival, must have made an early impres-
sion on them. They were two natural forces with both creative
and destructive power: the life-giving rays that caused the crop to
grow could also cause it to shrivel and die; and the river that invig-
orated the soil could also destroy whatever lay in its path. Both
the sun and the river embodied the pattern of death and rebirth:
the sun died when it sank on the western horizon only to be re-
born in the eastern sky the following morning; the death of the
land was followed by the rebirth of the crops with the river's an-
nual flood the following year. The moon (Thoth), too, symbol-
ized death and rebirth, its waxing and waning seen as the resur-
gence of vitality like the flood waters, the sprouting grain, and the
rising sun. Rebirth was a central feature of the Egyptian scene. It
was seen as a natural succession to death, and undoubtedly lay at
the root of the ancient Egyptian conviction in the afterlife.
The natural desiccation of bodies into leather-like figures that
occurred when they were buried in hot desert sand may have en-
couraged the belief that the preservation of mortal remains was
important. The fact that the most minute facial details, including
hair and eye-lids, were frequently preserved may lie at the base of
the ancient belief that the likeness of the deceased was necessary
for eternal life.
Corpses were first wrapped in matting, skins, or strips of wo-
ven cloth. When it was observed that bodies in large tombs per-
ished more easily than those interred in pits - a few instances of
high-status, brick-lined graves at Naqada containing poorly-pre-
served human remains suggests that this type of enclosure was
considered ineffective - attempts were made to preserve the body
by artificial means. Natron (sodium carbonate) was applied to the
body. In Early Dynastic times, in an effort to main-tain the de-
ceased's likeness, the head and body were carefully molded over
Origin of Ancient Egyptian Religious Beliefs 33

the corpse in plaster, complete with painted facial details, geni-

talia, and breasts.
From the Third Dynasty, statues were fashioned after the like-
ness of the owner of a tomb and placed in a sealed-off chamber
known as the serdab. This statue served as a substitute should the
body be damaged beyond recognition and consequently fail to be
identified. It also served as repository for the immortal aspect
known as the ka.
It is not known exactly how the ancient Egyptians envisaged
the relationship between a person and their ka, or indeed how
early the concept of a spirit or guardian-double was formulated.
The symbol of the ka - two upraised arms - first appeared on
Predynastic standards painted on pottery. Mortuary texts, based
on early rituals and beliefs, indicate that at death the ka became a
separate entity. It played a role in the deceased's association with
the tomb, the "everlasting abode," and guided their fortunes in
the afterlife. A dead person was described as one who joined his
or her ka. "How beautiful it is in the company of my ka forever,"
chants a mortuary priest in the Old Kingdom, as revealed in the
Pyramid Texts. The priests were described as 'servants of the ka,'
and offerings to the ka became the subject of prayer in a complex
mortuary ritual. Beliefs in the sustenance of the ka were early de-
veloped and continued for thousands of years.
There was always the fear in Predynastic times that the shallow
graves might be desecrated and the bodies destroyed by desert an-
imals like the wolf and the jackal. Mounds built over the grave
may have been an attempt to keep these animals from digging up
the bodies. Also, in an early effort to assuage the hunger of these
creatures and prevent them from violating the tomb, food might
have been laid near the grave. As a result, an association between
wolves or jackals and burial grounds developed. Eventually a rit-
ual to propitiate these animals evolved into the belief that the wolf
(Wepwawet) and the jackal (Anubis) guarded the dead. Wep-
34 Beginnings

wawet is called the 'foremost of the westerners' in the earliest

mortuary texts and his name means 'opener of the ways (to the af-
terlife).' Anubis ultimately became associated with embalming.
Feasts of Anubis are mentioned as early as the First Dynasty.
It is clear that the ancient Egyptians had great respect for the
dead and the inhabitants of the afterlife. The number of elaborate
preparations provide ample proof of their deep interest in the fate
of the departed. No effort was spared to assist in the renewal of
life or to preserve the memory of the deceased through mortuary
gifts, prayers, and funerary rituals. Material equipment to serve
the dead throughout eternity eventually became, with the growth
of the state, an industry to which all classes of society were called
into requisition.

Sense of Cosmic Order

The long period of social and cultural development was well ad-
vanced before the political unification of Upper and Lower
Egypt. During that time many basic religious rituals were formu-
lated. The regularity of nature's forces provided the basis of the
ancient Egyptians' sense of order and balance. Like many other
early societies, their religious focus was on nature, which provid-
ed their means of existence. They were able to explain the origins
of life in relation to their environment. Their early observations
of nature and the solar forces were later incorporated into the
doctrine that formed the basis of the official religion (see chapter
iv). The lack of explanation of these observations strongly sug-
gests that certain concepts were already taken for granted. The
sight of the flood waters subsiding each year leaving mounds of
earth upon which plants grew undoubtedly triggered the idea that
in the beginning there was a watery waste (Nun), out of which the
first land appeared. On this primordial mound the intense rays of
Sense of Cosmic Order 35

the sun brought forth plant life. There were many explanations as
to how the sun moved across the heavens each day and presum-
ably through the underworld at night in order to rise in the east-
ern sky the following morning. The most widely held view in-
volved river transport: the orb that rose in the eastern sky - corre-
sponding with the east bank of the river - crossed the heavenly
river (the sky) by boat to set in the western sky - the west bank of
the river. Between Nut, the sky - traversed by the sun by day and
with glittering heavenly bodies by night-and Geb, the earth,
which annually gave forth vegetation, there were two other dis-
cernible phenomena, air (Shu) and moisture (Tefnut). If the an-
cient Egyptians harbored any concern about how the sky might
be held aloft it was presumed to be by four great pillars, the
mountains of the deserts to east and west, like the supporting pil-
lars of early shelters.
When a person died, they, like the setting sun, entered the after-
life beyond the horizon. And, like the sun, they would rise and
live again. The host of the dead were seen to take their place with
the circumpolar stars (the 'imperishable ones') in the northern
part of heaven. This was regarded as the place of the afterlife. A
First Dynasty tomb inscription records that there the deceased
person became an akh, a glorified spirit; the akhs were spirits
which, like the stars, "know no destruction."

Search for the Earliest Kings

With the advent of the First Dynasty, around 3000 BC, an aston-
ishing transformation took place: the unification of Upper and
Lower Egypt. It turned an individual from the most successful
among leaders into a ruler without peers, a divine king with ab-
solute power over a united country, the 'Two Lands.' The splen-
did civilization that was to peak in the Great Pyramid Age was
launched. The ancient Egyptians attributed unification of their
country to a single king, Menes, who is traditionally credited as
the first king and founder of the capital at Memphis. About twen-
ty-five kilometers south of present day Cairo, Memphis was
strategically situated at a point where the Nile Valley of Upper
Egypt widened into the vast Delta region of Lower Egypt. The
ancient Egyptians knew Memphis as the 'White Wall,' and de-
scribed it as 'the balance of the Two Lands.' It was their capital for
about one thousand years and remained an important religious
and commercial center throughout the three thousand years of
the country's ancient history. It was honored by most of the im-
portant kings throughout this time and was traditionally the place
where they were crowned.
Until just before the turn of the twentieth century all that was
known of Menes and the early kings was from vague accounts by
classical writers like Herodotus, Josephus, and Africanus, and
from king-lists drawn up by the Egyptians themselves at different
Search for the Earliest Kings 37

periods of their history. The king-lists were unreliable, often frag-

mentary and contradictory. The most complete was recorded by
Manetho, an Egyptian historian who lived in the reign of Ptole-
my II (28 5 - 47 BC). It was based on oral traditions and fragments
of earlier lists. He divided the history of Egypt into thirty dynas-
ties - from Menes until the Greek conquest - and these have been
grouped into three 'great periods': the Old, Middle and New
kingdoms. Manetho's account forms the basis of the chronology
we still use today.
Early Egyptologists sought evidence for the existence of Menes
and thought they had found an answer in 1898-99 when an ar-
chaeological team came upon a cache filled with votive objects of
historical importance at the Predynastic burial ground at Nekhen
(see chapter i). Among the objects were the ceremonial 'scorpion'
macehead and a shield-shaped slate palette - the Palette of Nar-
mer - now in The Egyptian Museum, Cairo. The latter caused
tremendous excitement. It was decorated with reliefs in registers
on both faces inscribed in the name of Narmer and was generally

palette of Narmer
38 Growth

regarded as a record of unification: the definitive victory of the

southern kingdom over the Delta. The king's name was clearly in-
scribed in the frame of a serekh - the distinctive 'palace-facade'
design of recesses and buttresses associated with the royal palace.
On one side of the palette the king wears the White Crown of
Upper Egypt and is shown with a raised club striking a kneeling
enemy. On the other side he wears the Red Crown of Lower
Egypt and, accompanied by standard bearers later called 'Follow-
ers of Horus,' inspects the bodies of decapitated enemies. In a
lower register, he is shown as a bull trampling an enemy. The bull
became linked with royal ideology in early times, as an animal
that inspired the greatest respect for its strength and virility.
The discovery of the palette identified Narmer as the first king
to wear the distinctive crowns of each of the Two Lands, but
whether he was the same person as the legendary Menes was not
clear. Subsequent evidence was confusing: on some of the jar seals
found in early dynastic graves at Abydos, Narmer's name was in-
scribed adjacent to hieroglyphic signs for mri, which was taken by
many scholars as proof that he was the legendary Menes. At
Naqada, however, some grave objects bore the single name
Narmer, while others showed Narmer and Aha alongside one an-
other. On an ivory tablet from Naqada and on jar seals found at
other burial grounds, Aha's name alone was inscribed. Which
king came first, Narmer or Aha? If Aha came first, should he then
be identified with Manetho's Menes? This issue remained a
thorny one among scholars for nearly a century and has only very
recently been put to rest. Archaeologists digging at Abydos have
found historical proof of the order of succession of the first two
dynasties: an impression on a clay seal names the earliest kings as
Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djet, Den, Enezib, Semerkhet, and Ka.
Throughout ancient Egyptian history, the drawing up of royal
genealogies was carried out with care. The idea was undoubtedly
to establish a decisive beginning to the unified state by giving
Divergence of Opinion 39

Narmer ultimate credit for both his own achievements and those
of his predecessors. The genealogies are also significant in their
demonstration of pious regard for royal ancestors. More than a
thousand years later, a scene in the Temple of Seti I at Abydos
shows the king and his son (later Ramses II) presenting offerings
to the names of the kings written in elliptical cartouches, connect-
ing the Nineteenth Dynasty royal house in continuous sequence
to the first dynastic kings.

Divergence of Opinion
Despite proof of the sequence of rule, there still remains consider-
able divergence of opinion on the Early Dynastic Period. New
discoveries and observations on the Egyptian civilization are
compelling scholars to modify their views time and again. Many
theories earlier regarded as plausible are proving to be unfound-
ed. New hypotheses on the vital early years of the civilization are
being made. Even the historical importance of the Palette of
Narmer has been challenged. Many scholars, unconvinced of its
message of unification, point out that archaeological techniques a
century ago were poor by today's standards and that the palette
was not accurately recorded in situ. In other words, they claim it
is not clear whether Narmer himself commemorated his own
conquest or whether the Palette was sculpted hundreds, maybe
thousands, of years after his death in commemoration of an his-
torical event.
Another question that remains unresolved is whether Narmer
was indeed the first king to unify the Two Lands or whether there
was an earlier union between Upper and Lower Egypt. When lit-
tle was known about the kings of the first two dynasties - and
even less about the Predynastic Period - what appeared as a sud-
den cultural advance at the beginning of the First Dynasty was
described by some scholars as the incursion of a new 'master race'
40 Growth

into Egypt. Supporters of this hypothesis pointed to carvings

such as the ceremonial slate palettes found at Abydos, the 'paint-
ed tomb' at Nekhen, and the appearance of people traditionally
known as the 'Followers of Horus' as evidence for their claim.
More recent scholars have refuted the master-race theory. They
argue that dynastic Egypt was as clearly a continuation of the Pre-
dynastic culture as the late Gerzean period was the culmination of
long cultural and social development. The question of a Predy-
nastic union nevertheless remains a hotly debated issue, especially
in view of an astounding discovery made recently at the already
heavily excavated site of Abydos. In a Predynastic cemetery evi-
dence has been found of the possibility that there may have been
as many as fifteen kings before Narmer.
Another important issue that has recently gained currency re-
lates to the origin of the concept of the 'Two Lands.' This term,
which was used by the ancient Egyptians to describe their own
country, is central to an understanding of its political and social
development. Before the end of the nineteenth century, our
knowledge of Egypt's history did not extend beyond the reign of
Senefru, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty (2575 BC), and Pre-
dynastic Egypt was only a shadowy outline. It was widely be-
lieved at this time that small, isolated, Predynastic communities in
both Upper and Lower Egypt gradually coalesced until two inde-
pendent kingdoms emerged and that the formation of these feder-
ations was a step toward unification.

Elevation of the
paneled brickwork
known as 'palace facade'
Early Records 41

Today scholars are revising their views. Nekhen, the capital of

an Upper Egyptian kingdom, and Pe, the capital of a Lower
Egyptian kingdom, are being presented as artificially created par-
allel institutions. That is to say, although evidence has come to
light of major settlements in both Upper and Lower Egypt, it is
suggested that the concept of Two Lands, rather than a single uni-
fied state, was promoted to bind together a country that did not
lend itself - physically or culturally - to unification. Valley and
Delta were linked only in their dependence on the Nile. This fact
appears to have been recognized by the early kings, who gave
each part of the country a distinctive name, thereafter treating
them as though they had once been independent kingdoms. The
concept was inviolable.
Throughout ancient history, there was never a king of Egypt,
nor a cabinet, nor a treasury. There was a 'King of Upper and
Lower Egypt,' a 'double cabinet,' a 'double treasury,' and even a
'double granary.' Each name was a powerful expression of na-
tional unity. The 'Great House' itself, the palace which formed
the seat of the government, had a double entrance representing
the two ancient kingdoms, and its hieroglyph was frequently fol-
lowed by the determinative signs of two houses. The one point on
which there is general consensus among scholars is that unifica-
tion was not the result of a single, victorious battle but an evolu-
tionary process that continued for two, or even three, generations
before a king could assume the titles 'King of Upper and Lower
Egypt,' and 'Lord of the Two Lands.'

Early Records
The invention of writing in Predynastic times was followed by its
rapid development in the Early Dynastic Period. Certain rules
were early established, especially in regard to royal epithets writ-
42 Growth

ten in sequence. The names of Aha, Djer, and Djet were inscribed
within a serekh surmounted by a hawk.
This 'Horus name' of the king became the first and most en-
during of the royal titulary. It was a graphic representation denot-
ing the king in his dwelling place, undoubtedly modeled on the
design used in First Dynasty palace architecture, which is first in
evidence on the partially-intact paneled wall of Aha at Nekhen.
On an ivory label belonging to Aha, his Horus name is shown
along with a nebty or 'two ladies' title. This second important part
of the titulary combined the cobra associated with Lower Egypt
and the vulture of Upper Egypt over two basket-like signs denot-
ing 'lord' (that is, lord over each part of the country). Other titles
were to follow.
Also dating to the reign of Aha is a record on an ivory label of
an historical event. In the middle register a ceremony is being per-
formed. Although the crucial center portion of the label is miss-
ing, two figures in the lower register can be seen performing some
function over an unidentified object. The ceremony is described
as "receiving the south and the north."

Royal Cenotaphs and Tombs

Until the 19305 the main sources of our knowledge of the earliest

'Horus name'
of King Aha
Royal Cenotaphs and Tombs 43

kings and the suggestion that they may have been regarded as di-
vine in the First and Second dynasties came from Abydos. In a
cemetery known as Umm al-Qaab the kings were buried in
tombs far grander than anything previously constructed. The su-
perstructures have entirely disappeared but excavations of the
tombs themselves show that they were large, shallow, rectangular
trenches hewn out of the bedrock and divided by a series of cross-
walls. These were brick-lined, frequently with a second lining of
wood. The king was buried in the central chamber. The other
chambers were store-rooms designed to contain provisions for
his afterlife. Pottery jars held oil, beer, grain, and other foodstuffs.
Grave goods included a variety of exquisitely fashioned furniture,
toiletries, and an unprecedented wealth of jewelry in gold and
choice foreign materials like lapis lazuli and obsidian. In neigh-
boring subsidiary pit graves, servants and retainers of the royal
household or artisans of various industries were buried. Studies
on the remains of these tombs show that their owners were all un-
der the age of twenty-five, suggesting that they were put to death
in order to serve the king in the afterlife. This practice did not sur-
vive past the early dynasties.
Like the Predynastic tombs at Nekhen, the royal structures at
Abydos stood apart - much larger and more impressive than the
surrounding tombs. They were expressions of power and pros-
perity; both burial places and symbols of leadership. Recent re-

Ivory label from

Naqada showing
events in Aha's reign
44 Growth

excavation of the monuments has revealed that they were built in

several stages rather than to a single plan. It would appear that in
these early years when unity was being consolidated the royal
tombs were progressively enlarged as the most evident signs of
the kingship ideal.
Between 1936 and 1956 the theories built up around the early
kings collapsed when another royal burial ground was discovered
at Saqqara in honor of the same kings who were buried at Aby-
dos. Scholars were nonplused. Where were the kings actually
buried? The tombs at Saqqara were generally larger than those at
Abydos and, moreover, were situated west (the direction associ-
ated with the dead) of the capital at Memphis, which argued in fa-
vor of the Saqqara tombs being the actual burial places and the
structures at Abydos being cenotaphs associated with the birth-
place of the kings.
Many scholars nevertheless clung to the idea that Abydos was
the burial ground and suggested that the massive tombs at
Saqqara belonged to officials who controlled the strategic fortifi-
cation on the border between the Two Lands. The controversy
has not yet been conclusively resolved. Recent excavations at
Abydos, however, have revealed evidence that is re-tilting the
scales in its favor: the tomb of Aha has proved to be a grand con-
struction, and successive burials show increasing elaboration in
design and inscribed objects. These link the royal tombs to the

Decoration on
macehead of Narmer
Unity Consolidated 45

nearby Predynastic burial ground, which perhaps belonged to the

immediate forerunners of the kings of the First Dynasty.
The earliest indication that the king was regarded as a god
comes from Abydos. Huge walled constructions - long referred
to as 'forts'-were built on the plain below the royal burial
ground. These have now been identified as mortuary temples
built to serve the royal cult and provide the massive storage space
necessary for its perpetuation. The enclosure of Khasekhemwy,
built at the end of the Second Dynasty, is the largest.

Unity Consolidated
Picking up the threads of the historical narrative, a ceremonial
macehead (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) dating to Narmer's
reign is another record of conquest. This time it shows the king
enthroned and wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt only.
The protective wings of a vulture hover above the covered niche
in which he sits. In front of him are standard-bearers, an unidenti-
fied seated figure on a palanquin, foreign bearded captives, a pre-
cise record in numerals and signs of 120,000 men, 400,000 oxen,
and 1,422,000 goats. Perhaps the seated figure is Neith-hotep, a
queen in whose impressive monuments at Helwan and Naqada
the names of both Narmer and Aha appear. She may have been

White crown,
red crown,
and double crown
46 Growth

the consort of Narmer and the mother of Aha, which would pro-
vide the earliest evidence of the rule for royal succession passing
to the son of the 'Great Royal Wife' (see chapter vi).
The most prosperous reign of the First Dynasty was that of
Den, the fifth king. It heralded a time of innovation, not only in
tomb construction but also in the enhancement of the kingship
ideal. He was the first king to wear the Double Crown which
combined the White Crown of Upper Egypt and the Red Crown
of Lower Egypt. Den also adopted a new royal title known as the
nesw-bit title, which, like the earlier nebty title, combined sym-
bols of Upper and Lower Egypt, this time in the form of the sedge
and the bee. None of these early titles was ever abandoned, not
even in later periods when others were added to the royal titulary.
The prominence given to their enumeration became a part of a
growing tradition.
Perhaps the most important record of Den's reign is an ebony
label that records the earliest Sed festival. It shows the king in the
upper right-hand register in two adjacent representations. In the
first, he is enthroned on a stepped platform facing a court. He
wears the White Crown and the close-fitting robe and emblems
that came to be associated with the legendary ancestor Osiris. In
the second he is shown wearing the Double Crown and a tunic,
striding between crescent-shaped objects or boundary markers.
A great deal has been written about the Heb Sed but no explana-

Nesw-bit title
Loyalty Won 47

tion of its purpose or origin has been fully accepted; nor has its
strange name - the 'tail-festival' - been explained. Most early rep-
resentations of the king depict him wearing the tail of an animal
attached to the back of his simple garment. Perhaps this tail be-
came a part of the recognized royal insignia during the earliest
Heb Sed and gave the festival its name. The various robes and em-
blems of office, including the artificial beard, combined to project
an image of power and authority. According to available evi-
dence, Den initiated the first national festival in which the king
appeared in a dramatized setting to perform rituals before people
from all parts the country. This suggests that it was in his reign
that unity was consolidated.

Loyalty Won
The method by which loyalty and allegiance were won is crucial
to an understanding of ancient Egyptian society. Even today,
lacking some sort of local administrative device no individual can
hold down large masses of people or elicit the loyalty of commu-
nities of which they are not a part. There must be some sort of
willing response. Most scholars attribute the king's success in an-
cient Egypt to his claim to divinity. But it is unrealistic to suppose
that any individual could engender the trust and confidence of
communities from Elephantine to the Mediterranean by simple

Ebony label of Den

showing (top right) the
Heb Sed ritual performed
between markers
48 Growth

pronouncement. Especially when, as we have seen, settled com-

munities had developed a strong sense of identity, internal soli-
darity, even a cooperative spirit in the pursuit of common goals
like agricultural control and the storage of grain. There was such a
high degree of self-sufficiency in some areas that leaders could
maintain a growing body of workers to build their tombs and ar-
tisans to produce grave goods. Even if allegiance were won by
armed conflict, this would not explain how loyalty was main-
Generations of scholars have addressed the meaning and func-
tion of divine kingship - its ideological base, complex organiza-
tion, and ceremonial ritual - in life and in death. But it is a ques-
tion of challenge and defeat to admit that we still do not have a
very clear picture of what actually happened that could so bolster
one man's authority that the Great House could turn to matters
of culture: art, architecture, literature, and religion throughout
Upper and Lower Egypt. And more, that the pattern set would
continue for thousands of years. Fortunately, three literary
sources, considered as a unit, suggest the method by which con-
trol was established and maintained. The first is a secular text, the
Palermo Stone, the second is a collection of mortuary literature
known as the Pyramid Texts, and the third is the so-called Mem-
phite Drama, written in mythological language. Despite their
widely divergent subjects, they all support the hypothesis that
unity between Upper and Lower Egypt was consolidated
through the artificial creation of local cults which neutralized the
differences between widely-dispersed communities and provided
an ideological base for ceremonial ritual and leadership.

Cult Centers
The Palermo Stone, named after the city where the largest of sev-
eral surviving fragments is housed, provides clear evidence of the
Cult Centers 49

creation of cults. Twenty-one of the thirty-odd entries relate to

the fashioning of images. A large part of the original slab is miss-
ing but the stone lists the names of the earliest kings from the
reign of Djer, the third king of the First Dynasty, and records such
noteworthy information as the biennial cattle count and the
height of the inundation. It reveals that the kings traveled widely
and with some regularity in the Early Dynastic Period to lay the
foundations of buildings that were called 'throne-of-the-gods';
among the activities regarded as sufficiently important to serve as
reference points were ones expressed in such specific terms as 'the
birth of Anubis,' 'the birth of Min,' and other gods. Some kings
explicitly note that the deities came into being simultaneously
with their visit, as in the case of the gods Sheshat and Mefdet in
the reign of Den. Sheshat, whose symbol was a star on a pole sur-
mounted by inverted horns, was associated with an activity
known as 'stretching the cord' - probably measuring out areas
for sacred buildings. Numerous other 'births' are mentioned on
the Palermo Stone, including those of Wadjet the cobra-goddess
of the Delta settlement of Pe, Nekhbet the vulture-goddess of
Nekheb in Upper Egypt, Neith of Sais, Ptah of Memphis, Har-
ishaf the ram, Hathor the cow, Matit the lioness of Thinis (north
of Abydos), Min of Coptos (opposite ancient Naqada), and Thoth.
The Pyramid Texts - inscribed on walls of pyramids of the
kings who ruled toward the end of the Old Kingdom - under-
score the creation of cults in mortuary literature. Although this
compilation of prayers and rituals concerns the welfare of the
king in the afterlife, some of the dialogues, especially those ad-
dressed to the gods in heaven, have strong political overtones that
reflect an earthly experience.

I am Horns...
It is I who restored you... who should be restored.
It is I who set you in order... you settlements of mine.
5° Growth

/ built you... you city of mine...

(And) you shall do for me every good which I (desire).
You shall act on my behalf wherever I go.

The Memphite Drama is also explicit on the creation of cults. This

remarkable text, which most scholars ascribe to the Sixth Dy-
nasty, has survived in a late copy. It is in the form of a drama, with
the dialogues recited in mythological language. Ptah of Memphis
is presented as a creator-god who declares that he

... gave birth to the gods,

He made the towns,
He established the provinces,
He placed the gods in their shrines,
He settled their offerings,
He established their shrines,
He made their bodies according to their wishes,
Thus the gods entered into their bodies
Of every wood, every stone, every clay,
Everything that grows upon him,
In which they came to be.
They were gathered to him, all the gods with their kas,
Content, United with the Lord of the Two Lands.

Wooden label from

Abydos suggesting form
of cult center of Neith
Cult Centers 51

The text suggests that shrines were built and cult statues made
out of various local materials. Most were probably small at first,
each given a definitive form based on either the Predynastic em-
blem of the settlement or a plant, bird, or animal indigenous to the
area. By an act of magic (an important facet of early society), the sta-
tues were then animated; each was provided with a ka (immortal
spirit) which set it apart from the work of human hands. This may
have been achieved in a ritual similar to that performed on a corpse
to imbue it with eternal life by touching the mouth with an adze.
Labels of wood and ivory attached to objects and stores placed
in tombs further support the artificial creation of cults. All the la-
bels bear texts relative to the commodity to which they were at-
tached, but frequently some of the larger labels record events in
the king's reign. Although these texts cannot be deciphered with
certainty, it is possible to glean their meaning. Two identical labels
found at Abydos, which date to the reign of Aha, give an idea of
the appearance of an early cult center. In the top register, the Ho-
rus name of the king can be seen to the right. There is a boat and a
structure of reeds, branches, and beams topped with an ensign of
two crossed arrows on an animal skin identified with Neith. In
the second register, a figure holds a vessel marked "electrum" (a
gold and silver alloy), which is offered "four times," thus con-
firming the Memphite Drama text concerning offerings. To the

First Dynasty
representations of
shrines show them
as lattice-work structures
52 Growth

right is a bull in an enclosure and a structure similar to that of

Neith, this time surmounted by a bird. The shrines depicted on
these labels, and similar light structures for Anubis and Harishaf
depicted on other labels dating to the reign of Den, suggest that
they were made of uncovered lattice-work, perhaps on a carrying
frame and thus portable. Recent excavations of early temple foun-
dation deposits at Abydos have revealed examples of the so-called
'tent-shrines' made of faience and limestone. These, like the
shrines depicted on the labels, provide a prototype for later archi-
The Abydos labels show that statues were placed in front of
shrines in a courtyard surrounded by a fence. The shrine of Neith
has two flagstaffs to the left of the courtyard which are similar to
those depicted on pottery of the Gerzean period: stylized stream-
ers that later symbolized neter, the Egyptian word for 'god' or
'divine.' Shrines were referred to as 'god's houses' and the earliest
word for a settlement was 'seat' or 'abode' (of a god).
A wooden label dating to the reign of Djer, Aha's successor, re-
veals an activity that may also be related to the cults. In the top
register two large figures are shown being carried toward the
serekh of the king. They may be statues being presented for a roy-
al blessing. The fact that they are larger than life is not surprising:
parts of three colossal Predynastic limestone statues of the ithy-
phallic god Min of Coptos (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) show
that statues more than double life-size were fashioned.

Artificial Development of Cult Centers

Archaeological evidence supports the idea of uniform cult center
development. Recent excavation of some of the earliest settlement
sites has revealed certain elements which point to artificial devel-
opment. All sacred enclosures, for example, were kept apart from
Artificial Development of Cult Centers 53

the eyes of the public, surrounded by a wall. At Nekhen, al-

though later temple-remains largely obliterated the earliest struc-
ture, the 'main deposit' (where the macehead of Scorpion and the
Palette of Narmer were found) lay beneath a mud-brick shrine
built on the site, which was constructed on a mound of desert
sand protected by a rounded wall of sandstone blocks. At Ele-
phantine, among the granite boulders at the southern tip of the is-
land, a tiny shrine - which was much later developed into the
now-restored temple of Satis - featured a surrounding wall. And
at Abydos an early dynastic structure composed of a complex of
small brick buildings dedicated to Khenti-Amentiu (the jackal)
stood in the corner of a heavily walled enclosure.
Another feature common to the earliest known cult centers are
hundreds of votive offerings. Belief in a power within a statue at
the theoretical level gives rise to a need to secure prosperity, fertil-
ity, and the like by propitiating or pleasing it at the practical level.
Some of the baked clay objects placed at cult centers were so
crude as to suggest they were made by local artisans for simple
people who wished to make offerings. At Elephantine, the clay
offerings included animals, human figurines (both male and fe-
male, adult and child), and model pots. At Abydos there was a
similar scattering of votive objects. Although no early architec-
ture has been encountered at Coptos, the range of votive objects

Wooden label of
Djer from Saqqara
showing ritual
before the king
54 Growth

found beneath the site - including tiny statues of scorpions, frogs,

birds, crocodiles, and animals - again suggests an early shrine like
those of Nekhen, Elephantine, and Abydos. Uniformity can be
found too in the images of the gods, in the sense that, along with
their hieroglyphic determinatives, they remained archetypes to
which future generations had recourse, and no one was more im-
portant than the others. The gods remained vague characters, later
described in such terms as 'he of Ombos' (Set), 'he of Edfu' (Ho-
rus), 'she of Sais' (Neith), and 'he of Qift' (Coptos). Prayers and
hymns addressed to them differed only in epithets and attributes.
It was clearly the place, not the god, that mattered.
It also seems certain that some cult centers owed their rapid
and continued growth to geopolitical factors. The ancient Egyp-
tians developed twin cities: one on the site of an ancient settle-
ment and the other more strategically situated to exploit mineral
deposits and trade routes. The cult center of the vulture-goddess
Nekhbet, for example, was not at the ancient settlement site of
Nekhen on the west bank of the Nile but on the east bank at
Nekheb (modern al-Kab), which gave access to the mineral-rich
Eastern Desert with its deposits of copper, agate, and jasper. Pe
(Buto) and Dep (modern Fara'un) were twin cities on a major
tributary in the Delta; the latter was a convenient departure point
for trade. Naqada (Ombos) was the site of a Predynastic commu-
nity in the Western Desert, while Coptos (Qift), almost opposite,
lay at the mouth of Wadi Hammamat, the shortest route to the
Red Sea and the gold-bearing veins of the Eastern Desert. There
was no twin city on Egypt's southern border, where Khnum of
Elephantine guarded the Cataract Region, Egypt's main source of
granite, with access to the oases of the Western Desert as well as to
copper, feldspar, and gold further south in the Eastern Desert.
The material achievements of the unified state depended on the
resources of the land, and there is every indication that its admin-
istration was early mapped out.
The pyramids of Giza from
the village of Nazlet al-Simman.
(Michael Jones)
The Great Pyramid with the boat
museum in the foreground. (Michael Stock)
The modern village of Mit Rahina and
its distinctive palm groves rise above the
ruins of ancient Memphis. (Robert Scott)
Khufu's funerary boat is made of
cedar. A second boat awaits excavation.
(Robert Scott)
Young farmhands milking a cow.
Tomb of Ti. (Robert Scott)

(Elderly men transport papyrus plants.

Tomb of Nefer. (Robert Scott)
A farmhand carries a basket of ducklings.
Tomb of Kagemni. (Robert Scott)
A farmhand attends his flocks. Tomb
of Nefer. (Robert Scott)

Dancers going through their

paces with clappers beating time.
Tomb of Mehu. (Robert Scott)
Fishermen in papyrus skiffs.
Tomb of Kagemni. (Robert Scott)

Offering-bearers in a newly-discovered
Sixth Dynasty tomb at Saqqara. (Robert Scott)
Local Prestige 55

Keepers of the Cult Statue

Once a shrine was built and the statue imbued with 'power,' indi-
viduals were appointed to take care of it. They were not priests as
we use the term today, their role at first being no more than acting
as 'servants of god' to take care of the shrine and the cult statue. At
the popular level, the ancient Egyptians probably came to believe
that the statue in the shrine held the key to a good crop, health,
and fertility. They made pious gestures not much different from
today's offerings and prayers to the shrines of Christian saints and
Muslim sheikhs. In fact, it is not unreasonable to suggest that to-
day's mulids (religious holidays), when people set up camp
around sacred shrines and leave simple offerings - sometimes no
more than a piece of cloth or bunch of flowers - as gestures of
their devotion, represent a time-honored practice. At the official
level, royal endowments were substantial when the king attended
the 'birth' days of the gods. They came in the form of bread and
cakes, oxen and other cattle, geese and other birds, jars of beer and
wine. The annual celebrations involved the slaughter of sacrificial
animals in the name of the king. These offerings, having once lain
on the altar of the shrine and fulfilled their religious function,
were used for the maintenance of the servants of god. The balance
was distributed to the people, the laity.

Local Prestige
The creation of cult centers not only neutralized the differences
between the various settlements but created a strong bond be-
tween people of all walks of society. Under the guidance of the
Great House their religious observance soon became a conven-
tion. Political vision is evident from the beginning of the historical
period; there remained managerial skills to see it brought to
56 The Beginnings

fruition, and here the local elite came into play. It was they who
mobilized people to construct shrines to house sacred statues and
paid them in kind with lavish gifts like electrum, perhaps linen,
and land, in order to provide them with the means to cater for the
splendor that must inevitably have surrounded royal visits. The
prestige of the elite, thus enhanced, created an atmosphere in
which it was no difficult task to draw on them to carry out the
census of land and livestock on behalf of the king, or later to re-
cruit labor for mining and trading expeditions. They had power,
however, only by virtue of the king; the land earmarked for their
use belonged not to them as individuals but to the local cult.
The significance of the title Followers of Horus (literally 'the
gods who follow Horus,' that is, the king) has long been debated
among scholars. In the late nineteenth century, some Egyptolo-
gists concluded that the dynastic kings were the successors of an
early Predynastic union of the Two Lands, which was triggered
from Lower Egypt. Others observed the great strides made in art
and architecture at the start of the First Dynasty and presented
the master-race theory. Now, however, it seems the Followers of
Horus may simply have been the king's appointed officials who
acted on his behalf. The earliest mention of them by name can be
traced back to the reign of Den. One, Hemaka, bore the title 'seal-
bearer of the King of Lower Egypt,' suggesting that he had au-
thority to act on his king's behalf.

Threat of the Use of Force

The concept that the gods and the king had mutual claims on one
another was strong, but there was always the risk of resistance.
When this happened, coercion was used. The king threatened to
deny the performance of the cult. The Pyramid Texts (many of
which date to Predynastic times, especially those that include
Threat of the Use of Force 57

phrases referring to a time when the dead were laid to rest in sim-
ple sand pits and when desert animals were prone to desecrate
bodies) include utterances in which the king addresses the gods in
heaven as he may have addressed the cult centers: "that he may
destroy (their) power and confer (their) powers." "Worship him,"
he declared. "Whom he wishes to live will live; whom he wishes
to die will die." And he goes on: "This king comes indeed; he
takes away powers and bestows power; there are none who shall
The effect of such a threat on a community of landed leaders
and servants of god can well be imagined. It meant more than loss
of identity: it amounted to a threat of annihilation. In such event,
the sacred name and divine attributes of the local god could be ab-
sorbed by a neighboring god (as not infrequently happened-
Wast, for example, the goddess of Waset south of Thebes, was ab-
sorbed by Montu the hawk-god of neighboring Armant), but the
leader would lose his prestige and the servants of god their posi-
Little wonder that the Pyramid Texts abound with proclama-
tions of loyalty: "O King, may you stand among the gods and
among the spirits, for it is fear of you which is on their hearts. O
King, succeed to your throne at the head of the living, for it is
dread of you which is in their hearts." To fear god and honor the
king were one and the same act.
According to Herodotus, a tradition survived that Khufu
closed temples in the land, and the Westcar Papyrus (a later docu-
ment that related events in the Old Kingdom) refers to his closing
down at least one temple. There is therefore every indication that
the divine king shared a common feature with the leaders of most
early societies: he was a warlord. Among his remembered desig-
nations from early times were "Horus fights," "Horus seizes,"
and "Horus decapitates." In the lower register of the ceremonial
Palette of Narmer the king is shown as a bull trampling a fallen
58 Growth

enemy; on an ivory label found at Abydos dating to the reign of

Den he is shown in a pose that was to become classic: smiting an
enemy with a raised club. Although the accompanying caption
reads "first time of smiting the east" and is generally taken to refer
to evidence of foreign conquest, the fact that the enemy is shown
in pharaonic dress suggests it might refer to border conflict. In
any event, it became the symbolic portrayal of punishment in-
flicted on any who committed an offense to a king or cult.
"My name is there in the horizon, the holy images fear me," ut-
ters the king in the Pyramid Texts, and confirmation that this was
no idle warning survives in oral traditions: as we have noted, the
story of the closing down of at least one temple survived to the
time of Herodotus in the fifth century BC. The Palermo Stone
records the destruction of an unidentified locality called Werka in
the reign of Den; and several places like Shemra and Ha, men-
tioned in the early documents, never reappear. Gradually there
emerged some twenty cult centers in Upper Egypt and perhaps
sixteen in Lower Egypt, according to Old Kingdom documents.
There was no local administration apart from the activities that
centered around the shrines, which remained small until a later
period. In fact, temples constructed around or above the original
sanctuaries were never completed. They were always under con-
struction - continually tended, enlarged, and altered - to enhance
the aura of successive kings. Nor were any sacred objects ever de-
stroyed. If no longer needed, they were buried in the consecrated

Provincial Celebrations
People all over the land were drawn together into public life
through frequent royal journeys to participate in provincial cele-
brations. The anniversary of the 'birth' day of a local god was one
in which public life reached a peak of intensity. Surrounded by an
Provincial Celebrations 59

enclosure wall, the sacred shrine of the deity was accessible only
to the servants of god for most of the year. On this one occasion,
however, the shrine was brought out of seclusion. A sense of awe
undoubtedly surrounded it when it appeared to the populace,
carried in procession. In ancient times, as today, neighboring cult
centers probably took part in each other's festivals, not as active
participants, but as willing sightseers. When the villagers saw the
royal barges carrying his majesty or his representative to officiate
at the celebration, it was a confirmation of order, a repeat perfor-
mance. In texts of all periods, the verb 'to appear' was used equal-
ly to refer to sunrise, creation, kingly rule, and the appearance of
gods on their 'birth' days.
There was no aspect of life in ancient Egypt that was not tied, in
one way or another, to belief in appearance (birth) and reappear-
ance (rebirth). Such ceremonial invention created homogeneous
belief in the power of the king over the 'powers' (the gods) and
over the Nile flood. Through the creation of cults the Great
House managed to establish a measure of cohesion such that a na-
tional festival, the Heb Sed, could be held at which all provincial
leaders were called upon - indeed they felt it an honor - to attend.
Moreover, when large numbers of men were required by the
Great House for expeditions or building construction they could
be recruited in the name of the king from the cult centers he had
built. In return for missions successfully accomplished the king

Ivory label showing

Den striking a dweller
of the Eastern Desert
6o Growth

gave thanks and made sacrificial offerings at the shrine of the local
god. He further expressed his gratitude to the leaders by reward-
ing them with land grants to help maintain the cults on which
their success, and hence their prestige, depended. It was a symbi-
otic relationship between the king and local god, state and temple

Creating a Tradition
The effort that went into promoting nationalism by creating a
common culture was largely successful. After one short setback
toward the end of the First Dynasty, described by Manetho as a
time of "very great calamities," there was a change of dynasty, and
stability was reestablished. This lasted until the reign of Per-ibsen,
the sixth king of the Second Dynasty, when he broke with tradi-
tion by abandoning the royal Horus title and adopting a Set title.
In other words, he exceptionally surmounted his serekh with the
Set animal instead of the hawk of Horus. The reason for such a
revolutionary act is not clear; evidence is lacking because the
tombs of the first three kings of the Second Dynasty have never
been found. Perhaps the leaders of the two Upper Egyptian cult
centers, Nekhen where Horus was chief deity and Naqada associ-
ated with Set, were engaged in a power conflict. Be that as it may,
the adoption of a Horus-and-Set title by Per-Ibsen's successor,

Inscription on
stone vase of
Creating a Tradition 61

Khasekhem - whose name is also written in dual form as

Khasekhemwy - indicates that differences were reconciled.
Thereafter, Khasekhemwy adopted another epithet, "the Two
Lands are at peace with him" (found on a clay seal), which sug-
gests that his adoption of the dual form of his name may have
been a mark of his satisfactory resolution of the conflict between
Upper and Lower Egypt. Two of his statues, a stela, and three
stone vessels indicate he resorted to warfare. On the base of one
seated statue, figures are shown in the contortions of death, and
the text records "northern enemies." Two identically inscribed
vases also refer to northern enemies, this time "within the center
of Nekheb." The goddess Nekhbet in vulture form is shown
standing on a circle in which the word 'rebel' is inscribed. In her
claw she holds the emblem of unity before the serekh of the king,
shown as Horus wearing the White Crown. After the reign of
Khasekhemwy the Horus title was readopted, and it remained
standard throughout ancient history.
The whole episode involving Horus and Set was important
enough to become a part of the country's mythological tradition;
the two gods appear as antagonists reconciled. Epic battles are the
stuff of oral tradition, and the confrontations between Horus and
Set were eagerly transmitted because of their dramatic content.
They fought terrible battles in countless myths, from which Ho-
rus always emerged victorious. Variations came with the passage

Horus name of Sekhemib,

Set name of Peribsen,
and Horus and Set name
of Khasekhemwy
62 Growth

of time, until the popular myth came to penetrate many spheres

unrelated to society. The sun hidden by clouds symbolized the
loss of the eye of Horus at the hands of his enemy, Set; the moon
was described as one of the two eyes of the heavenly hawk, in-
jured at its waning and gradually restored; in due time every of-
fering at a shrine or to a deity was a sacrifice known as the eye of
Horus. But most important was the association of the eye with
kingship: the uraeus on the royal crown was specifically referred
to as the eye of Re, signifying the power of the king. It became a
symbol of luck associated with ideas that lay at the very heart of
the Egyptian culture.

Unified Artistic Expression

Having consolidated unity, Khasekhemwy organized a Sed festi-
val like that recorded in the reign of Den. To celebrate the occa-
sion he commissioned a royal statue, which is important because
it represents the massive and distinctive character of the mono-
lithic statuary being developed at that time in royal workshops. A
style in art developed early and soon became another concrete ex-
pression of national unity.
From the First Dynasty, when Memphis became capital and
monumental tombs were built on the necropolis of Saqqara, there

Second Dynasty
funerary stela
from Saqqara
Unified Artistic Expression 63

had grown a demand for luxury goods. Stone and other raw mate-
rials for their production were easily transported by river, and
work was provided for an ever increasing number of artists and
artisans. Striving to please a rich and powerful elite who valued
fine work, the artisans perfected their skills. A finely carved fu-
nerary stela from Saqqara shows the owner seated on a chair in
front of a funerary meal of bread and beer, meat, poultry, and jars
of wine. Scenes such as these became part of the artistic tradition.
It seems likely that the canon of proportion and conventional
ways in which the human body was represented were laid down
at Memphis. Its 'chief craftsman' was attached to the shrine of the
local god Ptah, who was early seen as the inspiration behind
builder, carpenter, potter, and artist alike. Unfortunately, little
sculpture has survived from the first two dynasties, but fragments
of life-size or near life-size wooden statues that can be dated to
Djer, Den, and Ka reveal that certain poses early became tradi-
tional. Two fragments of feet, ankles, and calves in the mortuary
structures at Saqqara in particular show that statues were pro-
duced from an early stage in the posture with the left foot ad-
vanced - the conventional pose of most male statues. And two
statues of Khasekhemwy found at Nekhen are the earliest ex-

Limestone statue
of Khasekhemwy
64 Growth

amples of the king seated with one hand on his knee, the other
crossed over the chest. He wears the White Crown and is robed
in the cloak generally associated with the Sed festival.

Anthropomorphic Gods
Stylized art can also be seen in the earliest anthropomorphic fig-
ures. These composite representations that combine the human
body and an animal head first appeared on cylinder seals and ob-
jects of the Early Dynastic Period.
From their uniformity, they would appear to have been an arti-
stic device to identify the local god with an idealized figure of the
king. Each is shown as an animal or bird head, in side view and of-
ten with some sort of headgear, mounted on a human figure in the
one-foot-forward stance (for male figures) and carrying a staff.
The bottom row of one ivory label found at Nekhen depicts an-
thropomorphic gods all carrying before them the ankh - the sym-
bol of life. Such uniformity strongly suggests a single guideline.

Zoser's Step Pyramid

The Third Dynasty (2686-2575 BC) marks the culmination of a

Anthropomorphic gods
on Early Dynastic objects
Zoser's Step Pyramid 65

long period of vision and invention. Zoser's step pyramid at

Saqqara, together with other buildings within the complex, sum-
marizes the immense achievements of the first two dynasties. It is
a remarkable monument, a stage set for the king to reenact in the
afterlife his experience on earth. It represents the increasing pros-
perity and confidence of the nation, its political unity, and organi-
zation such that the Great House was able to quarry, transport,
and construct such a monument. It is the earliest surviving struc-
ture to be built entirely of stone.
Zoser's builder, Imhotep, had no stone architectural tradition
from which to draw, so he turned to contemporary structures for
inspiration. In this lies the importance of his building works at
Saqqara. He faithfully imitated the brick, wood, and reed struc-
tures of the state capital that have all since perished. He tran-
scribed matting, papyrus, and palm-stalk fences into heavy ma-
sonry and, notwithstanding the many innovations such as but-
tressed walls, he staunchly followed earlier traditions. He adopt-
ed many features of Khasekhemwy's enclosure at Abydos, in-
cluding the positions of the entrances to the vast complex (544 by
277 meters) and a square mound of sand clad in brick that became
the first stage of Zoser's pyramid. The enclosure wall, moreover,
was built in the same recessed paneling as earlier royal monu-
ments. The facades of the shrines in the Heb Sed court are remi-
niscent of their organic prototypes: some are constructed as bun-

Engaged columns
in Step Pyramid
complex at Saqqara
66 Growth

dies of reeds or papyrus with heads fanning out to form capitals;

others are carved to represent animal skins bound over the fan-
ning heads of reed columns to prevent them from weakening in
the wind. Whether tent-like structures with convex roofs, tall
huts of matting with corners reinforced by bundles of reeds tied
together to form a cornice, even pendant leaf capitals and reed
fences - all were simulated in stone. In transforming buildings
constructed of perishable building materials into a durable medi-
um for the king's afterlife, Zoser's funerary complex mirrors the
capital. It casts considerable light on the rituals involved in the
Sed festival and the cult of royal ancestors.
The main feature of the complex is the Step Pyramid itself, ris-
ing in six unequal tiers over a myriad of corridors and storage
chambers below ground. It stands near the center of a huge, fif-

Entrance Heb Sed Court Southern Northern

Colonnade Building Building

Ground plan of Step Pyramid complex

Zoser's Step Pyramid 67

teen-thousand-square-meter court. It was the dramatic setting for

the king, Lord of the Two Lands, to display his person before rep-
resentatives from Upper and Lower Egypt.
At one end of the complex, near the southern face of the pyra-
mid, a large elevated platform may once have held a double dais -
like that depicted on the label of Den (chapter i) - where the king
sat on a throne on a stepped platform facing the court. Nearer the
center of the court, two B-shaped constructions, somewhat like
joined horseshoes and known as half-moon markers, symbolized
the boundary markers between which he strode in his Heb Sed
Six carved limestone panels - actually false doorways - found
in the corridors beneath the Step Pyramid itself and under the so-
called 'south tomb' in the southwest corner of the Great Court,
depict Zoser either standing or striding in different ritual cloth-
ing. Like Narmer (see chapter i) he wears the White Crown, the
royal beard, a thigh-length garment with a strap over the left
shoulder, and a bull's tail attached to the back of his tunic. In three
of the panels he strides between crescent-shaped markers like
those earlier depicted on Den's label. In front of him is a standard
of the wolf-god Wepwawet - associated with Abydos, the birth
place of the early kings - and above his head hovers the vulture,
associated with Nekhen, a site also associated with early leader-
ship. Recent studies have revealed that all the subterranean panels
are aligned with the dummy gateway on the southern wall of the
complex, which makes it appear that Zoser was not only striding
between the symbolic boundaries in the Great Court but out of
the complex completely, probably to 'circuit the walls' in one of
the oldest ceremonies dating from the First Dynasty.
To the east of the Great Court is a building popularly known as
the T-temple, thought to represent the palace where the king took
up residence. It served as a robing chamber where he could don
the appropriate apparel for his dual role as King of Upper and

Lower Egypt and receive the emblems and scepters of power. The
Pyramid Texts abound with such utterances as: "O King, fill your
hand with the Ars-scepter that it may equip you as a god"; "O
King, take your bright tunic, take your cloak upon you, be clad
with the Eye of Horus"; and "O King, I bring you the Eye of Ho-
rus ... put his Eye on your brow in its name Great-of-Magic ...
appear as King of Upper and Lower Egypt."
The Heb Sed court, to the east of the Great Court, had shrines
that may have accommodated cult statues brought by the differ-
ent delegations on portable shrines. The festival was an opportu-
nity for the delegations to travel to the capital and pledge their
loyalty to the king. In return, they received gifts. The Pyramid
Texts contain many references to "a boon which the king gives"
and the few early texts that have survived show that this some-
times came in the form of precious minerals, linen, foodstuffs, and
livestock. Alternatively, and in view of the kingship ideology,
statues of the king may have been installed inside the doorways
and niches of the shrines on both sides of the Heb Sed court. Oth-
er structures in the complex also reflect the dual nature of king-
ship: two subterranean tomb chambers (one regarded as the actu-
al tomb, the other - the 'south tomb' - variously interpreted as a
burial place for his canopic jars or for his ^-statue, or as repre-
senting his cenotaph in Upper Egypt, the birth-place of the
kings); and parallel shrines known as the 'house of the North' and

One of the reliefs

of Zoser striding
between markers
Preparing for a National Festival 69

the 'house of the South,' situated to the north of the Heb Sed
court (these may be symbolic reconstructions of the shrines of the
royal ancestors in Upper and Lower Egypt, textually referred to
as the 'souls of Nekhen' and the 'souls of Pe'). There is no doubt
that Zoser revered his royal ancestors. In a cache in the subter-
ranean corridors of his pyramid, stone vessels included the names
of virtually all of them. They may have been collected during the
last stages of construction of his tomb from destroyed funerary
estates all over the country.
The Sed festival provided an opportunity for the various cult
centers to see how many of them were united in recognition of the
king, not as a recently crowned monarch or celebrating his jubilee
as in later tradition, but as a divine leader to whom they owed al-
legiance. Although interpretation of the hieroglyphs on Zoser's
panels is not certain, some may read "creation" or "dedication."
Participation at the Sed festival clearly marked the cult centers as
the common property of the Great House.

Preparing for a National Festival

Because of the paucity of written material one can only speculate
on the activities that went into preparing for such a festival. Yet it
is important to do so because the care and attention expended on
festivals is vital to our understanding of political and social life in
ancient Egypt. Perhaps by observing the present we can more
clearly understand the past: national and religious festivals in
Egypt today suggest that river craft were built or assembled at the
various cult centers to carry the delegations to the capital. Deci-
sions had to be made on the livestock and other gifts to be trans-
ported for presentation. Choosing the size of a delegation proba-
bly presented no great difficulty since the larger the entourage of a
local dignitary, the more enhanced his image would be. He was
/o Growth

undoubtedly seen off by a large assembly of people and, because

all cult centers were within easy reach of the river, the flotilla grew
as it sailed toward the port of Memphis. Both northbound and
southbound vessels converged at the apex of the Delta.
At Memphis, there would have been a reception committee
along with hordes of sightseers from outlying towns and villages.
The dignitaries and the bearers of the sacred statues would have
been accompanied from the port to the Great House, where they
entered through the largest bastion of the enclosure wall to the
east, as suggested by Zoser's funerary complex. The various dum-
my doors in the surrounding wall - three each to the north and
south, four to the west, and five to the east - perhaps served spe-
cific functions but their significance has been lost. The sacred stat-
ues would have been placed in their respective shrines and prepa-
rations made for the upcoming celebration. When the delegations
returned home, their leaders personally enriched and the image of
their cults enhanced, the local population could look on them
with increased awe. Participation in the festival cemented the link
between the king and the leaders of the cult centers. Through
them, the Great House was able to monopolize trade and issue
royal decrees to announce when men were required to serve a na-
tional cause: if an army was needed to settle disputes with
Bedouins hindering the free movement of trade; when a large
mining expedition was planned for supplies of copper or gold; or
when a corvee had to be organized to build mighty monuments in
the name of the king - the loyalty of these local dignitaries was as-
sured. They were ready to serve their king and country. Each of
Zoser's successors was able to marshal a vast portion of the coun-
try's workforce to construct the most magnificent monuments
the world has ever known.

The Great Pyramid Age

On the limestone plateau to the north of the ancient capital of
Memphis are the three pyramids of Giza. They were built in the
Fourth Dynasty (2575-2465 BC) and are among of the most fa-
mous monuments in the world. Now mostly denuded of their
outer facing of fine-quality limestone, they once rose in pure geo-
metric simplicity, nowhere betraying an entrance. The earliest and
largest of the group belongs to Khufu. Known as the Great Pyra-
mid, it is the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient
world. The second pyramid, constructed by his successor Khafre,
is only slightly smaller, while the third, that of Menkaure, is less
than half the height of the other two.
The enormous strides made in the mastery of stone can be
charted in stages from the time of Zoser, when stone for his Step
Pyramid complex (i) was cut into easily handled blocks, to Khu-
fu's Great Pyramid, when the mass and durability of the new
medium was handled for its distinctive qualities. Evidence from
the very ruined layer pyramid of Khaba at Zawiyet al-Aryan (2), a
stepped structure south of Giza with subterranean chambers,
shows that the pattern of tomb construction established in the
dynasty of Zoser was at first continued. A change came with the
pyramid of Meidum (3), which has been attributed to the Third
Dynasty king Huni. Although this was also initially conceived as
a step pyramid, it was later enlarged by Senefru, who also filled in
the steps and turned it into the first 'true pyramid.' Senefru's own
72 Control

Pyramid of Abu Rawash

Mokattam Hills
of Giza

Pyramid of
Zawiyet al-Aryan

Pyramid of
Pyramids of Abu Sir

Necropolis / ,'-,
and Pyramids Mit Rahina

of Dahshur

The Giza
necropolis Meidum »
The Great Pyramid Age 73

ind west


(I) (4)


(3) (6)
74 Control

mortuary structures, the 'bent' (4) and 'northern' (5) pyramids at

Dahshur, reveal more confidence in the handling of large blocks
of limestone, as well as the ability to assemble an ever-increasing
labor force. The stones in the lower courses of the bent pyramid
incline inward and downward for stability while the higher
courses were laid horizontally, a technique that was continued in
the northern pyramid. These innovations show the striving for an
architectural ideal, which was finally achieved with the perfect
symmetry of the pyramid of Khufu on the Giza plateau (6).
The pyramids of Dahshur and Giza conform to what became
the established plan of pyramid complexes in the Fourth Dy-
nasty: the flat-faced pyramid itself (the tomb), its mortuary tem-
ple, and a causeway linking it to a valley temple. Each complex in-
cluded queens' pyramids and at least one subsidiary 'satellite'
pyramid with its own entrance and tomb chamber but with nei-
ther sarcophagus nor mortuary objects.
Pyramid-building represented the largest ongoing industry.
The enormous investments in time, labor, artisanal skills, and ma-
terials in each huge structure was a ringing insistence that service
to the Great House was the most important task of the state. The
assembly of labor and organization of vast numbers of workers
represent a triumph of management. Wheeled conveyances were
unknown four thousand years ago. Consequently, it is difficult to
visualize the task of moving huge blocks of stone from quarry to
site and then lifting them to a height of over 146 meters above the
plateau. Not surprisingly, the Great Pyramid has been subjected
to more in-depth studies over a longer period of time and has
been longer theorized and debated upon as to its function and
purpose than any other single monument in Egypt. Even today,
following ten recent years of the most meticulous archaeological
survey using precise tools and techniques in what is known as the
Giza Plateau Mapping Project, many questions remain unan-
The Economic Structure 75

The Economic Structure

Senefru was the first king of the dynasty that was the 'age of the
great pyramid builders.' He was a vigorous leader and his reign
saw a rising tide of prosperity. His bent and northern pyramids at
Dahshur (the pyramid of Meidum has also been attributed to
him) illustrate rapid progress in constructional techniques. Mean-
while reliefs and statuary production also reached new peaks in
his reign. This was made possible through centralized control
over sources of raw material and labor through creation of the
post of vizier, which became the inherited right of princes borne
by the first queen, who bore the title Great Royal Wife. The vizier
bore two other important titles: 'high priest of Heliopolis' (with
two assistants known as 'treasurers of god') and 'master of
works.' Senefru's elder son Kanufer was the first recorded holder
of the title. Another son, Netjereperef, was appointed 'overseer of
three leaders in Upper Egypt.'
As top-ranking officials, viziers were responsible for the regis-
tration of people and property for tax purposes. They supervised
and recorded various transactions, especially those involving
land, and as 'sealbearers of the king' had the authority to certify
them. Apart from being "the eyes and the ears of his sovereign ...
as a skipper, ever attentive (to his wants) both night and day," it
was the viziers' task to supervise the biennial census of raw mate-
rials, produce, and cattle for the royal treasury. As revenue helped
consolidate the position of the king, the regular collection of taxes
was methodical. Fortunately the Nile Valley yielded a rich har-
vest, so taxes, based on the extent of the arable land, could be high.
The country's resources - both its mineral and agricultural
wealth - flowed smoothly into the capital. Departments known
as the 'White House' and the 'Red House' functioned as the state
archives. Here scribes equipped with palette and reeds, ink cakes
and papyrus rolls, kept complete records of the produce in store-
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houses. Cursive writing known as hieratic - which first made its

appearance on early dynastic clay tablets - now became exten-
sively used, especially for everyday government business. It con-
sisted of simplified forms of hieroglyphs, some so abbreviated
that all likeness to the original was lost. Standard-weight rings of
gold and copper were used in some palace transactions (coinage
was not introduced to Egypt until much later by the Greeks), but
taxes were mostly calculated in produce: cattle, poultry, grain,
wine, and industrial products.

Recruitment of Labor
It is not known whether the people resisted when large bodies of
men were mobilized to help build the funerary complexes, mine
the raw material for their construction, and fight punitive wars to
safeguard sources of supply. It was a national duty. Leaders of cult
centers were committed to - and successful in - raising the re-
quired numbers of people. Perhaps they considered participation
in a glorious deed to be reward enough. Ostraca bearing the
names of dead officials at quarry sites - along with their birth
place and parentage - suggest that those who died on duty were
transported home for burial. We also know from autobiographi-
cal texts that every effort was made to recover the bodies of expe-
dition leaders who died abroad and ensure that they were suitably
In return for satisfactory service and loyalty an official was per-
mitted to build a private tomb on the necropolis, in the shadow of
the royal pyramid. Mortuary priests were similarly encouraged to
cooperate with the Great House:

O all you gods who shall cause this pyramid and this
construction of the king to be fair and endure, you
Funerary Estates 77

shall be effective, you shall be strong, you shall have

souls, you shall have power, you shall be given bread
and beer, oxen and fowl, clothing and alabaster.

It was a reciprocal service relationship at two levels, secular and

religious, which obviously worked; the size and splendor of the
pyramids stand as evidence.

Funerary Estates
Each of the funerary complexes was economically independent.
Every worker was paid in rations from the enormous surplus
produced by the agricultural land, endowed by the Great House
as funerary estates, which were exempt from taxes. Some estates
were situated in the valleys near the funerary complexes, others in
distant provinces, some even in unoccupied land in the Delta
where peasant farmers or captives from military skirmishes in
Nubia and Libya were settled. The reign of Senefru saw the first
substantial increase in the number of such estates. Some thirty-
five were mentioned individually on the Palermo Stone in his
reign, as well as 122 cattle farms. In Senefru's valley temple the
collection of taxes became a subject of sacred art: each of his fu-
nerary estates, individually named, is shown as a female offering-
bearer. A text in the tomb of prince Nekure, son of Khafre, shows
that his funerary monument was endowed with the revenue of no
fewer than twelve towns. The income from these estates was the-
oretically reserved for the perpetual maintenance of the royal
monuments. In practice, however, part of the income went to-
ward the payment of officials, artisans, and retainers at construc-
tion sites and to pursue the policy of the Great House in support-
ing local leaders and maintaining local shrines. There is evidence
that Khufu rebuilt, restored, or "embellished with silver and
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bronze statues" several provincial shrines, including those at

Dendera and Bubastis. This was necessary because each succes-
sive reign produced a fresh demand for raw materials for further
funerary and national monuments and for the ever-increasing up-
per class aspiring to lavish funerary equipment. Pyramid con-
struction brought together people from all walks of society.
Royal children, the sons of concubines, and promising young
men of noble families were educated together and formed early
friendships. When they grew up they acquired positions of trust.
The most important officials were thus bound together by educa-
tion, friendship, and blood. Senefru's reign came to evoke the im-
age of orderly rule and he himself was the archetypal 'good king.'
On his finely carved funerary stela found at Dahshur he is shown
enthroned. He wears the Double Crown and holds the flail.
Above his head is a cartouche - a loop made by a double thick-
ness of rope with the ends tied together - in which his name is in-
scribed. To his right are his conventional nesw-bit and nebty titles
and, in the bottom right-hand corner, the earliest evidence of a
new element in the royal titulary, the 'golden Horus' name, which
depicts the hawk above a sign for gold.

The Giza Group

The size of the population in the Old Kingdom is not known. It
was probably from one to one and a half million, largely farmers.
Until recently, the idea that they were mobilized for three months
every year to serve the state - when agricultural work was at a
standstill due to the annual flood - was generally accepted. Now
studies on the organization of work suggest year-round labor. In-
scriptions left by quarry workers show that stone was usually ex-
tracted in April and November, not during the inundation in Au-
gust and September as was previously supposed. Moreover, to
How the Pyramids were Built 79

build the Great Pyramid an extremely large work force was re-
quired (a great mass of masonry estimated at sixteen million tons
went into its construction) and full-time as well as part-time
workers were needed. There were teams to prepare the site for
construction, quarry-workers to extract local stone for the core
of the pyramid, others to quarry the fine quality limestone for its
facing and for statues, stelae, and sarcophagi. This limestone came
from Tura, on the east bank of the Nile. On the western plateau,
ramps had to be built to haul the blocks to the building site, where
teams of men, straining at the ropes strung over their shoulders,
raised them to the required height. Giza was a vast construction
site where workers from all over the country toiled to build a
grand necropolis, planned with precision by 'master builders/
Officials as well as workers - as we now know from the discovery
of a workers' settlement and neighboring burial ground - had to
be housed, fed, and sometimes buried on the Giza plateau.

How the Pyramids were Built

Having chosen the Giza plateau as an ideal location for Khufu's
mortuary structure, the pyramid base had first to be accurately lev-
eled. The idea has long been held that this was achieved using a grid
of water-filled channels that covered the area of the base and that by

Senefru's limestone
stela at Dahshur
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subsequently marking the waterline and then draining off the wa-
ter, trenches of uniform depth could be excavated. This theory was
put to rest when it was observed that the pyramids of both Khufu
and Khafre were built up on huge cores of bedrock; in the case of
Khafre, the bedrock rose to a height of over ten meters. Thus in or-
der to level the site, from the outside, the ancient Egyptians appear
to have surveyed the area using stakes mortared into the bedrock.
Sockets in pairs have been found around the pyramids, which
attest to this method for achieving perimeter level accuracy.
The core of Khufu's pyramid was built of local limestone,
which was mined from the main quarry on the plateau, identified
as the depression directly south of the pyramid. The facing stone
from Tura had to be transported, probably in crude blocks, across
the river. During the annual inundation, the high level of the Nile
would have enabled ships to approach the Giza plateau. The idea
of a harbor at Giza, long suspected, has now been confirmed with
the discovery of what appears to be the ruins of a stone pier. Per-
haps it was fed by a canal during low Nile so that shallow-bot-
tomed vessels with their heavy loads could moor there all year
round. It is likely that there was also a network of smaller canals
dug off the main waterway to transport food for the workers.
One can imagine both harbor and plateau teeming with work-
ers and their ever-present overseers. The quarry must have re-
sounded with copper chisels and stone hammers chipping on
stone. Teams of twenty to fifty men hauled the stone up broad
ramps of piled rubble by ropes slung over their shoulders. Per-
haps they chanted and grunted in rhythm much as work-gangs do
today at construction sites. Once the stone was raised to the
plateau then gangs of workers, this time in groups of ten under
the watchful eyes of overseers, were organized to raise the mighty
blocks to their required position above the bedrock. An estimated
2,300,000 in number, these blocks weighed an average of two and
a half tons each, with some up to sixteen tons.
Workers' Accommodation 81

Generations of scholars have debated the baffling question of

how the ancient Egyptians raised such huge blocks to their elevat-
ed positions. One suggestion was that a vast sloping ramp was
built straight up to the pyramid, but this would not be practicable
as it would have had to be about one kilometer in length. Another
suggestion was that a brick ramp was constructed, but no evi-
dence of this in the form of debris has yet been discovered. A re-
cent tentative theory, based on a large quantity of limestone chips
and mortar (a mixture of gypsum and local clay called tafla) that
now fills the main quarries on the plateau, is that a ramp wrapped
around the pyramid and grew with it. Workers could conceivably
drag the stones up each course at a time, lay them, raise the ramp,
and then proceed with the next course. If the surface of the ramp
were plastered with clay then water would have acted as a lubri-
cant and facilitated movement of the blocks.

Workers' Accommodation
A massive wall with a gateway at the foot of the Giza plateau,
which probably bordered the harbor, gave access to a workers'
community, which is among the most remarkable discoveries of
recent years. One camp accommodated the general workers, an-
other was a service area with two bakeries to provide bread to
feed the vast numbers of people, and a third camp housed special-
ized workers and overseers. In the bakeries, large containers that
could hold some fifteen kilograms of dough were found. They
were apparently covered with coals in large vats to bake the bread.
A large number of bread molds found are identical to those de-
picted in the Fifth Dynasty nobles' tombs at Saqqara. The grains
dug up suggest that the bread was made of barley, which was also
the basis for beer, another part of the people's staple diet.
An estimated thirty thousand people lived near the construe-
82 . Control

tion site. Among them were artisans who decorated the tombs of
the relatives of the king and his loyal and devoted officials. In the
ruins of this vast settlement area are thousands of fragments of
pottery, including cooking pots, beer jars, trays for sifting grain
and flour, along with some fine burnished red ware. The discov-
ery of typical Upper Egyptian pottery suggests that some of the
food may have been sent to Giza from other areas of the country,
which would support the idea that a national effort was required
to raise the pyramids. The community reveals a high degree of or-
ganization. Records were kept of every activity, including the
name, hours, and rations of each worker. Perhaps the most re-
markable picture of the pyramid builders comes from the ceme-
tery associated with these communities. Some six hundred tombs
have been excavated west of the service area. As would be expect-
ed, they have no uniform architectural features. Some were
copied from the tombs of the upper classes, with vaulted ceilings,
some were tiny replicas of pyramids within an enclosure wall, and
one even had a pyramidal superstructure. This last discovery rais-
es the issue of whether the pyramidal shape was exclusively re-
served for royal tombs, as previously supposed, or whether the
shape evolved from mounds placed over Predynastic graves. In
other words, was the pyramid a development of folk architecture,
or did the masses seek to emulate the wealthy? The workers'
cemetery had narrow streets, in imitation of the cemetery to the
north of Khufu's pyramid for his loyal officials, and the funerary
texts are most explicit. A certain Petti wrote,

Listen all of you (who approach this tomb), the priest of

Hathor will strike twice any who enters this tomb or
does harm to it. The gods will confront him. The croco-
dile., hippo, and lion will eat him. The gods will not al-
low anything to happen to me or to my tomb because I
am [one] honored by his lord [the king].
The Cult of the King 83

The tomb of Petti's wife, constructed immediately to the north

of her husband's, bore a similar text but with the additional threat
of "snakes and scorpions," who would strike any desecrater. An
interesting text in the tomb of an official called Wag is addressed
to "the tomb-makers, draftsmen, craftsmen, and sculptors who
made my tomb. I gave them bread and beer. I hope they were sat-
isfied." Quite clearly, the workers were not slaves whipped by
merciless overseers as described by classical writers like
Herodotus, but willing contributors to the national cause. Many,
unfortunately, bore the scars of their labor, and burials show
missing limbs, crushed fingers, and compressed vertebrae from
bearing heavy loads.

The Cult of the King

To ensure that a hierarchy of officials could take care of all matters
related to the royal mortuary cult, there were scribes to keep ac-
counts and overseers to take charge of cattle, stores, and other
property. Certain titles reflected the king's trust and favor, others
specified responsibilities. They ranged from overseers and priests,
to cooks, farmhands, and skilled and semi-skilled workers.
Khufu's mortuary temple, now destroyed, lay adjacent to the
east side of the pyramid. Its ground plan shows that it was sepa-
rated from the pyramid itself by a paved alleyway and comprised
an entrance hall, open court, five niches for statues, and an altar in
front of an inner sanctuary. The purpose of the five statues is not
clear, but since the number did not vary in subsequent mortuary
temples they obviously served a specific function. Traces of a
drain in the court suggests that an altar for sacrificial slaughter or
libations may once have stood there. A large proportion of the ut-
terances in the Pyramid Texts contain words spoken by mortuary
priests making offerings of everything considered necessary for
the king's afterlife:
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You have your water, you have your food, you have
your efflux which issued from Osiris; the tomb is open
for you, the doors of the coffin are drawn back for
you, the doors of the sky are thrown open for you;
raise yourself O king.

Five boat pits have been found around the Great Pyramid. The
two to the south contain full-size wooden boats - one now in a
museum above its pit, the other unexcavated. Boats had an impor-
tant symbolic and ritual role in ancient Egypt but the significance
of their burial on the plateau remains uncertain. The fact that
there are five precludes the possibility that they were ritual boats
for carrying the soul of the king to the four cardinal points or that
they were solar boats for his journey across the heavens and
through the underworld. They may originally have been used
during his lifetime for ceremonial journeys and buried on the
plateau as part his funerary equipment. There may even be some
connection that so far eludes us between the five niches for statues
in his mortuary temple and the five boat pits around the pyramid.
Little remains of the valley temple of Khufu, which lies beneath

Diorite statue of Khafre.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Cult Statues 85

the modern village of Nazlat al-Simman. The valley temple of

Khafre, however, is a remarkable monument that serves as a good
example of Fourth Dynasty architecture. No other building of
this dynasty has survived in such a state of preservation. It is built
on an almost square ground plan with thick walls of local lime-
stone faced, both inside and out, with Aswan granite. Two short
entrance passages lead to a long antechamber where the famous
diorite statue of Khafre, one of the great treasures of the Egyptian
Museum in Cairo, was found. The original location of this mag-
nificent work was probably the T-shaped hall leading westward
out of the antechamber. Architectural elements along the walls
and fragments of diorite, schist, and alabaster found nearby reveal
that a total of twenty-three statues once stood there.

Cult Statues
It would appear that the creation of royal statues was a large in-
dustry in the Old Kingdom and it seems likely that at Giza stan-
dards were strictly maintained. In large galleries to the north of
Khufu's pyramid (reexcavated in 1993) fragments of figurines
have been found that suggest a royal workshop. One eroded frag-
ment shows the king with one leg forward, another is a head and
crown carved against a pillar with the projection of the colonnade
above, and a third is a bust cut off at the arms in the manner of 'tri-
al pieces' of later times. They might well be samples given to dif-
ferent sculptors to reproduce on a large scale and en masse. Royal
statues undoubtedly played an important part in maintaining na-
tional unity. Although none of Khufu have survived, recent stud-
ies suggest that they may have been usurped much later by Ram-
ses II and are now at Memphis. The magnificent diorite statue of
Khafre shows the king with a hawk spreading its wings around
the royal headcloth. This expresses much the same idea as the
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hawk depicted on top of the royal serekh bearing the king's name:
kingship. Menkaure, builder of the third pyramid at Giza, was
frequently sculpted in pair-statues (dyads) or as a member of a
group of three (triads). These triads were composed of the king,
the goddess Hathor, and different local deities. Fragments of stat-
ues in stone and copper found at many sites suggest that there
may originally have been as many triads as there were cult centers.
Statues at cult centers were housed in a special building known as
a '&<z-house.' Surviving examples at Tell Basta and Bubastis show
that they were more grand than the shrines to local gods in having
limestone elements decorated with reliefs. Their function proba-
bly arose from the fact that the king could not discharge his ritual
duties simultaneously all over the land, nor could he make offer-
ings of thanks to the local gods for every mission successfully ac-
complished. In placing a statue of himself at cult centers, he could
make symbolic offerings of thanks to the local god whenever nec-
essary. The fact that in later periods - when the simple shrines had
grown into large temples - the king would be depicted in relief
making these offerings and being blessed in return suggests this
original function.

The Sphinx
Near Khafre's valley temple is the Great Sphinx - one of the
world's best known and most frequently photographed monu-
ments. It has commanded a great deal of attention in recent years
because of the rate of its deterioration. This vast statue with the
body of a lion and a human head was carved directly from an out-
cropping of rock left unexcavated on the Giza plateau. It is isolat-
ed in a horseshoe-shaped trench, the stone from which was used
to build the Sphinx Temple to the east. The lowest part of the stat-
ue lies in the hard rock strata of the plateau, while most of the
The Sphinx 87

body was carved through softer layers, with the neck in the soft-
est strata of all. Fortunately, the strata from which the head was
carved were harder. The builders of the Sphinx, aware of the fri-
able nature of the body, gave it its shape by the addition of stone
The Sphinx remains an enigma to this day. The Old Kingdom
sources are silent about it, and the earliest references to it are from
the Eighteenth Dynasty, about a thousand years after it was built,
when it was described as Re-Harakhte, "Horus of the Horizon."
Recent excavations and study in the Giza Plateau Mapping Pro-
ject (started in 1984) show that the Sphinx Temple was designed as
an integral part of Khafre's pyramid complex: both the Sphinx
Temple and Khafre's Valley Temple lie on the same terrace, their
back and front walls being nearly aligned, and the walls of both
were built of large limestone blocks faced with red granite. Cer-
tain architectural features of the Sphinx Temple, however, show a
similarity in style and technique to the monuments of Khufu.
This interesting observation has led to speculation that the Sphinx
may have been the main feature of a temple originally designed
not by Khafre but by his father.

The Great
Sphinx, Giza.
(Amr Gamal)
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The possibility of solar alignments between the Sphinx and the

pyramids has now been raised. Some scholars believe that the
Sphinx was a representation of the sun-god and that the court of
the Sphinx Temple was the earliest sun temple, its twenty-four
square granite pillars each symbolizing one of the twenty-four
hours of the day and night and the two sanctuaries (one to the
east, one to the west) aligned on the central axis of the temple rep-
resenting the sun's daily circuit. Other scholars see the Sphinx as
representing the king in the form of Horus, facing the rising sun
and giving offerings. Either way, scholars are generally predis-
posed to the idea that the Sphinx Temple complex was designed to
fulfill the function of a trend that developed during the reigns of
Khufu and Khafre toward the solar-oriented religion. Evidence
appears from the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, when the
mortuary temple of the pyramid of Meidum was built against the
east face of the pyramid, toward the rising sun.

The Egyptian Religion

That the centralized power in the Fourth Dynasty should be
matched by an equally unified religion is a concept that has long
been held by scholars. But generation upon generation of the
most rigorous philologists have not managed to discern an inte-
grated system. What is clear, however, is that what appears to be a
complex mesh of diverse cult activities in ancient Egypt emerges
from a single mold of thought, which was based on age-old and
deep-rooted traditions.
Every religion is composed of two parts: ritual practices and in-
tellectual conceptions. Ritual practices in ancient Egypt were, in
the first place, closely related to burial practices and belief in the
afterlife, which were sincere and deep-rooted; secondly, there was
faith in the efficacy of prayers and offerings. As for the intellectual
The Egyptian Religion 89

view of nature and the origins of the universe, this came later.
There are several 'creation stories' in ancient Egypt, the earliest
(and the one on which subsequent theories were largely based) is
known as the Heliopolis Doctrine. It describes the period from
the creation of the physical world up to the triumph of Horus as
king. It involved the Nine Gods of the Ennead and was based on
the claim that Heliopolis was the site of the creation. In the begin-
ning a watery waste, Nun, filled the void that was the universe.
Within these waters reposed the sun-god Atum (whose name
may have meant either 'not being' or 'being complete'). When the
waters subsided a primordial hill appeared - much as the Nile
flood waters withdrew each year leaving mounds of alluvial soil
out of which plants grew. On this hill Atum manifested himself as
the physical sun, Re. Atum-Re's emergence dispersed darkness
and created light. Alone, he masturbated to produce two children:
Shu the god of air and Tefnut the goddess of moisture, whose un-
ion then created Geb the earth-god, and Nut the sky-goddess.
Geb and Nut were at first joined together but Shu came between
them, placing air between earth and sky. In order to create a link
between the solar sphere and human society mythology de-
scribed Geb and Nut as the father and mother of Osiris (the leg-
endary ancestor associated with the fertile land), his wife Isis, and
their counterparts Set (associated with the arid desert) and his
wife Nephthys.
The myth of Osiris underwent many changes with the passage
of time. In one form it relates how he ruled the land justly with his
wife Isis at his side. He taught the people the art of making agri-
cultural implements and controlling the waters of the Nile flood.
Isis, equally loved by the people, taught them how to grind grain
and weave linen and, in her devotion to her husband, she intimat-
ed the benefits of domestic life. Osiris's brother Set was jealous of
his popularity and, secretly aspiring to his position of favor,
tricked him into entering a coffin designed to fit him alone. He
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then sealed it and cast it on the waters of the Nile, where it was
borne northward by the flow. Numerous myths describe Isis
searching for Osiris, how she collected the parts of his body (ear-
lier discovered by Set and hacked into fourteen pieces and scat-
tered throughout the land), and reassembled them with the neces-
sary prayers and incantations. Then she descended on Osiris in
the form of a bird and received his seed. In due time she gave birth
to Horus and raised him to manhood. The grown Horus then set
out to avenge his father's death, and the myths relating to his bat-
tles with Set are many. In one terrible confrontation Horus's eye
was ripped out by his antagonist. But he recovered, was victori-
ous, and became the prototype of kingly rule.
The purpose of the Heliopolis Doctrine (fragments of which
appear in the Pyramid Texts) was to explain the creation of the
physical world in terms that could be understood and at the same
time to present the divine character of the king as of solar descent.
Kings of the early dynastic period were already regarded as heirs
to their legendary ancestor Osiris: early reliefs and statuary reveal
that they wore the cloak and held the emblems associated with
him at their Sed festival, and battles between Horus and Set were
already part of the mythological tradition. In uniting the two
spheres - the solar, which featured Atum-Re as creator, and na-
ture, which featured Osiris as the wise and benevolent ancestor -
official sanction was given to widespread beliefs. The Heliopolis


Shu (air) Tefmat (moisture)

solar cult

Geb (earth) Nut (sky)

nature cult
Osiris Isis Set Nephthys
The Egyptian Religion 91

Doctrine brought the marvel of the creation closer to the people

by linking it with the existing royal line. Horus was not only
the king, son of Osiris, he was also 'the god' or the 'good god,'
physically and spiritually linked with the natural forces common
to the Two Lands: the sun and the river (with which Osiris was
In the Pyramid Texts the king is so closely associated with the
life-giving river that he could declare: "I have inundated the land.
I have satisfied the Two Lands, I have united the Two Lands." He
also lays claim to being "the son of Atum" and "the well-beloved
son of Re, begotten for Re, conceived for Re, born of Re."
This intellectual view of the universe was early portrayed in art.
In the ruins of a small shrine at Heliopolis, built by Imhotep for
his king Zoser, is a representation of the earth-god, Geb, wearing
a wig, beard, and necklace. He is shown seated, and behind him is
a row of gods, mostly destroyed, which must have represented
the other gods of the Ennead. Evidence of an association between
the king and solar power can be traced to the Fourth Dynasty,
when four kings compounded their names with the sun-god:
Djedef-Re, Khaf-Re, Bauf-Re, and Menkau-Re. A common epi-
thet that appears in the names of the kings from the Fourth Dy-
nasty is "Horus the great god, lord of heaven."
Homage to the solar orb was repeated with compelling author-
ity in the Pyramid Texts:

Hail to you, Re, you who traverse the sky and cross
Nut, having traversed the winding waterway. Hail
to you, O Re, in your life and in your beauty... bring
me the milk of I sis, the flood ofNepthys, the overspill
of the lake, the surge of the sea, life, prosperity, health,
happiness, bread, clothing, and food, that I may live
thereby. Hail to you, Unique One, who daily en-
dures. Hail to you... who takes his place at the zenith
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of the sky, in the place where you are content. You

traverse the sky in your striding, you include Lower
and Upper Egypt within your journeyings.

Significance of the Pyramidal Shape

The high priest of Heliopolis bore titles both religious and practi-
cal: he was 'chief of observers' as well as 'leader of expeditions,'
and 'master of works.' As leader of expeditions he acquired raw
material from all over the country and as master of works he
raised monuments in the name of his king, monuments that were
much more than tombs.
The shape of the pyramid has long been a subject of discussion.
That it had some sort of religious significance is certain, and the
idea that the king was buried under the symbol of the ben-ben.,
which came to represent the mound of creation, has long held
sway. The original stone symbol, if there ever was one, is now lost
but it seems probable, based on its artistic depiction as a determi-
native in the Pyramid Texts, that it was an upright stone with a
rounded top. Its development into a pure geometrical form came
in stages over successive reigns. Whether the remarkable spectacle
of the sun's rays shining down to earth on a cloudy day inspired
the shape is by no means certain, even though the Pyramid Texts
describe the king as ascending to heaven on the rays of the sun:
"May the sky make the sunlight strong for you, may you rise up
to the sky as the Eye of Re"; and "I have laid down for myself this
sunshine of yours as a stairway under my feet on which I will as-
cend to that mother of mine, the living uraeus which should be
upon me, O Re." Conservation of the monuments at Giza be-
tween 1987 and 1989 involved clearance of the so-called 'air
shafts' that extend at an angle from the tomb chamber to the outer
face of the pyramid. To the great surprise of the excavators, they
The King is Dead, Long Live the King 93

were found to be blocked at both ends. The purpose of the shafts

was therefore neither air circulation, as once supposed, nor, as had
also been suggested, for the observation of the constellations. The
shafts would appear to have served a religious function, perhaps
to enable the soul of the deceased to ascend directly to the place of
the ancestors in the northern sky: "I ascend to the sky among the
'imperishable stars/ my sister is Sothis, my guide is the morning
star, and they grasp my hand at the field of offerings."
The pyramidal shape may, in fact, have been many things at
once: a material representation of the sun's rays which provided
the practical means by which the king could ascend to heaven; a
development of the mound of creation; a symbol of kingship and
the religion of the first great nation-state; and, finally, a royal

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Upon the death of a king, accession took place as quickly as possi-
ble, probably at dawn with the symbolic spreading of light. Dur-
ing the time the king was prepared for burial (normally seventy
days, though 272 days is given as the interval between death and
burial in the case of Queen Meresankh III, a grandchild of Khufu)
his successor underwent a number of elaborate rituals. These in-
cluded purification by two priests representing Horus and Set;
the adoption of sacred regalia such as the scepter, crook, and flail;
and taking official possession of the crowns of Upper and Lower
Egypt, to which praises were henceforth addressed. Then it seems
certain that the future king, duly empowered, journeyed to the
provinces to visit the provincial deities, pay respects to the local
elite, and perhaps share in a dawn prayer demonstrating that there
was no break in continuity. Perhaps it was there he announced
that preparations should be made for the coming coronation.
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Meanwhile, a period of mourning was observed for the de-

ceased king. All work came to a standstill as news spread to differ-
ent parts of the country. Services were conducted. Mortuary ritu-
als in the Pyramid Texts include such passages as: "The sky weeps
for you, quakes at you, the mourning-woman called to you." Af-
ter the king's remains had undergone mummification, an elabo-
rate funerary ritual including bathing and the regeneration of the
spirit was carried out in the valley temple. Then the funerary
cortege made its way to the mortuary temple, where priests recit-
ed formulae guaranteeing the supply of provisions and offered
prayers for the rebirth of the immortal spirit. The utterances in
the Pyramid Texts, being haphazard compilations of mortuary
ritual obtained from various sources and probably of different
time periods, often present contradictory views about the de-
ceased's method of conveyance to the afterlife: "A stairway to the
sky is set up for me that I may ascend on it to the sky"; "You shall
ascend to the sky as a great bird"; "The king is bound for the sky
on the wind, on the wind"; "The king ascends on the thighs of
Isis, the king climbs upon the thighs of Nepthys"; "The reed-
floats of the sky are set in place for this king, that he may be on
high from the east to the west in company with his brethren the
gods." Or, he would become a spirit and take his place among the
ancestors, the imperishable stars: "O king, you are this great star,
the companion of Orion, who traverses the sky with Orion, who
navigates the underworld with Osiris. You ascend from the east
of the sky, being renewed at your due season and rejuvenated in
your due time."
Mortuary and provincial priests alike went through their ritual
paces in mourning the king: "O king... I have mourned you, I
will not forget you, I will not be inert until the voice comes forth
from you every day, in the monthly festival, in the half-monthly
festival, at the setting down of the brazier at the festival of Thoth
... as your yearly sustenance which you fashioned for your
The King is Dead, Long Live the King 95

monthly festivals." On the royal necropolis where the funeral

was carried out, at the cult centers preparing to attend the corona-
tion, along the banks of the Nile where the people could watch
the royal boat, and among workers and bargemen whose tasks
were temporarily suspended, there was a ringing insistence on the
pinnacle of power, the royal cult.
One of the requirements of succession was to conduct the fu-
neral of the previous ruler. The deceased king was addressed by
his son: "Hail to you, my father, on this your day when you stand
before Re when he ascends from the East and when you are clad
with your dignity which is among the spirits"; "Raise yourself,
my father ... traverse the sky, make your abode in the Field of Of-
ferings ... raise yourself, go in your spirit-state"; "O Atum, raise
this king up to you, enclose him within your embrace, for he is
your son of your body for ever."
As part of the coronation ritual, the living Horus undoubtedly
paid honor to the dual shrines of Upper and Lower Egypt in or-
der to mark a new beginning, a renewal of the union between the
Two Lands. He took his official dress, which included the em-
blems of power on his chest, the ceremonial beard, and the bull's
tail attached to his waist. Perhaps he made a circuit of the walls of
the ancient city in a carrying chair borne by pole-bearers. The an-
niversary of his 'appearing' (that is, coronation) became an annual
The passing of each king meant no more than the official trans-
ference of power to his son and heir. Horus followed Osiris and
the cycle was repeated as tirelessly as the cycles of nature. Alive
and dead, the king was the focal point of national unity. Glorifica-
tion of the dead king and the living king helped solidify that pow-
er. The former became "a great power, who has power over the
powers. The king is a sacred image, the most sacred of the sacred
images of the Great One."; "Behold, the king is at the head of the
gods, and he is provided as a god.... The gods do obeisance when
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meeting the king, just as the gods do obeisance when meeting the
rising of Re when he ascends from the horizon." The living king
was honored daily at dawn: "O Re, if you dawn in the sky, you
dawn for the king, lord of all things"; "Make salutation, you gods,
to the king (when he) shines anew in the East. ... Rejoice at the
king, for he has taken possession of the horizon."

The Kingship Ideal

For the majority of the population, the creation of a political sys-
tem based on the ideological framework of kingship changed
their way of life little. The idea that the land belonged to the king
was perhaps not seriously challenged. The Great House was the
state and the king was the giver of bounty. Support of the dogma
was sincere and unchanging because the king was seen by the laity
as a descendent of a farmer like themselves, Osiris, and, at the in-
tellectual level, he had benevolent qualities and pacific attributes.
These were hu, sia, and maat - generally described as 'authority,'
'perception/ and 'justice.' Maat was a common epithet of the
kings of the Fourth Dynasty. It was an abstract concept that de-
veloped into the spirit of national guidance. It referred to the har-
monious state of the universe which was seen to be in order - the
sun reborn daily in the eastern sky and the land unfailingly reborn
after the death of the crop each year - as well as to good rule and
social justice. As the organizer and judge of the community, the
king was neb maat, lord - or owner - of maat. Abstract ideas
were represented as gods: in the Pyramid texts maat was de-
scribed as a power, the goddess of truth. The established order be-
came part of the ritual and inviolable. The Two Lands were des-
tined throughout the country's long history to erupt into political
disorder and the spiritual vigor of the nation would decline under
foreign occupation, but the people found proof in nature that a
The Kingship Ideal 97

powerful force was not indifferent to temporal affairs, and the

one who controlled the natural forces was the king. Even when
national harmony was temporarily disrupted at the death of a
king, maat was inevitably reinstated at the coronation of his suc-
cessor. There was total confidence in the order of things as they
The cult centers were drawn into the state religion in their daily
prayers: "Make salutation, you gods, to the king (when he) shines
anew in the East. ... Rejoice at the king, for he has taken posses-
sion of the horizon." Neith of Sais was described in the mortuary
texts as the "daughter of Re"; Hathor the cow-goddess of Den-
dera was linked with Nut the sky-goddess or with Isis the mother
of Horus. The waxing and waning of Thoth, the moon-god, was
also described: the moon was one of the two heavenly eyes of Ho-
rus that suffered an injury from Set only to be restored every
month. In every temple in the land, hymns and prayers to the sun-
god could be conducted in harmony with nature through the
medium of the local gods:

May you wake in peace,, O purified, in peace,

May you wake in peace, O Horns of the East, in peace,
May you wake in peace, O soul of the East, in peace,
May you sleep in the Night-bark,
May you wake in the Day-bark,
For you are He who oversees the gods,
There is no god who oversees you.

Scholars from all over the world have long pondered over the
meaning of the words 'god' and 'gods' in ancient Egyptian texts,
which, although written side by side, were never confused with
one another. In the present context it can be seen that all the 'gods'
were drawn into the central theology of the state through 'god,'
the king, who was in direct line to Osiris the legendary ancestor of
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solar origins. It seems certain that the Heliopolis Doctrine was a

factor in national unity as strong as, if not stronger than, the cre-
ation of local cults, which neutralized the differences between set-
tlements and gave them equal prestige; through it, all the 'gods'
were drawn into the central theology just as, much later (in the
Middle Kingdom), they would be solarized by compounding
their names with the sun-god Re and adopting the solar disk on
their heads. Having thus consolidated the cultural heritage by
formulating a state religion, the Great House could now embark
on an era of increased solar worship in the Fifth Dynasty.

Sun Temples and Solar Worship

Menkaure's pyramid was incomplete when he died. The facing
was unfinished and both the mortuary and valley temples were
hastily assembled in mud-brick and wood. The pyramid is the
smallest of the three principal pyramids at Giza, occupying a
quarter of the area covered by the Great Pyramid and less than
half its height. The smaller size of Menkaure's and subsequent
pyramids has frequently been taken as an indication of a diminu-
tion of centralized power. Some scholars suggest that the state
could no longer support large-scale enterprises; others believe
that it simply became redundant for each king to endeavor to out-
do his predecessor. In fact, although the Fifth Dynasty pyramids
at Saqqara were small and built of inferior material, their mortu-
ary temples were large and decorated with magnificent reliefs.
Moreover, each king built a massive sun temple at Abu Sir north
of Saqqara, which suggests that labor was not reduced so much as
The male line of Senefru ended with Menkaure's death. His
successor, Shepseskhaf, appears not to have been a son of the
Great Royal Wife, and not only his lineage but his ideas were un-
traditional. In place of a pyramid, his tomb at Saqqara - known as
mastabat fara'un ('Pharaoh's bench' in Arabic) - has the appear-
ance of a large rectangular sarcophagus. The break in tradition
was only temporary, because subsequent kings of the Fifth
through to the end of the Sixth Dynasty built funerary complexes
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with the same elements as those of the Fourth Dynasty, consisting

of a pyramid, mortuary temple, causeway, and valley temple. The
sun temple reflected the same architectural uniformity (main
structure, causeway, valley temple), except that instead of the
bulk of the pyramidal structure there was the elevation of the sa-
cred ben-ben., which was perched on top of a huge, squat
obelisk- standing on a base of hewn stone - near the center of a
court that featured a vast offering table. Such purposeful design
served a specific function. The sun temples were built not for
mortuary rituals to a dead king (as in the pyramid complex), but
as public buildings made for theater. Here, the processions and
activities of the living king were displayed before the people, and
he provided bounty. The sun temples could be built and decorat-
ed on an impressive scale because the labor trained under the
Fourth Dynasty kings was released from large-scale pyramid
construction. The resources that previously went into funerary
monuments, and the building of private tombs as gifts to the
kings' relatives and favored officials, were channeled into the con-
struction of sun temples.
Artistic standards were maintained in the Fifth Dynasty. A
number of fragmentary royal heads show that work of outstand-
ing quality was produced. An innovation was statuary on a colos-
sal scale. The first free-standing, larger-than-life sculpture of dy-
nastic times is the head of Userkhaf - first king of the Fifth Dy-

Son of Re' included

in royal titulary
Sun Temples and Solar Worship 101

nasty - found in his mortuary temple at Saqqara. Like the life-

size statues of Khafre, it gave a powerful impression of the
majesty of kingship. Surviving texts reveal that the Great House
continued to protect the authority of the king, whose power, at
first, remained unchallenged. The kings continued to compound
their names with that of the sun-god Re: Sahu-re, Neferirka-re,
Shepseska-re, Neferef-re, Nyuser-re, and Djedka-re; they also
adopted a new epithet - 'Son of Re' - which became a regular ele-
ment of the royal titulary.
Only two of the massive monuments these kings built in honor
of their father the sun-god have so far been located with certainty.
Four others, referred to in texts, await discovery. The sun temples
bore such names as Pleasure of Re, Horizon of Re, and Field of
Re and comprised huge open courts surrounded by high walls.
Although they were dedicated to the sun-god, there are no sur-
viving shrines to accommodate a cult image. Worship was in the
open, beneath the sky. The entrance to the open court may have
been so oriented that on the spring or autumn equinox the rays of
the rising sun would shine through the gateway to strike the sa-
cred symbol. It is likely that the sun temple of Re-Harakhte (Ho-
rus of the Horizon) at Heliopolis, frequently referred to in texts
but totally destroyed, was built at this time of intense solar wor-
The sun temples were adorned with reliefs along the corridors
that opened from the entrance hall and ran along the sides of the
court, and in small chambers. The quality of limestone was such
that both raised and sunken reliefs could be executed with great
precision. The former, carved to a depth of no more than a few
millimeters, were exquisite carvings that were sensitive to the play
of light. The deeper-carved sunken reliefs were for the diffused
light of inner chambers and corridors. The reliefs largely con-
cerned rites performed by the king and officials at the Sed festival,
the flora and fauna through the three seasons of the agricultural
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year, and the ceremonial sacrifice of foreign captives. In a small

shrine in the sun temple of Nyuserre there are also representa-
tions of temple foundation ceremonies: the king and the goddess
Sheshat (probably represented by the queen) are each depicted
holding a measuring cord near the ground to mark the dimen-
sions of the temple. A sand bed was subsequently laid, on which
stone blocks were placed to form a firm foundation. At each cor-
ner of the temple, deposits consisting of models of tools, imple-
ments, and offerings, as well as scarabs or plaques bearing the
name of the royal founder were placed.
The scenes of the Sed festival include the opening ceremonies at
which representatives from Upper and Lower Egypt are assem-
bled to witness the king's claim to the land by striding between
markers. In the closing ceremony he is borne on a box-like litter
flanked by the Chief of Pe and the Chief of Nekhen - the royal
ancestors of Lower and Upper Egypt, respectively. The proces-
sion then moves toward the shrines of Horus and Set - represent-
ing two of the earliest cult centers - and, at each destination, a
priest gives bows and arrows to the royal priest, who hands them
to the king, who shoots an arrow to each of the cardinal points.
The king is then enthroned four times, each time facing one of the
points of the compass.

Abu Sir Archives

Bureaucratic records written on papyri, now known as the Abu
Sir archives, have been found in the mortuary temple of Ne-
ferirkare. In a mud-brick storeroom, around two thousand pieces
of papyrus were found - some complete rolls, others mere frag-
ments. Taken together with similar finds at neighboring temples,
they provide a wealth of information on ancient bureaucracy:
records, registers, lists, instructions, and letters. They include
Abu Sir Archives 103

royal edicts, state archives, schedules for religious sacrifices, ac-

counts, and deliveries between the sun temples, the Great House,
and the funerary complexes. Prior to this discovery, an under-
standing of the administration of the Old Kingdom was primarily
gained through analyzing titles and speculating on their signifi-
cance. Now for the first time scholars have access to actual re-
cords. The archives (not yet fully deciphered) give us the first real
insight into elaborate officialdom; the circle of activities that sur-
rounded the king and the strict observance of ritual spring to life.
There was a remarkable system of registration and supervision
of assets. Daily accounts were kept of commodities - mostly
foodstuffs - received from funerary estates, each mentioned by
name. The Egyptian system of counting was decimal; units were
indicated by strokes; tens, hundreds, and thousands each had
their particular signs. Ten thousand was represented by a finger;
100,000 by a tadpole, and 1,000,000 by the kneeling figure of the
god Heh with upraised arms. Tables were drawn up in red and
black ink for each day of the thirty-day month.
Both the funerary and the sun temple complexes were state
property and carefully guarded. Cylinder seals bearing incised hi-
eroglyphs were rolled across the clay that sealed documents,
wooden chests, doorways of storehouses, and even sacks and jars.
Regular inspection of all seals was carried out and columns were
left in the administrative records for observations of theft or any
other disorder. The lists of donations to the sun temples were ex-
tremely large. On the occasion of Nyuserre's Sed festival in the
thirtieth year of his reign, the list of items included 100,600 meals
of bread, beer, and cakes. Thirty thousand meals were recorded
for another festival.
Sun temple staff, like those of the mortuary temples, were part-
time workers, working in rotation. Ten-day work periods seem to
have been interspersed with leave, presumably in order for them
to return to normal village life when seasonal obligations so de-
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manded. Huge numbers of people received partial support from

the state. Payment was in kind, mostly in the form of rations of
staple food and clothing. Nor were offerings wasted: after the
mortuary priests had taken their share, the balance was undoubt-
edly distributed among the workers and their families. Distribu-
tion of meat by the king was part of the tradition. Recent studies
on the sun temples have revealed that there were huge slaughter-
houses where offerings were made by the king to the sun-god.
Records show that for the duration of one celebration alone, six
animals were slaughtered each day for an unspecified number of
days. On another occasion, thirteen oxen were sacrificed on ten
consecutive days in one temple alone.
The purpose of the huge altar in the sun temple of Abu Ghurab
was not, until now, fully understood. New evidence suggests that
it was a huge slaughterhouse, and the alabaster altar with the four
hetep signs was the place where the bulls were laid before being
sacrificed. The role of the butcher in such temple rituals was an
important one. The legs of a sacrificial bull would first be tied to-
gether and the animal tethered to a limestone block in the paving
stones. The throat would be cut, the spurting blood caught in a
vessel of alabaster, and finally the foreleg would be severed with a
large flint knife and carried to the main altar. After the appropriate
offering had been made, the king, the font of all honors, could im-
mediately demonstrate his largesse and distribute the meat. The
giving of food on festive occasions has remained a tradition
among Egypt's wealthy until today.

All the King's Men

Some viziers and important officials in the Fifth Dynasty bore
names compounded with Ptah, the god of Memphis who was rep-
resented from the First Dynasty as a smooth-headed standing fig-
All the King's Men 105

ure in an open shrine, wearing a tightly-fitted garment that resem-

bles the dress of the king at the Sed Festival. The suggestion by
some early scholars that this represented a religious rift in the
Fifth Dynasty has now been abandoned; titles reveal that officials
such as Ptah-Shepses, who was 'high priest of Ptah' and 'chief of
craftsmen,' also held a responsible post in the earliest sun temple
at Abu Sir.
Among the well-preserved reliefs in Nyuserre's sun temple are
records of the names and careers of various officials, all of whom
were scrupulous in expressing debt and loyalty to the king in their
biographies. A builder called Nekhebu wrote: "His majesty
found me a common builder... and conferred upon me (succes-
sive posts of) journeyman builder, master builder, and master of a
craft. His majesty did all this because (he) favored me so greatly."
Loyalty to king and country in and around the capital remained
Memphis was the center of commerce. As trade with neighbor-
ing countries increased-to fulfill the demands of the state-
products and raw materials were transported there from Nubia,
Sudan, and Sinai; a fleet of ships sailed across the 'great green' (the
Mediterranean) to import cedar wood and other products from
western Asia for which there was a growing need. Wealth was
amassed in the capital, but farther afield, at distant cult centers,
administrative reforms were necessary. Whereas the viziers of the
Fourth Dynasty were often in charge of the administration of
several cult centers - some were even assigned to supervise areas
in both Upper and Lower Egypt - the situation changed after the
reign of Userkhaf, when traces of the accumulation of power in
the hands of the provincial elite in Upper Egypt can be detected
for the first time, and reforms were set in motion. The Great
House tightened up the hitherto rather informal system of grad-
ing high-ranking officials. A large number of titles, still not fully
understood, were introduced in the reign of Neferirkare. Then,
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under Djedkare, the office of 'overseer of Upper Egypt' was in-


The Power ofPepi

Just as Khufu stands out as the dominant figure of the Fourth Dy-
nasty, the powerful Pepi I, who ruled for over thirty years, domi-
nates the Sixth. He had major problems to contend with. One was
the cost of maintaining ancestor cults by providing perpetual en-
dowments for funerary monuments, which severely taxed the re-
sources of the state. The other was the fact that the Great House,
in granting concessions to leaders of cult centers, had fostered a
spirit of self-sufficiency. Some leaders had acquired land in return
for their services to the state and began to derive wealth from it.
Others - like those of Elephantine, who took charge of most of
the quarrying and transportation of Aswan granite for the royal
monuments - began to organize a lucrative trade with the south,
ostensibly for the king but not without benefit to themselves.
Where once the highest ambition of a local dignitary was to
perform his duties and have a tomb built near his king's pyramid,
their wealth became such that they could now afford to be buried
in their own provinces. Five provincial cemeteries of brick- or
rock-tombs sprang up in the Sixth Dynasty. The border province
of Elephantine was among the first to agitate for independence.
Abandoning their title 'first after the king,' the powerful leaders
called themselves 'great chief,' inscribed along with the name of
their province. One of them boasted of bringing people from
neighboring areas to settle in the outlying districts of his province
to infuse new blood into it. The 'great chiefs' began to play the
role previously performed only by the king or his representative:
participation in cult ritual and its related seasonal festivals.
Pepi recognized the problems and sought to minimize them.
During his reign a number of decrees related to the economy were
The Power of Pepi 107

tabled. Among them was protection of certain temples from com-

pulsory labor dues and exempting two monuments of his remote
ancestor Senefru from taxation. He also exempted architects, cat-
tle, and herds of donkeys at the temple of Min at Coptos from
taxes. These measures were, perhaps, not so much an attempt to
win the loyalty of the chiefs of strategically important cult centers
as recognition of the forces of change. He followed the footsteps
of the early kings in enhancing his own reputation by enlarging
ancient shrines and converting them into temples - apart from
Coptos, those in Tanis, Bubastis, Abydos, and Dendera are
specifically mentioned.
Pepi also pursued a vigorous foreign policy: control was gained
over Nubia to the south and Egyptian influence was extended to
southern Palestine and to Punt on the Somali coast. Raw materi-
als, minerals, incense, resins, and fragrant gums flowed into
Egypt. The success of his policy is clearly reflected in the autobi-
ography of Weni, one of Pepi's officials, who was able to raise a
great army - which included various contingents under the com-
mand of the chief priests of the temples of Upper and Lower
Egypt - in order to protect trade routes.
Art and architecture attained great heights in the Sixth Dynasty
but a difference in royal statuary can be discerned. While the life-
sized copper statue of Pepi I and his son found at Nekhen (Egypt-
ian Museum, Cairo) reflects the all-powerful king striding for-
ward in the traditional stance, and while cult statues in the early
tradition continued to depicti him seated on a throne, wearing the
White Crown, the Heb Sed robe, and a hawk on the back of his
throne (reminiscent of Horus depicted on the throne of Khafre), a
new trend was developing. The king was shown also in a more
subservient role. A statuette of Pepi for the first time shows a king
kneeling, offering libation vessels. This trend was later continued
in temple reliefs, where the king was untiringly shown in consort
with the gods and making offerings to them.
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The exclusivity of the royal family broke down when Pepi

married two of his daughters to a chief near Abydos called Khui.
His son and successor, Merenre, also gave his daughter in wed-
lock to a provincial lord. Thereafter the position of vizier - once
the exclusive right of princes - passed into the hands of any no-
bleman of outstanding ability. Times were changing. Ancient
Egypt's aristocratic period of confidence had passed and the
country was in transition.
When Pepi was ready to commission his mortuary complex he
sent his chief builder and two 'treasurers of god' along with a
body of workers to the quarries of Wadi Hammamat to procure
the finest stone. What remains of his pyramid in north Saqqara is
a very dilapidated structure, and the robbers who forced an en-
trance completely wrecked the black basalt sarcophagus. But the
pyramid must once have been a fine structure. It was known as
Men-nefer (meaning 'beautiful monument'), a designation which
came to refer to the nearby capital, replacing the earlier 'White
Wall.' Men-nefer was later corrupted by the Greeks to Memphis.

A Boy on the Throne

Merenre had a short reign and was succeeded by his half-brother,
Pepi II, a child of six years old. The rule of Pepi II was one of the
longest in history - some ninety years according to the Turin Pa-
pyrus - during which time continued efforts were made by the
Great House to reestablish control. New estates were founded,
one specifically dedicated to the maintenance of Pepi I's ancestor
cult, for which the copper statue found at Coptos was made.
There was a further increase in royal decrees to exempt religious
foundations from taxation and the people who ran them from ser-
vice. Also, in an effort to show a link with a greater past, Pepi II's
mortuary temple was decorated with reliefs of the activities of the
To Protect a Heritage 109

Fifth Dynasty king Sahure, as depicted in his sun temple; the very
names of the Libyans defeated in battle were copied. What was
originally an historical record in Sahure's reign took its place in
the repertoire of achievement of a successful ruler. By the reign of
Teti we have the earliest evidence (at Edfu) of the title of 'great
chief being combined with that of 'high priest' of the local deity.

To Protect a Heritage
When political power is not contested it needs no reinforcement.
Only during times of disharmony or change does tradition need
to be stressed. For hundreds of years, the energies of the state had
been channeled toward unifying the country and maintaining
control over cult centers in order to monopolize its resources.
Despite efforts made to enhance the image of the Great House,
when the provincial elite began to acquire wealth the tide of
change could not be controlled. Perhaps an awareness grew dur-
ing this time of the need to record and transmit the sacred heritage
before it was too late.
Learned literates could look back to early records and trace
how their ambitious and imaginative ancestors had formalized hi-
eroglyphic writing, codified art forms, standardized mortuary
ritual, and formulated a national religion. Now, in order to ensure
that such a memorial to achievement was not swept from the pub-
lic memory, evidence was gathered and committed to writing. An
updated king list was compiled, mortuary texts were gathered and
inscribed in the pyramids, and dramatizations of kingship rituals
and oral traditions were put to written record. This was an extra-
ordinary achievement, because although much of the textual evi-
dence was forged in mythological language it formed a lasting his-
torical base for the future.
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King Lists
Lists of dead kings, which the ancient Egyptians themselves com-
piled, gave continuity and historical sequence to their ideology.
They were royal ancestors to whom pious regard was shown. The
information revealed by the Palermo Stone was drawn from earli-
er king lists that predate the historic period. Written centuries af-
ter unification - and probably aided by a nobility register - the
margin of error was undoubtedly small. Menes - whether
Narmer, Scorpion, Aha, or a composite figure that embodied the
achievements of many leaders - became the traditional unifier of
the country and a decisive beginning to the First Dynasty. The
importance of the Palermo Stone was that, apart from listing the
names of successive kings, it documented religious festivals, the
biennial census, and the height of the Nile flood during successive
reigns, and it itemized the 'birth' days of gods.
The compilers of the king lists also laid claim to an even more
ancient and embellished heritage: the 'time of the gods.' Re the
sun-god, Shu the god of the atmosphere, Geb the earth-god,
Osiris the legendary ancestor, Set his adversary, and Thoth the
moon-god and measurer of time were all there. Thoth, according
to a later king list - the Turin Papyrus - lived for 3,726 years, and
was described as the scribe of the gods, keeper of the secret books,
and hence a god of wisdom. With an obvious pride in the past,
which was regarded as a model of order, compilers of the king lists
credited the earliest kings with achievements that came only later.
Den of the First Dynasty, for example, was said to have written
books on anatomy, yet in his reign the hieroglyphic writing sys-
tem was still in its formative stages. Conversely, Zoser of the
Third Dynasty was dignified with the invention of stone architec-
ture, although it had been used in some architectural elements of
earlier monuments.
Propagating the State Dogma 111

The Pyramid Texts

Mortuary rituals inscribed in the pyramid of Unas and the kings
of the Sixth Dynasty, were undoubtedly collected from many
sources. They cover very ancient rituals, fragmentary allusions to
myths, mortuary spells, hymns, and prayers on behalf of the
dead, and offerings of food, drink, clothing, and other items for
the afterlife. Some of the verses were written in the first person, as
spoken by the king, others in the third, as by mortuary priests.
No effort was made to collate them or present a coherent picture.
Presumably at every funeral there were variants of traditional
recitations. Textual contradictions - which naturally occur with
transmission over time and place - abound. Apart from the desire
of individual priests to create the necessary atmosphere of piety
and hope, there may have been many who deliberately drama-
tized their recitations. One prayer for the rebirth of Osiris in-
tones: "Loosen your bandages. They are not bandages, they are
the locks of Nephthys, the weeping goddess hanging over the
body of her dead brother." Another example is an imaginative
rendition of the king's spirit ascending to the sky: "Clouds darken
the sky, the stars rain down, the bows stagger, the bones of the
hell-hounds tremble, the (porters) are silent, when they see Unas
dawning as a soul." Although the Pyramid Texts were written in
royal tombs, they were undoubtedly part of the mortuary tradi-
tion throughout the land. They formed the basis of similar litera-
ture in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom, and the so-called
Book of the Dead in the New Kingdom.

Propagating the State Dogma

The fragmented text known as the Memphite Drama is a remark-
able document in which the political, religious, and social history
ii2 Organization

of ancient Egypt's formative years are presented in the form of a

mythological drama in three acts. It survived in a late copy on
what is known as the Shabaka Stone, after the Kushite king who
found it (around 720 BC), recognized its importance, and had it
copied on stone. Its precise date is still a matter of dispute, but its
language resembles that of the Pyramid Texts and many scholars
attribute it to the late Fifth or Sixth Dynasty, which supports the
hypothesis of a conscious effort to put tradition to writing.
The drama was staged in the capital, Memphis, and the per-
formers enacted the story of the creation of the physical world up
to the triumph and coronation of Horus as king. It was live the-
ater, which presented the ancient Egyptian view of the world and
society. The first act, introduced by a 'presenter,' proclaims the
political unity of Upper and Lower Egypt with Memphis as the
center of the realm. The local god is declared to be Ptah Ta-Tjenen
(Ttah the risen land'), the primordial hill on which Atum the sun-
god manifested himself. The reigning monarch, introduced as
'King of the Two Lands,' is justified by the ritual combat between
Horus and Set. Surrounded by the gods of the Ennead, the antag-
onists are called upon to struggle no more but to unite instead.
Geb the earth-god commands the Ennead to judge between the
two. In the first scene he makes Set king of Upper Egypt and Ho-
rus king of Lower Egypt. In the second scene, Horus acquires
domination over both Upper and Lower Egypt, now united. The
first act of the drama thus confirmed political unity and provided
a legal base for the rule of Horus as king; the play was clearly set
in a national framework.
The second act presents the story of Osiris, the legendary an-
cestor associated with water, the land, and rebirth: Set's attack on
him and his dismemberment, the recovery of his body by Isis and
her sister Nephthys, battles between Horus and Set, and the
crowning of Horus as king. Act three centers around a council of
gods and their decision to build the royal city and construct the
Propagating the State Dogma 113

'White Wall.' Here the actors place reeds and rushes on each side
of the entrance to the temple of Ptah and the presenter says:

These reeds and rushes here placed side by side by

Atum symbolize Horns and his rival Set. As brothers
now at one and reconciled, their struggle is ended.
Peace is made in Memphis, called the 'Balance of the
Two Lands' because it stands athwart their bound-
aries and holds the balance there between them both.

Ptah is again presented as the primordial hill that contained all the
elements necessary for life and political order, and it is argued that
everything that existed originated in his heart (that is, in Egyptian
parlance, in his mind) and was made manifest by being pro-
nounced by his tongue (that is, by means of the spoken word).
The performance ended with a hymn to Ptah, the great and
mighty, the eternal ocean Nun, Ta-Tjenen the first land, the 'lofty
throne' where the sun-god Atum-Re came to be, the site where
Isis beheld the body of her beloved husband drowning in the wa-
ter, where she saved him, bound his limbs together, and brought
him back to life. Each act, indeed every scene, was in accordance
with tradition.
It has been argued that the Memphite Drama represents an in-
tellectual account of the creation because Ptah conceived of the
world in his heart and brought order - gods, cities, temples, and
all earthly things - into being through the 'word'. In fact, the dia-
logue should be taken at face value: a political process by means of
which power was granted to inanimate gods by naming them. It is
interesting to observe a tradition that survived to the second cen-
tury ad, when the Hermetic writings state that "our ancestors in-
vented the art of creating gods."
The authors of the Memphite Drama neither obscured nor de-
nied widely-held beliefs. The drama confirmed the sacred charter
ii4 Organization

of the Heliopolis Doctrine and provided the conventional por-

trait of an ideal ruler that all future kings were bound to observe.
Moreover, in casting Ptah as himself the primordial hill on which
the first god Atum appeared, the drama underscored the reputa-
tion of the capital and its local god, which was retained to the end
of ancient Egyptian history.

Guardians of a Tradition
As the thread of a tradition passes from generation to generation,
more and more people become its guardians. With the passage of
time the ideology with strong political, social, and religious rami-
fications is further embellished. Battles between Horus and Set,
for example, became one epic struggle between two protagonists
representing Upper and Lower Egypt; Set became associated
with the desert and with evil, Horus with benevolence. All sea-
sonal and kingship festivals stressed the triumph of Horus over
Set. The former was the prototype of the 'good god,' the latter its
opposite. Set featured in all ritual sacrifices; as an animal was
bound, killed, and dismembered so would the enemies of the king
suffer that fate. All variations became part of a living and enduring
tradition. Leaders could come and go, loyalties change, but even
alien conquerors and usurpers were accepted as king once they
took the sacred emblems of kingship, wore the Double Crown,
underwent the necessary coronation rituals, gave prestige to the
various cult centers by rebuilding or enlarging their temples, hon-
ored the royal ancestors in festivals like the Sed, and made pil-
grimage to their shrines. Dynasties of Libyans, Kushites, Greeks,
and Romans are all marked by great building activity, and all ac-
tively participated in the ancestor cult as well as the rituals and
festivals that formed the fabric of society.
The Final Collapse 115

The Final Collapse

The causes of the Old Kingdom's collapse are still debated among
scholars. Social change, the undertaking of huge non-economic
enterprises like constructing the pyramids and the sun temples,
and the drain on the treasury caused by the maintenance of royal
ancestor cults were undoubtedly contributing factors. The excep-
tionally long reign of Pepi II, when leaders of cult centers found
themselves increasingly rebelling against supervision by the
Great House, was another cause. These factors, and the costs of
maintaining provincial loyalty, lavishing resources on festivals,
and rewarding officials by helping with their tomb construction,
must have combined to burden the state.
But the famine that hit the land toward the end of the Sixth Dy-
nasty was, perhaps, the most decisive factor in its collapse. The
Great House may have managed to maintain a high degree of po-
litical stability despite the independence of some provincial
chiefs, but its great resources could not provide security against
the consequences of continual natural disasters like low flood and
famine. Year after year the sun scorched the land, the Nile failed
to revitalize it, and the crops failed to grow. Society could not sus-
tain a catastrophe of such dimensions. It cast doubt on the very
ability of the divine king to control nature and ensure the eternal
well-being of the land and its people. A period of political turmoil
and spiritual disillusionment swept the land.
Yet so deeply rooted were the traditions - and so ingeniously
imposed were its ideals - that although the Old Kingdom civi-
lization collapsed and a period of anarchy and bloodshed fol-
lowed, distinctive features of the early culture endured. The Old
Kingdom, when the hard core of Egyptian thought and institu-
tion was formulated, became the classic standard, the time which
the ancient Egyptians themselves regarded as a model throughout
their history. They believed that there was once a Golden Age, the
n6 Organization

'first time,' when the principles of justice reigned over the land.
What was actually meant by this oft-repeated phrase - the 'first
time' - in ancient Egyptian texts is not known. It implies the be-
ginning of an event and is often taken to mean 'the beginning,' or
'creation.' The 'first time' might, however, simply have represent-
ed recapitulations that reflected the Egyptians' pride in their own
culture; a confirmation that order once existed.

The Watery Highway

There was ceaseless activity in ancient Egypt. Because the geogra-
phy of the land made transport difficult - if not impossible - ex-
cept by boat, the bulk of the movement was dependent on the
Nile and its subsidiary canals. The importance of the river to
Egypt's economy cannot be underestimated. It was the vital
artery that linked Upper and Lower Egypt, the most effective and
practical method for transporting goods destined for the royal
treasury, and the means by which provincial dignitaries jour-
neyed to attend festivals in the capital and the 'Followers of Ho-
rus' to conduct the biennial census. Even when excursions were
organized to neighboring countries in search of raw materials, the
logistics of sailing had to be considered. When trade with Nubia
was expanded in the Sixth Dynasty, for example, channels were
excavated through great granite obstructions in the cataract re-
gion. When valuable commodities such as myrrh or frankincense
were imported from Punt, the Nile was used to transport boat-
building material to the point where it most closely approached
the Red Sea (Coptos) and then, after being carried through the
Wadi Hammamat, boats were built on the shore.
All major settlements were within easy reach of the river and all
valley temples in both pyramid and sun temple complexes were at
the edge of the Nile. Ownership of a boat - or access to the use of
one - was vitally important. In fact, the ancient Egyptian attitude
toward movement was so closely linked to the idea of sailing that
118 Travel

travel south was referred to as 'going upstream' and travel north

as 'going downstream.' Boats were so familiar a sight and so con-
nected to the commercial and religious life of the people that it is
not surprising to find them among the earliest objects depicted in
art and included among funerary equipment.
Naturally, shipbuilding was one of the oldest industries. Cargo
vessels with flat stern and bow varied in size and could transport
anything from stone weighing hundreds of tons to agricultural
products and livestock. On ceremonial occasions when special
stone was brought to the capital for the construction of a royal
tomb, a train of barges would be used. Perhaps the king per-
formed the solemn act of holding the foremost rope. Because of
the varying water level of the Nile and the constantly changing
sand banks and central channel, no costly ports were built. A ves-
sel simply landed on the sandy riverbank, drove in a mooring peg,
and fastened prow and stern. Even large boats were built with
very shallow draft; they skimmed the water, scarcely a third of
their length touching the surface, their prow and stern high out of
the water.
Ownership of a boat was important even in villages that lay far
from cult centers. The Nile was the watery highway on which life
and prosperity depended; ferry services were operated along its
banks and in many subsidiary canals. Boats were needed for the
movement of crops and livestock in the simplest villages, and the
services of the ferryman were required to transport the dead for
burial on the necropolis.
The earliest boats painted on Predynastic pottery were skiffs or
rafts made of papyrus reeds lashed together. These were propelled
by oars or paddles and continued to be used by fishermen for
traveling along canals or in the marshes throughout the historical
period. Also appearing on Predynastic pottery and in the painted
tomb of Nekhen are long, flat sailing boats used by people of
rank. They were probably made of local acacia wood, and the
The great ceremonial court
of the Step Pyramid Complex at
Saqqara lies between the entrance
colonnade and the pyramid itself.
(Robert Scott)
The shrines in the Heb Sed Court of
Zoser's funerary complex at Saqqara
housed statues of deities. (Robert Scott)
The Step Pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara
with newly excavated tombs in the
foreground. (Michael Stock)
The sophistication of the earliest stone
architecture is reflected in the shrines of
the Heb Sed Court at Saqqara. (Robert Scott)
Triad of Menkaure with the
goddess Hathor and a local deity.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo. (Robert Scott)
Mereruka was a high-ranking nobleman,
a member of the elite. (Robert Scott)
Scribes kept strict records and
dealt with cases of tax evasion.
Tomb of Mereruka. (Robert Scott)
The Great Sphinx at Giza with the
Pyramid of Khafre in the background.
(Michael Stock)

An attentive Mereruka listens to his wife

playing the harp. Tomb of Mereruka.
(Robert Scott)
The Watery Highway 119

deck-cabins, which could have been enclosed with plaited mat-

ting, stood behind the main mast on the deck. Near the tomb of
the First Dynasty king Aha at Abydos a great (but empty) boat
pit-over thirteen meters long and nearly three meters wide-
was found. It raises a vision of this king traveling in state.
Sailors were titled according to the size of the boat. When huge
sarcophagi or granite columns like the ten-meter-high palm-capi-
tal monoliths depicted in the causeway of Unas at Saqqara were
shipped, the crew comprised captains, directors, and overseers.
The relief at Saqqara shows that the columns were shipped in
pairs on two boats and a fragment of an autobiographical text
states that it took only seven days to cover the distance of nearly a
thousand kilometers from Aswan to Memphis. It is interesting to
note that quarrymen and stone-masons were organized like a
ship's crew, in 'groups often.'
Apart from the great boat pits discovered at Giza, boats have
been excavated in large numbers in recent years, especially at
Abydos. Twelve have been found in mud-brick graves outside the
surrounding walls of Shunet al-Zibib; and two of twelve cham-
bers of a partially-robbed tomb of a 'scorpion' king were filled to
the roof with undisturbed vessels that have been dated to the
reign of Aha. Adding to the confusion and raising many ques-
tions regarding the function of boats, is a simulated boat made of
mud-brick that was found at the edge of the plateau at Abu Sir.
The evidence is tantalizing because no firm conclusions can be
drawn. Some of the vessels have been found in conjunction with
royal burials, others - at Abydos, Helwan, and Abu Sir - with
non-royal burials. It is believed (though by no means certain) that
the boats at royal funerary complexes may have religious signifi-
cance, related to the journey of the divine king in the afterlife: "I
assume my pure seat which is in the bow of the bark of Re. It is
the sailors who row Re, and it is they who will row me; it is the
sailors who convey Re round the horizon, and it is they who will
lie Travel

convey me round the horizon." The most plausible explanation

for the vast numbers of boats buried at Abydos is that they were
pilgrims' vessels used to transport them to the sacred site where
the ancestors were buried. But this does not explain why the boats
were actually buried there nor how the pilgrims returned home.
One thing is now certain: boat burials were a feature of great im-
portance in the Old Kingdom.
In historical times, the person who used a boat took no part in
its management; this was the job of the pilot, who, with his
knowledge of the river and with the help of a pole to test the
depth of the water, gave directions to the steersman. Although
travel southward was facilitated by the prevailing north wind
(travel northward being with the current), the Nile does not flow
in a straight south-north line. There are places where it flows east
to west - as between Qena and Nag Hammadi - and there were
occasions when the wind failed to blow, so sometimes a laborious,
zig-zag course was necessary, or even towing from the bank.
Consequently, boats carried both single sails and oars (generally
about twelve on each side). In places where the water was too
shallow and a boat became stuck on a sandbank, it was refloated
by the simple mechanics of pushing and heaving. Passing through
places where islands or rocks lay athwart the river, as in the
Cataract region, a vessel was towed by a group of sailors onshore,
its passage controlled by others using oars and rudders on deck.

Sea Voyages
Egyptians traveled great distances in search of raw materials.
Once monumental building in stone began, the need to bring
large quantities to the Memphite necropolis made timber for boat
construction one of Egypt's most pressing requirements. Wood
was also needed for the substructures of the tombs, the interior of
Sea Voyages 121

the pyramids, and for flagstaffs, coffins, and doorways. The best
quality wood was the cedar from Lebanon, and one of the earliest
surviving texts that specifically makes mention of an Egyptian
fleet records that in the reign of Senefru forty ships sailed across
the 'great green' (the Mediterranean) to Byblos and returned to
Egypt laden with timber. The text mentions that the ships were
one hundred cubits long (approximately forty-five meters). The
term 'Byblos ship' was used of a seaworthy vessel, and these dis-
played certain modifications in comparison with craft designed
for river and canal traffic, though it is likely that they hugged the
shore rather than heading across open sea. They had a long hull, a
high curved stern with two rudders situated on each side, a single
mast held by four ropes, and a wide sail. For added strength, a ca-
ble connected the bow and stern above the deck. The Egyptian
fleet was a familiar sight on the eastern Mediterranean. A shrine
was set up at Byblos in honor of Hathor, Egypt's popular cow-
goddess. It provided a place of worship for the sailors and a con-
venient point from which to recruit laborers from among the in-
habitants, largely fishers and farmers, to fell the timber and trans-
port it to the port. Byblos became a sort of protectorate to which
traders brought their wares: cedar oil (frequently mentioned on
offering lists), Syrian wine, lapis lazuli, and Asiatic copper for the
Egyptian treasury. Some of the foreign traders were rewarded for
their efforts by a trip to Egypt; in Sahure's sun temple a relief de-
picts the homebound fleet with bearded Syrians aboard, their
arms uplifted in homage to the king.
Sahure also sent ships down the Red Sea to Punt on the Somali
coast; indeed, travel along this waterway was more frequent than
is usually supposed. The ship-building material had to be trans-
ported overland from Coptos to the region around Quseir.
(While engaged on such a mission, one caravan leader and the
troop with him were murdered by Bedouin tribes; Pepi-Nakht, a
competent nobleman from Elephantine, was dispatched by the
122 Travel

Great House to resolve the problem and recover the body.) The
frequency of expeditions to Punt is clear from the text in the tomb
of a subordinate official from Elephantine, who recorded that he
accompanied his lord on a dozen occasions. The imports from
one journey alone were eighty thousand measures of myrrh,
some six thousand units of electrum, and 2,600 staves of ebony.

Movement Overland
No effort was spared to build the most beautiful and enduring
monuments, and no distance was too great to travel in search of
metal and stone of the finest quality. The extent of internal move-
ment and communication can best be realized by considering the
widely separated areas from which the raw material came: copper
and turquoise from the mines in Sinai, basalt from the eastern
Delta, limestone from the Tura quarries south of Helwan, al-
abaster from Hat-Nub in Middle Egypt, fine and coarse granite
from the quarries around Aswan, diorite from the Western Desert
of Lower Nubia, and gold and copper ores from the Eastern
Desert. A text in Wadi Hammamat shows the size of missions
sent to quarry in the Eastern Desert: one thousand officials,
twelve hundred quarrymen, and one hundred 'necropolis work-
When stone was quarried for statues or sarcophagi, it was
roughly shaped before transportation in order to reduce the
weight. The stones were then eased onto wooden sledges and
towed by gangs of men to the river to be levered onto the waiting
barges. Having sailed to their destination on the swift-flowing
currents, the stone would be transferred to sledges again and
dragged to the chosen site. Although there is a representation of a
scaling-ladder on wheels in a Fifth Dynasty tomb, wheels were
not used for transportation in the Old Kingdom.
Movement Overland 123

Regular incursions into Nubia were carried out from early

times. Djer left an inscription at the entrance to the Second
Cataract, situated some two hundred kilometers south of Aswan
and the gateway to sources of incense, ebony, ivory, animal skins,
ostrich feathers, and gold. There is evidence that one site, near a
particularly rich vein of copper in Wadi Alaqi in the Eastern
Desert of Nubia, was occupied for two centuries while large
quantities of ore were smelted. Throughout the Fourth and Fifth
dynasties there was considerable activity there. Rock inscriptions
at Kulb, a gold-mining area south of the Second Cataract, reveals
the southernmost point at which prospectors worked.
One of the most important discoveries made during the Nu-
bian salvage operations in the 19605 was an apparent attempt by
the Great House to control Lower Nubia by creating centers of
permanent occupation. Apart from Wadi Alaqi, the ruins of an-
other settlement were discovered in Buhen - also below the Sec-
ond Cataract - where copper ore was crushed and smelted. Royal
names on mud-seals include Khafre and Menkaure of the Fourth
Dynasty and Userkaf, Sahure, Neferirkare, and Djedkare of the
Fifth. The reign of Sahure was particularly active. The Palermo
Stone mentions eighty thousand measures of myrrh, six thousand
units of electrum, 2,900 units of wood, and 23,020 measures of
unguent brought from Punt in his reign.
Although primarily maintained to satisfy Egyptian require-
ments, the relationship between Egyptians and Nubians was mu-
tually beneficial. The Nile in Nubia was flanked by a wall of hills
to east and west that closely confined the valley. Apart from a nar-
row strip between the Nile and the ridges, and at the mouths of
subsidiary river beds, the land was desolate. The Nubians were
impoverished: they lived in settlements of low-built houses along
the river's edge or beside water holes and channels. They depend-
ed on Egypt for corn, oil, honey, clothing, and other items. It was
from these tribes that Weni recruited additional troops to sup-
124 Travel

press agitating Bedouins in the frontier provinces of the Delta and

in Sinai. He quelled revolts on no less than five occasions and was
thenceforth appointed 'keeper of the door of the south,' Elephan-
tine. His main responsibility appears to have been to keep Nubian
tribes on the border from warring with one another and hinder-
ing trade. Weni's success is attested by the fact that in the fifth year
of Merenre's reign the king personally traveled from Memphis to
the First Cataract to receive homage from the Nubian chiefs. A
rock inscription in the Cataract region records the occasion. It
shows him leaning on a staff while the chiefs of Medja, Irtje, and
Wawat bow to him.
Weni's next task was to improve methods of communication
between Nubia and Memphis to aid in the conveyance of granite
blocks for the king's tomb. The now-aged official was put in
charge of digging five channels through parts of the cataract. The
project was so successful that Weni claimed: "Indeed, I made a
(saving) for the palace with all these five canals." Three boats and
four barges were then constructed to transport the "very large
blocks for the pyramid," and so great was Egypt's prestige in
Lower Nubia that the timber for their construction was provided
by the local chiefs. Weni wrote: "The foreign chiefs of Irtje,
Wawat, Yam, and Medja cut the timber for them. ... I did it all in
one year."
The Nubians respected the loose sovereignty exercised over
them. With peaceful relations and the waterway open it was nat-
ural that the surrounding areas should be more fully exploited, es-
pecially the ridges of Nubia's Eastern Desert bearing rich veins of
gold-bearing quartz. Broken pottery vessels with the names of
Pepi I, Merenre, and Pepi II have been found as far south as Ker-
ma in Sudan. Journeys even further south were no longer formi-
dable, and a closer interest in Yam (Upper Nubia) and Kush (Su-
dan) developed. The gateway to the vast riches of the interior of
Africa was open. Caravans could explore overland routes to dis-
Movement Overland 125

tant Punt, previously only approached by sea, in order to import

exotica considered indispensable to the wealthy. Caravan leaders
traveling on foot were accompanied by pack-donkeys - camels
were introduced only in the much later Persian Period. The jour-
neys must have been interminable and exhausting. The convoys
were obliged to travel slowly, following old river channels where
wells and springs could be found. It took months to cover routes
that camels can today cover in a few weeks. The expeditions were
usually successful but they were not without hazard, and more
than one nobleman lost his life venturing into unknown regions
of Africa.
The tombs of successive noblemen from Elephantine clearly
indicate the vigorous approach being introduced in Egypt's for-
eign policy toward the end of the Old Kingdom. Harkhuf was
one such leader. He was the first recorded explorer in history,
who made four journeys to Yam, the inhospitable region south of
the Second Cataract. He also traveled westward to unexplored re-
gions on the 'Elephant Road,' which may have been the route ex-
tending southward from Kharga Oasis, used today for transport-
ing herds of camels from the Sudan. His first journey took seven
months. His second was more adventurous, and he recorded that
"never had any companion or caravan-leader who went forth to
Yam done (it)," and that he brought back items "the likes of
which no one has ever brought back before." When Harkhuf
reached Yam on his third expedition he found the country in an
uproar. The chiefs were engaged in war with the settlements of the
Temehu (tribes related to the Libyans). Egypt had always acted
on the defensive against incursions on the Nile Valley from the
Western Desert. Under the adventurous Harkhuf, however, a
convoy followed the chief of Yam westward and reduced him to
subjection. On his return journey Harkhuf's convoy - laden with
tributes and products and furnished with a heavy escort - so im-
pressed the tribal chiefs of the Nubian border that they offered
ii6 Travel

him guides to complete his journey. It was on his fourth mission

that Harkhuf brought back to Egypt gold, ostrich feathers, lion
and leopard skins, elephant tusks, cowry shells, logs of ebony, in-
cense, gum Arabic, and a dancing pygmy for the child-king,
Pepi II.
Overland journeys, whether in search of raw materials or to
fight punitive wars to keep trade routes open, needed tremendous
organization. In the reign of Pepi I when the Bedouin tribes were
hindering mining operations in Sinai, Weni was sent at the head of
a considerable force to suppress them. Able-bodied men were
rounded up from all over the country, their numbers augmented
by Nubians of several different tribes. In his autobiographical text
Weni recorded that the force numbered thousands, including rep-
resentatives of the Great House, with royal seal-bearers, heads of
the provinces, and chiefs of the priests, as well as "chief district of-
ficials at the heads of the troops from the villages and towns that
they governed." It was a national effort and it says a great deal for
the integrated society of the Old Kingdom that, under Weni's
leadership, this motley group was orderly and well supplied with
sufficient rations. He wrote: "It was I who commanded them ...
so that no one attacked his fellow, so that no one seized a loaf
from a traveler, so that no one took a cloth from any town, so that
no one took a goat from anyone." On his return to the court Weni
was granted the most distinguished mark of favor he could re-
ceive: the right to carry a staff and wear sandals in the palace, in
the presence of the king.
Due to Weni's successful mission for the Great House, Pepi
granted him the furnishings for his tomb in the choicest white
limestone from the quarries of Tura. This included a sarcophagus
with its lid, a door-shaped stele with its setting, and a table for of-
ferings. Having ensured the continued loyalty of his 'servant'
Weni by this generous gesture, the king ordered him to go to Se-
heil Island, south of Elephantine, to select granite for his own sar-
Rural Movement 127

cophagus and lid and to Hat Nub for a piece of local alabaster for
his table of offerings. Central control over raw materials was a
great source of power. Foreign trade and mining were controlled
by the Great House and distribution was regulated. Royal work-
shops played a crucial role in transforming these raw materials
into the luxury goods required for the ever-increasing upper
classes. Well into the Sixth Dynasty, when there was a breakdown
in central control, men like Weni remained subservient to the

Rural Movement
In the rural areas the people traveled on foot, and the donkey and
the ox were the only beasts of burden. As they made their way to
the granaries and storehouses laden with produce, their routes
were trodden into firm dirt-track roads. These were used by the
peasant community, by herdsmen and their cattle, by female of-
fering-bearers from the estates, and as playgrounds for children.
Almost all of Egypt's cultivable soil was used for crop-grow-
ing, and the land was irrigated through a system of large and small
canals. The farmer who dug a canal to regulate the flow of water
to the crops simultaneously constructed a dike with the excavated
earth, and this served as a path between the fields. Since regular at-
tention was given to canals to guide water to land that would oth-
erwise remain barren, and precautions were intermittently taken
to prevent over-flooding, the paths were kept in good order. They
were used by the farmers and their livestock. Larger dikes beside
deep canals could serve also as tow-paths for small boats. There
were no bridges. When a canal had to be crossed herders simply
guided their animals through the shallow water; alternatively, a
ferryman was inevitably available, using a pole like a punt to cross
a canal, and was probably paid for his services in farm produce.
n8 Travel

Journey to the Afterlife

It is not surprising that the Nile, the watery highway-on which life
and prosperity depended, should be reflected in ancient Egyptian
religious beliefs, nor that boats should be regarded as a means by
which the deceased would reach the afterlife. First the dead had to
cross the 'lily-lake' - the sacred region where they were purified.
This crossing was conceived in the same manner as the living
transported their dead along channels to the burial grounds: by a
ferryman who stood in the stern of the boat facing backward as he
poled along. Funerary texts indicate that this individual had a te-
dious job waiting for passengers and resented being called upon at
inconvenient hours. He would complain of being woken up or of
having a faulty vessel and would offer other excuses to save him-
self the trouble. According to the Pyramid Texts, even the de-
ceased king had to cajole the ferryman to do his duty. Indeed, the
ancient Egyptians regarded the ferrying of a boatless traveler
across a canal or marshy area as a good deed of the caliber of giv-
ing food to the hungry and clothing to the poor.

Enjoyment of Life
Most of the buildings of ancient Egypt, including the royal palace,
were made of wood and sun-dried brick. Stone was reserved for
tombs and temples, so most of the surviving structures are of a fu-
nerary nature. This gives the erroneous impression that the an-
cient Egyptians were preoccupied with the afterlife. Evidence to
the contrary is abundant. They thought of the afterlife as a natural
sequence to their earthly existence and decorated their tombs
with categories of activities they wished to repeat. Representa-
tions of agriculture and food - common to all tombs - were sym-
bolic of the fertile land of Egypt. Ripe wheat fields and orchards
laden with fruit would provide food for the afterlife. Scenes of
hunting, fishing, and the rearing and care of animals were likewise
symbolic in their purpose. Presumably it was not considered nec-
essary to depict the canal system of irrigation, methods used in
transforming stone into monuments, or techniques of construc-
tion. What was important was to ensure that the best food was
grown for eternity, prepared in the best possible way, and ade-
quately stored.
Burial grounds around Memphis, Giza, and Helwan attest to
three distinct social classes in the Old Kingdom: the nobility, offi-
cials and artisans, and peasant farmers. The king was the leader of
the nobility and after him came the royal family, members of oth-
er powerful families, and those promoted in rank. Artisans em-
ployed by the state came next, along with overseers, superinten-
130 Living

dents, and their families. At the bottom of the scale were farmers,
herdsmen, and laborers. Inequality was accepted as the normal
condition. However, within each social stratum the people had
their own gradations of power and wealth.

Noble Men and Women

Our knowledge of life in the Old Kingdom is chiefly derived
from the reliefs and contents of the tombs of the nobles at Giza
and Saqqara. Tomb reliefs provide a rich saga of the daily lives of
aristocratic families. Their wealth depended on coordinating dif-
ferent activities in the interest of the Great House, including the
inspection and supervision of industries, the collection of grain
taxes, and the documentation of income from mining expeditions.
In short, their job was to administer state property.
Large estates were usually self-supporting, and there is every
indication that noble men and women were proud and ambitious.
They took obvious pride in their responsibility, appearance, and
possessions. They were frequently borne on tours of inspection
in a carrying-chair on the shoulders of pole-bearers. From this
vantage they could inspect vineyards, granaries, and fisheries, as
well as leather, papyrus, furniture, and weaving factories. Noble
families lived well and appreciated material comforts. An impor-
Noble Men and Women 131

tant official often had a small town house - one of a pair built
back-to-back and opening onto a street - located near the king's
palace, and a larger country house on one of the estates under his
control. The country house was airy and spacious, well suited to
the warm climate with latticed windows and large open court-
yards. Some of the mud-brick structures were built on founda-
tions of stone covered with clay. The wealthier homes had lime-
stone lintels above the doorways, and wooden beams. Floors
were frequently paved with brick tiles. Houses were usually white-
washed inside and out, as attested by the ruins of some wealthy
houses excavated at Giza; the purpose may have been hygienic as
well as aesthetic. Insect pests were controlled by washing the house
with a solution of natron, and the ancient Egyptians appear to
have had well-developed drainage systems. The earliest evidence
of a bathroom comes from a Second Dynasty tomb at Saqqara. It
reveals that water was drained off into pits that could be closed
with a metal plug or emptied through a copper conduit. House-
hold waste was accumulated and swept out from time to time -
but only as far as the street or to an empty lot. There the piles of
refuse grew and probably attracted scavengers, much as they do
today. All useful items were fashioned with care. Chairs and beds
- which often had leather or rope-weave seats or mattresses fas-
tened to the frame with leather thongs - had legs carved in the
form of the powerful hind-limbs of ox or lion. Furniture fre-

Grave goods: a slate dish

with two hieroglyphic
symbols; copper basins
for ablutions; legs of a bed
132 Living

quently had decorative copper fittings. The handle of a spoon

might be fashioned to resemble a lotus blossom; a calyx might form
the bowl of a wine glass. As early as the First Dynasty, a stone lamp
was shaped like a papyrus bud. The earliest lamps were shallow
pottery bowls with wicks of twisted grass; the oil was animal fat.
Chests and boxes were richly inlaid with ivory; clothes and
other objects were tidily laid inside them. Beneath the high beds
there was adequate storage. Vases and vessels of copper, gold, and
silver were equipped with stands to raise them to the required
height. Tables were either round on a central pedestal or shaped
like a half-ellipse on four legs. Chairs tended to be low, the occu-
pant having to recline or squat. Guests could also sit on beautiful
woven mats on the floor. Walls were decorated with hanging rugs
and the ceilings were frequently painted blue.
Every household cultivated part of its land, and gardening
came to play a large part in the daily lives of the wealthy families.
Vines, palms, fruit trees, and vegetables grew on their estates. If
extra water were needed in the heat of the summer, gardeners
filled heavy jars from the canals and brought them in pairs on
yokes. In the unfinished tomb of Neferherenptah at Saqqara is a
scene of gardeners clapping sticks to scare away birds and water-
ing and cutting lettuce. As early as the Third Dynasty an impor-
tant official named Methen had a large house - two hundred cu-
bits (approximately ninety meters) square - which he mentions

Half-ellipse table
Food and Drink 133

was "built and furnished." In his garden he claimed "fine trees

were planted, and a very large lake made; figs and vines (are) plen-
tiful ... and a great quantity of wine (is) made there."
That the ancient Egyptians were great nature-lovers is attested
by the encyclopedic lists of birds, plants, and animals recorded in
monuments. Their feeling for nature is also revealed in a common
mortuary prayer that hopes the deceased might return, sit in the
shade, and eat the fruit of the trees they had planted.

Food and Drink

Representations of tables laden with large varieties of food and
drink show that the upper classes ate heartily. Great piles of fish,
beef, and fowl, along with bread and honey, weighed down a
table. Red wine was served. Eating was a sensual delight, both as
regards smell and taste. The nose was a determinative sign used in
writing both these nouns, as well as the verb 'enjoy' or 'take plea-
sure in.' Food was enhanced by the use of salt and oil, the former
serving also for curing and preserving fish and meat. The sweet
product valued above all others was honey and bee-keeping was
an important minor industry. In a tomb at Saqqara belonging to a
woman of the lesser nobility her relatives had laid out food on
rough pottery, alabaster, and diorite bowls and dishes beside her
sarcophagus. Undisturbed for thousands of years, the food was
identified as a type of barley cereal, a cooked quail, a pigeon stew,
fish (cleaned and dressed with the head removed), ribs of beef,
two cooked kidneys, wheat bread, small cakes, and stewed fruit.
It is unlikely that this represented the courses of a single meal.
A well-stocked larder included lentils, chick peas, cow peas,
and ordinary peas, as well as beans. Eggs were stacked in earthen-
ware dishes. Goats and cows supplied milk, butter, and cheese.
The oil of sesame seeds and refined butter - ghee - were used for
134 Living

cooking. Vegetables included onions and garlic, cucumbers and

leeks. Among the fruits were watermelons, pomegranates, and
grapes. Fish was very popular and it seems that no larder was
complete without its assortment of mullet, catfish, and perch.
Egyptian caviar was a great delicacy produced from early times.
The tombs of Ti (a high-ranking official who worked under three
kings of the Fifth Dynasty) and Kagemni (a Sixth Dynasty vizier
and judge) show how the ovaries of the gray mullet were extract-
ed, salted, and dried for this purpose. In the double tomb of Ni-
ankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (low-ranking priests of the sun
temple of Nyuserre and 'manicurists of the court'), fish is shown
being broiled in a cauldron over an open fire.
Most cooking was done outdoors, in a courtyard partly roofed
with matting or palm thatch. Straw, palm leaves, and animal dung
were used for fuel, along with branches of acacia and tamarisk.
Geese - which were the favorite among farm birds - were gener-
ally roasted over live embers, placed on a low slab of limestone
that served as a hearth, or on a metal brazier. Poultry was an im-
portant source of protein, and quantities of duck, pigeon, and
quail were eaten. One of the most popular methods of preparing
smaller fowl - and one that is still used in Egypt today - was to
split the bird across the breastbone and spread it flat for grilling.
Beer was the national drink. It was made from coarse barley
bread that was only lightly baked so as not to destroy the yeast.
This was broken up, mixed with water and malted barley, and left
to ferment. It was sometimes sweetened with dates and stored in
pottery jars. Residues have been found in Predynastic jars and the
earliest mention of beer is in the Third Dynasty. Not surprisingly,
bread-making and brewing were depicted together in ancient
Egyptian tombs, the former being a preliminary step to the latter.
A more popular drink among the upper classes was domestic
wine, which came from large estates around the country. The ear-
liest evidence of grape wine conies from the Predynastic settle-
Food and Drink 135

ment of Omari, near Helwan, and a wine-press hieroglyph was

used as early as the First Dynasty. Many vintages were known by
name. The main wine-growing areas were the Delta, the Fayyum,
and the oases of the Western Desert. Representations of viticul-
ture show the gathering, treading, and pressing of grapes of differ-
ent colors, from which we may infer that the ancient Egyptians
knew white as well as red wine. The benefits of long-term storage
were known, and wines from vintage years seem to have been
prized. Palm-wine, made of the sap of the date palm obtained by
making an incision in the heart of the tree, is mentioned in the
Pyramid Texts; fermentation rendered it toxic. Date-wine - made
by steeping a certain variety of date in water, pressing out the liq-
uid, and leaving it to ferment - is also mentioned.
The Pyramid Texts indicate that ordinary people had three
meals a day, while the royal household had five. One wealthy no-
bleman drew up a list of food items to be inscribed in his tomb. It
included "ten different kinds of meat, five kinds of poultry, six-
teen kinds of bread and cakes, six kinds of wine, four kinds of
beer, eleven kinds of fruit, in addition to all sorts of sweets and
many other things." It is interesting to note that there was no
standard offering list tirelessly repeated from generation to gener-
ation. They changed with the passage of time to include delicacies
as and when they were introduced from countries across the

Food offerings
136 Living

Clothing and Accessories

The ancient Egyptians dressed to suit their climate of almost con-
stant sunshine. Most garments were made of linen. Silk and cot-
ton were unknown and wool was only rarely used. Women wore
a sheath, a close-fitting, ankle-length, unadorned dress with
broad shoulder bands. Men wore short, broad, pleated skirts and
sandals. Children did not wear clothing. Maidservants and
dancers wore only loincloths and girdles, often with blossoms
around the neck. The simple effect of the clothing was enhanced
by colorful jewelry - both men and women wore elaborate col-
ored necklaces, bead collars of carnelian, turquoise, and lapis
lazuli. Bracelets of silver and ivory were worn by women, as well
as different types of earrings: hoops, studs, and ear plugs. Girls of-
ten wore their hair short or had a pony-tail, sometimes weighted
with a pompon or a disk-shaped ornament.
People were fastidious about cleanliness. Women, especially,
took great pains with their toilet. They washed their bodies with
particular attention before meals, using a basin and a vessel with a

Statue of Princess Nofret.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Clothing and Accessories 137

spout. They shaved their limbs with bronze razors with curved
blades and used tweezers and scrapers. A woman's skin was
rubbed with perfumed oils, her lips and cheeks were colored with
rouge, and her palms were stained with henna. She applied a char-
acteristic band of color around the eye with a paint produced
from lead ores and known from Predynastic times as a remedy for
eye ailments, as well as for adornment. She applied this with the
aid of tiny ivory and wooden sticks, using mirrors of highly pol-
ished copper fitted with handles.
Special care was taken with the hair, which was washed, anoint-
ed with oils, and fashioned into curls and plaits. Even as early as
the First Dynasty, there is evidence that women sometimes
padded out their own hair with artificial tight curls and braids to
make it appear thicker. Both human hair and vegetable fiber were
made into wigs when either fashion or age necessitated it. Small
plaited locks of hair were treasured. All small items - including
locks, hairpins, mirrors, 'tweezer-razors,' or hair-curlers - were
kept in decorative containers of ebony, alabaster, and marble,
sometimes engraved with miniature high relief. Men, too, dressed
their hair with oils and fashioned it into different styles. They
wore kilts of varying lengths and tended to be clean-shaven, again
using razors with curved blades. The famous statue of Rahotep
and his wife (Egyptian Museum, Cairo) shows the nobleman
with the modest mustache that appears to have been fashionable
during the Old Kingdom.
Wealthy households included numerous servants, attending
master and mistress punctiliously from the moment they rose in
the morning. These were free servants, ancient Egyptians of poor-
er classes, at liberty to leave service if they so wished. A nobleman
had 'listeners' for his call, 'cup-bearers' to wait his table, and 'fol-
lowers' to bear his sandals, matting, and fly-whisk. Servant girls
poured water over the hands of guests before food was brought
in, musicians played, and young dancers performed. The tomb of
138 Living

Ptahhotep (one of the highest officials in the land in the reign of

Djedkare) shows the seated nobleman with a pedicurist at his feet
and a manicurist working on his hands while musicians entertain
him and his pet greyhound and a monkey take refuge beneath his
chair. Most households included dwarfs and hunchbacks who
were employed in the laundry or the kitchen, or put in charge of
household pets.
All rich landowners possessed monkeys, gazelle, ibex, and oth-
er animals of the desert, which they caught, tamed, and kept on
their estates. They had long learned that the dog was a man's best
friend, as well as his hunting companion. Sheepdogs, greyhounds
(often on a leash), and salukis were favorites. Greyhounds and
salukis were allowed to enter the house and even sleep beneath
the master's chair. There are no representations of a nobleman
petting a dog, but they were given names. One dog buried near his
master in a First Dynasty burial ground had a tombstone in-
scribed 'Neb' (Lord), with his picture. Cats seem not to have been
allowed inside houses in the Old Kingdom. They were depicted
only in papyrus groves, raiding birds' nests. The Nile goose was
given special treatment, being allowed into the courtyard and gar-
den. Domestic fowl included ducks, pigeons, geese, and water-
fowl; the domestic chicken had not yet been introduced.

The I deal Family

Among the upper classes a man had one legal wife who was 'mis-
tress of the house' and mother of his legal heirs. Although she
lived in a special women's quarter of the house with her children,
she was free to move around as she pleased. A wealthy landowner
might have had concubines, but his wife held a special place and
was treated with the utmost deference. No marriage contracts are
known to exist nor is there any indication of a special ceremony.
The Ideal Family 139

It would appear that the bride, together with her dowry, simply
made her way to the house of her appointed or approved hus-
band. His duties toward her are clear: "If you are a successful man
establish your household. Love your wife in the house as is fitting
... fill her body, clothe her back ... the recipe for her limbs is oint-
ment. Gladden her heart so long as she lives ... she is a fertile field
for her lord." These are the words of Ptahhotep, a Fifth Dynasty
vizier (not to be confused with his namesake whose tomb is at
Saqqara), who was well advanced in years when he asked his king
whether he could instruct his own son and prepare him for the of-
ficial duties that lay ahead of him. The king consented and the
aged man, wise from experience and learning, wrote some forty-
three paragraphs of random instructions (the so-called 'instruc-
tion literature'), which have come down to us in four copies: three
on papyrus and one on a wooden tablet. Half of them covered of-
ficial duties and conduct in administrative circles; the other half
concerned personal character and family relations, which were
regarded as among a man's most valuable possessions.
Ptahhotep stressed the togetherness of a husband and wife, the
closeness of brothers and sisters, and good behavior toward
friends and neighbors. In this context the reliefs take on new
meaning. In the tomb of Mereruka (the son-in-law of the Sixth
Dynasty king Teti) - whose tomb at Saqqara comprised cham-
bers for himself, his wife, and his son - are several scenes showing
family devotion. At the entrance to the tomb Mereruka is depict-
ed with his son Meri-Teti. The boy wears his hair with the side-
lock of youth and holds a lotus stalk in one hand and a hoopoe in
the other. Behind him are Mereruka's wife and several rows of at-
tendants. In one chamber of the tomb is an intimate and delightful
bedroom scene: the nobleman and his wife hold hands as they
watch their bed being prepared by servants. In another chamber
Mereruka is depicted with his wife on a double couch. She plays a
harp while he marks time with his hand. Pictorial and written evi-
140 Living

dence abound with loyalty and devotion: a nobleman's affection

for his wife and children, a son's loyalty to his father, mother,
brothers, and sisters. Family outings were encouraged. The fa-
mous tomb of Ti at Saqqara shows Ti sailing with his wife and
daughter through the marshes in a papyrus boat. And in the rock-
cut private tombs at Giza are statues of tomb owners along with
their immediate relatives cut out of the living rock. Pair statues of
man and wife, mother and daughter were common.
There is no confirmed disclosure of marriage between two
children of the same parents in the Old Kingdom. 'Brother' and
'sister' were terms of endearment and even after marriage a hus-
band called his wife snt (sister), meaning 'loved one.' Ancient
Egyptian morality is often judged today by the practices found
during the later periods of history in the New Kingdom, during
the Persian period, and by the Greeks, who declared that mar-
riages between brothers and sisters were normal practice in an-
cient Egypt.
The father was the chief authority in a strictly disciplined
home. The upbringing of boys was left largely in his hands and
that of girls in the hands of their mother. The girls were encour-
aged to sing, dance, and play musical instruments. The main pro-
fessions open to them were midwifery - which was held in high
esteem - spinning, and weaving. The education of boys was con-
sidered to be of great importance. The first piece of advice Ptah-
hotep gave his son was on modesty:

Be not proud because of your learning. Take council

with the unlearned as with the learned, for the limit
of a craft is not fixed and there is no craftsman whose
worth is perfect. Worthy speech is more hidden than a
greenstone being found among slave-women at the
mill-stone. Precious to a man is the virtue of his son,
and good character is a thing remembered.
The Ideal Family 141

The ancient Egyptians were discreet on matters of sexual be-

havior, and immorality was strongly condemned. Ptahhotep

Beware of a woman from abroad [i.e., a stranger]

who is not known in her town. Look not upon her
when she comes and know her not.... If you desire to
establish friendship in a house into which you enter...
beware of approaching women. The place where they
are [i.e., the harem] is not seemly, and it is not wise to
intrude upon them. A thousand men are undone for
the enjoyment of a brief moment like a dream.

Concubines were placed in a special category and Ptahhotep told

his son that they should be kindly treated; he also warned him not
to have any physical association with boys. As a solution to im-
morality, early marriages were recommended: a youth was ad-
vised to "take to himself a wife when he is young that she might
give him a son whom he will see a man. Happy is the man who has
a large household and who is respected on account of his chil-
Tomb inscriptions indicate that youths had great respect and
love for their fathers; no effort was spared by a loyal son to ensure
proper burial for his departed father. The case of Sabni, in the time
of Pepi II, is an example. His father was an official in charge of the
Southern Gate at Elephantine who was killed while venturing
southward on a trading mission. Sabni unhesitatingly set forth on
the same journey in order to recover his father's body and bring it
back to his native land for embalming and burial. He proudly
records his loyal mission in his tomb.
On the death of the head of a household, the oldest son took
care of his mother. The oldest living son was always the executor
of the deceased's land and entrusted with his funds. He was in-
142 Living

structed to guard the property of the family and expressly forbid-

den to share the wealth entrusted to him.

Right and Wrong

The ancient Egyptian words 'custom' and 'behavior' refer to the
modern ideas of morals and ethics. Today we often make the mis-
take of assuming that a sense of moral behavior was not common
in early societies. In fact, anthropological studies have shown that
the concept of right and wrong in preliterate communities springs
from a subconscious social feeling, and that it is compulsive and
strong. Whatever occurs with consistency and is found to be plea-
sant or useful is passed on from generation to generation until it
becomes a spontaneous duty, a standard of behavior. The earliest
such reference in was recorded on the Shabaka Stone, from the
Late Period,where it is stated: "Justice is given to he who does
what is liked; injustice to he who does what is disliked."
Right and wrong were a civil question, not a religious one. The
rules governing moral behavior were passed from father to son,
and "every man who instructs is like a sire ... he speaks with his
children, and then they speak with their children,... attain char-
acter, ... make maat to flourish." Their 'teachings' were ethical,
but not religious in the sense that they were taught by priests.
What was regarded as correct behavior was learned by rote within
the confines of the family. The teachings were copied from gener-
ation to generation for literally thousands of years: "Do not be
mean toward your friends" and "Do not plunder a neighbor's
house" were two of the rules of behavior; "Never utter words in
heat... control your mouth" and "Guard against the vice of
greed, a grievous sickness without cure" were others.
Disobedient children were punished. Ptahhotep told his son
how to take care of his own son in due course: "If he strays, ne-
Children 143

gleets your council, disobeys all that is said, his mouth spouting
evil speech, punish him for all this talk!" Kagemni instructed his
children to "recite it as it is written... and it seemed good to them
beyond anything in the whole land." These became sacred rules
of behavior automatically adhered to for the simple reason that "it
was always done that way"; because it was rnaat. Just as maat
gave stability and authority to the state, it provided discipline and
respect in the family.
A sense of right and wrong, and pride in doing good deeds,
were inscribed in tombs. Harkhuf, the caravan leader from Ele-
phantine who was one of the early explorers of Africa, recorded:
"I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, I ferried him
who had no boat." He also added a curse: "As for any man who
shall enter into (this) tomb as his mortuary possession, I will seize
him like a wild fowl; he shall be judged for it by the Great One."
Similarly, the steward Meni placed a warning above the doorpost
of his tomb: "Even he who does anything against it (my tomb); it
is the Great God who shall judge (him)." Since the king - the fo-
cus of national unity - had the attributes of his 'father' the sun-
god, such texts may refer to fear of judgment by the divine king,
or judgment before the sun-god. Either way, it is apparent that
fear of judgment was a deterrent against unacceptable conduct
and that a person's motive for declaring worthy deeds was "that it
may be well with me in the Great God's presence."

The depiction of the children of ancient Egypt in tombs and tem-
ples give us an appealing insight into their lives, which seem to
have been happy. With plenty of fresh air and sunshine, they went
swimming in the canals (the crawl seems to have been a favorite
stroke), fishing on the lakes, danced in the streets during festivals,
144 Living

and had plenty of fresh food and vegetables to keep them fit. The
boys played tug-of-war, tag, and a game in which a whole group
of boys try to touch a crouching player with the foot while at-
tempting to evade his hands. Girls' games included 'swing
around,' in which two young girls in the center hold four partners
with outstretched arms, and a game of forfeit in which they ex-
change copper mirrors.
Children are the stuff of future generations and what they are
taught is an indication of what is regarded as important to society.
The texts and model compositions that were given to children
show that they were urged to remember the names of ancient
sages who taught behavior and morals; they did not copy texts ex-
tolling the exploits of heroes who fought wars nor did they copy
texts lauding physical strength. In fact, apart from wrestling
scenes depicted on some tomb walls, warlike games or warlike
training were rare. The people danced with sticks in the ritual
conflict of a peace-loving society.
Ptahhotep contrasted the good man with the bad, the wise man
with the fool. He balanced desirable behavior - characterized by
moderation, reserve, discretion, and gentleness - against the dan-
gers of undesirable behavior - excessive pride, boastfulness, and

Greater is the appeal of the gentle than that of the

strong. Never utter words in heat. Let your mind
be deep and your speech scanty.
The wise man rises early to establish himself, but the
fool is in trouble.
When you sit with a glutton eat when his greed has
When you drink with a drunkard take when his heart
is content.
Report on a thing observed, not heard.
Peasant Farmers and Laborers 145

Peasant Farmers and Laborers

Egypt was an agricultural country and the bulk of its people were
peasant farmers. Their shelters of sun-dried brick or reeds daubed
with clay were not much different from the houses of either their
Predynastic ancestors or many of their descendants in the twenti-
eth century: a single room (oblong or square), one door, and no
windows. Furnishings comprised no more than a rough stool, a
box or chest, and perhaps a headrest. Reed mats were hung from
the walls and baskets and earthenware pots were used for storage.
The tombs of the nobles contain numerous scenes of the lives of
the poorer people: fishermen drying fish in the sun or repairing
nets and snares, farmers fattening geese or sowing the crops,
workers from the vineyard vigorously treading grapes, others in
the bakery grinding flour. The smaller statues of the Old King-
dom depict an array of good-natured folk. A naked peasant goes
to market with his sandals in his hand and his shoulder slightly
bent beneath the weight of the bag slung over it; a baker and his
wife knead dough. The farmers, who probably rose with the sun,
wore loincloths, which they frequently cast off during the day.
Both reliefs and inscriptions indicate that the people were hap-
py. The men who carry the nobleman around his estate in his car-
rying chair sing that it is as light to bear with their master seated in
it as it is when empty. A musician follows a line of reapers and, as
he plays his flute, one of the reapers simultaneously holds a sickle
and claps his hands, singing the 'song of the oxen.' A piper accom-
panies the harvest. A shepherd leading sheep through the fields
sings: "The shepherd is in the water among the fish; he talks with
the nar-fish, he passes the time of day with the west-fish." Some
of the reliefs are accompanied by texts of conversations between
146 Living

That is a very beautiful vessel (you are making).

Indeed, it is.
I have brought four pots of beer.
That's nothing. I loaded my donkeys with 202 sacks
while you were sitting.

The diet of the people consisted mainly of bread, onions, lentils,

vegetables, and dried Nile fish, along with sycamore figs and
dates. They loved garlic. Herodotus - probably with his usual ex-
aggeration - asserts that the workmen employed in building the
pyramid of Khufu ate 1,600 silver talents' worth of radishes,
onions, and garlic. The lower classes bartered for their needs. In
tomb representations a loaf of bread is exchanged for some
onions, a carpenter's wife gives a fisherman a small wooden box
for some of the day's catch, a potter's wife obtains a jar of fragrant
ointment for two bowls from her husband's kiln.
The foremen of the various projects appear to have been more
heavily built than their slim and muscular workers. The famous
statue of Ka-aper - known as the 'Sheikh al-Balad' (village chief) -
shows a heavy, stocky but energetic man striding forward with an
acacia staff in his hand. That of Nofir, the 'director of the gra-
naries,' also shows a man broad of build. In a relief in the tomb of
Ptahhotep is a scene of a foreman - obese and lazy - seated in a
skiff accepting a drink from an oarsman.
As all life depended on the annual flood, the people responded
to nature. When the level of the water began to rise each year and
spread over the parched land, they withdrew from the floodplain.
They might, as is evident in later times, have made simple offer-
ings of flowers or a goose that the water should not rise so high as
to wash away villages or be so low as to cause want. When the
flood receded, leaving the land covered with a layer of rich alluvial
soil, they sowed their seed and the sunshine did the rest. It was a
totally predictable pattern of life. The farmers watched the land
Piety of the People 147

slowly become a carpet of green from the germinating clover and

grain. The annual miracle of life over death was performed before
their eyes. The sprouting of vegetation was a striking manifesta-
tion of the forces of rebirth.
The past becomes more understandable through an awareness
of how closely it might resemble the present: today's spring festi-
val known as Shamm al-Nasim ('smelling the breezes') is a na-
tional holiday shared by Muslims and Christians alike. The entire
population takes to the outdoors to picnic on brown beans,
spring onions, boiled eggs, and salted fish. Children climb on
donkey-carts and roam the streets to the beating of drums and
castanets. Adults pay homage at the graves of their dead. The ac-
tivities probably originate from a long-standing rural tradition.

Piety of the People

Although we have no evidence of the beliefs of the illiterate mass-
es - apart from their conviction in a life after death and their ten-
dency to make offerings at sacred places - oral traditions know
no barrier, and the myth of Osiris was probably as widespread
among the masses as the nobility. The legendary ancestor was, af-
ter all, a farmer. He was associated with the rebirth of the land and
he fell victim to Set, who was associated with the relentless desert.
Set's tearing to pieces of the body of Osiris and scattering its parts
up and down the Nile Valley may be interpreted as the concept of
sowing grain, after which - with the necessary incantations (like
those performed by Isis and Nephthys), or rural festivals - the
stalks of grain would be reborn. Later, cult centers that wished to
give importance to their areas each claimed that a part of Osiris's
body was buried there. This poignant and probably best known
of ancient Egyptian myths also reflected a social ideal. It ex-
pressed wifely devotion (Isis for Osiris), motherhood (care of
148 Living

Horus until he reached manhood), and filial devotion, which

found expression in the tales of Horus avenging his father's death.
Osiris, Isis, and Horus were the ideal family. Allusions to them
appear in the mortuary literature and in national and seasonal fes-
tivals. The social significance of the myth should not be over-
looked. Like Osiris, many of the kings were good and just; they
had devoted wives and sons who completed their tombs for them
or arranged for the continued supply of nourishment for their
eternal well-being. The wholesome ideals of Ptahhotep might not
have been widespread among the masses. But there is no reason to
suppose that they did not cherish, if not actually practice, the
same values.

The Royal Family

The king of Upper and Lower Egypt did not live like a lazy
despot. His training began early. As a child he underwent basic
education, learning to read, write, and absorb the 'instruction lit-
erature' that he copied. As a youth he might have accompanied
his father on mining and trading expeditions. As vizier he had su-
pervised building operations, controlled the court of law, and
been in charge of the treasury. A king was well-equipped for his
role as political and spiritual leader, and he remained active
throughout his term of office. Much of his time was spent travel-
ing around the land to perform his ritual duties, attending festi-
vals, laying foundation stones, and honoring leaders of cult cen-
ters for their active service to the state. He wore the double crown
of Upper and Lower Egypt (of which no examples have been
found, probably because they were sacred symbols not regarded
as funerary equipment) and an artificial beard attached to it, of
which many representations can be found in the museums of the
world. The emblems he carried were the scepter, crook, and flail,
The Royal Family 149

which expressed regal authority. Apart from wearing richly en-

crusted jeweled collars, the royal family dressed little differently
from landed noble men and women.
Naturally the elaborate court etiquette required the king and
his family to have a host of courtiers, retainers, and servants. In
the palace there was a strict and complex structure of titles. Each
department had its head, who had his own attendants and their
appointed helpers. There was a 'chief court physician,' a 'director
of music,' a 'chief manicurist of the court,' and even an official
who called himself 'he who is head of the reversion,' who proba-
bly distributed the remains of the five royal meals a day to the
people. There was also a 'guardian of the royal crown and jewels,'
a 'keeper of the royal robes,' and an 'overseer of the cosmetic box'
who "performed in the matter of cosmetic art to the satisfaction
of his lord." It is from inscriptions of rank and privileges, duties
and tasks that we are informed of life in the royal palace and of the
honor that serving the king was meant to be. Even the 'sandal-
bearer of the king' was proud to record that he did his duties to
royal satisfaction. One retainer boasted in his tomb of the un-
precedented privilege of kissing the royal foot rather than the dust
before it.
The Great Royal Wife was accorded a privileged position be-
cause it was she who, through physical contact with her husband
(a god), provided the rule for royal succession and legitimacy for
rule. It is therefore not surprising that some queens were accord-
ed considerable prominence from the beginning of the dynastic
period. One of the earliest funerary monuments at Naqada is the
huge 'palace facade' monument belonging to Queen Neithhotep,
the wife of Aha. The tomb of Queen Meryetneith at Abydos was
large and rich, and it is suggested that she was Den's consort. Ne-
mathap was probably the wife of Khasekhemwy, since she bore
the title 'king-bearing mother' and was revered in later times as
the ancestor of the kings of the Third Dynasty.
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Honor of Ancestors
To conduct the funeral of a previous ruler was apparently a re-
quirement for succession. Many a king completed the funerary
monument of his father before commencing construction of his
own, inscribing his deed on the walls. It was also his duty to main-
tain the cult of ancestors, and this applied to royal wives as well as
kings. When Khufu learned that thieves had entered the tomb of
his mother, Hetepheres, he ordered a reburial for her in a new, se-
cret tomb at Giza. Unaware that the mummy had already been re-
moved from the sarcophagus, the workers lowered it into a shaft
to the east of the Great Pyramid, along with her funerary equip-
ment. It is thanks to Khufu's devotion that the furniture was
saved - the only royal furniture to have survived intact from the
Old Kingdom. It included the supports and uprights of a royal
canopy encased in gold from which mats were hung as curtains to
ensure privacy, a royal bed that sloped downward toward the foot
to provide a headrest, two chairs - one of which was portable -
and, among the smaller items, an inlaid footboard, vases of gold,
copper, and alabaster, gold razors, and a gold manicure set. The
chairs are magnificently carved with figures of the hawk and the
lotus, the symbol of the 'ankh (the key of life), and an ibex - all
gold-trimmed. The basic design of furniture did not greatly
change in later periods.

Class Mobility
All people could hope to gain promotion in life, whether they
were nobles, minor officials, or humble servants. Wealth and
prestige were not restricted to those born into a certain ruling
class. Marriage, inheritance, or promotion could change the status
of an individual. Naturally, this was easier for those who lived and
Class Mobility 151

worked close to the capital. One of the earliest biographical ac-

counts describing a rise in rank is that of Methen, who died in the
reign of Senefru and was buried near Zoser's mortuary complex at
Saqqara (his tomb has been transported to Berlin and reconstruct-
ed in the Egyptian Museum there). The text tells of his gradual
rise from 'scribe and overseer of the stores' to 'governor' of a
number of towns and districts in the eastern Delta. Promotion
could be rapid. One of the best-known examples was that of
Weni, a man of humble birth who started his career as a minor of-
ficial under King Teti and rose to the position of 'favored courtier'
under Pepi I. In ancient Egypt a person who proved fit in per-
forming one task was considered equally fit for others. After
Weni, entrusted by his king with supervising a group of workmen
to bring a block of stone suitable for the royal sarcophagus, per-
formed the task efficiently - transporting it complete with lid,
doorway, lintel, and two jambs for the tomb, as well as a libation
table - he was put in charge of a body of troops detailed for an ex-
pedition against hostile tribes in the Eastern Desert and the no-
madic tribes of Nubia. Weni eventually became one of the highest
dignitaries of the Great House. "Never," he inscribed in his tomb,
"has the like been done for any servant. I was excellent in the
heart of His Majesty beyond any official of his, beyond any noble
of his, beyond any servant of his."
Many persons of obscure origin, or even base servitude, rose to
high honors and died as viziers or governors of provinces. The
Fifth Dynasty official Ti was a vigorous nobleman but not of roy-
al blood; his marriage to Princess Neferhotpes gave him a special
position, and his children ranked with royalty. Nekhebu was an
ordinary builder who eventually rose to the position of 'royal
master builder,' supervising a wide range of projects for the Great
House. He took his brother as an apprentice and the youth start-
ed off by carrying his older brother's palette and measuring rod.
Later, when Nekhebu's responsibilities increased, his brother
152 Living

managed his property for him so successfully that he could claim

that there were "more things in his house than in the house of any
Literature and tomb inscriptions stress the ideal of a self-made,
self-reliant person. Ptahhotep, the sage who instructed his son to
prepare him for the official duties that lay ahead of him, gave ad-
vice on behavior to ensure success in official circles, including at-
titudes to be taken toward both superiors and subordinates. "If he
above you is one who was formerly of very humble station, have
no knowledge of his former low estate... be respectful toward
him because of what he has achieved; for substance comes not of
itself." Or conversely: "If you have become great after you were
little, and have gained possessions after you were formerly in
want... be not unmindful of how it was with you before. Be not
boastful of your wealth, which has come to you as a gift of the
god. You are not greater than another like you to whom the same
has happened."
Ptahhotep had some shrewd advice on the matter of being
helpful to one's employer: "your food hangs upon his mood, the
belly of one loved is filled, your back shall be clothed thereby."
Table manners, especially at an official dinner given by one of
higher station, were considered important:

Take when he gives to you what he puts before you,

but do not look at what is before him, look at what is
before you, and shoot him not with many glances.
... Turn your face downward until he addresses you
and speak only when he addresses you. Laugh when
he laughs, so shall you be very agreeable to his heart
and what you do will be very pleasant to his heart.

While Ptahhotep had much to say on behavior in the presence of

superiors ("If you meet one superior to you, fold your arms, bend
Class Mobility 153

your back. To flout him will not make him agree with you."), he
particularly stresses: "If you meet a poor man, not your equal, do
not attack him because he is weak... wretched is he who injures a
poor man."
A nobleman's attitude toward his subordinates is particularly
apparent through Ptahhotep's enumeration of the qualities of
leadership: "If you are a man who leads, seek out every good
deed, that your conduct may be blameless If you are an admin-
istrator, be gracious when you hear the speech of a petitioner." He
also taught:

A man is recognized by that which he knows.

His heart is the balance for his tongue;
His lips are correct when he speaks,
and his eyes in seeing;
His ears together hear what is profitable for his son,
who does maat and is free from lying.
Established is the man whose standard is maat,
who proceeds according to its way.

The Earliest Industries

Large-scale building construction, shipbuilding, and stone-carv-
ing were among the earliest industries in Egypt, along with a
number of agriculture-related activities like papyrus-manufac-
ture, spinning, and weaving. All tools were made of copper,
which was cast in open molds from as early as 3300 BC. The dis-
covery that copper melts when heated may have been made when
some malachite - a green ore ground on cosmetic palettes for eye
paint - dropped on the glowing ashes of a hearth and globules of
copper ran out. Copper beads and jewelry fittings were made
from early times. Later, the techniques of melting and smelting
became more sophisticated. Fifth and Sixth dynasty tombs have
representations of the metalworker's craft, with smelters using
blowpipes around a charcoal fireplace to produce a high tempera-
ture. Vessels of copper were worked by hammering, the spouts
and handles being joined by copper rivets. Plain copper wire was
used for the construction and repair of furniture as early as the
First Dynasty and a variety of implements were used by barbers,
carpenters, sculptors, stone masons, and house servants. Axes,
adzes, and saws were needed for industrial and agricultural pur-
poses and delicate instruments for the medical profession.

Medical Practice
The temples of Heliopolis and Memphis seem to have been cen-
Medical Practice 15 5

ters of learning from early times. Here astronomers studied the

constellations and the courses of the planets and physicians were
trained. Titles such as 'chief of the dental physicians' (Hesi-Ra),
'palace eye expert, physician of the belly, one comprehending in-
ternal fluids, and guardian of the anus' (Iri), and 'chief physician
of the eyes of the Great House' (Wah-Dwa) show that specialists
were attached to the Great House and were part of the king's large
entourage taking care of his welfare. The ministry of health - if
one might call it such - comprised the 'inspector of doctors' and
assistants (non-specialists), who were under an 'overseer of doc-
tors,' controlled by the 'eldest of doctors.' Such titles as 'chief
physician of Upper Egypt' (Ibi) or 'greatest physician of Upper
and Lower Egypt' indicate that within the medical profession
there was a liaison with distant provinces.
The medical papyri, of which there are over a score, are clear
indications of advances in the medical field. Some of the later
texts that date to the Middle and New kingdoms were copies
(sometimes third and fourth hand) of earlier texts; archaic gram-
mar and obsolete words point to their antiquity as well as certain
references to the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom.
The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, believed to be the earliest,
dealt with forty-eight carefully arranged surgical cases of wounds
and fractures, detailing a dispassionate examination of the patient
and prescribing cures. No ailment was ascribed to the activity of a
demoniac power, and there was very little magic - although belief
in the potency of spells or exorcisms undoubtedly existed. The
ancient Egyptian medical practitioners were not witch doctors
who gave incantations. They were physicians who prescribed
healing remedies and conducted operations. Though some of the
cures might be considered rather fanciful - extract of the hair of a
black cat to prevent graying - others became famous for their ef-
We know from mummified bodies that dental surgery was
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practiced from early times. Some have teeth extracted, and a

Fourth Dynasty mummy of a man shows two holes beneath a
molar of the lower jaw, apparently drilled for draining an abscess.
The discovery in a grave at Giza of a body with several teeth
wired together suggests that dental treatment was already well ad-
vanced in the Old Kingdom. Sesa's tomb at Saqqara, known as the
'doctor's tomb,' shows the manipulation of joints. The tomb of
Ankhmahor, known as the 'physician's tomb,' shows an opera-
tion on a man's toe and the circumcision of a youth. Circumcision
was practiced on boys between six and twelve years of age.
By the Sixth Dynasty, there appears to have been a firmly es-
tablished medical tradition. When Weshptah, builder and friend
of the Fifth Dynasty king Neferirkare, suffered a stroke in the
king's presence, the king showed great solicitude for his stricken
friend and ordered his officials to consult medical documents for
a remedy to help the vizier regain consciousness. Doctors were
well paid for their services; in one case the reward was "a false
door of limestone for that tomb of mine in the necropolis."

Mummification and Priests

Contrary to some older ideas, doctors did not take part in the
preparation of mummies to improve their knowledge of anatomy.
Embalmers and physicians belonged to two entirely different
professions, and there is no evidence of any connection between
them. Early efforts to preserve a lifelike appearance of the de-
ceased can be traced to the Second Dynasty, when strips of linen
cloth were used to preserve the outline of the body and clay was
used to model the features of the face, genitals, and breasts with
nipples. Around 2600 BC, bodies had the organs most susceptible
to rapid corruption removed. These included the lungs, liver, in-
testines, and stomach (which were extracted through an incision
Mummification and Priests 157

in the left side of the body), but not the heart and kidneys. The
body cavity and the intestines were then washed in natron, a mix-
ture of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate found natural-
ly at several sites throughout Egypt. The internal organs were
subsequently wrapped in linen and placed either in a box with
four compartments or in four canopic jars placed beside the coffin
in the burial chamber. The body cavity itself was rinsed to remove
the remaining natron and filled with herbs and resins to retain the
shape. Desiccation took up to forty days to complete, after which
linen strips dipped in resinous material were molded on the
shrunken frame and individual ringers and toes carefully
wrapped. The earliest known use of natron comes from the re-
mains in the canopic jars of Khufu's mother, Queen Hetepheres.
By the end of the Fifth Dynasty embalmers encased the body in
an elaborate linen and plaster shell modeled to look like the hu-
man form and painted in lifelike colors.
There is no indication of where mummification was carried
out. The only extant 'mummification beds' are those of the sacred
Apis bulls at Memphis, which date to a late period in Egyptian
history. One thing is certain: the long and somewhat messy pro-
cedure is unlikely to have been carried out in, or near, sacred
shrines or mortuary temples.
Although priests did not form a distinct class of society until
toward the end of the Old Kingdom, as employees of the state
they served a function. There were numerous 'pure ones,' ordi-
nary members of the community who underwent certain purifi-
cation ceremonies in order to serve in relays as servants in the
'house of god.' There were others who were bound by rules of
cleanliness and became custodians of sacred order. These per-
formed their duties on a full-time basis and their positions even-
tually became hereditary. Priests were not required to have any
theological knowledge, they simply learned the correct obser-
vance of rituals as laid down by the Great House. A 'lector priest'
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was a government official (literally the 'bearer of the festival roll')

and his main qualification was literacy; he could read from the
scroll in mortuary services or whenever called upon to do so. The
'incense burner,' however, could be a member of the lay public,
ever present to provide the necessary aura for worship. The cults
in temples throughout the land were all practiced in the name of
the king. He was the theoretical leader of rites even when they
were carried out by his representatives. The official existence of
the priests rested entirely on the delegation of royal power.

Scribes and the Law

Scribes comprised a special class of society. Literacy was an essen-
tial qualification for a successful bureaucratic career. A scribe was
called upon to write petitions for the illiterate and to prepare
properly addressed petitions, written in flowing language, for the
upper classes. The profession was one of the most respectable,
and although the bulk of the population had no incentive to be lit-
erate it was one way to escape the drudgery of labor. In what is
known as the 'satire of the trades,' a poem written by an anony-
mous poet hundreds of years after the fall of the Old Kingdom,
the scribal profession was described as the best. In both the politi-
cal and religious hierarchies there were positions open for book-
keepers and clerks, who were looked upon as persons of impor-
tance. Records were needed of quantities of materials used, work-
ers recruited, and rations consumed for large-scale building pro-
jects. There was also the task of drawing up contracts and wills.
Although wills largely concerned the maintenance of tombs,
which theoretically was the responsibility of a person's heirs, it
was foreseen that some laxity was to be expected with the passage
of time, and safeguards were made. Income from private property
was referred to in the will (literally 'order from his living mouth'),
Scribes and the Law 159

in which the owner outlined that it was to be put toward the care
of the tomb and the continued supply of food and offerings. In
the case of royalty, the endowments were extremely large.
Khafre's son, Nekure, bequeathed to his heirs a private fortune
including fourteen towns and two estates at the royal residence,
the entire income of which was to go toward the maintenance of
his tomb; he made the will with the aid of a scribe, "while he was
alive upon his two feet without ailing in any way."
The fact that no written law has been found in ancient Egypt
should not undermine documentary evidence of legal practice.
Written briefs were submitted to a high-ranking official, who fre-
quently inscribed in his tomb that he "judged two partners until
they were satisfied." Among surviving Old Kingdom legal docu-
ments is one referring to litigation between an heir and an execu-
tor. It indicated that under certain circumstances an appeal might
be made directly to the central court. There is one remarkable case
of treason in the royal harem which was heard by two provincial
judges in place of the 'chief judge' (the vizier), for an unbiased de-
cision. Some of the documents were simple contracts such as the
"contract for the sale of a small house."
The most famous legal case was that of the vizier Kheti, whose
name lived on until the New Kingdom as "the judge whose case
was more than justice." Kheti was involved in a lawsuit in which
members of his own family were party; his judgment was against

Scribal equipment
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his own relative, so he could not be accused of partiality. An ap-

peal was made, yet Kheti persisted and his second ruling was the
same as the first.

Papyrus Production and the Bureaucracy

Two rolls of papyrus in a box dating to the reign of the First Dy-
nasty king Den are the earliest evidence of its production. Pa-
pyrus paper was one of Egypt's most flourishing industries. The
sheets were made by slicing thin sections of the papyrus stem,
soaking and compressing them, laying them side by side and
crosswise, and beating and drying them. It was an excellent writ-
ing material - pliant yet durable - that was lighter than stone and
clay tablets and more plentiful than leather. The sheets were
sometimes glued together in strips and wound around wooden
rods. Later they were bound together into codices, what we
would recognize as books. Egyptian papyrus remained for cen-
turies the main vehicle of Greek and Roman written thought, un-
til the eighth century when it was gradually ousted by the use of a
new writing material from the east: paper made from old rags.
Even then, the new material derived its name from its Egyptian
Thanks to scribes and the invention of papyrus paper, records
of ancient Egypt have survived in vast number. They point to a
particular skill in the administration of resources based on mea-
suring, inspecting, checking, and documenting various activities.
The Abu Sir archives reveal that the equipment of temples was
carefully classified, that inspection was carried out to trace any
deterioration or damage, and that exact details of what was need-
ed for replacement were recorded. The archives also show that
seals on storerooms were regularly inspected, especially those on
doors to rooms where sacred boats were stored. Duty rosters
Art and Architecture 161

were tabled in the archives, as well as income of the temple and

details of sacrificial animals for various festivals.
Apart from its use in paper production, the papyrus plant
served other purposes. The stalks were woven and used as mats,
the vegetable fibers were transformed into a pliable, tough mater-
ial suitable for sandals, and lightweight skiffs used for hunting in
the marshes were made by binding long bundles together. These
'papyrus craft' were not boats but rafts. They floated by virtue of
the lightness of the material of which they were built. In the Fifth
Dynasty tombs at Saqqara are scenes of craftsmen making pa-
pyrus boats, possibly for the pilgrimage to Buto.

Art and Architecture

A great deal of what we know about the ancient Egyptian civiliza-
tion comes through its monumental architecture, statuary, and re-
lief decoration. These creations were not transient but were ex-
pected to stand for all eternity. Great strides were taken in the
field of architecture in the Third and Fourth dynasties, many of
the pyramids showing changes in the original design as the use of
stone was mastered. Royal statuary was another major industry,
along with relief decoration. There was strict maintenance of
standards. Artisans worked as members of a team under the direc-
tion of a master craftsman, and a supervisor or overseer saw to the
progress of work.
The powerful and lifelike statues of the kings Khafre and
Menkaure show mastery of materials. The finish was achieved by
the use of an adze followed by polishing with an oval stone. Most
statuary, however, was meant to be lifelike, so stone as well as
wood were painted. Sculptors frequently gave a striking effect to
the faces by inserting pieces of quartz in the eye sockets with a
copper stud for the pupil. A strict canon had long been worked
162 Work

out; standing figures were nineteen units high, and the seated fig-
ures were fifteen units; the feet were the same length as the height
of the head and neck; the distance between the knees and the soles
of the feet was twice was long as the feet. Drawing to scale, the
artist could accurately enlarge a statue, or a scene. Continuity in
style was due to the careful maintenance of the codified rules laid
down in the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom. State
artisans reached the highest rank. Private statues were also made:
scribe statues, for example, were introduced at the end of the
Fourth Dynasty, showing a man in cross-legged posture, reading
or writing on a roll of papyrus on his lap. In the famous tomb of
Ti, a Fifth Dynasty court dignitary, is a representation of an atelier
with artisans polishing and carving statues in his likeness.
Reliefs were fashioned with extraordinary delicacy. Unfinished
tombs like that of Ptahhotep at Saqqara provide evidence of the
method and progress of relief decoration, which involved a team
of artists. The wall of the tomb was first rendered smooth. Then a
chief artist prepared each surface for decoration by separating the
different registers with the aid of cords dipped in red paint, subdi-
viding these further into rows or squares. Into these sections fig-
ures of people, animals, and hieroglyphic characters were drawn,
each row representing a single activity.
It seems probable that there was a common stock of themes
from which the noble tomb owners chose, for similar scenes are
represented in different tombs - with a reduction or increase in
the number of individuals, a variation in the placing of inscrip-
tions, or the adding of such details as might please the artist: a bald
man, a spotted cow, a frisky calf. The arrangement was apparently
guided by the chief artist's preference (within the broad outlines
of the customer's wishes) and by the size of the tomb. All avail-
able wall space was filled. After the background was cut away,
leaving the figures in low relief, a sculptor would carve the fine
detail. These relief-carvings were then painted. The coloring,
Art and Architecture 163

while not entirely true to nature, was not exaggerated. For exam-
ple, clothing was usually white (left without paint on the lime-
stone wall), red ocher was used for the sunburnt bodies of men,
while pink, pale brown, or yellow was used for women. Because
the chief Old Kingdom burial grounds were in areas of high qual-
ity limestone, reliefs were more common than mural decorations
(which were painted either directly on the smoothed surface of
the wall or on a plastered surface). Tempera technique was used:
natural powdered pigments mixed with water and bound with
acacia gum to adhere to the wall surface.
The freshness and brightness of Egyptian tomb paintings have
often been commented on. They have retained their color because
the pigments are natural. Red and yellow were obtained from
ochers from the desert, chalk (calcium carbonate) or lime provid-
ed white, and black was obtained from carbon in some form (soot
or powdered charcoal) or a black manganese found in Sinai. Blue
was obtained from azurite, which is a blue carbonate of copper;
another copper ore, malachite, was the source of green. Pink was
made by mixing red ocher with chalk. Early drawings on pottery
were probably made with a reed brush with the fibers teased out.
Later, artists and painters used similar reed-stems, and the palette
for mixing the paint was either a ceramic bowl or a conch shell.
Although relief and mural decoration may appear to have been
a mechanical art, the extremely high level of technical and artistic
skill - and the harmonious final effect - should not be over-
looked. The main figure was traditionally represented with head
in profile (full-view eye and eyebrow, a half mouth, and a side-
view nose) with shoulders shown full-width from the front, but
with profile body, legs, and feet, but minor figures are represented
in a variety of informal poses. One might have the impression of
similarity of subject matter, and the scenes may appear to be uni-
form, but close study shows that no two are exactly alike. There
was endless modification, especially in representations of figures
164 Work

in the subsidiary scenes, where boatmen play games, workers

move energetically over the hull of a ship, a corpulent overseer is
given a drink, or a lame farmer leads his flock.

Shipbuilding was one of the most important and oldest industries
(see chapter v). By the Fourth Dynasty, it is clear that boat con-
struction had developed into a national art. In Khufu's mortuary
complex at Giza is an intact vessel that was discovered in a rock-
hewn pit to the south of the Great Pyramid. It is a magnificent
barge 44 meters long, now reconstructed and in a special museum.
Built of cedar from Lebanon, it had been dismantled to fit into the
pit, which was too short for it. Careful reassembly produced a
flat-bottomed vessel with a massive curving hull rising to elegant
prow and stern posts. Poles on the deck proved to be the support-
ing palm-shaped columns of a large roofed cabin. Steering oars
(each five meters long) were also found, and coils of rope. The
planks were 'sewn' together by a system of ropes through holes.
This was the first royal barge discovered, and scientific examina-
tion suggests that it might actually have sailed. Such ships (there is
a second in an as yet unexcavated pit near the first) may have
served the king in his capacity as king of Upper and Lower Egypt
during his lifetime, later to be buried as part of his funerary equip-
ment. Alternatively, they could have served a funerary, solar func-
tion, being designed to transport his spirit, absorbed by the sun-
god, to a life everlasting.
The tomb of Ti contains two shipbuilding scenes, the noble-
man presiding over them both. He inspects every stage of the
work being carried out. One scene shows the entire shipbuilding
process, from the early stages of shaping and sawing the wooden
planks to the last stages of completion, with workmen milling
Stone and Pottery Vessels 165

over the curving hulls, carving, hammering, sawing, and drilling.

All the hinges, nails, and bolts were made of copper, as were the
workers' tools.

Stone and Pottery Vessels

Although serving a utilitarian purpose, most of the products
manufactured in ancient Egypt were fashioned with a fine sense
of balance and a desire for beauty. Stone vessels from Predynastic
graves were created in perfect symmetry, at first with flint borers
and later by a cranked brace with weights acting as a flywheel for
hollowing. The ancient industry of stone-vessel manufacture was
largely superseded by the potters when they began to fashion
their ware with the aid of a horizontal wheel. Deftly guiding the
swirling vessels with their hands, their rate of production was
much higher, and they were able to fulfill the demand for storage
and eating vessels. Decorative cosmetic containers, decorated
tableware, and fancy vessels were sometimes formed in the shapes
of animals and birds.
The skills and methods of the ancient potter can be traced for
over five thousand years. Two methods of preparing the clay have
been recorded. One, as revealed by tomb reliefs, shows the accu-
mulated clay being soaked in a pit with water to make it work-
able. This was particularly necessary in the case of marls. Another,
less common method was to separate the coarser particles, or to
mix in a tempering material such as sand or crushed limestone.
The clay was then kneaded or trodden to produce an even texture
and remove excess air. Conical lumps were delivered to the potter.
In many nobles' tombs at Saqqara, potters can be seen at work
fashioning vessels and stacking them up. Several different tech-
niques were employed: most vessels were hand-formed entirely;
some were hand-formed initially and then finished on a stand;
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and use was also made of the hand-wheel. Pottery was left to dry
in the open air to what is usually called the 'leather-hard stage.' It
was then smoothed by the potter's hand, or with a cloth, after
which a coating of a pigment and water, or pigment mixed with
clay and water, could be added to the surface before the pottery
was fired. These coatings made the surface less permeable, and
improved the appearance of the vessel.
By the Fourth Dynasty, the days of irregular burning in an
open fire at the mercy of the wind had passed; the potter had rows
of closed kilns with a simple updraft to achieve uniform firing.
Our knowledge of the kilns derives from a few samples that have
survived in tomb reliefs, models, and from hieroglyphic signs.
The earliest show that they flared to the top, with straight or con-
cave sides, and were loaded from the top. The pottery was stacked
on openwork platforms that separated them from the fire located
in a small chamber below. Although pottery was primarily the oc-
cupation of men, a potter's wife and other members of his family
helped out in various ways: collecting fuel for the kilns, carrying
the clay from its sources, and adding finishing touches to a pot be-
fore it was placed in the kiln.
Clay was also used for bricks, which were not fired. They were
made of a combination of mud, water, and straw. The mixture was
then poured into molds and left in the sun to dry. Brick-manufac-
ture by this same method can still be seen practiced in many parts
of Egypt today.

Textile Manufacture
Spinning and weaving were major industries practiced from Pre-
dynastic times, when dressed skins were replaced by woven gar-
ments. A skill was developed such that by the beginning of the
dynastic period, Egyptians were producing very fine linen. The
Viticulture 167

invention of the loom was another early triumph of ingenuity.

Flax yielded long threads, and - to judge from the ever-growing
demand for linen-it was as painstakingly cultivated as grain.
When the flax was ripe, and its fibers tough, it was suitable for
mats and ropes. If cut when the stems were green, it could be wo-
ven into soft linen: surviving remnants show that the fabric was
sometimes of such gossamer fineness as to be almost indistin-
guishable from silk. This was particularly the case with royal
linen, though coarser textiles were woven on a more widespread
scale. Both spinning (entirely by the spindle), and weaving (on
both upright and horizontal looms) was carried out by women,
who also made tapestries, which were intended either for hanging
on the walls of nobles' villas or to form the shade of a roof garden.
The earliest evidence of textile workshops is an inscription found
on a royal Fifth Dynasty mummy at Abu Sir. It identifies the de-
ceased as 'assistant, superintendent of the weaving workshop.'

The first wine-press hieroglyph dates from the First Dynasty, and
there is evidence that even at this early date wine was transported
across the country in sealed jars. Later representations show that
grapes were picked by hand, placed in vats and trodden until the
liquid ran through holes into a waiting container. The vat was
canopied against the heat, and the chanting workers pressing the
grapes held on to ropes hung from rafters. The residue of skins,
seeds, and stalks was placed in canvas bags with staves fastened to
each end. Two men (aided, in several tomb representations, by a
monkey) lever these apart to squeeze out any juice remaining.
Fermentation probably occurred naturally, due both to the
method of pressing and to the high summer temperature. When
partly fermented, the wine was siphoned into tall pottery vessels
168 Work

and allowed to mature. There is some evidence that the vessels

were coated on the inside with a resinous substance to prevent the
liquid being lost through the porous pottery.

Other Industries
Workers in other industries included carpenters, who produced
the highest quality furniture for the Great House; coppersmiths,
who made pipes and bowls as well as tools; and goldsmiths, who
fashioned jewelry. All were strictly organized, with the work su-
pervised by overseers, themselves under the direction of a 'chief
overseer.' There was a tendency for children to ply the trades of
their parents, at first making themselves useful around the work-
shops and then working as apprentices.
In making furniture, carpenters used hammers and mallets,
saws with teeth slanting toward the handle - indicating that they
were pulled not pushed - and bow-drills for making holes.
Leather-production had long been mastered and the curing of
hides produced soft, fine-quality skins. The hides were first
stretched taut on a board, then left to soak in oil. In the Old King-
dom no other tanning process was used. After the skins were re-
moved, and when they started to dry, the leather was hammered
to ensure that the oil was completely absorbed. The leather was
then dyed in various colors and used to cover stools, chairs, beds,
and cushions. Apart from its use in furniture, leather was also
used to produce sandals, satchels, and sheets of parchment for of-
ficial use.
The tomb of Ti records the goldsmith's factory and the differ-
ent stages of production of jewelry. Ti himself watches the head
goldsmith weighing the precious metal, which was brought from
the alluvial sands of the Eastern Desert or from Nubia, while
scribes record it. Workers are depicted casting, soldering, and fit-
Wages 169

ting together a rich assortment of fine jewelry. Six men direct their
blowpipes to the flames in a clay furnace. Beside them, a work-
man pours the molten metal. On the extreme right four men beat
gold leaf. Some of the engravers seated on low benches are dwarfs.
Turquoise, cut or ground- into tiny pieces, are inland with preci-
sion, soldered and fitted into exquisite necklets and other items of
adornment. Glass was produced from silica-sand, lime, and soda;
the earliest glass beads and amulets were found in Predynastic

Workers were paid wages in the form of bread, beer, clothing, oils,
and grain in large amounts. Nobles frequently recorded their re-
lationship with their foremen and workers by claiming that
"whether craftsmen or quarrymen, I satisfied them." One Fourth
Dynasty nobleman, Memi, was more explicit: in an inscription on
the base of his statue he declared that the sculptor who fashioned
his statue "was satisfied with the reward I gave him." Terms of
employment are not clear, although some inscriptions imply that
contracts were made. The lintel above an official's tomb entrance
at Giza records that "the necropolis man Pepi is content over the
contract which I made with him." The term 'necropolis man' was
used for unskilled labor, whether quarryman or stoneworker.
"Never did I use force against any man, for I wanted my name
to be good before god and my repute to be good before all men."
"Never did I do an evil thing." Such inscriptions were common in
the tombs at Saqqara, and may have reflected the tomb-owner's
wish to stress his qualities so that his name would shine before the
'great god,' the king. But they do encourage us to view with at
least some reservation Herodotus's description of hordes of op-
pressed and overworked slaves, whipped by merciless overseers,
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toiling and dying in the scorching sun in order to raise a monu-

mental pyramid for the glorification of the king. There were in
fact few slaves in the Old Kingdom, since foreign conquest was at
a minimum, and no worker revolts are recorded until later peri-
ods. Indeed, the marks made on some of the casing stones deliv-
ered from the quarries for the great pyramids indicate a spirit of
pride and competition among the workers. They gave themselves
team names such as Vigorous gang' and 'enduring gang.'

The Farming Masses

The bulk of the population was employed on the land. There are
no Old Kingdom titles specifically connected with irrigation
works, nor do we have written regulations regarding water con-
trol. This was undoubtedly because there were natural flood
basins that needed the minimum of work, and competition for
water was never an issue, except at the local level, because all set-
tlements had direct access to the Nile. Presumably, until famine
struck at the end of the Sixth Dynasty, no need was felt to orga-
nize irrigation. The flood came regularly and the farming com-
munities had learned, from long experience, how to cope with the
diversities of nature and improve the quality of the land.
It was once believed that the fertility of the fields was entirely
the result of the annual deposits of Nile silt from the sources of
the Blue Nile. But now it is known that a certain amount of care-
ful land management was also practiced in ancient times, includ-
ing crop rotation, fallowing, and allowing cattle to pasture on the
stubble and fertilize the soil. Some rare scenes of field workers be-
ing organized into crews suggest that smallholders may have
joined forces with neighboring families for water distribution and
With the inundation of the floodplain, farmers made sure that
The Farming Masses 171

their cattle were safely housed on higher, dry land; with other
agricultural activities suspended, they cared for the cattle and pro-
vided them with food already laid in storage. They carefully di-
rected the water from the main canals to smaller branches travers-
ing the fields in straight or curved lines, and controlled it by
means of embankments. When the water level began to fall these
natural reservoirs retained a residue of mineral-rich sediment that
was ready to receive seed without further preparation. Reliefs
show that oxen dragged simple wooden plows to till the soil and
then lines of sowers would cast grain on the surface from baskets.
This was usually trodden in by goats. Where the earth dried hard,
however, a plow was used. The hoe - one of the most ancient of
agricultural tools - consisted of a broad, pointed blade of wood
attached to a handle at an acute angle and held in position in the
center by a slack rope. The plow was a hoe enlarged by adding
two long wooden arms on which the plowman could lean to keep
the furrow straight and also to pressure the blade into the soil. A
pole was provided with a yoke for attaching to draft animals.
Although the Nile Valley and the Delta were fertile, full ex-
ploitation of the land only came with continuous toil. Farmers
manufactured their own tools and household possessions. From
scenes in nobles' tombs it is apparent that the harvest was the sea-
son of most strenuous activity. The ripened wheat was reaped
with the aid of a sickle, tied in bundles, and loaded on to donkeys
to be carried to the threshing floor. The wheat was then piled in
heaps to be trodden by oxen, goats, or donkeys. The threshed
grain was piled in a heap by means of three-pronged forks and
sifted and winnowed with small boards or scoops used in pairs to
toss the grain into the wind. Sometimes girls of ordinary families,
too young to manage the household, lent a hand in the fields,
gathering and winnowing. Finally the grain was placed in sacks
and transported to the granary.
Flour for bread, the staple food of rich and poor alike, was a
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taxable commodity, and market scenes show grain in bags being

used for barter. To make flour the grain was first cleaned, then
powdered in a stone mortar and sifted. The bran was kept for the
animals; the rest was ground by placing it at the upper end of a
slightly hollowed, slanting slab of limestone and sliding a crossbar
of sandstone across it. The ground flour gradually worked down-
ward and was caught in a tray at the lower end. Bread was leav-
ened by adding more flour to the residue of dough from the pre-
vious day, which has been left to sour. After the mixing and
kneading of the dough it was shaped into ovals, triangles, and in-
dented squares or placed in molds of various shapes and sizes.
One of the most common shapes of bread was a conical white loaf
much used in offerings. Bread dough was also used in the brewing
of beer, a favorite drink among the masses. From the newly dis-
covered bakery at Giza there is evidence of assembly-line produc-
tion: baking pots and lids were manufactured at the site of the
bakery where they were fired; and beer, the byproduct of the
bread, was also produced there.
Egyptians acquired a taste for honey from early times, and do-
mestic bees can be traced to the Old Kingdom. Nyuserre's sun
temple at Abu Sir shows a farmer kneeling in front of a row of
hives in one scene, and in another pouring honey from a jar into a
storage vessel. Such hives were made of reed or rush bundles coat-
ed with mud.
The goods traded among the working classes were by no means
luxury products. A great many scenes show the exchange of food
and drink, especially fruit, vegetables, and fish. Among the tomb
scenes of the colleagues Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are two
men measuring and discussing the price of a bale of cloth. Anoth-
er salesman offers fish from his basket to a seated man engraving a
seal. A third trades a fan for a drink. Perhaps some of these peo-
ple, especially those that carry shoulder bags, sacks, and boxes,
were itinerant traders.
Animal Husbandry 173

Animal Husbandry
Environmental conditions in the Delta and in the marshlands af-
forded excellent conditions for cattle-breeding, and animals were
raised with care. Selection of temple herds was made from all
parts of the country, which must have improved the breeds, espe-
cially of cattle and sheep. Care of animals came naturally to peo-
ple who, before they settled down, had been hunters, fishers, and
cattle-breeders. Veterinary medicine was practiced and the obvi-
ous health of the herds indicates proficient rearing. The care of
livestock was a talent handed from generation to generation,
touchingly depicted in many tombs. There are scenes showing a
young farmhand feeding the animals, milking a cow, and (in the
tombs of Ptahhotep and Ti) helping a cow give birth. In the tomb
of Ti is a scene of a bald-headed farmer leading his animals
through a canal by taking a calf on his shoulders to encourage its
mother, and the rest of the herd, to follow. Attempts were made to
domesticate wild creatures like the antelope, gazelle, and hyena
along with tame species. The experiments seem to have been suc-
cessful. The ancient Egyptians knew their animals intimately and
although there are scenes of herders driving rams across a canal
with raised whip, none shows an animal being beaten.
The slaughter of cattle was part of temple ritual and there are
many scenes in Old Kingdom tombs that depict the manner in
which this was carried out. Several stockmen were involved. The
left foreleg of the sacrificial animal would first be caught in a slip
knot, the other end of the rope being thrown over its back and
pulled by a second man. This forced the roped leg off the ground
and threw the animal off balance. A man would sit on its neck and
pull its head backward, another would hold onto its tail, and a
third lift one of its hind legs. As soon as the animal was on the
ground, the two hind legs and roped foreleg were roped together,
the victim left powerless. The butcher then bled the animal to
i/4 Work

death, collecting the blood in a vessel, and with a long-handled

knife and a whetstone hung from the corner of his loincloth pro-
ceeded with his task.
The animals sacred to the various temples, like the Apis bull of
Memphis, were not necessarily the calf of a sacred animal, and
sometimes not even part of the local herd. They were simply fine
animals with particular markings, carefully chosen and ritually
installed in the temple.

The Bucolic Afterlife

Belief in the afterlife was, as we have seen, the focal point of the
ancient Egyptian outlook. It stimulated their thought, moral
principles, art, architecture, burial traditions, and beliefs. To most
of the population, upper and lower classes alike, there was a con-
cept of the afterlife as a rural environment. This was believed to lie
in the path of the setting sun, where the deceased would be ferried
across the 'lily lake' and gain admittance to a blessed place of pe-
culiar fertility where wheat grew seven cubits high. Plowing,
reaping, and watering of crops ensured eternal abundance. The
noble classes, desiring an extension of their experience on earth,
visualized workers toiling for them for eternity; small wooden or
faience funerary statuettes, the 'answerers' or shawabti figures,
were placed in their tombs, usually each group of ten under an
overseer. There were figures of farmers who carried agricultural
implements, artisans with the tools of their trade, and even a sailor
to man the model vessel placed with oars near the coffin of a de-
ceased nobleman.

Leisure was made possible by the economy, exceptional opportu-
nities, and favorable climate of ancient Egypt. Many tombs at
Saqqara and Giza contain scenes of the deceased seated with fami-
ly, friends, or relatives beneath an arbor enjoying the mild north
breeze. The panorama of everyday life indicates how vitally con-
scious the people were of the animal and bird life teeming around
them and how much they esteemed outdoor life. It seems that
among the greatest pleasures were venturing into the marshes in
search of aquatic birds, hunting in the undulating plains of the
desert, and fishing in canals and lakes.
The ancient Egyptians had a great sense of rhythm and love of
music. During important events (such as the breaking of ground
by the 'scorpion king,' depicted on his mace-head), a line of
women clapped in unison. A piper or singer often entertained
fishers and farmers while they worked. And, not surprisingly, we
find the wealthy classes enjoying music at all times of day: at their
morning toilet, at meals, and during leisure hours. Harps were
small and usually played by a seated musician; flutes were in two
sizes. A full orchestra comprised two harps and two flutes. Two
or three musicians, as well as singers and clappers, often accompa-
nied lithe young women as they performed dances. One such
scene, in the tomb of Ti, shows both male and female performers,
who perform separately, each with accompanying hand-clappers.
In the tomb of Mehu at Saqqara female dancers raise their arms in
176 Leisure

a circular motion above their heads while their feet move forward,
a gesture probably repeated to the rhythm of the music. A more
energetic performance is depicted in the tomb of Ankhmahor,
where the dancers do a high kick. In the tomb of Kagemni an ac-
robatic dance is performed by young girls who are depicted with
the left foot placed flat on the floor, torso curved, head dropping
backward until the hair, plaited into a pigtail with decoration on
the end, hangs down in perfect symmetry. Such scenes, which are
commonplace in ancient Egyptian tombs were not, as once sup-
posed, purely for the entertainment of the deceased and their fam-
ilies in the afterlife. They were ceremonial dances, probably sug-
gesting a ritual of rebirth. Music and religion were closely linked.
Hathor, for example, the cow-goddess of love and nourishment,
was associated with music and dance; her son Ihy became a god of
music and patron of the chorus. Hathor's sacred emblem, the
sistrum, was an ancient musical instrument that eventually be-
came an architectural feature in temples.
The fact that the ancient Egyptians had no known system of
musical notation is somewhat surprising, particularly in view of
the development of an independent system of writing at an early
date. Perhaps tunes, like the popular stories, were transmitted
from generation to generation. We do know that early visitors to
Egypt from the Greek mainland around the sixth century BC were
particularly impressed with the harmony of Egyptian melodies.
One of the most appealing tales of the Old Kingdom is the sto-
ry of the pygmy brought from the 'land of Yam' to amuse the
young king Pepi II. Pepi was only six years old when he ascended
the throne. During the second year of his reign Harkhuf, the no-
bleman of Elephantine who made many journeys to the south, re-
turned with exotic products and a dancing pygmy as a gift for the
king. He sent messengers ahead to inform the Great House, and
with great enthusiasm Pepi sent a letter of thanks to Harkhuf re-
questing him to take every precaution that the pygmy should ar-
Outdoor Sport 177

rive in Memphis in good condition. Harkhuf was instructed to

put trustworthy persons in charge to ensure the pygmy should
not fall overboard, and that when he slept guards should sleep on
either side of the cabin and make an inspection "ten times a night;
for," wrote Harkhuf in his tomb - where he recorded the episode
and quoted the king's letter in his biographical text - "my majesty
desires to see this pygmy more than all the gifts of Setjru, Irtjet,
and Yam."
A legend in the Westcar Papyrus, which relates events in the
Old Kingdom, tells of the aged king Senefru's entertainment. A
magician recommended that he row on the palace lake in the com-
pany of "all the beauties who are in your palace chamber... the
heart of Your Majesty shall be refreshed at the sight of their row-
ing as they row up and down. You can see the beautiful fish ponds
of your lake, and you can see the beautiful fields around it (and)
your heart will be refreshed at this." Senefru forthwith ordered
that twenty oars be made of ebony fitted with gold and silver, and
that twenty women be brought, "the most beautiful in form, with
hair well braided, with firm breasts, not yet having opened up to
give birth. Let there be brought to me twenty nets, and let these
nets be given to these women when they have taken off their
clothes. Then it was done according to all that His Majesty com-
manded, and they rowed up and down. The heart of His Majesty
was happy at the sight of their rowing."

Outdoor Sport
Outdoor recreations were popular among all classes of society.
King Sahure was depicted in his sun temple hunting gazelle, ante-
lope, deer, and other animals, and most nobles' tombs contain
scenes showing the pursuit of wild game and capture of various
species. The working classes chased gazelle, oryx, wild oxen,
i/8 Leisure

hares, and ostrich with equal enthusiasm. Long bow and arrow,
lasso, throwing sticks, and bola were the most common hunting
weapons. The bow was no more than a meter in length and the ar-
rows, carried in leather quivers, came in several varieties; the one
preferred for hunting (which served into the New Kingdom) had
an agate arrowhead cemented to a sturdy stick, usually ebony, and
fitted into a hollow reed shaft. It was decorated with two feathers
and notched for the bowstring.
Considerable ability must have been required in the handling
of the throwing stick, numerous specimens of which may be
found. They varied in shape. Some were semicircular, others end-
ed in a knob. The bola consisted of a rope or strap about five me-
ters long with a single rounded stone attached to the end. When
thrown, the cord would twist round the legs or neck of the animal
and hinder its movement. A good hunter could bring down an an-
imal with a careful throw. The noose of the lasso was thrown
round the neck of the running victim, whether gazelle, wild goat,
or ostrich.
Hunting scenes were extremely spirited, showing the hunter
enthusiastically pursuing game in an obvious display of pleasure.
Some scenes indicate how bait was used. In Ptahhotep's tomb the
muzzle of a young tethered heifer is being seized in the jaws of a
lion, which a hunter points out to his two hounds before setting
them loose. Hounds were specially trained for hunting and fol-
lowing wounded beasts. Every effort seems to have been made to
save the game animals from being hurt and to capture them alive.
Ptahhotep is depicted watching men dragging cages containing
lion, a frame with gazelles bound together in groups, and smaller
cages containing hedgehogs. Sometimes a hunter, perhaps after
killing its mother, would take a young gazelle back to the village.
The Egyptians were avid fishers. After the waters of the annual
flood receded, ponds were left in the open country. These, as well
as the canals and the river, yielded an inexhaustible supply of mul-
Outdoor Sport 179

let, catfish, tilapia, perch, barbel, and other varieties of fish. The
upper classes penetrated deep into the thickets in their firmly con-
structed papyrus skiffs, their feet squarely placed on the central
plank. They pursuedfishwith spears - sometimes two-pronged -
but never angled. The common folk on the other hand sometimes
speared fish like their masters but more often angled from small
boats, using as many as five hooks on a single line. Dragnets were
drawn from the shore in small canals, trawl nets were used in larg-
er canals and the river, and trap nets were also used. These were
wicker baskets with narrow necks, sometimes curving inward;
when they were dropped into shallow water, the fish were attract-
ed to the bait and swam inside but could not emerge. Hippopota-
mus-hunting with spears was popular among all classes. Har-
poons were used with great dexterity.
The ancient Egyptians' familiarity with bird life is particularly
apparent in the tomb of Ti, where various marsh species are de-
picted in families near their nests, each drawn with characteristic
features and easily identifiable (although not drawn to scale).
They include quail, partridge, heron, pelican, turtledove, magpie,
swallow, wild duck, and goose. Wading in the reedy swamps near
the river are flamingos, pelicans, and cormorants. In fact, indige-
nous and migratory waterfowl were so plentiful that the ancient
Egyptians likened a crowd to a bird pond during the inundation.
Birds were most often caught in clap nets. Hunting them with a
throw-stick was also an extremely popular sport, which needed
skill: the hunter, often accompanied by his wife, children, and ser-
vants, had to stand firmly in his boat with legs wide apart and,
while maintaining his balance, fling the missile at the fowl as they
took to the air. Some of the men with him hold decoy-birds, indi-
cating that the boat made its way quietly through the thickets to
creep up on the fowl. Mongooses were trained to catch small
aquatic birds, considered a great delicacy.
It is not surprising, in view of the warm weather and the prox-
180 Leisure

imity of the river, that the ancient Egyptians were swimmers from
early times. Early Dynastic seals show swimmers in action. It is
evident from these and other representations that the crawl was
the common stroke. Learning to swim may, indeed, have been
necessary training for children among the upper classes, for a bio-
graphical inscription of a Middle Kingdom nobleman refers to
the encouragement his king gave him and declares that as a youth
"he caused me to take swimming lessons along with the royal
Confrontation sports like wrestling, boxing, and fencing with
sticks were also popular. Ptahhotep's tomb shows wrestling
scenes, in which many elements common in Japanese martial arts
have been detected. In many tombs the owner is depicted watch-
ing boatmen's games, which may have been either an exhibition
contest or a race. Light reed boats, often filled with produce, were
punted in the same direction, while two or three men stood in
each boat equipped with long poles with which they tried to push
their opponents into the water. They would then either board the
'enemy' boat or tip it over.
In the tombs of the Old Kingdom, only children (identified by
the side-lock of youth) are depicted playing games. Moreover,
most of the games are played by boys, and (with few exceptions)
boys and girls did not play together. A game requiring skill was
played by boys with sharp-pointed sticks, which they raised and
threw at a target on the ground between them. A 'tug-of-war' trial
of strength was accompanied by such inscriptions as "your arm is
much stronger than his," "my team is stronger than yours," and
"hold fast, comrades." Boys played a high-jump game, leaping
over an obstacle formed by two of their comrades sitting opposite
each other with the soles of the feet and tips of the fingers touch-
A girls' game is depicted in Mereruka's tomb: two players in
the center hold either two or four partners with outstretched
Indoor Games 181

arms; the latter lean outward so that only their heels touch the
ground. The text reads "turn around four times." Though there
are no reliefs of children playing ball in the Old Kingdom, balls
have been found, even in prehistoric graves. Some were covered
in leather cut into sections and sewn together and filled with fine
straw or reeds. Others were made of wood or clay, in one or more
colors. Tops, rattles, and blowpipes, as well as dolls, have also
been found. Some dolls seem to have been made by the children
themselves from pieces of wood swathed in cloth. They also made
toys fashioned of clay: crude human figures and animals like
sheep, dogs, tortoises, and lizards, which can be clearly identified.
When children died, these 'treasures' were buried with them.

Indoor Games
The ancient Egyptians were also imaginative in their indoor
recreation. A favorite game was senet, which appears to have been
similar to checkers, played on a rectangular board divided into
thirty squares in three rows with carved black and white pieces. A
large number were found at the tomb of Ptahshepses at Abu Sir.
Although the players are depicted facing each other, there is no
indication of the rules of the game. The earliest gaming piece (in
the shape of a house with a sloping roof) was found in the tomb of
the First Dynasty king Den. Predynastic game pieces made of
clay coated with wax, along with a checker-board table of un-
baked clay held up by four thick, short legs and divided into eigh-
teen squares, have also been found.
A game that appears to have been popular in the Old Kingdom
was played with a series of discs about ten centimeters in diame-
ter, made in wood, horn, ivory, stone, or copper. Each had a hole
in the center, through which a fifteen-centimeter pointed stick
was inserted. We do not know how the game was played. Perhaps
182 Leisure

the stick was rotated between the palms of the hands to make the
discs spin like a top.
Some of the games of the Old Kingdom did survive its fall. One
was played on a low table, its surface displaying an engraved or
inlaid coiled snake, the head situated at the center of the board and
the body divided into transverse lines forming segments. The
pieces for this game comprised three lions, three lionesses, and
five red-and-white balls; these were kept in an ebony box when
the game was not being used.

Folk Tales and Myths

Storytelling played an important part in the lives of the ancient
Egyptians. The deeds of gods and kings were not written in early
times and only found their way through oral tradition into the lit-
erature of a later date. This treasury of popular tales was based on
an ageless tradition in ancient Egypt. As we have seen, the people,
their society, and their institutions were molded by the environ-
ment and by nature's changeless cycles. The permanence of the
physical environment meant that the lives of the rural Egyptians
remained stable. While the Great House was striving for political
control, and noble fathers were teaching proverbs and behavior to
their sons, the life of the peasant farmer was shaped, as in times
long past, by the rise and fall of the Nile. Each evening when the
sun set, farm work was over. Farmers would put aside their hoes,
sickles, and winnowing forks, and sit with their friends in the vil-
lage or on the rocky outcrop overlooking the valley, and tell tales.
They related all they knew of their ancestors, who, like them-
selves, knew how to exploit the waters of the Nile. Narmer, some
told, diverted the great river at Memphis through an artificial
channel and constructed a moat around the city that was fed by
the river. They related tales of the good and kindly king Senefru,
Folk Tales and Myths 183

who helped the poor; of the wicked Khufu who constructed a

mighty tomb in the shape of the sacred ben-ben, and of Menkaure
who was. good and just and compensated the poor. Popular and
magical tales were closely bound together in a frame narrative,
which provided a reason for their telling. Whether or not this was
based on propaganda by the central government is not important,
once they became part of the stockpile of oral tradition. For ex-
ample, the Westcar Papyrus relates three stories that mention the
names of kings and princes in the Old Kingdom in chronological
order. It preserves the undercurrents of what might have been a
most inspired, imaginative, and successful campaign to dissemi-
nate sun worship by the Heliopolitan priests. The text reveals that
Khufu, builder of the great pyramid, asked his sons to tell him
tales of wonders. The first two magical feats recounted took place
in the reigns of the Third Dynasty kings Zoser and Nebka, the
third in Senefru's reign, and the fourth in Khufu's own reign. The
tales end with the prophecy of the imminent birth of three sons
by Reddedet, the wife of a Heliopolitan priest, who were destined
for the throne. The eldest of these children, conceived by the sun-
god Re by immaculate conception, would also be High Priest of
Heliopolis. The purpose of the tale (to show that the kings of the
Fifth Dynasty were sons of the sun-god) was preceded by appeal-
ing stories of wonder and magic. In this form, it was passed
through the generations, becoming part of the oral tradition, until
finally set to writing.
The repulsing of Apep, the evil dragon-like creature that
lurked on the horizon, was another popular tale. Each evening, at
sunset, it tried to stop the passage of the setting sun through the
underworld. If the sky was clear, it indicated an easy passage; a
blood-red sunset showed a desperate battle between the forces of
good and evil; but the sun was the victor and there was always a
new dawn. The Egyptians told tales of the world around them:
how the sky was held aloft by mountain peaks or pillars that rose
184 Leisure

above the range that formed the edge of the world; how the sun
was a disc of fire that sailed across the heavens in a boat, or was
pushed by the beetle, Kheper; how the sky was a mother-goddess,
Nut, like the cow that gave nourishment; and how the earth was
Geb, who sprouted vegetation, reborn each year as their great an-
cestor Osiris had been given life after death. They told tales of
Osiris who taught them how to produce grain for their nourish-
ment, of Isis his wife who taught them how to weave and grind
grain for bread, and of Horus, their son, who was the king who
had power over the forces of nature.
They told many tales about their river: how Hapi the Nile-god
dwelt in a grotto on an island where the Nile gushed out of the
eternal ocean that surrounded the earth, and from where he con-
trolled its flow to Upper and Lower Egypt. They described Hapi
as a boatman or fisherman like many of their own, with a narrow
belt holding in a large belly and heavy breasts.
And they told tales of their land: how the vegetation that died
with the harvest was reborn when the grain sprouted, just as the
sun-god 'died' each evening and was reborn the next morning.
How Set, the personification of drought, darkness, and evil, se-
cretly aspired to the throne of Osiris, the god of fertility and wa-
ter. They told how, when Horus was a child and was hidden with
his mother Isis in the marshes of the Delta, he was bitten by Set,
who had taken the form of a poisonous snake. Isis, in despair,
called to the heavens for help, and the 'boat of millions of years'
drawing the sun-god across the heavens heard her. Re sent Thoth
the moon-god to speak to Isis and offer help. He informed her
that the boat of the sun-god would stand still, darkness would
reign, there would be no food, and the people of the earth would
suffer, until Horus was cured. They told how the evil Set was
overcome, Horus became healthy, and the sun-god resumed his
journey across the heavens, casting life-giving rays upon the earth
and causing the crops to grow again.
Rural Festivals 185

Myths and legends are a memory of the past carried forward in

ever-elaborated, sometimes distorted or exaggerated form, if
some of the tales had long served a politico-religious purpose, the
people were not necessarily aware of it. Many include elements of
magic, the supernatural, a trick overcome, a solution to a problem
provided, or a reality explained. The magician Djedi, described in
the Westcar Papyrus as having performed feats of wonder, was
"one hundred and ten years," and one who knew "the number of
the secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth," the moon-god
who was the finder of secrets, the solver of problems.

Rural Festivals
Rural festivals were a great source of pleasure to the masses. They
were closely linked to the working patterns of the people: cele-
brations heralding the rebirth of the crop, the reaping of the first
sheaf, the opening of a new canal, the bearing of the crop to the
granary - all were accompanied by hand-clapping, singing, and
sometimes more. All festivals were of a religious nature in the
sense that it was an appropriate time for pilgrimages to be made to
the graves of the departed to present offerings, or for a longer
journey to be undertaken to the holy site of ancestors to make a
sacrifice. These were not gestures of piety so much as a self-im-
posed duty, a gratification, and a familiar and recognized pattern
of behavior.
In the Old Kingdom the people were confident (they had not
yet known war or foreign occupation), hard-working (a reflec-
tion of a stable and organized government), and optimistic (since
the nature-worship of Osiris had not yet developed into a 'cult of
the dead,' there was no need for the growth of priestcraft to help
defend against the awesome powers of the underworld). In the
Old Kingdom, people suffered no apprehension of the hereafter.
186 Leisure

When they died and were buried on the west bank of the Nile,
along with the necessary provisions for the hereafter, they were
confident that they would go to the 'godly west,' where they
would live again as on earth. There would be no hunger or want.
In this blessed place of peculiar fertility, they would breathe the
fresh air along the river banks, fish in the bulrushes, paddle boats
along the river, and enjoy fowling and hunting for ever and ever in
the'field of reeds.'

There were many reasons that made Egypt a country unique in

providing an unbroken story of human progress longer than can
be traced anywhere else on earth. They are based primarily on the
security and sufficiency of the land with predictable seasons and
no scarcity of basic resources, as well as on the political organiza-
tion of the country. This was based on the establishment of local
cults at strategic positions by means of which royal monopoly
over raw materials was assured. This paved the way for the emer-
gence of a court-centered culture. Builders and artisans with an
aptitude for translating a range of ideals into their artistic cre-
ations were employed by the state. Hieroglyphic writing was for-
malized, art forms codified, mortuary ritual standardized, and a
national religion formulated. A festival was planned in which dis-
tant communities could actively participate, and a drama per-
formed that traced the story of the creation of the physical world
up to the triumph and coronation of the king. In addition, a
mythological tradition with strong political, social, and religious
ramifications was developed. Tradition became so deeply rooted
in the first eight centuries of ancient Egyptian history (from 3000
to 2145 BC) that despite the fall of the Old Kingdom (and, indeed,
other 'great periods'), it continued to influence the political and
social institutions, religious beliefs and rituals, art and architec-
ture for thousands of years.
In the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 BC), the second of Egypt's
three great periods, the title 'repeating of births' (that is, renais-
188 Conclusion

sance) was applied to kingly rule, and the kings maintained their
control over the reunited country by reviving the methods prac-
ticed in the Old Kingdom: the construction or restoration of tem-
ples at cult centers, the performance of national festivals, and the
monopoly of trade. Indeed, in a record dating to the reign of
Senusret III we find the king searching the ancient records "to as-
certain the form of a god, that he might fashion him as he was for-
merly, when they made the statues in their council, in order to es-
tablish their monuments on earth."
After the war of liberation from the Hyksos and the creation of
an empire, Egypt entered an age of unparalleled wealth and
grandeur in the New Kingdom (15 50-1070 BC). The priests of
Amun-Re of Thebes became extremely powerful, and there was
grave discontent among the upper classes. When Akhenaten came
to the throne he emphasized a connection between his worship of
the living sun, the Aten, and the solar cult of the Pyramid Age. He
built his sun temples on the same lines as the Fifth Dynasty tem-
ples at Abu Sir. And the symbol of the Aten, the orb of the sun,
was reminiscent of the description of the sun-god in the Pyramid
Texts: "The arm of the sun beams." The king himself was still re-
garded as the 'son of the sun-god' and the traditional title Re-
Harakhte, 'Horus of the Horizon,' was not at first discarded.
Stress was once again placed on maat, and verses in praise of the
Aten contained little that had not been sung in earlier verses to the
sun-god Re. Akhenaten's revival was short-lived. The priests of
Amun-Re came back to power and for a time basked in a period
of unequaled splendor. But the empire was lost, the country went
into a period of decline.
During the brief Twenty-sixth Dynasty revival known as the
Sake Period (664-525 BC), conscientious effort was made to re-
capture 'the time of the ancestors,' "for lo, their words abide in
writing; open that thou may read and imitate knowledge." The
Saite rulers recopied ancient texts, and there is even evidence that
Conclusion 189

they excavated a gallery beneath the Step Pyramid at Saqqara to

see how it was built.
The Old Kingdom became a classic standard, a time in which
the hard core of Egyptian thought was formulated, and a time
that the ancient Egyptians themselves regarded as a Golden Age, a
model throughout their history.
For Further Reading

EDWARDS, I.E.S.: The Pyramids of Egypt. Revised and updated.

London: Penguin Books, 1988.

EMERY, W.B.: Archaic Egypt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,


ERMAN, ADOLF: Life in Ancient Egypt. Translated by H.M.

Tirard. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Faulkner, R.O.: The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1969.

FRANKFORT, HENRI: Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient

Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978.

HAYES, WILLIAM C.: Most Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The Uni-

versity of Chicago Press, 1965.

HOFFMAN, MICHAEL A.: Egypt Before the Pharaohs. London

and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

KAMIL, JILL: Sakkara and Memphis: History and Guide. New,

completely revised edition. Cairo: Egyptian International Pub-
lishing - Longman, 1996.
For Further Reading 191

KEES, HERMANN: Ancient Egypt: A Cultural Topography. Trans-

lated by Ian F. D. Morrow Chicago and London: Faber and
Faber, 1961.

KEMP, BARRY J.: Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization.

London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

MORENZ, SIEGFRIED: Egyptian Religion. Translated by Ann E.

Keep. London: Methuen, 1960.

PETRIE, FLINDERS W. M.: The Pyramids and Temples ofGizeh.

New and revised edition. London: History and Mysteries of
Man, 1990.

RICE, MICHAEL: Egypt's Making. London and New York:

Routledge, 1990.

SPENCER, A.J.: Early Egypt: The Rise of Civilization in the Nile

Valley. London: British Museum Press, 1993.

STEVENSON SMITH, W.: The Art and Architecture of Ancient

Egypt. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1958.

TRIGGER, BRUCE G.: Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in

Context. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1993.


cient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 1983.

WEEKS, KENT. Egyptology and the Social Sciences. Cairo: The

American University in Cairo Press, 1979.

Abu Ghurab 104 Book of the Dead 111

Abu Sir Bubastis 86
99,102, 105, 119, 160, 172 Buto 16
Abydos 17, 21-22, 27, 28, Byblos 26, 121
40,43 Byblos ship 121
Africanus 36 Cataract region 120,123,124
Afterlife 128 class-based society 17
Aha 42,45, 119 Coffin Texts 111
tomb of 44 Coptos 53, 107
akh 35 cult centers 2, 21, 48, 51, 52,
Akhenaten 188 53> 55> 5 8 > 6°, 69, 7°. 86>
ancestor worship 2, 22 95,97, 105, 106, 109, 115
animals 8, 33, 138 cults 50, 51, 52, 58, 83, 85
ankh 64, 150
Anubis 33-34, 52 Dahshur 74, 75
Apep 183 Dakhla Oasis 8
Aswan 31, 119 Den 46,49, 56,63, no
Asyut 8, 9 Dimeh 12
Aten 188 Djedi 185
Atum 89, 112, 114 Djedkare 106
Atum-Re 89, 90 Djer 42, 52, 63
Djet 42
Badari n, 31
Badarian culture 13,17,19,23 Eastern Desert 5, 9
Battlefield Palette 27 Edwin Smith
ben-ben 92 Surgical Papyrus 155

Egyptian Museum 37, 85, Helwan 45, 129

i% 137 Hemaka 56
Elephantine 53, 106, 124 Herodotus 6, 36, 57, 83, 146
Ennead 112 Hetepheres 150, 157
Hierakonpolis i, 3, 20
Fayyum 8,9,11,12,13,14,22 hieroglyphic script 28
fellahin 19 High Dam at Aswan 6, 11
Flinders Petrie i Horus 21, 28, 49, 56, 57, 60-
Geb 89, no, 112 148,184
Gebel al-Arak 21 hu 96
Gerzean culture 22, 23-24, Hyksos 188
27,40, 52
Giza 79,81,92,99, 119, 129, Imhotep 65, 91
131, 156 Isis 90,97, 113, 148, 184
Giza Plateau Mapping
Project 74 ka 51
Great House 3, 41, 48, 55, Ka 28, 63
59, 65, 69, 70, 74, 76, 96, Ka-aper 146
98, 101,105,106,109,115, Kagemni 134
123, 127,130, 151, 155 Kanufer (son of Senefru) 75
Great Pyramid 74, 79, 84, 1 64 Khaba, pyramid of 71
Great Royal Wife 99, 149 Khafre 80,87
pyramid of 71
Hammamiya n statue of 161
Harishef 52 valley temple of 8 5
Harkhuf 125, 176 khamasin 10
Hathor 86, 97, 121 Khasekhem(wy) 45,61,62,63
Heb Sed see Sed festivals Khenti-Amentiu 53
Heliopolis 16,91,92,101, Kheti 159
54 Khufu 5 7,77,79,8 3,106,15 o,
Heliopolis Doctrine 89, 90, 164,183
98,114 pyramid of 71
194 Index

valley temple of 84 Narmer 1,3,28,37,39,45,182

Kom Ombo 8 natron 32, 157
nebty 46, 78
Lake Qarun 9, 1 1 Neferirkare 102, 105, 156
Lebanon 26 Neith 52
Lower Egypt 5,11,26,27,36, Neithhotep 45, 149
Nekhbet 61
Luxor 17 Nekhebu 105, 151
Nekhen i, 3, 17, 20-22, 24,
Maadi 16, 25 26-27, *8, 37, 41, 42, 43,
maat 96 53, 60, 63
Manetho 3, 37, 60 Nekure 159
mastaba 24 Nekure son of Khafre 77
Mefdet 49 Nemathap 149
Meidum 22 nesw-bit 46, 78
Memphis 36, 62, 70, 85, 105, neter 52
112, 119, 129, 154 Netjereperef (son of Senefru)
Memphite Drama 48, 50, 51, 75
in, 113 Nile 5,9,27,80,115,117-
Menes 1,3,36-38,110 18,120,123,170,184
Meni 143 flood 10, 30
Menkaure 86,99, J ^3 Nofir 146
pyramid of 71 Nubia 25, 123-26
statue of 161 Nut 89, 97
Merenre 108, 124 Nyuserre 102, 103, 105
Mereruka 139, 180
Meresankh III 93 Omari 16, 135
Merimda n, 14 Orion 94
Meryetneith 149 Osiris 22, 89, 90, 94, 95, 97,
Mesopotamia 21, 26 IIO, I I I , 112, 147, 148
Methen 132, 151 Palermo Stone
Naqada i, 17, 19, 20, 21-22, 48,58,77,110,123
27,28,31,32,45,60, 149 Palestine 25

Palette of Narmer 3 7, 39,53, 57 serekh 38, 42, 52, 60

Pe 41 Set 21, 28, 60-61, 97, no,
Pepi I 106-8, 151 112, 114, 147, 184
Pepi II 108, 115, 126, 176 Seti I, temple of 39
Per-ibsen 60 Shabaka Stone 112,142
Petti 82 Shamm al-Nasim 147
Ptah 50, 104, 112, 113, 114 Shepseskhaf 99
Ptah-Shepses 105 Sheshat 49
Ptahhotep 138,139,140,142- Shu 89, no
44, 152-53, 180 Shunet al-Zibib 119
Ptolemy II 37 sia 96
Punt 117, 122 Sinai 26
pyramid of Meidum 71 Sohag 10
PyramidTexts 48,49,56-58, Son of Re 101
68,83,91,92,94,111,128, Sothis 30
135 Sphinx 86-88
pyramids of Giza 71 Step Pyramid of Saqqara
Rahotep 137
Ramses II 39, 85 Tasa n
Re 62, 89, 92, no Tefnut 89
Red Sea 17 TellBasta 86
Tell al-Fara'un 26
Sabni 141 Tell Farkha 27
Sahure 109, 121 Tell Ibrahim Awad 27, 28
Saqqara 44, 62, 65, 99, 101, Tell al-Kabir 27
130, 165 Tell Samara 27
seasons n Teti 151
Sed festivals 46, 62, 65, 68- Thinis 27
69, 102, 103 Thoth 97, no
Seheil Island 126 Ti,tombof 134,140,151,162,
164, 168, 173, 175, 179
serdab 33 Towns Palette 28
196 Index

Tura 79 Weni 126, 151

Turin Papyrus 3,110 Wepwawet 33, 67
Two Lands Weshptah 156
36,41,44, 56,91,95 Westcar Papyrus
Umm al-Qaab 43 Western Desert 5,8-10
Unas 3, 119
Upper Egypt 5, 6, 8, n, 25, Yam 125
26, 27, 36, 82,95, J I 4
Userkhaf 100, 105 Zoser 64-69, 70, 71, 91, no

WadiDigla 25
Wadi Hammamat 117