For a long time historians were inclined to place Menes among the shadowy heroes of legend, in the company of Roland and King Arthur. Tradition, to be sure, named him as the Unifier; but Tradition, scholars feel, is a tricky wench, to be handled with caution. Archaeological evidence confirmed the assumption that a conquest did take place and that it was initiated by a king of the south, but the name of the conqueror was long in doubt. There was even a question as to whether a single king might claim that distinction.

We know of the conquest, and of conquering kings, from a series of carved stone objects dated to the end of the predynastic—mace heads, knife handles, and slate palettes. The most useful is the Narmer palette, which was found at Hierakonpolis. Stone palettes are common in predynastic graves; they were used for grinding cosmetics. As time went on they got bigger and their surface became a ground for bas-relief. The palette of Narmer shows a quaint little king, dressed in a kilt and wearing the White Crown of the south, coolly preparing to bash a kneeling captive on the head. Above the prisoner is a curious symbol depicting a hawk (which signified the king) in triumph over the Delta region. Behind the predatory king is the diminutive figure of his sandal bearer (sizes in Egyptian relief indicated relative importance rather than actual stature). At the top, between two heads of a cow goddess, are the signs that spell the king’s name—Narmer. On the back of the palette, Narmer, with his faithful sandal bearer still in attendance, wears the Red Crown of the north.

It does not require too much imagination to interpret the reliefs on this palette as scenes of conquest—conquest of north by south. King Narmer, then, is a likely candidate for the title of Unifier.

What about Menes, tradition’s candidate? Some scholars would like to identify him with King Narmer. The Menes-Narmer equation is a fetching bit of logic. It goes like this: (1) On the palette, Narmer is shown conquering people from the Delta and wearing the two crowns; (2) Therefore, Narmer unified the country; (3) Menes unified the country; (4) Menes = Narmer. QED.

The Narmer palette

There is nothing wrong with this argument, so far as it goes. Egyptian kings had more than one name, and Menes could have called himself Narmer if he had wanted to. However, there is another equation that makes better sense. It would identify Menes with a king named Aha, whose tomb has been found.

Among the objects dated by archaeologists to the First Dynasty are small tags of ivory or wood, insignificant in appearance but all-important in that they bear some of the earliest Egyptian writing. Unfortunately, we cannot read all the signs; they are extremely primitive, and not all can be identified with hieroglyphic symbols of later periods. Scholars are making progress with the decipherment of these tags, however, and we can make some deductions about the names and titles of the period in question.

The full “titulary” of the Egyptian king was not developed until much later. In its final form it consisted of five titles and five names; two of the names were surrounded by the oval figures called “cartouches,” which were used only by kings and queens. During the first two dynasties the titulary had only three elements; the most popular was the one called the “Horus name,” written not in a cartouche but in an oblong box called a serekh, which is a simplified representation of the facade of the royal palace. On the “roof” stands the hawk-god Horus, who was identified with the king, and his figure is read as a title: the Horus So-and-So.

The royal titulary, cartouche, and serekh

Aha is the Horus name of a First Dynasty king; it has been found on many labels, or tags. In the course of the excavation of the tomb of Aha’s mother, the queen Merneith, at the site of Naqada, a piece of an ivory label turned up that bore the king’s Horus name and beside it another name—Men. The Men name was written under the so-called Nebti title, just as Aha was written under the Horus title. The word Nebti means “the Two Ladies,” and refers to the two great goddesses of north and south; logically it could only be claimed by a king of both areas. But, more important, Men and Aha may be names of the same king.

The excavator of the tomb, John Garstang, was so excited about the broken label that he redug the entire tomb, looking for the missing pieces. The usual frustration of the archaeologist searching for one particular needle in a haystack was not Garstang’s; he found the pieces, and the two names and titles are there.

Most scholars think that the two names belong to one individual, and believe that the Naqada label actually does bear the name of fabled Menes. I think so too, for what that is worth. We do not need to worry about a missing s here or there; the name “Menes” is a Greek form. However, another label has the name of Narmer alternating with the “men” sign; so it is possible that Narmer is Menes, and Aha is his successor. Another, far less romantic, theory holds that the scenes of fighting between north and south that appear on the Narmer palette and on other carved objects of the period indicate a long period of warfare between the two regions that may have extended over several reigns. The assumption of the crown of the conquered region before the conquest was actually complete could have been an example of political propaganda (similar examples are not unknown in our time).

Having verified the claims of tradition for consideration in one respect at least, we may return to that source for further information about Menes the Conqueror. He is supposed to have built a new capital at Memphis, not far from modern Cairo. This was the boundary between the Delta and the valley, and the location was shrewdly selected. Menes may have been a skillful politician as well as a great warrior; instead of suppressing the conquered North he assumed its insignia, its gods, and its customs—not to mention its women, for there is reason to believe that his mother or his wife was a princess of the Delta. From Menes onward the parallelism based on the notion of the Two Lands is a fundamental aspect of Egyptian thought. The king wears the Two Crowns (whose combined appearance makes it evident that they were not joined for aesthetic reasons). He calls himself King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and Lord of the Two Lands, and he is protected by the Two Ladies. If Menes deliberately adopted this procedure, we may see why he succeeded where others, perhaps, had failed; for there are tales of a predynastic union of the two areas that was impermanent. As a technique it has proved useful to many a succeeding conqueror.

We don’t know a lot about Menes, but actually it is more than we might expect to know about a legendary character. Indeed, as we proceed we will find ourselves saddled with that archaeological rarity, an embarras de richesses. In Holmesian terms, it might be called “The Perplexing Problem of the Duplicate Tombs.”

Two hundred miles north of Luxor lies the very ancient holy city of Osiris, god of the dead. It is called Abydos, and it was a place all the kings of Egypt delighted to honor. Before Osiris came to dwell there, it was the sanctuary of another, even older, mortuary god, and pilgrims from all over Egypt laid their bones in that sanctified ground in order to win greater glory in the world to come. The tomb of Osiris himself was there; its exact location was well known to the devout Egyptians.

When archaeologists began to excavate at Abydos, they were not expecting to find Osiris, nor did they. What they did uncover was almost equally unexpected—tombs of the kings and queens of the First Dynasty, including the tomb of King Aha. The excavators must have felt almost as much awe as they would have felt at finding Osiris himself.

One of the first people to excavate at Abydos was—correct. William Flinders Petrie. He won permission to dig at the site only after some difficulty, for the concession had been given by the Department of Antiquities to another archaeologist, a Frenchman named Emile Amelineau. It is considered courteous these days to give the early excavators a polite tip of the hat, in tribute to their intentions if not their methods; but it is hard to say anything very complimentary about Amelineau. He drove Petrie to distraction. Indeed, most people drove Petrie to distraction, for few of them could live up to his high standards, and he did not brook fools lightly. In the case of Amelineau we can sympathize with Petrie, because after the French excavator had dismembered the site of Abydos, Petrie was given the pieces. Amelineau had removed all the interesting items he found, without—to Petrie’s fury—keeping records of how and where they were found. He had also ruthlessly destroyed much of the material he could not carry away. Yet Abydos was to show Petrie’s ability in all its glory. His publication is still a standard reference work.

Petrie’s thoroughness led him to one spectacular discovery, which Amelineau had missed—the mummified arm of a long-dead king or queen that still wore a set of exquisite bracelets made of gold, amethyst, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. Tomb robbers had rifled the coffin in remote antiquity and ripped off the jewels, arm and all. But something disturbed them in the midst of their job, and they had to run for their lives. In so doing, one of them stuck the mummified arm into a crack in the rock, planning to come back for it later when the heat was off. We may reasonably hope that the ancient gendarmes caught up with this particular member of the third or fourth oldest profession, for he never retrieved his loot. It is surprisingly attractive, this jewelry, and surprisingly well made. It gave Petrie an impression, which is borne out by other research, that the First Dynasty, so near in time to the primitive, was much more complex and sophisticated than one might expect.

This same Abydos tomb, which belonged to a king called Djer, provided a clue to a darker part of Egypt’s past. Most readers know of Sir Leonard Woolley’s discoveries at Ur, in Mesopotamia—the great royal tombs with their treasures of gold and the slaughtered bodies of hundreds of courtiers and slaves, who went to serve their masters in death as they had in life. Egyptologists have been mildly smug about the more civilized habits of their people, who supplied dead kings with wooden servant figures and painted pictures of slaves instead of the real article. Unfortunately for these assumptions of superiority, the Abydos excavations turned up a large tomb with surrounding rows of smaller graves that appeared to have been contemporaneous with the principal burial. Most of the victims were women.

Similar suspicious burials surround other First Dynasty monuments at Abydos. One of them, which belonged to a queen, had not only the bodies of her servants but the implements with which they had rendered service—vases with the potter, paints with the artist, needles with the court ladies.

In all fairness to the Egyptians it must be said that the First Dynasty tombs are the only ones that have these sacrificial burials, though there are hints of the practice in some of the predynastic burials at Hierakonpolis. Such extravagance with human life is more typical of barbaric periods (at least we civilized folk like to think so). More sophisticated cultures tend to develop magical substitutes.

When the Abydos royal tombs were discovered, everyone shook hands all around and checked one point off the list: First Dynasty royal tombs, okay. Then somebody began digging at Sakkara.

Every tourist to Egypt knows Sakkara. It is one of the ancient cemeteries of Memphis, conveniently close to modern Cairo. The said tourist is dragged to Sakkara by his guide in order to see the Step Pyramid of the Third Dynasty, the private tombs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, and the Serapeum of the late empire. He spends a morning, or a day, and comes away with aching feet and the correct impression that there is a lot to see at Sakkara.

Since Memphis was founded by Menes, we would have every reason to expect that he and his successors would choose to be buried near the new capital. If the First Dynasty tombs had not been discovered at Abydos, it would have been a safe bet to look for them at Sakkara.

So, when someone looked, there they were—more First Dynasty tombs, of a size and complexity that strongly suggested they were royal. Even a divine king has only one body; why should he require two tombs?

A possible answer is that one was a real tomb, and one a cenotaph. Cenotaphs are sometimes erected when the body of the person to be memorialized is missing, as in the case of sailors lost at sea. The great sarcophagus of Dante in the church of Santa Croce in Florence is a cenotaph; the Florentines tried to add Dante to their collection of great men by every means up to and including body snatching, but the authorities of Ravenna, where the poet chose to be buried, and where his bones still lie, foiled the attempts. The Egyptian kings of the early period might have built two tombs in order to be represented, funereally speaking, in both sections of the country, which they called the Two Lands.

Another theory, now gaining in popularity, is that the Sakkara tombs belonged to high officials rather than kings. The argument still rages—if one may use such a violent expression about the courteous discussions of scholars—and the fun of archaeology is that a new discovery may overturn the whole structure.

A prominent political figure once referred to “revisionist historians” in a manner that implied: (1) he had coined the phrase; (2) these people were doing something underhanded. Neither is true. Revisionism is an essential process in history (and of course other disciplines). Like most things it can be used improperly—shaking things up just for the hell of it, or to get newspaper headlines. We see a certain amount of that in Egyptology. But new discoveries and new interpretations require a reassessment of the evidence—revisionism, as I like to call it. That’s what history is about, and you’ll find plenty of it in this book. Without apologies.

If Menes was Aha, we have a tomb at Abydos that belonged to him. Other First Dynasty royal tombs at that site belonged to his successors, and an ivory label confirms the sequence. Unlike the multisyllabled names of later dynasty kings, these are easy to commit to memory, supposing anyone would want to: Aha, Djer, Djet, Den, Anedjib, Sekhemib, and Qa’a, plus a queen, Merneith, whose title, “King’s Mother” instead of Horus, indicates that she was probably acting as regent for a young son.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!