Ancient History & Civilisation



THE UNIFICATION OF EGYPT IN 2950 CREATED THE WORLD’S FIRST nation-state. Today, this form of political and social unit seems both natural and inevitable: our prosperity (or poverty), our rights and duties, our freedoms (or lack of them) are all profoundly affected by our nationality. With the exception of Antarctica, the entire surface of our planet is divided up into countries, numbering more than two hundred. Yet it was not always so. Before the late fourth millennium B.C., there were no such states. Identity and loyalty were based instead on family, community, or region. The concept of a nation-state—a political territory whose population shares a common identity—was the invention of the ancient Egyptians.

Beginning with Narmer, Egypt’s early kings found themselves the rulers of an entirely new form of polity, one bound together as much by governmental structures as by shared values. It was an unprecedented challenge: to foster a sense of nationhood among diverse people, spread out over an area extending from the first cataract to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The creation of a distinctive sense of Egyptianness ranks as one of the greatest achievements of Egypt’s early rulers. At its heart lay a large measure of self-interest. The doctrine of divine kingship defined pharaonic civilization, produced such iconic monuments as the pyramids, and inspired the great tombs and temples that stand to this day.

The dominance of monarchy in ancient Egyptian culture and history is underlined by the system we use for dividing up the three-thousand-year span between the reign of Narmer and the death of Cleopatra. Rather than focusing on cultural achievements (such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age), Egyptian chronology employs a scheme based on dynasties of kings. In a way that seems particularly appropriate for one of the most conservative of all ancient cultures, the basic system we use today remains the same as that devised by Manetho, an ancient Egyptian priest and historian who lived twenty-three hundred years ago. Looking back at the history of his own country, and assisted by temple records, Manetho divided Egypt’s kings into thirty ruling houses, or dynasties. His scheme started with Menes (the king we know as Narmer) as the founder of the First Dynasty (circa 2950), and ended with Nectanebo II (Nakhthorheb) as the last king of the Thirtieth Dynasty (360–343 B.C.). For historical completeness, modern scholars have added a Thirty-first Dynasty, comprising the Persian conquerors who briefly ruled Egypt between the demise of Nakhthorheb and the conquest of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian and Ptolemaic dynasties, founded by Alexander and Ptolemy respectively, were not included within Manetho’s original scheme. Although these dynasties comprise kings of non-Egyptian origin and represent, to some extent, a break with the pharaonic system of government, they do emphasize the continued importance of dynastic kingship in the later history of ancient Egypt.

In keeping with the ancient Egyptian ideal, perpetuated in temple reliefs and inscriptions, Manetho’s dynasties emphasized a single, unbroken succession of kings stretching back to “the time of the gods” and ultimately to the moment of creation itself. In turn, this ideal reflected the doctrine promulgated by the pharaonic court. According to this doctrine, the creator god Atum set the pattern for kingship at “the first time,” and each subsequent ruler was the legitimate inheritor of a divinely sanctioned form of government. The reality, of course, was rather different. At times of national disunity, several rulers based in different parts of the country were able to claim royal titles and rule concurrently. Hence, our modern understanding of Egyptian history regards Manetho’s Twenty-second, Twenty-third, and Twenty-fourth dynasties as at least partially overlapping. Recent scholarship has shown some of his dynasties (such as the Seventh) to be wholly spurious, the result of a misunderstanding of the ancient temple records, while the Ninth and Tenth dynasties seem to represent only one ruling family, not two. These corrections and modifications aside, Manetho’s system has proved impressively robust and durable. Above all, the fact that it remains the most convenient way of dividing up ancient Egyptian history underlines the centrality of monarchy to his—and our—understanding of pharaonic civilization.

Indeed, as a form of government, kingship was quintessentially Egyptian. Among the early civilizations of the ancient world, only Egypt embraced this particular mode of rule from the very beginning of its history. In Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), city-states based their identity on their local temples, so it was the high priests who wielded the greatest political and economic power. Only later did a monarchical system develop, and it was never as thoroughgoing or omnipotent as its Egyptian counterpart. In the Nile Valley, kings seem to have ruled the people from prehistoric times. Recent excavations in the early royal burial ground at Abdju have uncovered graves dating back to around 3800. One of them contained a pottery beaker painted with perhaps the earliest image of a king. It shows a tall figure with a feather in his hair, holding a mace in one hand, and in the other, a rope binding three captives. The subjugation of enemies and the distinctive combination of feather headdress and mace—which is also found in the prehistoric rock art of the Eastern Desert—identify the scene as royal, even though the ruler in question probably controlled only a limited territory. Kingship also seems to have developed elsewhere in Upper Egypt at about the same time, as suggested by a fragment of pottery from Nubt decorated with a crown, and by a monumental complex of pillared halls in the desert close to Nekhen.

By around 3500 the unmistakable iconography of kingship was given full expression in a tomb at Nekhen known as the Painted Tomb. One of the inside walls of this burial chamber was plastered and painted with a frieze showing a royal figure taking part in various ritual activities. The decoration is dominated by a spectacular procession of boats, but in one corner of the scene the king is shown smiting three bound captives. This motif, already prefigured on the Abdju vase, became the defining image of Egyptian kingship. We see it repeated on the Narmer Palette and thereafter on temple walls until the very end of pharaonic civilization. The imagery of early kingship was as enduring as it was violent.


DURING THE PROCESS OF STATE FORMATION, THE ARTISTIC EXPRESSION of royal rule underwent rapid development, to keep pace with the changing notion of kingship itself. We can trace the changes in a series of ceremonial objects and commemorative inscriptions. Particularly striking is the so-called Battlefield Palette, an object similar to the Narmer Palette but dating to a century or so earlier. Whereas Narmer’s monument gives pride of place to an image of the king in human form, the older palette shows the ruler instead as a huge lion, trampling and goring his enemies who lie prostrate on the field of battle. The intention was to present the king as a force of nature. In a similar vein, a contemporary inscription carved at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman, near the second Nile cataract in Nubia, shows the victorious Egyptian king as a giant scorpion, holding in its pincers a rope that binds the defeated Nubian chief. From Narmer’s own time, an ivory cylinder shows the king as a vicious Nile catfish, beating rows of prisoners with a large stick. The message was clear: the king was not just a mere mortal who ruled by virtue of his descent and leadership abilities; he also embodied the strength and ferocity of wild animals, superhuman powers granted to him by divine authority. Elevating themselves above their subjects, Egypt’s prehistoric rulers were intent on acquiring godlike status.

These trends culminate in the Narmer Palette. Its very form harks back to a time when wandering cattle herders lived a seminomadic existence, carrying everything they needed with them and using their own bodies as canvasses for their art. In such a society, face paint played a central role in the ritual life of the community, and cosmetic palettes were a favorite and prized possession. But by Narmer’s time, the palette had been transformed into a vehicle for proclaiming the omnipotence and divinity of the king.

The decoration of the Narmer Palette likewise spans two worlds and two ages. The shallow well that betrays the object’s practical origins is formed by the entwined necks of two fabulous creatures, held on leashes by attendants. These “serpopards” (leopards with serpentine necks) are not Egyptian in origin. They come from the artistic canon of ancient Mesopotamia. Their presence on an early Egyptian artifact points to a period of intense cultural exchange between two of the great cultures of late prehistory, when ideas and influences from the valleys of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates reached the distant banks of the Nile. Egypt’s predynastic rulers were intent upon promoting their own authority and influence. To do so, they needed tried and trusted means to display their power, and they were quite happy to borrow ideas from abroad, if the ideas served the purpose. So, for a few generations, Egyptian elite culture adopted a range of Mesopotamian imagery, especially artistic motifs to represent complex or difficult concepts, such as the notion of kingship itself (a rosette) or the reconciliation of opposing forces by the ruler (two intertwined beasts). But once the borrowed ideas had achieved the desired effect, they were discarded just as quickly, in favor of indigenous cultural expressions—the only exception being the Mesopotamian-inspired style of architecture adopted for the king’s palace and other royal buildings. The Narmer Palette captures this pivotal moment in cultural history: Mesopotamian motifs appear on one side, exclusively Egyptian motifs on the other. Egyptian civilization had come of age and was finding its own voice.

Prehistoric and historic modes of expression are likewise reflected in the depiction of Narmer himself. On one side he is shown as a wild bull, tearing down the walls of a rebel stronghold and trampling the hapless enemy underfoot. Turn the palette over, and the representation of the ruler as a wild animal has been relegated to the past. The image of the victorious king in human form now dominates. The ideology of royal authority had not changed, but its representation was undergoing a profound transformation. From now on, it was not thought appropriate to depict the king as an animal. His newly acquired divinity required a more elevated and sophisticated representation.

Monarchs throughout history have adopted elaborate trappings to distinguish themselves from their subjects. Royal regalia encodes the different attributes of kingship, providing a kind of visual shorthand for a complex underlying ideology. In Christian monarchies a crown surmounted by a cross symbolizes that the king’s temporal power is subject to a greater, divine authority (the orb reinforces the same message), while a scepter stands for power tempered by justice. In ancient Egypt, regalia was similarly used to convey the nature of royal authority. Once again, many of the elements have prehistoric origins. The earliest symbol of office yet discovered in Egypt dates back to 4400, more than fourteen centuries before the foundation of the dynastic tradition. It is a simple wooden staff, about a foot long, with knobbed ends, found buried next to its owner in a grave at el-Omari, near modern Cairo.

Wielding a big stick is, of course, the most basic expression of authority, and a wooden staff remained the identifying badge of high office throughout ancient Egyptian history. Monarchy, however, has a tendency to elaborate. So early in the development of Egyptian kingship, the simple stick evolved into a more complex object, a scepter. As we have seen, an ivory scepter in the shape of a shepherd’s crook survives from a predynastic royal tomb at Abdju, and the crook became so closely identified with sovereignty that it was adopted as the hieroglyphic sign for the word “ruler.” Together with the flail or goad—a stick with knotted cords or strings of beads attached to one end—it came to symbolize the office of kingship, more specifically the monarch’s duty to both restrain and encourage his flock. These two key items of royal regalia betray the prehistoric origins of Egyptian civilization. They recall a past where livelihoods were dominated by animal husbandry, where the man wielding the crook and flail—the man controlling the herds—was the leader of his community. A similar echo is heard in the peculiar item of regalia worn by Narmer on both sides of his palette, a bull’s tail. This was intended to demonstrate that the king embodied the power of the wild bull, perhaps the most awesome and ferocious of ancient Egyptian fauna, and the tail provided a subconscious link between the dynastic monarchy and its predynastic antecedents.

A crown is the quintessential emblem of monarchy. Sovereigns have always distinguished themselves by wearing a special form of headdress that, at its most basic level, elevates the wearer above the populace (literally and metaphorically). Like the concept of the nation-state, crowns seem to have been an ancient Egyptian invention. And in keeping with the Egyptians’ worldview, their kings wore not one but two distinctive crowns, to symbolize the two halves of their realm. From earliest historic times, the red crown was associated with Lower Egypt. It consisted of a squat, squarish cap with a tall tapering projection rising from the back, and attached to the front of this projection was a curly protuberance reminiscent of a bee’s proboscis. Its counterpart, the white crown—tall and conical with a bulbous end—was the symbol of Upper Egypt. This neat equation shows the Egyptians’ love of binary divisions, but it is also an artificial creation. Archaeological evidence from the prehistoric period suggests that both crowns originated in Upper Egypt (the crucible of kingship), the red crown at Nubt and the white crown farther south, beyond Nekhen. Following the unification of the country, it made perfect sense to recast the northern red crown as the symbol of northern Egypt, keeping the southern crown as the symbol of the south. The ancient Egyptians were particularly good at inventing traditions. In the middle of the First Dynasty, about a century after Narmer, the royal iconographers took the obvious step of combining the red and white crowns into a single headdress, the double crown, to symbolize the ruler’s dual dominion. Thereafter he had a choice of three distinct headpieces, depending upon which aspect of his authority he wished to emphasize.

If art could be used to project the king’s authority, how much more effectively could architecture do the same, but on a monumental scale. Like other totalitarian rulers throughout history, Egypt’s kings had an obsession with grand buildings, designed to reflect and magnify their status. From the very beginning of the Egyptian state, the monarchy showed itself adept at using architectural vocabulary for ideological purposes. It chose to emphasize one particular style of building as the visible expression of kingship. A façade composed of alternating recesses and buttresses—which create a highly effective pattern of light and shade in Egypt’s sunny climate—had first been developed in Mesopotamia, in the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. Like other cultural borrowings during the period of state formation, this distinctive architectural style, known as palace-façade architecture, found a receptive audience among Egypt’s early rulers. It was both exotic and imposing: ideal as a symbol of royal power. So it was swiftly adopted as the architecture of choice for the king’s palaces, including the royal compound in the capital city of Memphis, which served as the principal seat of government. With its whitewashed exterior, this building known as White Wall must have been a dazzling sight, comparable in its symbolism to the White House of a modern superpower. Other royal buildings throughout the land were consciously modeled on White Wall, and an architectural motif of foreign origin rapidly became one of the hallmarks of the Egyptian monarchy.


THROUGHOUT PHARAONIC HISTORY, ICONOGRAPHY AND ARCHITECTURE retained important roles in projecting the desired image of kingship to the people. Iconography and architecture were especially effective in a country such as Egypt, where up to 95 percent of the population was illiterate. But in the ancient world, the main threat to a king rarely, if ever, came from the masses. The people a monarch needed to keep on his side, above all, were his closest advisers. The small group of literate high officials who ran the administration were in a better position than most to pose a threat to the reigning king. Of course, such individuals generally owed their position, status, and wealth to royal patronage, and therefore had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. However, Egypt’s masterful royal propagandists devised a subtle means of bolstering kingship among the literate class. In the process, they raised the office to a position of virtual unassailability.

The solution lay not in iconography but in writing. Hieroglyphs were first developed in the late prehistoric period for a rather prosaic purpose, to facilitate record keeping and enable economic control over a geographically extensive territory. But the ideological potential of writing was swiftly realized. On the Narmer Palette, for instance, signs are used to identify the main protagonists (the king, his followers, and his enemies) and to label the principal scenes. Words could just as easily be employed to convey the fundamental essence of kingship through royal titles. In the contemporary Western world, titles have generally lost their former potency, although some, such as “commander in chief” and “defender of the faith,” still carry echoes of a former age of deference and rigid hierarchies. In ancient Egypt, names and titles were highly significant, and the early development of the royal titulary, the royal protocol of titles, exploited this to the full.

The most ancient of all royal titles, in use even before Narmer’s time, was the Horus title. It explicitly identified the king as the earthly incarnation of the supreme celestial deity, Horus, who was worshipped in the form of a falcon. This made a statement as bold as it was uncompromising. If the king was not just the gods’ representative on earth but an embodiment of divinity, his office could not be challenged without destroying the whole of creation. The message was reinforced at every available opportunity. The king’s seal, stamped on commodities to mark royal ownership, or carved in stone on royal monuments, showed the falcon god standing on top of a rectangular frame containing the king’s Horus name, the name which expressed the king’s identity as the earthly incarnation of Horus. The frame was designed to resemble a gate in the royal compound. The not so subliminal message was that the king within his palace operated under divine sanction and was himself a god incarnate. As a statement of monarchical rule, it was direct and unanswerable.

A second royal title, attested from the reign of Narmer’s successor, took royal propaganda a stage further. It was written with the signs of a vulture and a cobra, representing two goddesses. Nekhbet the vulture was associated with Nekheb (modern Elkab), a town opposite Nekhen in the heart of Upper Egypt. Wadjet the cobra was the goddess of Dep, one of the twin towns that made up the important delta city of Per-Wadjet (modern Tell el-Fara‘in); she therefore stood for Lower Egypt. Choosing two ancient deities to symbolize the two halves of the country, and making both goddesses joint protectors of the monarchy, was a clever move, creating from strands of local belief and custom a national theology, centered on the person of the king. The adoption of the red and white crowns was part of the same process. So was the prominence given to the delta goddess Neith in the names of early royal wives. Narmer’s wife, for example, was called Neith-hotep, “Neith is satisfied.” From the marshes of the north to the southernmost Nile Valley, all the major cults—and their followers—were drawn into the ideology of kingship. It was a brilliant demonstration of the unite-and-rule concept, a theological takeover of the entire country.

The third royal title, adopted at the same time as the double crown, represented a further elaboration and definition of the king’s role. It comprised two Egyptian words, “nesu bity,” literally translated as “he of the reed and bee” but more elegantly rendered “dual king.” While the precise derivation is obscure—on one level, the reed may have symbolized Upper Egypt and the bee Lower Egypt—the meaning was wide-ranging and sophisticated. It embraced the many pairs of opposites over which the king presided and which he alone kept in balance: Upper and Lower Egypt, the black land and the red land, the realms of the living and the dead, and so on. The title also reflected the most fundamental dichotomy at the heart of Egyptian kingship, the contrast between the sacred office (nesu) and the secular function (bity). The nesu bity title reminded the king’s followers that as well as head of state he was also god on earth—an irresistible combination.


RULERS OF ALL KINDS, BUT ESPECIALLY HEREDITARY MONARCHS, HAVE instinctively recognized the cohesive power of ceremony and display, the capacity of public ritual to generate popular support. The ancient Egyptians were masters of royal ceremony, and from an early period. An elaborately decorated stone mace head, found alongside the Narmer Palette at Nekhen, shows an earlier king (known to us as Scorpion) performing an irrigation ceremony. The king uses a hoe to open a dike while an attendant, stooping before the royal presence, holds a basket ready to receive the clod of earth. Fan bearers, standard-bearers, and dancing women add to the sense of occasion. In this vivid tableau from the dawn of history, we get a flavor of early royal ceremonies: ritually charged events that emphasized the king’s role as guarantor of prosperity and stability.

Another mace head from the same cache records a different, though equally resonant, ceremony. This time the presiding king is Narmer, enthroned on an elevated dais under an awning, wearing the red crown and carrying the crooklike scepter. Beside the dais stands the customary pair of fan bearers, accompanied by the king’s sandal bearer and chief minister. Behind them are men wielding big sticks—even a sacral monarchy needed security. The ceremony, too, has a militaristic flavor, its main act being the parade of captured booty and enemy prisoners before the royal throne. In a stark analogy, three captive antelope inside a walled enclosure are shown next to the parade ground. The ideological connection between warfare and hunting, between the unruly forces of nature and the king’s opponents, remained potent through Egyptian history.

“King Scorpion” performs an irrigation ceremony.  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

A recent reexamination of the early town at Nekhen, including the place where Narmer’s palette and mace head were discovered, offers a further, tantalizing insight into the practice of early kingship. The area hitherto identified as a temple to the local falcon god Horus may not have been a temple at all, but instead an arena for royal ceremony. According to this interpretation, the mound in the center of the walled enclosure may have been a raised dais for the king’s formal appearances. The open ground in front of the mound could have been used for rituals like a parade of prisoners. If so, the Narmer mace head may picture the actual scene at such an event. Certainly, the objects found at Nekhen seem to reflect a cult of monarchy. Decorated ivories from the Main Deposit depict large mace heads erected on poles in an enclosure, so perhaps the Narmer and Scorpion mace heads were originally used to identify and demarcate a royal arena. Looking beyond Nekhen to the rest of Egypt, buildings previously identified as shrines may be reinterpreted in the same way, as centers of the royal cult. Certainly, the king and his deeds dominate the written and artistic record of the early dynasties, with other deities playing only supporting roles. The question of where the gods are in early Egyptian culture may have an unsettling answer: in early Egypt, the kings were the gods. Monarchy was not just an integral part of religion; the two were synonymous.

This would remain the dominant theme of pharaonic civilization until the very end, but it had a dark side. Looking again at the Narmer and Scorpion mace heads, the objects themselves—setting aside their decoration—tell us something about the character of Egyptian monarchy. Mace heads were symbols of authority from prehistoric times, for obvious reasons—a person wielding a mace was met with respect and obedience. The fact that mace heads were adopted as symbols of kingly power speaks volumes about the nature of royal authority in ancient Egypt. The scenes on the Narmer Palette are a further reminder of the brutality that underpinned Egyptian kingship. On one side of the palette, the king is shown with a mace, ready to smite his enemy. On the other side, Narmer has not only defeated his adversaries, but dealt them utter humiliation. He is shown inspecting rows of decapitated bodies that have suffered the added indignity of having their genitals cut off. The victims’ heads and penises are placed between their legs; only one of the dead has been allowed to retain his manhood. Uncomfortable as it may be, we must assume that the ancient Egyptians of Narmer’s time routinely humiliated their defeated enemies in this way.

At the pinnacle of Egyptian society, the king embodied this ruthless streak. While on the one hand he was keen to portray himself as the unifier of the country, a divine presence on earth who maintained created order, royal iconography also made it abundantly clear that defending creation meant meting out destruction to the king’s enemies, be they from outside or inside his realm. Narmer and his predecessors had won power by violent means, and they would not hesitate to use violence to retain power. The visual propaganda employed to promote the monarchy—the king as a lion, a giant scorpion, a fierce catfish, a wild bull, or a mace-wielding superhero—was unashamedly brutal. It was both a promise and a warning.

In this context, one of the most jarring scenes from early Egypt is the band of decoration around the top of the Scorpion mace head. The tableau consists of a series of royal standards, each symbolizing a different aspect of the king’s authority. But they are not just standards; they are also gallows. From each one hangs a crested bird with a rope around its neck. In hieroglyphic writing, the lapwing (“rekhyt” in ancient Egyptian) symbolized the common people, as opposed to the small circle of royal relatives (pat) who wielded power. On the Scorpion mace head, the common people have been hanged on the gibbets of royal power. It is a message that would be repeated later in Egyptian history. For example, the base of a statue of King Netjerikhet (also known as King Djoser), builder of the first pyramid, is decorated with archery bows (denoting foreigners) and also lapwings—so that the king could trample underfoot his subjects as well as his enemies. Egyptologists have recoiled at the underlying symbolism of such scenes, but it is inescapable. Autocratic regimes live and die by force, and ancient Egypt was no exception.

The most chilling example of this tendency can be seen in the tombs of Egypt’s early rulers. At Nubt, an elite burial dating to around 3500 contained more than the expected array of grave goods. Around the walls of the tomb, the excavators found a series of human long bones, and in the center a collection of skulls. The dismembered bodies of several individuals had clearly been interred with the tomb owner. At Nekhen, bodies in the predynastic cemetery show frequent evidence of scalping and decapitation. At nearby Adaima, two individuals had had their throats slit before being decapitated. The archaeologist who found them thought they might have been early examples of self-sacrifice, loyal retainers killing themselves in order to accompany their master to the grave. But the First Dynasty royal tombs at Abdju suggest a different, more sinister, explanation.

Under Narmer’s successors of the First Dynasty, the royal tomb itself was accompanied by a series of subsidiary graves for members of the court. In one case, the king’s afterlife companions were all in the prime of life when they died, with an average age of twenty-five years or younger. In another royal tomb from the end of the First Dynasty, a single roof covered the servants’ graves as well as the king’s chamber. Both examples provide unequivocal evidence for the sacrifice of retainers, since it is impossible that an entire retinue would conveniently die at the same time as its monarch. However, this could have been self-sacrifice: perhaps the bonds of loyalty were so strong that servants willingly took their own lives when their master died. Recently, however, closer inspection of the subsidiary graves has swept away this explanation , for the bodies show evidence of death by strangulation. The conclusion is as grim as it is shocking: Egypt’s early kings had the power of life and death over their subjects and did not hesitate to use it to demonstrate their own authority. To be a member of the common people meant a life of subjugation; to be a member of the king’s inner circle meant a life of fear. Neither can have been particularly pleasant.

Retainer sacrifice peaked at a relatively early stage: the tomb of Djer, third king of the First Dynasty (circa 2900), was surrounded by 318 subsidiary burials. It seems as if Egypt’s rulers, having acquired absolute power, were eager to try it out. Those buried around the king, to serve him faithfully in the afterlife, included his pets alongside his human attendants. The fact that the same mortuary provision was considered appropriate for both dogs and concubines speaks volumes about the status of royal servants at the early Egyptian court. After the reigns of Djer and his successor Djet, the practice of retainer sacrifice seems to have declined before stopping abruptly at the end of the First Dynasty. But one cannot help wondering if it was economic rather than ideological reticence that put an end to the practice. After all, eliminating an entire entourage at the end of each reign was hugely wasteful of talent, and the ancient Egyptians were nothing if not practical.

Human sacrifice in the First Dynasty  DR. KATE SPENCE

Human sacrifice is also depicted on labels from the royal tombs. Some of these dockets, which were originally attached to jars and boxes of supplies, are inscribed with scenes of royal activities. Two such labels, evidently commemorating the same event, show a man kneeling down with his arms tied behind his back. In front of him, on the floor, there is a large basin. Its purpose is gruesomely clear, for another man stands over the victim with a long knife, ready to plunge it into his chest. There is no written text to shed further light on this scene, but there can be little doubt that it involved the ritual killing of a human prisoner as part of a ceremony of kingship.

By means of the objects buried within it and the servants interred around it, the royal tomb was designed to enable the king to continue presiding at royal ceremonies for all eternity. As such, the tomb was the essential guarantor of kingship and, from the rise of ancient Egypt until the demise of the pharaohs, the most important construction project of each reign. The preparation of the king’s burial must have absorbed huge effort and expenditure, in labor, materials, and human life. It is often argued that the people of Egypt made the investment willingly, as their side of a contract that guaranteed the prosperity and survival of the country. Of course the person advancing that ideology was the king himself. It was in the monarchy’s own interests to promote its role in national unification. In reality, the king’s motivation was self-interest. The First Dynasty royal cemetery at Abdju, with its hierarchy of the king’s tomb surrounded by the burials of his retainers, was simply a concrete manifestation of Egyptian society—a state totally dominated and controlled by one man. The creation and implementation of this ideology helped to fashion pharaonic civilization, but at a price. With the rise of ancient Egypt, the relentless march of state control had begun in earnest.

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