FIRST PHARAOH

You want to know who Narmer was, the first of the Egyptian pharaohs? Why Narmer was a "pharaoh" of Egypt when his father, the king Scorpion II, was only "king" of Egypt?

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Here is an article on the origins and reign of the first of all pharaohs: the pharaoh Narmer.

Narmer is the first pharaoh of the 30 dynasties of pharaohs. Initially king of Upper Egypt, he became pharaoh in 3150 BC by completing the conquest of Lower Egypt. He therefore reigned over the entire Nile valley, which gave him the title of "pharaoh".

In this article, you will discover:

  • The reasons that explain why Narmer became the first pharaoh of Egypt
  • The "Narmer Palette" establishing the reign of pharaoh Narmer
  • The successor of Narmer: the second pharaoh Hor-Aha

After reading this article, the legend of the first pharaoh of ancient Egypt will have no more secrets for you!

Let's get started without further delay!

1) The pharaoh Narmer

A) The Unification of Egypt

Unlike the kings of Egypt before him, Narmer is a pharaoh because he controlled the entire Egyptian territory in 3125 BC.

Indeed, Egypt is geographically divided into two regions:

  • Upper Egypt, the southern part of Egypt, Egypt in the heart of the land
  • Lower Egypt, the northern part of Egypt, Egypt close to the Mediterranean Sea (thus, counter-intuitively Lower Egypt lies above Upper Egypt on a current world map).

Although Narmer was the first pharaoh, he was not the one who conquered all of Lower Egypt during his lifetime. It is estimated today that his forefathers, successive kings of Upper Egypt, gradually annexed much of Lower Egypt piece by piece. However, Narmer is the pharaoh who completed the conquest of Lower Egypt.

This conquest was more peaceful than military, since the merchants and inhabitants of Lower Egypt appreciated the prosperity and protection that might have been brought to them by the mighty Upper Egypt.

B) Is Narmer the "heroic pharaoh" Menes?

It is also important to know that pharaoh Narmer and pharaoh Menes (sometimes considered Narmer's successor) are likely to be the same person.

Indeed, according to many Egyptian religious writings from 500 BC, the first pharaoh of Egypt was not Narmer but Menes, a pharaoh portrayed as a heroic figure who unified Egypt. Menes is said to have succeeded Horus (the falcon-headed god of royalty) in person, unified Egypt, and protected it from invaders from all sides.

The prevailing view among historians today is that Menes is a distortion of the name Narmer. This conclusion is quite accepted because at the time when Menes should have existed, there is no record of any mention of the name of such a pharaoh.

2) The "Palette of Narmer"

If we know today that Narmer is the first pharaoh of Egypt, it is notably thanks to the antique tablet called the "Palette of Narmer" also called "Great Hierakonpolis Palette" and "Narmer Palette".

This tablet is particularly important to Egyptologists (historians specializing in the study of Egyptian history) because it is the first to show an Egyptian king in possession of the Pschent crown.

The Pschent is a crown composed of two other crowns nested within each other: the Hedjet crown and the Decheret crown.

As the image below shows, the Hedjet represents the governance of a king over Upper Egypt and the Decheret represents the governance of a king over Lower Egypt.

Thus, wearing this crown, Narmer is no longer a king of Egypt but a pharaoh of Egypt (for he controls all the Egyptian territory).

Pharaoh's Pschent Crown

A) The front of the "Narmer Palette"

On the front of this palette (64 cm high and 42 cm wide), there are various references to the new power of pharaoh Narmer as well as to his military feats.

One can see that while Narmer's predecessors conquered Lower Egypt rather peacefully, Narmer was very violent in his conquest (see legends below the image):

Tablet of the pharaoh Narmer, recto[1] - The pharaoh Narmer with his Pschent crown composed of the red and white crowns.

[2] - The four banners of the first pharaoh Narmer bearing the insignia of the falcon god Horus.

[3] - Narmer's enemies beheaded and castrated. One can observe their heads and genitals placed between their feet as a sign of supreme shame.

[4] - Two serpopards (mythological creatures half jaguar half serpent) representing the disorder and chaos at the borders of a country. Thus, the fact that these animals are kept on a leash by servants of Narmer shows that the first pharaoh of Egypt had complete control over the borders of his kingdom.

[5] - The king Narmer (shown as a buffalo) destroying the ramparts of an enemy fortification. Narmer crushes one of his enemies with his buffalo hoof.

B) The reverse side of the "Narmer Palette"

On the back of the Narmer Palette, the pharaoh can be observed close up with the Hedjet crown (see legends below the image):

Narmer tablet, back[1] - The cow goddess Bat appears twice above the tablet. This goddess (who gradually became the goddess Hathor) has an important meaning in Narmer palette. Indeed, because the goddess Bat is the wife of Horus (the former ruler of Earth in Egyptian mythology), Bat legitimizes Narmer's power as pharaoh of Egypt because he is accompanied by the gods.

[2] - Narmer, wearing his white crown (the crown of Upper Egypt), raises his arm to strike one of his enemies with his scepter.

[3] - The falcon god Horus drowns one of Narmer's enemies in a swamp by driving his head into the water with a stick. The swamp is recognizable by the papyrus stems that emerge from it.

[4] - A wearer of the king's sandals

[5] - The enemy that Narmer strikes can be seen as the personification of Narmer-dominated Lower Egypt.

[6] - Dead enemies can be seen as representations of fortified cities that fell before Narmer.

3) Egypt before pharaohs

Although humans have existed in Egypt since the end of the Middle Paleolithic period (in 100,000 BC), Egyptian pharaohs appeared long after this era.

A) The settlement of the early Egyptians in the Nile Valley

In Egypt, there are only nomadic tribes living from gathering, fishing and hunting until the Upper Paleolithic period (from 30,000 to 20,000 BC).

In 20,000 BC, a period of severe drought began. This period will last 9000 years and will prohibit all life in Egypt.

In 11,000 BC, during the "Mesolithic" period, nomadic tribes return to Egypt following the end of the drought in the Nile valley.

In 5000 BC, many tribes are well settled in Upper Egypt. Established in villages, these tribes no longer had to hunt and gather because they had mastered the cultivation of barley and wheat and began to raise animals.

B) The beginnings of the so-called "Egyptian" culture

i) The culture of Nagada I (-4000 to -3500)

From 4000 to 3500 BC, the "Nagada I culture" or "Amratian culture" is a real advance for the Egyptian and human civilization.

Larger and larger villages are formed and a more advanced knowledge of craftsmanship develops. Earthen vases and very solid stone weapons appear. Breeding intensifies. The first animal-headed gods appear in Egyptian beliefs.

ii) The culture of Nagada II (-3500 to -3300)

From 3500 BC to 3300 BC, it is the "Nagada II" or "predynastic" period (i.e. the period before the pharaohs' dynasties). In the south of Egypt, the city of Hierakonpolis counts 10,000 inhabitants. The first mummies and iron work appeared in 3300 BC.

Hierarchical pyramid of the old empireDuring this period, the pyramidal hierarchy of the ancient Egyptian civilization prevailed (with a ruling elite reigning over many craftsmen and farmers).

iii) The culture of Nagada III (-3300 to -3150)

From 3300 to 3150 the "Nagada III" or the "Neopredynastic" period took place. A dozen kings reigned over Upper Egypt, the southern part of Egypt. These kings of "Dynasty 0 of the pharaohs" cannot yet really be called "pharaohs" because they do not rule over unified Egypt.

These kings ruled the first sovereign "state" the world had ever known (that is, a state controlling a collection of cities and villages). It is also noteworthy that before the state of Upper Egypt, the most advanced form of civilization was the city-states of Mesopotamia (with a state controlling only one city).

iv) The protodynastic period: the advent of Narmer

In 3150, the protodynastic period begins with the reign of Narmer. In a very violent beginning of reign, Narmer becomes the king of all Egypt and thus founds the 1st dynasty of pharaohs.

4) The pharaoh Hor-Aha

It is Hor-Aha who succeeds Narmer according to the antique book of the history of Egypt "Ægyptiaca" written in Greek by the Egyptian priest Manetho (in the 3rd century AD).

In 3100, at the end of his reign, Narmer established many strongholds outside Egypt (in particular in the Gaza region). Hor-Aha continued Egypt's expansion into Nubia, Palestine, and Libya through several military campaigns. The account of his campaign in Nubia can be found on the tablet "The Year of the Ta-Sety Strike" ("Ta-Sety" means "Nubia" in ancient Egyptian).

To further the unification of Egypt, Hor-Aha established a second Egyptian capital at Memphis, 450 kilometers above Thinis, the initial capital of Egypt. The country then had two capitals: Thinis, in the south of Egypt, capital of Lower Egypt and Memphis, in the north, capital of Upper Egypt.

With Narmer and Hor-Aha, the supremacy of the pharaohs over Egypt is launched and will last for 3000 years (until 30 BC). Indeed, the pharaonic supremacy will stop with the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC, the Roman Empire taking over Egypt.

An Egyptian pharaoh

Surely, you now know all about the first pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, we saw together:

  • The explanation of why Narmer is a pharaoh of Egypt and not a king of Egypt.
  • The "Narmer Palette" detailing the methods used by Narmer to conquer Lower Egypt.
  • What was Egypt like before Narmer.
  • What became of Egypt after Narmer.

If the distant dynasties of pharaohs appear to you as an inspiring element of world history, it would be a pity if you missed our Egyptian ring inspired of the first pharaohs' Egypt!

To discover them, nothing could be simpler: just click on the image below!