Libmonster ID: TR-859
Author(s) of the publication: Dmitry PROUSSAKOV

by Dmitry PROUSSAKOV, head of the Near and Middle East Department, Institute for the Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

The age of colossal pyramids of the Old Kingdom in Egypt (ca. 28th-23rd century B.C.) was preceded by three centuries of the "Archaic" period, the rule of pharaonic Dynasties 0,1 and II. According to the dominant theory, by this period a centralized kingdom should have been formed on the territory all the way from the first cataracts of the Nile in the south to the Delta where it flows into the Mediterranean in the north. This view is predicated on the a priori belief of Egyptologists that independent polities (bodies politic with such features of sociopolitical organization as chiefdom, city state, nome, kingdom and the like) could not have endured for a long time in the fertile but narrow Nile Valley amidst barren deserts - the strongest one was ostensibly destined to bring all of Egypt into an integrated state, and do it rather fast. But was that really the case?

Articles in this rubric reflect the authors' opinion. - Ed.

Pages. 40

"Scorpion's" mace-head.

Protodynastic Egypt (the late 4th millennium B.C.) lacked certain classical preconditions for statehood, such as natural increase in the population density, intestine strife for resources, external military threat, cultural influences of more advanced neighboring nations. Besides, the producing economy had not yet displaced in full the one based on hunting and gathering. Irrigation farming, nevertheless, is usually considered the main factor of the Egyptian ethnic and political genesis, since its development is thought to have promoted national unity and hierarchization of power in Egypt. And yet this viewpoint has no reliable geoarc heological validation. For instance, in the 5th century B.C., the "father of history" Herodotus wrote that, under the earliest kings, Egypt used to be a wetland, and all the locality lying lower than the Moeris Lake was under water. In his words, before the foundation of Memphis, the ancient capital of pharaonic Egypt, large-scale drainage works had first been carried out, and only thereupon a lake was dug up and filled with the Nile water reminding us of some kind of irrigation project. In other words, at the dawn of history, in the late 4th millennium B.C., Egypt needed full-scale draining rather than irrigation of her inhabited floodplain.

The surviving artifacts furnish no evidence either on the universal state or local, common irrigation projects in the Early Dynastic times. The only exception, at first glance, is a raised relief on the mace-head of "Scorpion", the ruler of Dynasty 0, showing him standing on the river bank with a hoe in his hands. This is thought to be a scene from the ritual related to the digging of an irrigation canal from the Nile to cultivated

Large many-oared boats. Rock graffiti of the Eastern Desert, Egypt.

Pages. 41

The "Lybian Palette". Predynastic "totems" building (?) settlements.

lands. However, what catches our eye is that the river and the canal have the same width; besides, on the canal we can see a tall prow, obviously that of a boat with many oars. Large vessels of this kind, well known from prehistoric monuments (e.g., rock graffiti), could hardly navigate in primitive irrigation ditches. The landscape depicted on the mace-head looks more like the Nile Delta with its branching channels, and this impression is enhanced by two man-built structures in which we recognize the oldest sanctuaries typical of Lower Egypt. Thus, it might be that "Scorpion" was not digging an irrigation ditch at all but rather erecting a sanctuary, just like the hoe-equipped zoomorphic "totems" were probably building settlements depicted on the so-called "Libyan Palette".*

On closer look none of the protodynastic archeological artifacts, neither taken separately nor in combination with others, prove that "Archaic" Egypt had ever been subjugated by a despotic pharaonic state. As a weighty argument for unification of Egypt by the beginning of the historic period the palette is usually cited, representing King "Narmer", the founder (?) of the First Dynasty, wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt and raising his mace over the head of what could be the Lower Egyptian bigman. This scene is usually interpreted as the defeat and annexation of the Delta by Upper Egypt (the Valley).

Another item (a seal), however, pictures the selfsame "Narmer" as a catfish lifting a stick against Libyan captives, a scene which has not ever been interpreted by Egyptologists as "Narmer's" conquest of neighboring tribes to the west. Rather, his victorious raid into their territory was suggested. Neither do military expeditions led by the kings of the First and Second Dynasties throughout the country argue in favor of the political integrity of "Archaic" Egypt. It's a fact, however, that pharaohs of the New Kingdom (latter half of the 2nd millennium B.C.) had marched through the length and breadth of Syria-Palestine, having trekked as far as the Euphrates, though these lands were not under their actual domination.

As an alternative to "Narmer", King Horns Den of the First Dynasty was named the "real Establisher of Egypt". According to his avowed merits, Den may well take rank with pre-eminent pharaohs: he smote the tribes of the Arabian desert and Sinai, he destroyed enemy fortresses, and he harpooned a hippopotamus. Probably Den was the first in Pharaonic history to assume the title of "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" and to put on the Red-and-White Crown of the "Two Lands". During his long life, Den seems to have twice celebrated the Sed-festival, an elaborate ritual of Pharaoh's rejuvenation, first solemnized on the 30th anniversary of the reign. One of those two festivals, as the chronicle records it, ended in an abnormally high

* Palette - here, a stone tablet, usually with a raised relief on, characteristic chiefly of ancient Egypt's arts. - Ed.

Pages. 42

"Narmer's" Palette. The pharaoh raises his mace over the head of the chief of Lower (Southern) Egypt.

Nile flood. This disaster culminated in the "inundation of all the commoners of the West, North (the Delta) and East", which at first sight contradicts the ideology of the rite meant to ensure stability and prosperity for the nation.

It is highly remarkable, though, that in this record of that disaster Egypt appears to be inundated not completely, since the South is not there. At the same time, this part of the world is represented separately on a wooden label of Horus Den depicting another scene of the Sed, where the sedge plant symbolizing the South (Upper Egypt) is inscribed into a rectangle of a "temple" or "estate". This pictogram may be decoded as an "estate (of the King) of the Upper Land" and construed as an "orderly" compound of Den's domains, opposed to the rest of Egypt thrown into "chaos" by the deluge. If so, the disastrous inundation fits perfectly the magic substance of the ritual asserting pharaonic domination over the elements: celebrating his "jubilee", the "rejuvenated" Horus Den invokes a destructive inundation and sinks foes populating territories beyond the bounds of his kingdom. Thus he declares his "divine" power over the localities not subjugated yet, and creates "order out of chaos" by cleansing them from their resident "evil".

It is noteworthy that the sinking "commoners of the West, North and East" are depicted in Den's annals in the form of a lapwing with wings twisted round one another. On the mace-head of "Scorpion" these very birds hung by their necks on the standards of nomes (Egyptian provinces) symbolize his defeated foes. Thus, the sources, far from arguing for the existence of a centralized state in the Early Dynastic Egypt, hint at the alienation of a great part of the country from the pharaonic domains.

British archeological parlies (first half of the 20th century) in the Nile Valley unearthed two assemblages of the kings' and officials' monumental tombs (mastabas) of Dynasties 0, I and II. One of them is located near Abydos in Upper Egypt, the native "town" of the "Archaic" pharaohs, while the other lies at the boundary of the Nile Valley and the Delta, in the necropolis of Saqqara near Memphis. Both cemeteries, being worshipping centers for the deceased kings, indi-

Pages. 43

Horus Den's wooden label with the symbol of the South (Upper Egypt), the sedge plant inscribed within the "temple" or "estate" rectangle.

cate the two major sites of crystallization of pharaonic statehood.

But how did the Upper Egyptian chiefs manage to establish themselves in the lower reaches of the Nile, hundreds of kilometers away from their ancestral nest, not being possessors of the whole of Egypt or, at least, the territory between Abydos and Memphis? The answer to this question lies in the organization of the state and "private" (nobles') landownings of the Old Kingdom: they were not solid but divided into plots scattered throughout the country. What with the closest historical-evolutionary kinship of the "Archaic" and the Old Kingdom epochs, the geographical discontinuity and dispersion of large estates of Old Egypt may be interpreted as a copy of the Early Dynastic regional organization of Egypt. Hence a hypothesis: the ancient Egyptian state was not territorially integrated, but consisted of discrete enclaves interspersed in mosaics of self-dependent chiefdoms of the Nile Valley.

Besides the two above-mentioned "capital" cultural hearths, the Early Dynastic protostate is likely to have included a number of "provincial" ones. In Upper Egypt, this is above all Hierakonpolis, a place for worshipping the Falcon-Horus (the Pharaoh being its earthly incarnation). Next, this is the neighboring Elkab with the sanctuary of the vulture-goddess Nekhbet whose name appears in the kings' titles as early as the First Dynasty. The enclave protostate was also connected with Naqada where the tomb of Queen Neithhotep of Dynasty 0 has been discovered, as well as with Coptos, the "domain" of god Min honoured by the "Archaic" Kings from time to time with the "birth" ceremony (raising of a statue). In the Delta (Lower Egypt), Buto and Sais bear traces of closest contacts with the "capital" sites. Buto had a sanctuary of the cobra-goddess Wadjet who, paired with Nekhbet of Upper Egypt, personified one of the pharaoh's sacred titles. Sais seems to have been the native "town" of the Early Dynastic Queens named after the local goddess Neith.

The vitality of a state like that implies: territories out of its control (in particular, a long stretch of Middle Egypt in the course of the Bahr Yusef) posed neither geographical nor "geopolitical" obstacles to the formation and subsequent efficient cooperation of its enclaves. All this is seen-apart from the aforementioned rock graffiti-in the pottery of the predynastic Gerzean period (3600 - 3200 B.C.) covered profusely with drawings of many-oared row boats. Judging by the drawings, these were large, self-righting vessels with deck superstructures, possibly with wooden equipment and certainly with many oarsmen on board.

That is long before the birth of a state in Egypt its population made a wide everyday use of a cargo boat good for long voyages. Such vessels allowed their crews selective colonization of the Nile floodplain, since no prehistoric chief was likely able to block transport communications along the Nile. I suggest it is the unobstructed boat transit through "territorial waters" of independent chiefdoms, enabling exchanges of people, material resources and information that ensured the administrative and economic integrity of the Early Dynastic enclave state.

The need for a large reliable boat arose primordially from the unfavorable ecological conditions of the prehis-

Pages. 44

Seal showing "Narmer" in the shape of a catfish lifting a stick against Libyan captives. Graphic retrace.

toric Nile floodplain, swampy, swarming with beasts of prey and venomous creatures, and devastated by heavy inundations. A many-oared row boat that appeared here on the eve of Egyptian civilization may be considered not simply the most important transportation facility, but the main means of colonization of the country. It might be assumed that the Gerzean and, to some extent, "Archaic" settlement of the Nile Valley, owing to its hard passability, was practiced not so much overland by gangs on foot as from the river by crews of large boats, being warriors, hunters and workers, all in one.

On a wooden label of Horns Aha, King of the First Dynasty, three row boats are carved. The first one moves between two settlements encircled by walls. The two others follow in tandem, each crowned with similar pictures of a hoe side by side with an oblong horizontal sign the meaning of which, because of the primitiveness of "Archaic" writing, can only be guessed. At the same time, it is the rectangle of a pool or ditch on cultivated lands that forms a set combination with the hoe-sign in mature hieroglyphic writing. The ideogram of a hoe excavating a pool designated the so-called "established

A map of Egypt.

Pages. 45

Predynastic Gerzean pottery with pictures of large many-oared boats.

settlement". In Ancient Egypt, this was the special term for settlements emerging from artificially drained lands. So Aha's label is likely to inform us about the foundation of such settlements in the flooded Nile Valley by boat crews. Moreover, it may be assumed that the two "fortresses" between which the first boat sailed are those very settlements upon the completion of their "establishing".

The signs of "surpassing" institution of a dominating polity on a higher level of self-organization in the uniform ethnosocial environment invite the idea of an abnormal fluctuation of social development, an "evolutionary zigzag" bypassed by traditional historical reconstructions. Meanwhile, the following well-known source, lends us a proper occasion to speak about that phenomenon in the context of the Early Dynastic political genesis. The raised relief on the mace-head of Horus "Narmer" lists 120 thousand people and about 1,8 million head of livestock allegedly captured by this king in Lower Egypt. Many Egyptologists considered these figures far-fetched, either fictitious or symbolically exaggerated on the occasion of the royal Sed-festival. However, these numbers give us a quite verisimilar correlation between the people and the animals of 1:15. According to the present-day farming statistics, in the years 2001 to 2002 Egypt had a livestock population of 6,3 to 6,4 million head. If such a burden is not beyond the strength of the country even given the present population density, urban development, shrinkage of the cultivated floodplain, with no stock-breeding priorities in land-use, this is all the more true of the environments of pharaonic Egypt. In other words, the figures for both the people and the cattle on "Narmer's" mace-head are quite plausible. At the same time they suggest socioeco-

Horus Aha's boats and settlements.

Pages. 46

nomic upheavals in a very spacious stock-raising area of thousands of square kilometers.

So in Lower Egypt we should consider above all nomes with standards ("totems") in the shape of bulls or cows. We know of at least four such nomes, two of them (the neighboring Xoite and Sebennitic) descending directly to the Mediterranean and forming a giant triangle of about 6 thousand square kilometers in the northern and central interfluve of the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile. This fact is indicative of a vast stock-breeding potential of the ancient Delta and contradicts Herodotus' statement that at the dawn of history the Delta was inundated and, thus, was no good for the producing economy.

This dilemma cannot be resolved without some natural-science environmental reconstructions. Silt soil layer of Lower Egypt, estimated to be 11 meters thick on the average today, started depositing with the formation of modern continental shorelines in the Holocene stage of the post-glacial transgression of the World Ocean. An abrupt slowdown of the transgression in the 7th to the 6th millennia B.C. is considered to be the most important prerequisite for the transformation of dozens of fluvial deltas in various parts of the earth from semideserts and steppes to swampy lowlands or fertile vegetated plains.

In Lower Egypt, this process was characterized by the emergence of a branching system of main and side distributaries of the Nile. Since the 6th millennium B.C. (the decline of the Egyptian Paleolithic), they deposited masses of silt rich in nutrient upon vast areas. Simultaneously with the flooding and swamping of the seaward coastal area, the inner Delta was turning into a well-watered, fertile region that became suitable for agriculture and grazing from the 5th millennium B.C. Further developments were determined by changes in the levels of the Mediterranean and the Delta mainland in the course of the ongoing transgression. At the start of silt deposition in the Main Nile floodplain, the sea level was 10 to 12 meters lower than the present one, while the geographic position of the Delta shoreline was close to what it is today. Silt deposits raised the surface of Lower Egypt by 1 -2 meter per millennium. By the 4th to the 3rd millennia B.C., when the World Ocean approached its present level, the rise of some of the Delta floodplain territories had attained from 4 to 6 meters at the most, being much less on the whole. Had the Mediterranean risen by 10 to 12 meters in that period, it would have advanced dozens of kilometers inland into Lower Egypt. Thus, during the 4th millennium B.C., the Nile Delta was gradually submerged by the advancing sea and overflowing river waters.

As shown by the Dutch excavations of Tell el-Fara'in (pharaonic Buto), the 1980s, one of the sites nearest to the Mediterranean shore, its earliest cultural layer dated to the latter half of the 4th millennium B.C. lies 3 meters below the present-day sea level. Considering the isostatic* stability of this territory, the same or even lower sea level could be by the beginning of the northern Delta colonization. At the same time, according to Herodotus, under the "most ancient King" Menes Egypt was totally inundated. King Menes (Horus Aha) of the First Dynasty is believed to have reigned in a period between 3200 and 3000 years B.C., which converges on the upper limit of the stretch 2955 - 2925 B.C. obtained by German researchers by the radiocarbon method. Proceeding from such boundary data, we assume that the climacteric point in the inundation of the Nile Delta at the end of the post-glacial transgrassion of the World Ocean fell on the late 4th-early 3rd millennium B.C., or at the formative stage of the "Archaic" state in Egypt.

The flooding appeared to be lengthy, commensurate in time with several generations of prehistoric stock-breeders. However, it threatened the country with a socio-ecological crisis caused, on one hand, by the shrinkage of Lower Egypt's living space, and on the other, by the excessive growth of the population and livestock. By the way, nearly all Delta settlements, excavated or explored by drilling, and demonstrating the continuity of cultural layers from the Predynastic to "Archaic" and subsequent times, were sited on tells or gezirahs, the Pleistocene sandhills rising above the alluvial floodplain. Such topography of settlements indicates that the surrounding lands were inundated every now and then or else remained in a state of overmoistening. For instance, the stone industry of prehistoric Buto, when were rare sickle blades, demonstrates the dominance of implements for utilization of water food supply that must have played the chief role in the "town's" nutrition. Some Egyptologists even believe that in the latter half of the 4th millennium B.C. this settlement had a coastal location and was one of the first havens linking Egypt with the Levant and Mesopotamia.

Remarkable in this context, are the results of an analysis of the territorial distribution of predynastic settlements in the eastern and northeastern Delta. One line of these once inhabited tells stretches in the northeast-to-southwest direction from el-Huseiniya to Zagazig (Bubastis) and is associated with ancient Tanitic channel of the Nile and its branches. But the other one, nearly perpendicular and stretching from the gezirah of Minshat Abu Omar to Tell el-Rub'a (Mendes), is surprising at first glance. However, if extended farther westwards, it would delineate the Delta's coastal contour about 60 km south of the present shoreline. If so, it is pertinent to ask: is it not here that the front of the postglacial transgression of the Mediterranean passed at some intermediate stage?

Let us add that, from the earliest times on, the Mendes nome had the standard of a dolphin. Besides, the recon-

* Isostasy (equal balance)- a state of equilibrium between the Earth crust and the mantle under the effect of gravitational forces as the crust "floats" above the more dense and elastic subcrustal layer. - Ed.

Pages. 47

Listed on "Narmer's" mace-head: cattle - 400 thousand, sheep and goats - 1,422 thousand, "captives" - 120 thousand.

structed front of the transgression touches Xo'ite, the capital town of one of the "bovine" nomes of the central Delta. So, we may speak about the inundation by the sea of spacious pasturable lands in Lower Egypt at the dawn of the Pharaonic age, the tracts commensurable with the livestock census of "Narmer's" mace-head.

A similar conclusion is prompted by the reconstruction of ancient Sebennitic distributary, once a major waterway flowing into the Mediterranean between the present Rosetta and Damietta branches and determining the geomorphology of Lower Egypt in the Middle Holocene. This distributary had its heyday in the 6th to the 4th millennia B.C., at the early stage of silt soil deposition in the Main Nile floodplain. It is reasonable to assume that the soil formation process providing physical conditions for the producing economy covered first of all lands watered by the channel. It is probably because of this that, in its lower reaches where the Xoite and Sebbenitic nomes appeared subsequently, one of the oldest and most significant stock-raising traditions of Predynastic Egypt developed.

The encrouchment of the Mediterranean on this territory could have been reflected in the unique figures on "Narmer's" mace-head thus designating not captives but refugees migrating into Upper Egypt together with their herds of cattle. I suppose that this demographic fluctuation, caused not by the laws of social evolution but by a self-dependent geophysical phenomenon, could have served as a "starting gear" for the emergence of a pharaonic state and predetermined the specific character of its genesis. "Random" concentration of the greatest human and livestock (food) resources within one of the chiefdoms of Upper Egypt led to a local leap in socioeconomic self-organization; and while numerous "captives" are associated with complexification of the social structure, the livestock they brought along suggests the birth of a "civilized" producing economy in "Archaic" Egypt.

Contemporaries attached special importance to animals depicted on "Narmer's" mace-head. This is testified by the images of a bull and a calf inside the sign of a loop-like enclosure. On another Early Dynastic artifact, the ivory label of Horns Djer, this sign contains an ideogram of the rulers' Red Crown. Since Djer's label thus portrays "a shrine to the Red Crown", on "Narmer's" mace-head we should see by analogy "a shrine to the bull". A procession of royal standard-bearers faces this shrine from the right, while from the left the vulture of the Upper Egyptian goddess Nekhbet with wings spread above the seated king points the beak at it. Considering the votive (god-consecrated) character of the mace, I suppose the cattle that "Narmer" got hold of in huge numbers must have had a sacral status. The latter, taking into account the iconographic interchange-ability of the bull and the crown inside the shrine, reminds us above all of the bull's cult and its fusion with the King's cult in pharaonic Egypt.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions a flood that preceded the enthronement of Osiris, the god who taught people the ABC's of economy and culture. His body, dismembered by the forces of evil and made whole again, may serve as a mythic-poetical allegory of the "gathering" of pharaonic Egypt as a state. Regardless of the any connection between the legendary flood and the culmination of the World Ocean transgression, this very event became a real "watershed" between the primitive times and pharaonic civilization. The socioecological crisis was instrumental in turning one of the chiefdoms of the Nile Valley into a prototype of a power that endured for millennia.


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