The First Dynasty of Egypt

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

There has always been a sense of mystery about the Egyptian pharaohs of the First Dynasty. Until a century ago, we had almost no concrete evidence that they existed. However, thanks to a persistent archaeologist, that is no longer the case.  

Wall sculpture inside a pyramid at Saqqara.
A wall sculpture from the interior of an ancient Egyptian pyramid at Saqqara. (Image: Akimov Konstantin/Shutterstock)

The First Kingdom of Egypt

Over 5000 years ago, Narmer was the first king of Egypt who united the villages up and down the Nile. Under his rule, Upper and Lower Egypt came together and formed the first nation in history. Naturally, a nation needs a central place where the bureaucracy takes place. Therefore, the capital was established at Memphis in the north of Egypt, roughly 15 miles from modern-day Cairo. Aha was the king who founded the first capital city at Memphis.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Map of Ancient Egypt showing location of Memphis
The location of Memphis just south of Nile delta made it an ideal location for a capital. Potential invaders from the north would be seen as they traveled up the delta. (Image: Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock)

To understand why it was designated as the capital, you need to consider its strategic location. Egypt is surrounded by desert on its eastern and western borders, and crossing the desert requires a kind of organizational skill that no other nation had at the time. Therefore, the Egyptian kings were only concerned about an invasion from the water, by the nations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Establishing the capital at Memphis afforded them some time to prepare before the invaders were able to reach the gates.

Over the years, the name ‘Memphis’ gradually morphed into ‘Egypt’. Originally, the city was called Hikuptah. It was the place of the god Ptah. During the Greek invasion, the city was renamed to Aegyptos, which then became ‘Egypt’.

Learn more about issues in the study of Ancient Egypt.

Burial Grounds in Abydos: Resting Place for the First Kings of Egypt

Until the 19th century, not much was known about Narmer and the other kings of the First Dynasty of Egypt. There were only a few names but no monuments and no evidence to suggest that they existed. These included the earlier monarchs of the dynasty, such as Aha, Den, and Djer. However, eventually, excavations at the City of Abydos in the south of Egypt revealed that they had tombs.

It is interesting to note that the first kings were not buried at Memphis; they were buried far away, at Abydos, in the south.

As the legend goes, after the god Osiris was murdered, his body was hacked to pieces and then reassembled by Isis, his wife. According to the myth, those pieces were put back together and buried at Abydos. Therefore, Abydos became a sacred city. From that day forward, everyone wanted to be buried in Abydos, believing that a burial place near Osiris would give them a chance to resurrect just like him.   

Learn more about the divine origins of Egyptian kingship.

During the early years of the dynasty, the burials were quite simple. In fact, the elaborate burial rituals that characterize Egyptian royalty began to form years later. The burial grounds were, essentially, large pits in the sand that were lined with mud bricks to prevent sand from coming in. The pharaohs were placed in these pits along with grave goods to take to the next life.

Flinders Petrie: A Curious Archaeologist

The burial grounds at Abydos were excavated in the late 19th century by Sir Flinders Petrie, who is known for his Sequence Dating System based on pottery. Given his interest in knowledge, as opposed to treasure, Petrie excavated sites that did not interest others.

A photo of Flinders Petrie, the well-known archaeologist, at Abydos in 1922.
Archaeologist Flinders Petrie in action at Abydos, 1922. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

His efforts led to the discovery of the earliest burials of Egypt, called mastabas. Typically, in front of these little burial sites, a sizeable round-topped stone known as a stela was found. On such stelas, a serekh or a rectangular vignette containing a palace facade and the king’s name would be placed. Another distinguishing factor was the presence of a falcon standing on top of the stela, which indicated that the pharaoh was associated with Horus.

Lean more about reconstructing Egyptian history with archaeology excavation techniques.

The excavation sites were replete with small treasures, which were often stolen by the diggers and sold on the antiquities market. In fact, this sort of thievery had become so common that certain excavators in the 19th century only found large statues, but never small objects.

To overcome this problem, Petrie took an unorthodox approach: he paid his workmen for what they found. When anyone found a small object, perhaps gold, or just a beautiful bracelet, Petrie would pay the diggers a fair price for the item. This way, he was able to obtain all of the small objects on his digs.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Discovering the Oldest Royal Jewelry in Egypt

At the tomb of King Djer in Abydos, Petrie’s workmen found a mummy’s arm with two gold bracelets on it. The arm was somehow stuck in a wall, perhaps as a result of a robbery that had gone awry many years ago.

One of the bracelets was made of gold and had several serekhs, which represented the king. In other words, it was a king’s bracelet. It was indeed the oldest piece of royal jewelry ever found, on the arm of Djer, one of the kings of the First Dynasty in Egypt.

To establish the monetary value of the bracelet, Petrie weighed it against English gold sovereigns, and he gave the workmen the gold sovereigns. This way, he was able to keep his diggers happy. The mummy’s arm, which was the oldest available relic of a pharaoh, was sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The curator, Brugsch, was very impressed with the jewelry, but rather surprisingly, he discarded the arm of King Djer. In his memoirs, Petrie recounted this incident, noting, “Sometimes a museum is a dangerous place.”

Burial of the First Kings of Egypt: An Unresolved Mystery

The burials at Abydos are significant in that they prove that these kings did indeed exist, and that their stories were not myths.

However, there are other mysteries surrounding the burials. There are two burials for each king. That is, each pharaoh has a grave in Abydos and another in Saqqara. The name Saqqara comes from the god’s name Sokar, who is one of the gods of the dead. ‘Sokar’ became ‘Saqqara’, ‘the place of Sokar’. Saqqara was used as an Old Kingdom burial site in the early part of Egyptian history for a long time.

Why did these kings have tombs both at Saqqara and Abydos? Clearly, one is a false burial, or what is known as a cenotaph. By having two monuments, the pharaoh is showing that he is the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, of the north and the south. Future pharaohs continued this practice.

Today, we are not entirely sure which burial was the real one for which pharaoh. Was it at Saqqara, or was it at Abydos?

Learn more about Egyptian religious culture and the pharaohs.

Common Questions about the First Dynasty in Egypt

Q: Why was Memphis chosen as the capital of the First Dynasty?

Memphis became the capital of Unified Egypt for strategic reasons. The only threat to Egypt was from across the Mediterranean. Memphis was slightly south of present-day Cairo, meaning that the Egyptians could have warning of an impending attack.

Q: Why were pharaohs buried at Abydos, not Memphis?

Abydos was sacred to Osiris. In Egyptian myth, Abydos is where Isis reassembled the hacked-up body of Osiris and buried it, and Osiris was resurrected. The Pharaohs were buried in Abydos, in the hope that they could also be resurrected.

Q: What did Flinders Petrie do differently from other tomb excavators of the time? What big discovery did this lead to?

Most tomb excavators did not pay their diggers for the things they found, but Flinders Petrie paid his workers the market value for everything they found. So, when a mummy’s arm with a gold bracelet on it was found by Petrie’s diggers, it was taken directly to Petrie. This led to Petrie discovering King Djer’s royal serekh on one of the bracelets, confirming that the legendary kings of Ancient Egypt really existed.

Q: Why did the pharaohs have two burial sites?

The First Dynasty Pharaohs were the earliest rulers of a unified Upper and Lower Egypt. By having two burial sites, one in Saqqara and one in Abydos, the pharaoh is demonstrating that he is ruler of both the north and the south.

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