Index of Egyptian History

Egyptian history constitutes an awesome period of time. Including the Ptolemies, it covers at least three thousand years (c.3100-30 BC). By contrast, the Roman Emperor Augustus
was living just two thousand years ago. Only China, with a continuous history since the Shang (c.1500 BC), has at least equalled this, but just barely if we bring Egyptian history down to the last hieroglyphic inscription (394 AD).

To the Egyptians, Egypt was , the "Black Land." Some people think that this referred to the skin color of the Egyptians. However, the Egyptians contrasted themselves with the black skinned people to the south of them. The "Black Land" refers to the color of the earth brought by the Nile and is contrasted with the "Red Land," , i.e. the desert that surrounds Egypt. So, unless Sitting Bull was out in the desert, skin color was not the issue.

The Egyptian name for Egypt is still preserved in Coptic, written in its version of the Greek alphabet:  , Kême, or , Khême -- this is reflected in Greek itself as . The "t" is a feminine ending which, as in Hebrew and Arabic, is usually not pronounced.

"Egypt" itself is from Greek , which looks like it is from Egyptian , the "Soul House of Ptah," i.e. the temple of the god Ptah -- one of the names of the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis, whose patron god was Ptah. The name "Memphis" that we use, from Greek , derives from the Egyptian name , "Enduring Beauty," which has a pyramid determinative in it because it was originally the name of the pyramid of Pepi I. It thus postdates most of the Old Kingdom. The original name of Memphis may well have been , which means the "White Wall," a vivid image for such a city, and fixed in the name of the 1st Nome of Lower Egypt. Memphis was also , "Life of the Two Lands," using another name for Egypt itself, , the "Two Lands," i.e. Upper and Lower Egypt.

Basic knowledge of Egyptian history largely comes from Egyptian sources, i.e. in the early days nobody else was telling us about what was going on. Details come from monumental inscriptions, which really only become common in the New Kingdom (there are really none, for instance, from the III or IV Dynasties), but the fundamental structure is from king lists like the "Turin Canon" hieratic papyrus (which dates from the time of Ramesses II), so called because it ended up in Turin, the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia, having been found in Egypt by the consul Drovetti. There are also sources like the "Table of Abydos" or "Abydos King List," carved on the Temple of Osiris at Abydos (begun by Seti I and finished by Ramesses II), and the "Table of Saqqara" -- from the reign of Ramesses II again. A slightly earlier list is the "Table of Karnak," from the reign of Thutmose III. Earlier still, is the fragment of Old Kingdom chronicles on the "Palermo Stone," undoubtedly authentic but whose provenance has been loss. All these epigraphic Egyptian texts, however, when discovered, could be compared with an already existing list from ancient literature, from the history of Egypt written by the priest Manethô of Sebennytus in the Hellenistic Period.

Manethô certainly had access to the old king lists like the Turin Canon. With such vast numbers of names to deal with, he divided all of Egyptian history, down to Alexander the Great, into thirty dynasties. This is still a useful and reasonably accurate system. Some extra dynasties have been suggested by ancient and modern writers, and the whole has, in modern history, been divided into the classic "Old," "Middle," and "New" Kingdoms, with various "Intermediate" Periods and other flourishes. There are some drawbacks to Manethô, however. (1) He was writing in Greek and thus produces versions of the Egyptian names that are sometimes hard to match up with Egyptian originals. (2) His historiography was uncritical and so, among other things, assumes that all dyansties are successive, when at times they appear to be contemporaneous. And (3) the original text of Manethô's history is lost, and we are dependent on fragments that appear in later writers, e.g. the Jewish historian Josephus (c.70 AD) and Christians like Sextus Julius Africanus (early 3rd century AD), Eusebius (early 4th century AD), and George "the Monk" Syncellus (c.800 AD). Each of these introduces his own errors into the text, apart from the kind of errors that creep into any Mediaeval manuscripts that must be periodically recopied.

The fragments of Manethô, in both Greek and translation (by W.G. Waddell), are available in the Loeb Classical Library, No. 350, Manetho [Harvard University Press, 1940, 1980]. A good discussion of all these sources is in Sir Alan Gardiner's Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1961, 1966]. As the greatest expert on Egyptian in his age, present, for instance, to read inscriptions as Tutankhamon's tomb was opened, Gardiner had to deal with all the king lists and other evidence first hand.

Actual Greek and Roman writers are almost worthless as sources on Egyptian history. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus does no more than repeat popular stories, in which the sequence of Ramesses II and the pyramid builders is actually reversed. The king lists were apparently not public knowledge at the time, especially for foreign tourists. Similarly, writers from the Roman period introduced the idea that Egyptian hieroglyphics represented allegorical and mystical meanings rather than the plain Egyptian language. This is the view of Plutarch (c.46-c.120 AD), who must have known nothing about Egyptian, in his Isis and Osiris. Other writers, like Clement of Alexandria (c.200 AD, in Stromateis) were at least aware that some hieroglyphics were phonetic and mundane. A more sensible account might have been expected in the Hieroglyphica of the Egyptian Horapollo (late 5th century AD), but, unfortunately, this was not a systematic grammar book or lexicon. Accurate meanings are combined with allegorical explanations, in a period when use of hieroglyphics themselves had already lapsed.

Surviving ancient literature, then, did not contain accounts of facts that must have been familar to many Greeks and Romans, i.e. that hieroglyphics wrote the Egyptian language and could simply translate, for instance, a Greek text -- as on the Rosetta Stone. This confused picture could then produce grotesque speculations, like the "translation" by Athanasius Kircher (in his Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus of 1636) of the name of the king Apriês, of the XXVI Dynasty, as "the benefits of the divine Osiris are to be produced by means of sacred ceremonies and of the chain of the Genii, in order that the benefits of the Nile may be obtained." On the other hand, Kircher already had good information about Coptic, the surviving Egyptian language written in the Greek alphabet, which in the fullness of time would be one of the keys for the true decipherment of hieroglyphics.

The timeline of Egyptian history gives some perspective on the proportion of time for each dynasty and each period. In the troubled "Intermediate" Periods, we see overlapping dynasties and foreign rule. The tentative dates for the I and II Dynasties are disproportionately long in comparison to other dynasties, especially of the following Old Kingdom -- raising suspicions. Of the dynasties that lasted more than 200 years with some certainty, including the XII and the XVIII, the prize for duration actually belongs to the foreign Ptolemies, who adapted Hellenism to Egypt and were at some pains to seem Egyptian, to an extent, to the Egyptians -- who nevertheless revolted against them a number of times.

The timeline of Egyptian history can be compared with that of the Roman Empire, shown at left from Augustus all the way to the Fall of Constantinople. For analysis of this structure, see the "Rome and Romania" topic elsewhere. After 30 BC, the history of Egypt of course continues as part of Roman history, until the Islâmic conquest of Egypt in 640 AD. Afterwards, the gradual Arabicization of Egypt produced the most profound break with the Ancient land of the Nile. The Copts, besieged and murdered, and their girls kidnapped, in modern Egypt, represent the last connection to the ancient nation. The modern name of Egypt in Arabic, , Mis.r, is a Semitic word unrelated to anything in Ancient Egyptian. It is, however, familiar from Hebrew, , and Assyrian, -- where the Assyrians were the first foreign conquerors of Egypt to have no respect for Egypt, its institutions, or its gods, who looted the Temple of Amon at Karnak, and for whom Manethô provided no numbered Dynasty. So they did not make a good impression, and earned even less respect than the Persians. With similar results from the Arab Conquest, it is enough to break the heart of any Egyptophile.

A History of Ancient Egypt, Volume II,
From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom
by John Romer, 2016, Penguin Books, 2017

John Romer is writing a history of Egypt. I say "writing" because only two out of three volumes are out so far, and what we have just goes down to the end of the Middle Kingdom. Romer is the appealing creator of the extraordinary video series Ancient Lives [1984, 1994, 2009], which examines the history of the village of Deir al-Medina, where the craftsmen of the New Kingdom royal tombs lived, and he has written several other books on Egypt and other things, and even produced a video series on Byzantium. His documentary style, unfortunately, shares certain evils common to modern documentaries, where we are frequently shown images but not told what they are. Thus, Romer rarely identifies the royal tombs whose features and decorations we see, often with Romer himself present.

Romer's approach to Egyptian history is not just to recount the history itself, but to include the background and processes by which Egyptian history was constructed in the first place, textually, epigraphically, and archaeologically, among modern scholars. This is a valuable and fascinating supplement to Egyptian history, whose fragmentary nature increases the value of an examination of the manner of its construction. But Romer worries about some of this background, and he is alert to ahistorical biases and disturbing ideology that have become part of it:

...for although their [the nineteenth-century historians'] traditional tales lend pharaoh's alien relics an illusion of familiarity, they have deeply sinister undertones.

For modern-day 'ancient Egypt' is a direct offspring of the nineteenth century's intense study of race and ancient language; those same studies whose terms and concepts later served to ratify the underlying character of Hitler's Third Reich. [p.xiv]

Since the "Berlin School" of Egyptology contributed so much to the character of the discipline, Romer is properly alarmed that current and popular German ideology, leading to the Nazi regime, became subtly incorporated into the history of "ancient Egypt":

Georg Steindorff, for example, a one-time rector of Leipzig University and the most renowned egyptological victim of Nazi persecution, regarded himself as a full member of the nation whose high conservative values he had upheld all his life. In the years before the First World War, Steindorff had written a popular and influential history, Die Blültezeit des Pharaonenreichs -- literally, 'the heyday -- the flowering -- of the pharaonic empire [literally, "realm of pharaohs"]', which describes ancient Egypt admiringly as an imperial power. A decade earlier, Adolf Erman, the founder of modern egyptology and Steindorff's professor at Berlin, had observed that the ancient Egyptians had 'never experienced the invigorating influence of a great national war'. Though differing in expression, their phantasmagorical preoccupation with empire building as a moral force is the same and was a product of their times. Along with several other academic colleagues, however, Walter Grapow, Erman's co-editor of the standard dictionary of the ancient Egyptian language was, indeed, an ardent Nazi, a person for whom great histories were forged by mighty individuals, and such dictionary entries as 'kingdom', 'blood' and 'soil' -- 'Reich,' 'Blut' and 'Boden' -- held immediate contemporary resonance...

Several current university course books, also, were written by egyptologists who had enthusiastically greeted Hitler's rise to power or who were later banned outright from teaching in post-war Germany because of their disreputable activities druing the 1930s. [pp.xiv-xv]

Biases along these lines certainly need to be purged from treatments of Egyptian history. However, it is not clear that Romer actually understands the nature of such biases, or their origin. Thus, incredibly, he favorably invokes Friedrich Nietzsche as a critic of the "deeply sinister" tradition:

Commentators were complaining about the inadequacies of such narrow visions of ancient history even as they were being created. Nietzsche was probably the most prescient and certainly the most vituperative; such histories, such visions of the past, he held, had nothing of the grace, the ecstatic joy of life, the ruthless precisions and perfections, the creative engagement with words and materials that he detected in so many ancient things. [p.xvi]

While many people have naive ideas about Nietzsche's philosophy, and others have fallen victim to the industry of Nietzsche apologetics, in this philosopher Romer has picked a singularly bad person to present as ostensibly criticizing the Reich, Blut, und Boden ideology that led to the Nazis.

Romer perhaps has not read Nietzsche's treatment of die Eroberer- und Herren Rasse, die der Arier, "the conquering race of masters, that of the Aryans."
Leiden-sehn thut wohl, Leiden-machen noch wohler.
To behold suffering gives pleasure, but to cause suffering gives more pleasure.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1988, p.30-31
Erman's lament, if we can call it that, that the Egyptians "never experienced the invigorating influence of a great national war," is something that could easily have been shared by Nietzsche,
But the philosophy that killed off truth proclaims unlimited tolerance for the [Wittgensteinian] 'language games' (i.e., opinions, beliefs and doctrines) that people find useful. The outcome is expressed in the words of Karl Kraus:  'Alles ist wahr und auch das Gegenteil.' 'Everything is true, and also its opposite.'
Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "Our Merry Apocalypse," 1997, Is God Happy? Selected Essays, Basic Books, 2013, p.318
for whom the "noble races" are the warlike Aryans, Arabs, and Japanese -- where "empire building as a moral force" was essential to all of them, according to Nietzsche's system of value.

Romer can accurately quote Nietzsche's appreciation of the "ecstatic joy of life" without, perhaps, understanding the elements of (he does say "ruthless") violence, cruelty, and domination in that. But Nietzsche, who began as a philologist, precisely fits Romer's characterization of the "intense study of race and ancient language" in the period. And if Romer is going to out the Nazis in Egyptology, he should pay attention to their well founded belief that Nietzsche was their guy.

Having thus unintentionally endorsed one of the founding philosophers of modern fascism and nihilism, Romer follows it with a reference to Wittgenstein, who managed to provide a different foundation (of linguistic relativism) for much the same kind of thing [p.xviii]. Romer certainly knows who are popular philosophers -- we also get Michel Foucault, another nihilhist (and Nietzschean), favorably quoted [p.87] -- but Romer's failure to understand them damages his credibility as a critic of the ideology he otherwise disowns and wishes to dissociate from Egyptology. We begin to wonder to what extent he actually uses some of that ideology himself, clueless about its origins and implications.

The use of Nietzsche, etc. is not the only odd thing in Romer's approach to Egypt. Thus, in his "Note on the Text," he says:

The forms of the names of ancient people and places which I have employed are those in common usage and have been adopted from such works as the recent catalogues of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. All royal names are given in a single form: Sneferu rather than Snofru; Khufu and not Cheops; Khafre and not Chephren; Isesi and not Djedkare-Izozi or the like; Wenis and not Unas; Intef rather than Inyotef; Montuhotep and not Menthotpe; Amenemhet and not Amenemes; Senwosret and not Senusret, nor Senwosre nor, certainly, Sesostris! [p.xxii]

Why does Romer single out "Sesostris" for some special alarm and rejection? Is there some particular illegitimacy to this form of the name? That can hardly be, as it happens, since is a name that is attested and used by an actual Egyptian historian of Egyptian history, namely Manethô of Sebennytus, whom we have encountered above. We also find that exact form of the name used a century or more earlier by Herodotus, who has heard it from Egyptians, in the course of his tour of Egypt and encounters with Egyptian priests. Neither John Romer nor any other modern Egyptologist has had any such advantages. The priests have been gone for centuries.

What we see Romer doing in this passage is systematically rejecting names that are actually attested in Greek, derived from what was at the time still the living language of Ancient Egyptian, in favor of names that are really no more than guesses made up by modern Egyptologists. Thus, Romer rejects "Cheops," i.e. , "Chephren," i.e. , "Amenemes," i.e. , and Sesostris. His practice in this manner would then be to avoid for Mekaure, or for Ahmose, for Amenhotep, for Thutmose, for Seti, etc. But Romer himself uses "Ramesses," i.e., for . Since the modern practices are all idiosyncratic, Romer's inconsistency here is not surprising.

Earlier Egyptologists had often used the Greek names, instead of linguistic speculation, but the trend now has been -- and I follow it myself in these pages -- to try a give something like what the contemporary Egyptian forms would have been, or at least something with a connection to the ancient living language. Alan Gardiner tried to use Coptic as a guide, which he also knew involved a distortion, since the pronunciation of Coptic had clearly changed from the older language. Anyone using "Thutmose" continues this practice, since the "o" is a late development and the "th" Coptic or Greek. All of this involves a dilemma; and for Romer not even to discuss the issue, and to act like names such as "Sesostris" are somehow illegitimate or absurd, is a kind of confusion, if not a deception.

The Greek names themselves pose a dilemma, since different forms turn up in different writers, or even in the same writer. Thus, the memorable names of the builders of the pyramids at Giza -- Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus -- are attested by Herodotus but do not occur in Manethô, a matter noted, perhaps with some puzzlement, by later commentators. We might continue to be puzzled, since the name in Herodotus, , looks more likely to be derived from the name we see in Egyptian, namely , while Manetho's name, , doesn't. It seems remarkable that Herodotus should have done better from no more than hearsay, while Manethô, who obviously is looking at primary records, has something we cannot otherwise identify. But Romer skates right over these intriguing complexities, without bothering to clue us in.

Another oddity in Romer is this:

The term 'Memphis' does not refer to the ancient city of that name, which did not exist during the period of history covered in this volume, but to the region that was the centre of the Old Kingdom state. It is defined today by the thirty-mile-long line of monuments that extend along the west bank of the Nile opposite modern Cairo from Abu Roash in the north to Maidum in the south... [p.xxiii]

This curious claim is magnified when he subsequently says, "no ancient Egyptian towns or cities in the modern sense of those two words are known to have existed" [ibid.].

Of course, the "modern sense" is irrelevant. When the Greeks arrived in Egypt, long before there was a "modern sense" of anything, they had no difficulty identifying "towns or cities," which often bore names, like Sais, , that had been used since the earliest days of Egyptian history, and whose names feature the generic determinative for a "town or city." If Sais was not a town or city in the "period of history covered in this volume," what in the world was it?

With Memphis, there are some different issues. One is that the city seems to have early born a name, , that meant "White Wall," whose reference to its fortification would preclude it from embracing an area extending for thirty miles up and down the Nile. Despite other names for Memphis, "White Wall" stuck as the name of the 1st Nome of Lower Egypt, which includes the immediate area of the city, but not the long range claimed by Romer. The aspect of its walls, long vanished in their original plastered mud brick, can nevertheless be examined in the enclosure wall of the pyramid of Djoser, which is rightfully assumed to reproduce that of the nearby capital. It could hardly be anything else.

We might wonder if Romer is confused by something else apparently true, and relied upon by himself, that the Court for each King was seated in a palace adjacent to the construction site of his tomb. For the Old Kingdom and the XII Dynasty, this would fall in the area specified by Romer. That is probably how Memphis ended up acquiring the name , "Enduring Beauty," derived, as we have seen, from the pyramid of Pepi I. As it happens, this pyramid was built at Saqqara, very nearly as close as possible to the site of the city of Memphis. So the Court and the center of government were no more than a convenient walk (a couple of miles) from the metropolis of the nation. If business and residence grew up along the way, as is to be expected, the King's palace and the city might end up in appearance and fact as part of the same metropolitan complex. Hence the application of the name. Similarly, although pyramid sites are scattered, Saqqara ended up containing the largest number of them, a good dozen.

If Romer makes his claims about Memphis without any real evidence, he does at least have an argument, a very strange one. His idea is that "towns and cities" proper did not exist before the existence of money and a cash economy, because cities require markets, and markets cannot exist with buying and selling with money. He cites a character from Aristophanes who misses his native village, because it lacked buying and selling and, apparently money [p.137].

Thus, Romer says that Egyptian lacks words "for buying and selling" [ibid.], although we have and , which do look like the words for buying and selling. We might also wonder why the Eloquent Peasant is taking his goods to market if he is not going to sell them, and markets didn't exist.

Romer doesn't like the word "taxes," , because, of course taxes involve money [p.136], except that Romer has forgotten his Mediaeval history, where under feudalism money had characteristically disappeared and taxes were paid "in kind." Egyptian taxes were obviously of the same sort. Romer using "tithe" for "tax" is just silly.

And we even get a hint that the Egyptians didn't really have slavery, because it "assumes the existence of modern concepts of personal ownership, of individual freedom and abstract independent wealth" [p.137]. This is someone who has written about the Bible, yet he seems to have missed all the laws and discussion about slavery therein, from times before the Lydians and Greeks spread the use of money.

We should also note here that Romer uses the word "modern" a lot for things that certainly are familiar from Ancient, Mediaeval, or, for that matter, Asian and other societies.

Let me pause another moment, since Romer again has produced an argument that proves too much. If Romer wants to say that slavery did not really exist in Egypt because it requires money, then he could certainly allow the treatment of slavery in Roman and Islâmic law, both of which existed in contexts of buying and selling (slaves) for money. However, Romer goes much further. Too much further. If slavery "assumes the existence of modern [sic] concepts of personal ownership, of individual freedom and abstract independent wealth," then Roman and Islâmic slave law, which did not include any "modern concepts" of anything, let alone "personal ownership" or "individual freedom," obviously cannot be about real slavery. So Spartacus wasn't a slave; and the great Zanj revolt against the Abbasids wasn't by African slaves. But this is the kind of nonsense Rome has gotten himself into.

We get the full business about the city of Memphis here:

Where, then, in this mix of text and ruin is Memphis, the legendary City of the White Walls celebrated by classical histories, and long-since regarded by traditional historians as the capital city of ancient Egypt? Obviously, there is no place in pharaoh's Egypt for a city in the modern [sic] sense of that word; such cities, just as Aristophanes' character bemoans, were dependent on the survival for monetary exchanges in the market place. To that extent, at least, there were no 'urban populations' in pharaoh's Egypt. Nothing beyond the pyarmid builders' settlements and a network of institutions up and down the river involved in their supply. Old Kingdom Memphis, therefore, was composed of various gatherings of courtly settlements, of warehouses, studios and shipyards that shifted over the twenty-mile region on the west bank of the river in concert with the various locations chosen for the pyramid of the living king. The Memphis of today, the ruins visited by tourists, was a product of later ages. Early Memphis was not a city, but a region. [p.144]

These bizarre claims rest on the argument that cities, "in the modern sense," cannot exist without a cash economy. But Romer's argument here isn't even coherent. If the city of Memphis, such as could be contained in a "White Wall," only existed from "later ages," why is the name attested quite early in Egyptian, and not just "celebrated by classical histories," attaching itself to the 1st Nome of Lower Egypt? Romer makes it sound like the "classical histories" made this all up, or got it from much later ages of Egyptian history. But if there was a wall, in the Old Kingdom, then there must have been such a settlement as to warrant and accommodate one. Nor would this be unusual. Ancient cities had walls, in the Middle East pretty much all of them did.

And where did the (non-existent) "classical histories" and "traditional historians" get these goofy ideas that cities existed, including Memphis as one? Romer exhibits an extraordinary level of perversity to cite the actual evidence for a city, the White Wall, and then dismiss it with vague, improbable, and irrelevant accusations. Did the "classical histories" and "traditional historians" just make up the "White Wall" name and fraudulently insert it into texts prior to c.640 BC, when the Lydians invented coins? If a proper city could only exist in "later ages," then Memphis with its White Wall cannot have existed before the XXVI Dynasty. Which seems late indeed.

Of course, we've gotten the idea about the status of Memphis, identified by "traditional historians as the capital city of ancient Egypt," because Manethô -- not a "traditional historian" as Romer seems to mean it -- regards all the Old Kingdom dynasties as seated or originated there. But perhaps Romer can argue that Manethô is too late to appreciate the genuine status of Memphis. But Manethô has this strange idea about about all the towns and cities of Egypt, that they were towns and cities, where to none of the others can the argument be applied that their extent was spread out by the peripatetic Court of the King, which moved the whole city, such as it was, from one building site to another. Romer can confuse the location of the Court with the non-existence of the city, but this argument won't work with the any other "towns and cities" of Egypt.

Romer has some advantage in his arguments concerning the ancient cities of Egypt because there is little left of them. The Flood of the Nile continually dissolved the mud bricks from which secular buildings were made, and the alluvium of the Flood covered over what was left, or more recent cities have themselves covered the ancient sites. But since the basis of Romer's argument is quite general and universal, that "towns and cities" cannot exist before a cash economy, we don't need to worry about the specific difficulties of Egyptian archaeology. When Hernan Cortés entered the Valley of Mexico, there lay out before him a great city, Tenochtitlán, a center of trade and civilization that was as innocent of money as Khufu and Khafre. Similarly, Pizzaro found another center of civilization in Cuzco, many of whose modern streets are still lined with the remarkable Cyclopean stonework of the Incas.

The case of the Aztecs and Incas is of particular interest because it is so recent, and so well described by the Spanish [note]. But we also must reflect that the very term "civilization" itself refers to cities, often in circumstances that not only antedate money, but even writing. The Incas are an example of that themselves; but the ancient Asian Middle East and India provide abundant counterexamples to Romer's arguments. The Indus Valley Civilization has stunned archaeologists and the public with the level of its urban culture. Written documents are non-existent, but we know that writing was there. But money certainly was not. And then we move on to Mesopotamia and the Levant. Here are some pre-literate cities, but most important and conspicuous is the urban culture of Sumerian and later Babylonian and Assyrian civilization. Only the Neo-Assyrian period is at all contemporaneous with Lydian and Greek cash economies, in fact not before the late reign of Ashurbanipal, who looted a city in Egypt, Thebes, that, according to John Romer, cannot yet have existed "in the modern sense."

But the joy of archaeology in the Fertile Crescent are the mounds built by ancient cities, the "tells," , tilâl (singlular, , tall). From Ur to Babylon to Nineveh, trash was not hauled away but tossed in the street, and the dead went under the floor of a home's courtyard. So, over time, houses were knocked down to bring them up to the level of the street -- or a conqueror demolished the whole city -- and each city became a mountain; and archaeologists can slice them open like birthday cakes, revealing houses, temples, palaces, walls, the dead, and everything else of the urban environment. All developing without money. And business existed, with all the familiar difficulties of disputes and frauds that had to be addressed by the rulings of kings, such as we see in the Code of Hammurabi. And how could Hammurabi rule about slave law and property when, according to John Romer, this would assume "the existence of modern concepts of personal ownership, of individual freedom and abstract independent wealth"?

282. If a slave say to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him, his master shall cut off his ear. [The Code of Hammurabi, translated by L.W. King, Hammurabi, 2015, p.56]

And if you want to know what was used in payment for fines or in the marketplace, read the Code of Hammurabi:

114. If a man have no claim on another for corn and money, and try to demand it by force, he shall pay one-third of a mina of silver in every case. [ibid., p.38, boldface added]

All that coinage accomplished was to place the device or image of an authority on a standard weight of precious metal. The metal, of course, and its value antedated any coinage.

So John Romer has developed some very idiosyncratic ideas about Egyptian history and society, ideas that do not stand up to logic, the evidence of Egyptian or world civilization, or often of things cited or mentioned by Romer himself.

From all these peculiarities in Romer's treatment, we move on to statements that must be judged as actual and overt falsehoods:

None of the texts that have survived from ancient Egypt are written histories...

Nor is there reason to imagine that an ancient Gibbon or Macaulay lies buried in the sand. [p.11]

Here Romer has overlooked something that he certainly knows, that there is in fact a surviving written history from ancient Egypt, written by an actual ancient Egyptian, namely Manethô of Sebennytus, a Gibbon or Macaulay who is likely buried in the sand himself, but about whom we know nevertheless. The text of Manetho's history does not survive independently in one piece, but it was quoted by several authors over the centuries, in enough detail that it can be largely reassembled, as the Loeb Classical Library has done. What's more, Manethô's history introduced the system of XXX dynasties around which Egyptian history is still structured -- as Romer eventually gets around to admitting on page 37 of his book, without having previously mentioned the man, or explaining much about him, apart from the epithet "scholar priest."

So why would Romer say something so obviously false that a reader could detect the error from Romer's own later statements? Well, Manethô wrote in Greek. This seems to have thrown Romer for a loop. Greeks wrote in Greek. Which would seem to make Manethô one of Romer's "Classical authors," even though he wasn't. The confusion and muddle just get worse:

Many of the cartouches on the Turin sculptures named monarchs of Mantheo's Eighteenth and Nineteenth royal dynasties -- names that Greek historians had long since given classical forms such as Amenhotep, Tuthmosis and Ramesses, along with typical classical histories. [p.41]

But "Greek historians" did not give the names of Egyptian Kings "classical forms," since those are mostly due to Manethô himself, with a few already mentioned by Herodotus, who got them from (Greek speaking) Egyptian priests, among which "Amenhotep" does not occur, since this is one of the modern speculative names, unknown to the Egyptians or Greeks, who used , etc. -- a muddle within a muddle for Romer. And Romer himself, as we have seen, still uses "Ramesses," . What's more, there are no "typical classical histories" of Egypt.

Greek and Roman authors wrote a lot about Egypt, but they didn't write histories of Egypt, since they already had Manethô for that, and they had no access to Egyptian historical sources, which were in Egyptian, which no Greek or Roman author that we know of actually knew or could read. Herodotus mentions a priest showing him a scroll with the list of the Kings of Egypt, but no later historian that I know of ever mentioned such a thing again, let alone recounts how he was able to consult anything of the sort. Almost all Greek and Roman writers had only the most confused, erroneous, and even absurd ideas about the nature of Egyptian writing, which later inhibited the decipherment of hieroglyphics, since the most absurd ideas were perpetuated.

John Romer clearly knows about Manethô of Sebennytus but has not come to terms with who he was or what he did. Manethô was not an Egyptian writing in Egyptian, but he was also not a Greek writing in Greek. This seems to defeat the categories of Romer's understanding. Was Manethô a "classical author"? Well, yes and no. He wrote in Greek but was, in every other identifiable way, an Egyptian. Unable to sort this out, it leads Romer into confused or fallacious statements, or unwarranted disdain for names like "Sesostris."

The peculiarities of Romer's treatment continue. Thus, he says:

Perhaps it was a combination of those colossal pyramids and judgements such as that which describe the royal statuary as possessing a 'remote and divine perfection' that first promoted the now-common notion that, like Hernan Cortés and Captain Cook, pharaohs such as Khafre had been regarded as living gods. Yet the notion of pharaonic divinity is as unsubstantiated as the modern myths that have come to surround Cortés and Cook, and all are products of their proponents regarding alien cultures with a patronizing eye. [p.73]

Unfortunately, the Egyptians don't seem to have gotten the memo from John Romer, since they called the King , the "good god." I don't think there was anything "patronizing" about their usage. And there's more. The King is , the "flesh of the god." And we also get , the "god's wife," for a queen or consort. In light of this, no historian, or anyone, can be faulted for thinking that the Egyptians regarded their King as a god. They called him one. Maybe we get the message. The pyramids, as the largest tombs ever built, whose construction remains mysterious and would be a challenge even for modern technology (it would certainly take a thousand years to build the Great Pyramid at the rate with which public works are done in New York City), do no more than reinforce the impression we would get from the Egyptian terminology. Romer, dismissing the pyramids, does not mention or discuss the linguistic evidence.

This should make us suspicious. He would rather blame the "patronizing eye" of the West, full of "Orientalists" (and perhaps Nazis), belittling "alien cultures," than acknowledge the obvious about the Egyptians.
the Shôwa Emperor, 1926-1989,
Coronation Robes
Romer may be the one with difficulty understanding "alien cultures." Perhaps it might help if he noticed that the Emperor of Japan was also a god, , until 1945. This was an issue, understood by all, which delayed the surrender of Japan in World War II.

And there is more. The pyramids, and all later royal tombs, were part of a building project that always included a memorial temple for the King. This was adjacent to the King's pyramid; but in later centuries, at Thebes, with the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary temples were out at the edge of cultivated ground, as the pyramids had been themselves. The most complete example of a later temple is the one for Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, where we get the added element of the surviving foundation of the royal residence right next to the temple. Ramesses III lived there. We can see where his shower was. And he was probably assassinated there. In any case, the existence of such mortuary temples through the ages signifies the postumous worship of the King, where the perpetuity of the rites was secured through dedicated lands and a permanent priesthood and staff. You only do that for gods.

Romer discusses the mortuary temples in some detail, since they can hardly be ignored, but he obviously does not grasp the significance of their presence, even as he shows us an image of offerings being made to a living King, Den of the I Dynasty, which apparently accomplish no more than "provisioning the living court" [p.75]. So the King is some sort of unloading and stocking supervisor. There must be a clipboard under his flail, ready for a job at Walmart.

Before moving on, let me do some nit picking and note an anachronism in Romer's usage. Neither Khafre nor Den was a "pharaoh," because that term, , which had meant the palace, was not used for the King until the XVIII Dynasty. Romer uses it quite generally, with no more than a brief gloss about it (vocalized per'a) on page 58. Part of this may be Romer's distaste for the word "king," which, "in the modern sense," seems to be not Egyptian enough. While this usage of "Pharaoh" is quite common, and we can hardly fault Romer for it, the only problem is that Romer does not provide the caution and perspective that I just have done. Television shows can merrily skip such details, but it should have been his duty as a historian to clue his readers in.

So if the divinity of Egyptian kings was no more than one of these "products of their proponents regarding alien cultures with a patronizing eye," how does Romer think the Egyptians regarded their Kings? He tells us:

And pharaoh was the focus of this state, the fulcrum of that system which served and supplied the households of the court in life and death. So the essential office of the man sitting at the centre of this system -- King Khafre and his hawk, his antecedents and successors -- is best described in modern terms [sic] as that of a sacerdotal priest, the single figure whose offices in life and death penetrated and synchronized the energies contained within the ancient valley of the lower Nile and placed them in the service of his people. [p.76]

The concepts here of the "state," "energies," and of "service of his people" and of the "households of the court," are all things unknown to the Egyptians. And I doubt that anyone in the Court of an Egyptian King believed that the purpose of the royal office was that of a Sugar Daddy to provide them with a living in the style to which they had become accustomed. An Enlightened Despot in the "service" of the people and the state seems to be an Enlightenment idea. The "state" itself, of course, is something reified by Hegel, "whose terms and concepts later served to ratify the underlying character of Hitler's Third Reich." So Romer should have been wary of this. The King of Egypt did not need to say L'état c'est moi, because the Egyptians had really not yet imagined a possible separation.

But the real chestnut here is the King as a "sacerdotal priest," perhaps like the Pope -- although few would call such an office anything remotely in "modern terms." Not to mince words, this is absurd. It would also be insulting to Nietzsche. A King typically portrayed as ready to bash in the head of an enemy -- a mace is a lovely weapon -- is not going to strike anyone as the sort of emasculated and scheming being, a priest, whose power is through fictions and deceptions, like, according to Nietzsche, the Jews -- or all priests according to Protestantism, whose background with Nietzsche cannot be ignored. The Babylonian Kings, who were priestly enough to "take the hand of Marduk," were never called gods, nor buried, nor worshiped like them.

Thus, chosing to ignore the obvious about the status of the King of Egypt, Romer makes it up, in the very "modern terms" that he has already warned us are inapplicable to the Egyptians. And now, where is the King portrayed, represented, or characterized as a priest? I think that the answer is "nowhere," but then Romer doesn't favor us without anything like examples or evidence. The Kings of Egypt, to be sure, performed some priestly functions, such as performing rites for burying their fathers, but where Egyptian priests, like Buddhist monks, are typically shown with shaven heads, wear distinctive clothing, and observe pollution taboos actually recounted by Herodotus, the Kings in their proper office look nothing like that. And, unlike Julius II or Shingen Takeda, no Egyptian priest rode into battle.

This all is Romer's own interpretation, which, according to Michel Foucault, or Wittgenstein, both of whom Romer has favorably quoted, can be anything. And, apparently, it is. This is a shame, since otherwise Romer has a great deal to contribute about Egypt -- at least he wasn't, mercifully, pulling this stuff on us in Ancient Lives.


The Nomes of Upper and Lower Egypt

The provinces of Ancient Egypt are called "Nomes," , Nomai (singular , Nomê). This is apparently an artifact of when the Ptolemies ruled Egypt and the administative language was, not Egyptian, but Greek. The Romans didn't use Egyptian either, so the term stuck. But the word for an Egyptian province was in Egyptian. There were twenty Nomes in Lower Egypt and twenty-two in Upper Egypt, both numbered from South to North, with the flow of the Nile, like the designations "Upper" and "Lower" Egypt themselves. Click on the maps for larger sized pop-ups.

While is related to the familiar Greek word for "law," , nomos (plural ), the meaning of "Nome" is more clearly derived from the verb , némô, which can mean "to hold, possess," or "to be inhabited." Nomes are definitely inhabited, and they would be "held" by their governor, who, in Greek, was a , "Nomarch."

The list of Nomes is from the English to Middle Egyptian Dictionary, by Bill Petty [Museum Tours Press, 2016, pp.270-276]. The maps are based on Petty's maps [pp.271 & 275] and on The Penguin Atlas of Ancient Egypt, by Bill Manley [Penguin Books, 1996, pp.94-95].

There are some significant differences between these two sources, especially for the courses of the branches of the Nile in Lower Egypt and for the boundaries of the Nomes, especially in Lower Egypt. The difficulty here is mainly with the fact that all but two of the branches of the Nile have silted up and disappeared over the centuries. Canals make up for the loss of waterways, but it is hard to know how the canals duplicate the old channels, if at all. Modern techniques can identify old riverbeds, but I have no sense of how extensively this has been done for the ancient branches of the Nile.

What I have labelled "Tanitic A" is the branch of the Tanitic Nile shown in the Penguin Atlas. This is entirely missing from the map in Petty's Dictionary, which shows the Tanitic Nile flowing from what I have labelled "Tanitic B." If Tanitic A was the proper Tanitic Nile, then Tanitic B was instead the main channel of the Mendesian Nile. This shouldn't make any difference for the location of Bubastis, but the Penguin Atlas also shows that city on the south side of the Pelusiac Nile in the 18th Nome, rather than on the north side in the 11th Nome.

Perhaps more serious is the area, north-east of Bubastis, that the Atlas shows in the 19th Nome, while Petty's Dictionary shows it in the 11th Nome. A similar ambiguity occurs down stream, where the Penguin Atlas shows the 19th Nome across the river from the city of Pelusium, in an area that Petty's Dictionary actually leaves unlabelled and ambiguous.

I have translated few of the names of the Nomes. It is not always obvious what they were supposed to mean. For instance, Wikipedia translates the names of the 4th and 5th Nomes as "Southern shield land" and "Northern shield land," respectively. However, the "shield" is the glyph , which is actually a cult emblem or symbol of the goddess Neith of Sais. So both Nomes are named after Neith, not after some shield. In fact, it is not at all clear that this is a shield, but whether it is or not, it is bundled up with the bows that are themselves symbolic of the goddess -- as we also see crossed arrows used for Neith, here in the name of Queens of the I Dynasty.

Otherwise, I might note the location of the Wadi Natrun, , which held the evaporite salts used in mummification and which supplied names that still cling to modern chemistry.

In Upper Egypt there are fewer problems with the sources; but, for one thing, the Penguin Atlas shows the 1st Nome of Lower Egypt extending up the Nile and including the site of Lisht. This means a large part of it is across the river form the 22nd Nome of Upper Egypt. Petty's Dictionary, on the other hand, shows the left bank, with Lisht, as part of the 22nd Nome. This makes a lot more sense. The craziest things are possible, but we really would not expect one bank of the Nile to be in Lower Egypt and the other in Upper Egypt.

We also have the problem in Upper Egypt that while Petty's Dictionary shows the Faiyum in the 21st Nome, the Penguin Atlas draws the boundaries so that it isn't in any Nome. But Petty's Dictionary goes further than boundaries. It lists a city of the Faiyum, Crocodilopolis, in the 21st Nome. Again, the craziest things are possible, but it seems more likely that the Faiyum was part of a Nome.

In their Giza and the Pyramids, The Definite History [2017], Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass show the Lisht area in the 22nd Nome of Upper Egypt [p.38]. So we don't have Upper and Lower Egypt on opposite sides of the river. However, they also draw the Nome boundaries like the Penguine Atlas, which cuts off the Faiyum from either the 21st or 20 Nomes. Since the Faiyum must have been governed by someone, this leaves us without an answer.

As political power moved around in Upper Egypt, it left a trail of gods. The oldest capitals, at Nekhen and Nekheb, contributed the Cobra goddess Nekhbet to the identity of Upper Egypt. Then we see the god Osiris at Abydos as the heritage of the home of the I Dynasty at nearby . Curiously, the name of this city in Greek is a bit of a puzzle. Manethô only uses the term , the "Thinite," for the Kings of the I and II Dynasty and does not name the city directly. Thus, since the Greek name is not attested elsewhere, we are left guessing whether the city was or . Since the "n" is clearly in the Egyptian name, and in Manethô's term, seems more likely -- although is possible if the "n" vanishes in the nominative.

Finally, we get Amon at Thebes, , the dynastic god of the XII and XVIII Dynasties, whose status increased in the XIX and XX Dynasties, even though those families may have had other personal preferences. While we see the name of the god now rendered as "Amon," "Amen," or "Amun," we can see from the evidence of Kushite, which wrote vowels, that it was actually prounounced "Amana." Nevertheless, the uncertainties involved here motivate me to use "Amon" because this is how the name was rendered in Hebrew -- .

Thebes would seem to be a city that we unaccountably know by an unrelated Greek name, . However, the Greek name may not be based on the name of the city, but on the name of the great temple at Karnak, which in full is , but which we can restate as , "the Opet," with the article used in Late Egyptian and without the second, honorific element of the name. If we also make the "t" of the feminine ending silent, as it certainly was in independent forms, the initial "t" and the "p" may give us enough to suggest the Greek . To distinguish this city from the Thebes in Boeotia, which only had seven gates, the Egyptian city is , "Thebes of a Hundred Gates."
My entire tour group standing on an unfinished obeslisk in the granite quarry, Aswan, 1969

We also see a different name for Thebes, , whereby Thebes is called the "Southern Heliopolis." This may be the result of a later association of the god Amon with the sun got Rê, whose cult center was in the North at Heliopolis, , (rendered in Greek and in Hebrew -- both Ôn).

At the same time, Manethô, writing in Greek, called the city , the "City of God [or Zeus]." But there are two cities with this name. Thebes is Diospolis Magna -- -- while Diospolis Parva is a city sacred to the goddess Hathor in the 7th Nome. Nevertheless, these are names little seen now.

Noteworthy in Upper Egypt is the location of Nag Hammadi, , in the 7th Nome, where extensive texts of the Gnostic Gospels were found. This has set off many years of efforts to revise Christianity, often by people who seem uncomfortable with religion that posits miracles and supernatural existence -- whose effect is generally to render religion pointless altogether. Not quite what even the Gnostics had in mind.

Index of Egyptian History

Egyptian History Begun

Leontopolis, Hermopolis, Sebennytus

The Pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian

The Egyptian Soul

The Earliest Civilizations

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Index of Egyptian History, Note;
"Money's Murky Origins"

Mayan Market activity, Pyramid at Calakmul, Mexico, 7th Century;
tamale dough traded for bowl of chocolate

As luck would have it, recent arguments about the origin of money have been discussed in "Money's Murky Origins," by Bruce Bower, in Science News [Volume 194, No. 3, August 4, 2018, pp.16-21], with some information relevant to Romer's thesis about markets, money, and cities. Thus:

In the 1500s, Spaniards wrote of observing a thriving system of markeplaces in societies stretching from Mexico to Central America, including the Aztecs and the Maya. Spanish chroniclers describe currencies, most prominently cacao beans and woven cloth, that were widely used to buy goods, pay taxes and debts, calculate monetary values and store family wealth. [p.18]

Of course, Romer could then argue that they had money, i.e. the "cacao beans and woven cloth"; but, of course, this involved commodities that were neither precious metals nor coinages thereof. The use of beans and cloth clearly bespeaks market arrangements originally based on barter, with a gradual focus on particular commodities that became standard media of exchange. We get more information about this:

Researchers have long suspected that Maya marketplaces and merchants plus various goods used as currencies appeared as early as around 1100, after the fall of Classic Maya civilization's kings and city-states. Evidence now suggests, however, that such perishable forms of money appeared even earlier, during the Classic Maya heyday, from 250 to 900.

Converting various items into legal tender "occurred in ancient America, not just in Europe," says Kathryn Sampeck, an anthropological archaeologist at Illinois State University in Normal [note, coins were creatd in Lydia, which was on mainland Asia, not in "Europe"]. Consider a set of mid-seventh century murals discovered about a decade ago in a small pyramid at Calakmul in Mexico [see image above]. These scenes illustrate marketplace exchanges at a powerful Classic Maya center that controlled a string of satellite sites (SN [Science News] Online: 4/17/18). Calakmul's painted pyramid sat in the middle of an open area that included a large marketplace, archaeologists suspect.

Murals on the pyramid's walls depict people of different social classes, as indicated by their clothes and jewelry, apparently exchanging tamales, tobacco and pottery. Several painted scenes show woven cloth of various sizes and colors displayed for exchange. One painting portrays a woman wearing the simple clothes of a villager offering what's probably a mug of hot chocolate to a man in exchange for tamale dough.

Over the next few decades, as Maya rulers demanded cacao and textiles as tribute payments, a kind of tax collection from subjects, the two products became currencies with standard values... [pp.19-20]

Despite the idea that cacao and textiles became standard media of exchange, the article also features an image (at right) of "An Aztec tribute, or tax-collection, list... including jade beads, bird feathers, cacao and jaguar pelts" [p.18]. Thus the Aztecs, much later than the Maya, despite perhaps favoring cacao beans and woven cloth (or prisoners for sacrifice) for tribute, taxes, or money, still cast a much broader net of commodities for their value in exchange.

All this falsifies the thesis of John Romer. The Maya markets never saw any coinage of precious metals and even antedate the use of standard perishable commodities as conventional media of exchange. The currency of exchange emerged from the markets, as something already in actual use for barter, and eventually became convenient for payments that rulers expected to receive. The pyramid scenes, which we don't get in Egypt, illustrate the contents and the workings of the Maya markets. While Egyptian markets would not have featured tamales or chocolate, we have a nice list of things that the Eloquent Peasant was taking to market, many of which we don't even know how to translate:

...reeds, redemet plants, natron, salt, sticks from [Hes]tiu, wood from Farafran, panther hides, jackal hides, nesha plants, 'anw stones, tenem plants, khprwr plants, s3hwt plants, míswt plants, snt stones, 'bw stones, ibs3 plants, ínbí plants, pigeons, n'rw birds, wgsw birds, wbn plants, tbsw plants, gngnt, shní-t3, and ínst -- a full (load) of all the good products of the Field of Salt. [The Eloquent Peasant, Loren R. Fisher, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2015, p.6; orthography and bracketed text in original; manuscript references deleted]

Thus, according to John Romer, markets allow for cities and urban population, which then Egypt would have had, pace Romer, from its earliest days.

Return to Text

Another Treatment of "Money's Murky Origins"

Index of Mesopotamian
and Ancient Middle Eastern History

Mesopotamia, , is "between" (or in the middle of, , mesos) the "rivers" (, potamoí; singular , potamós). Those are the Tigris, , and the Euphrates, . These rivers arise near each other in the mountains of Anatolia, . The Tigris, to the east, runs more or less straight down to the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates, to the west, wanders off further to the west for a while. The large plain between the two rivers in the north is the , jazîra, the "island," or the , nahrain, the "two rivers," in Arabic -- but a name that already existed in Egyptian, in the same form, as . This area is now divided between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The historic kingdom actually based in the jazîra was

Just below midcourse, the rivers approach each other. In this area one finds the historic cities of Babylon, Seleucia, Ctesiphon, and Baghdad, progressing roughly from south to north. Babylon was on the Euphrates, the later cities all on the Tigris. Below these cities, the rivers spread out again before merging into the , Shatt-al-Arab river, which flows into the Gulf. In Ancient times, the Gulf came up further north and the Shatt-al-Arab didn't exist.

This southern area between the rivers, lying entirely in modern Iraq, ("root," "beginning"), constituted ancient Sumer or Sumeria. In turn, Akkad, which conquered Sumeria under Sargon, straddled the rivers north and south of their middle course convergence. Sumer and Akkad together become Babylonia. The Tigris valley north of this becomes the heartland of Assyria.

Assyria frequently sought to expand across the jazîra and eventually conquered not only Babylonia but the Levant, the mountains to the north and east of Assyria, and, briefly, even distant Egypt. The Persian Empire finally encompased all this area, including the Iranian plateau and central Asia.

This index covers ancient Mesopotamia down to Alexander the Great, and the culturally related nearby states in Anatolia, the Levant, and Iran. Egyptian history is indexed separately. Geographically, Yemen is rather out of place; but since it is frequently overlooked, it is included here as a reminder.

Kings of Sumer and Akkad

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2004, 2017 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Archaic or
Early Dynastic Period of Egypt

The Archaic Period
Dynasty Zero
"Scorpion" (II?)c.3100?
I Dynasty,
of ,
Men, "Menes"
c.2870?Abydos, Saqqara?
Djer, Zer2870-2823Abydos, Saqqara?
Djet, Uadji2822-2815Abydos, Saqqara?
Den, Udimu2814-2772Abydos, Saqqara?
Anedjib, Enezib,
2771-2764Abydos, Saqqara?
Qa'a, Ka'a2755-2732Abydos, Saqqara?
The trouble with the earliest days of Egyptian history is that there isn't much history. We know from pictorial representations, like the Na'rmer Palette, as well as from later sources, that Upper Egypt was conquering Lower Egypt. The details, however, are lost. It has even taken a while to identify the king who traditionally was said to be the first king of a united Egypt, Mênês, (in Greek).

Na'rmer, evidently assuming the distinctive crown of Lower Egypt on the Na'rmer Palette, was a good candidate; but then a tablet of Horus 'Ah.a appears to use the hieroglyph , mn, "endure," as a name. Although the argument about this has been going on for years, it looks like more people than not now accept that this is where the name "Mênês" comes from, and that Horus 'Ah.a was the first king of a united Egypt, as understood by those later making up the King Lists.

A version of the name of Horus 'Ah.a that we see attested has the Horus hawk reaching right into the serekh to grasp the shield and mace of the "warrior" glyph. This is an extraordinary design and does not seem to be repeated, although the glyph in question provides a nice opportunity for it. It also perhaps implies that "Horus" is not just a title, but part of the name of the King. This will come up again with the goddess Neith below.

Na'rmer and the previous "Scorpion," , king are given in "Dynasty Zero" -- probably much the horror of ordinalists everywhere -- although the line of kings, apparently one family, is certain to antedate the unification of the country. "Mênês" does not need to start the Dynasty, just as the XI Dynasty straddles local Theban rulers and those who reunited the whole country. This argument over names is complicated by the incomplete development of heiroglyphic writing at the time. Partaking as much of the nature of cartoons as of linguistic representation, Egyptian writing at this point poses many of the same problems of interpretation as Aztec codices --- although we now know that Mayan glyphs are entirely phonetic. A sense of the pictograph nature of the glyphs perhaps explains why the Scorpion King keeps being called "Scorpion" rather than by the (later) Egyptian word for the animal.

The "Scorpion" King has recently become the subject of fantastic ahistorical movies (e.g. The Mummy Returns, 2001, and The Scorpion King, 2002) and is a matter of increasing archaeological interest with some new discoveries. There may even have been more than one Scorpion King, with an earlier Scorpion I as long ago as 3250 BC. With a "Scorpion" tomb at Abydos, it may be that this traditional city of Osiris united Upper Egypt by conquering the power, perhaps of the god Seth, based in the city of Naqâda, across the great bend in the Nile from which the Coptos road leads to the Red Sea. The relationship of this conflict to the later twin capitals of Nekhen and Nekheb (Hieraconpolis and El Kâb), further up the River, is more obscure. That tomb itself has yielded matter that may be of revolutionary importance. Precursors of writing, abundant in Mesopotamia, have hitherto been missing in Egypt. Now the Scorpion King has provided them, with what look like many small pictorial tabs, very unlike in form and material from what existed in Sumer. Hopefully new discoveries will expand on this novel window into Egyptian pre-history.

The map here shows cities in the Nile Delta from many periods of Egyptian history. The cities marked with glyphs also figure in the, probably fantastic but suggestive, analysis of the structure of Egyptian tombs by Christiane Desroches- Noblecourt. See the maps of the Nomes for other details.

All these kings are titled "Horus." The queens, on the other hand, seem to be titled "Neith," after the goddess , familiar at Sais (), , in later centuries. This has overtones of a political marriage between an Upper Egyptian king and a Lower Egyptian princess; but this inference is about as far as we can go with it. On the other hand, this does give us a clue about the early importance of Sais, which thus stands at the beginning, as perhaps the capital of Lower Egypt, and the end, as the capital of the XXVI Dynasty, of Egyptian history.

W.B. Emery shows us the names of two "Neith" Queens of the I Dynasty, Nithotep and Meryet-nit, based on jar-seals from their tombs, and a funeral stela [Archaic Egypt, Pelican, Penguin Books, 1961, 1963, pp.49 & 65]. It is a little hard to tell what we are seeing. The cult symbol of Neith would later be bows, especially two bows bound together, as we see in the glyph "nt" in the serekh at left, and in the names of the 4th and 5th Nomes of Lower Egypt. In these early representations, we seem to get crossed arrows instead, often across what may be a shield. That is how I have reproduced the image, in the serekhs at left and below right. The images we see in Emery, however, as above right, are ambiguous. In the name of Nithotep (or Neith-hotep) the crossed arrows are plain enough, but they may be fixed to a staff rather than a shield, a staff that extends down through the serekh and bisects the space. We also see this in the name of Meryet-nit, which I have partially reproduced in the name at lower right. Most revealing also is that perhaps the crossed-arrow standard itself counts as the name of Neith, just as "Horus" is included in the Horus names of the Kings. Thus, the serekh of Nithotep actually need not have the name of Neith in it, as I have constructed it, but Neith is part of the serekh itself.

What is in each of the bisected spaces in the name of Nithotep remains puzzling, since neither looks like the glyph for "hotep" and one of them seems to be a bird. Emery does not explain how he interprets this. Alan Gardiner, however, does explain the "hotep" gylph as a "loaf... on a reed-mat" [Egyptian Grammar, Oxford, 1927, 1964, p.501, R4], where it is impossible to tell how one gets a "reed-mat" from the image. Perhaps the glyph on the left of the name of Nithotep is an archaic form of that. The bird is unexplained.

Emery's image for Meryet-nit seems less problematic. The glyph for "love" is simply repeated on each side. The image on the Meryet-nit stela is even more striking, with a fuller version of the "love" glyph (a hoe) to the left of what might well be a shield, a figure-eight shield, tied to a standard, with the crossed arrows over it, as in this glyph, , which is included in the "Hieroglyphica" font [T63b; but this is missing in Bill Petty's Egyptian Glyphary, Museum Tours Press, 2012, index on p.292, where we jump from T35 to T81]. An identical image, remarkably, is something we see repeated on the back of a chair found in the mysterious tomb of Hetepheres, the mother of King Khufu, at Giza (i.e. the tomb seems intact, but the mummy is missing). We see the standard of Neith, much as it is in another glyph from Hieroglyphica, [T63a]. The wood of the chair is modern, but the gilt decoration is original, reapplied to the new wood. The result is stunning, and it is also striking the Neith is still so strongly associated with a IV Dynasty queen.

Assembling T63b and R12, which Alan Gardiner says is a "standard for carrying religious symbols," "accompanying various ideograms for gods" [Egyptian Grammar, Oxford, 1927, 1964, p.520], and coloring it turqoise, we get a close equivalent of what is on the chair of Hetepheres.

The cult symbol of Neith as crossed arrows, with a figure-eight shield, occurs later associated with the goddess Athena in Mycenaean Linear B tablets. The identity of the two goddesses is mentioned by Plato, "a goddess whose Egyptian name is [Nêith], and in Greek, as they assert, [Athênâ]" [Timaeus 21e]. Since goddesses such as Athena are, one suspects, pre-Greek, even Minoan, an ancient connection between Crete and the Egyptian Delta is not beyond consideration. How Plato would know, or guess, about this is a good question, and what it would mean for the substratum of Egyptian and Minoan culture is even better.

When W.B. Emery excavated the I Dynasty necropolis at Saqqara, just outside the new capital at Memphis (, "Enduring Beauty"), he though he had found royal tombs of the period. Since I Dynasty royal tombs were also known from Abydos, the sacred city of Osiris, this posed a difficulty. Emery concluded that the Abydos tombs, which often were smaller, were cenotaphs, created out of deference for the sacred and traditional location. The Saqqara tombs are flat and oblong, "mastaba," , tombs, with a distinctive, palace-like and Sumerian looking façade -- which we also see in the serekh, , or the square frame, topped by the hawk of Horus, for the name of the king. Some of the tombs seem to include the burial of retainers, killed to attend the king in the afterlife, like similar practices in contemporary Sumer (and later in Shang China).

However, opinion now seems to have swung against the Saqqara tombs being the actual royal burials, or even having been royal tombs at all, and attribution has been made for some of them to specific Court individuals. To me, this seems stranger than the idea that there were cenotaphs at Adydos (or that the Saqqara tombs are cenotaphs). To have people, even royal relatives, building great (for the period) tombs, larger than the royal tombs, within sight of the capital of Egypt, seems wholly bizarre and out of line with all later Egyptian (or any monarchical) practice. It would be lèse majesté, of a particularly severe sort, when the Kings are divine. That III Dynasty royal tombs are at Saqqara is unquestioned, and it was always thought that the wall around Djoser's pyramid complex was simply the distinctive façade of the I Dynasty tombs made large. Now this comparison would seem to lapse, unless the I Dynasty tombs represent something upon which everyone has failed to reckon. I await developments, or more reasonable arguments.

II Dynasty,
of ,
Raneb, Nebrec.2700
Neteren, Nynetjer, Ninetjer2700-2660
Seth-Peribsen, Perabsen
Sendji?Weneg? & Sened?
Kha'sekhem, Kha'sekhemui2610-2593
Something serious seems to have happened in the transition from the I to the II Dynasty, but we are at a loss to say what it was. The line of tombs at Saqqara abruptly ends, and the epigraphic sources, miserable as they were, become more so. So there seems to be some kind of compromise to the authority or the power of the Kngs. The Dynasty begins with a curious name.

The name of the first King we see at right. This is the "Horus" name of the King, something that is used by all Kings throughout Egyptian history, but is both the primary name in the Archaic Period and very much a secondary name later. The "Horus" name is written in a box, a serekh, , featuring the "palace" façade that seems to reflect Sumerian influence and that we find featured on the I Dynasty tombs at Saqqara, and on the walls around Djoser's III Dynasty pyramid. This is one reason why it is hard to believe that the Saqqara tombs are not Royal tombs. The most familiar name of a King, later on, is the "Son of Re," , name, called the "Nomen" -- as with "Thutmose," "Ramesses," "Tutankhamon," etc. Coupled with this is the "King of Upper and Lower Egypt (the Sedge and the Bee)," , name, called the "Prenomen," because it is given first ("Nebkheperure" for Tutankhamon). The terms "Prenomen" and "Nomen" reflect classic practice, since the "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" was the title used first and dominated from the IV Dynasty to the V Dynasty, when the "Son of Re" title was introduced and gradually predominated during the VI Dynasty. Meanwhile, the actual name of Hotepsekhemui means "The Two Powers are at Peace." What "two powers" are those?

Soon an indication emerges. The fourth king, Sekhemib, , abandons his name and Horus title and becomes a "Seth" king with a new name, Peribsen, . The serekh is now topped by the dog of Seth rather than the hawk of Horus. This could reasonably be taken to indicate some kind of religious conflict or revolution. One might think this would involve some kind of resistance from Lower Egypt, unhappy with its conquest, but the centers of both cults seem to have been in Upper Egypt, where the 5th Nome retains the name of Horus, and the 11th that of Seth, for the rest of Egyptian history.

No contemporary evidence of the next three (or whatever) kings occurs, not even their names -- with a suspicious lack of Horus names in the King Lists. This can be taken to mean that they never existed, or it could be taken to mean that the country was so disrupted that too little in the kings' names, at the time, was made to survive.

The Dynasty ends with another interesting turn. Two names occur, , "Kha'sekhem," "The Power Arises," and , "Kha'sekhemui," "The Two Powers Arise." The serekh of Kha'sekhemui is uniquely topped by both Horus hawk and Seth dog. The inference is irresistable that Kha'sekhem restored the country with a compromise and fusion between the two cults or factions, changing his name to reflect this. The restoration seems to have worked, but not the fusion, since the III Dynasty immediately begins with strong rule but not a hint of Seth again as a royal title. With such mysterious and tantalizing clues, our frustration at the limited evidence is considerable.

The glyph of the Seth dog, which animal may have been a species or variety that has become extinct, henceforth was used as a determinative in words for "turmoil, confusion, destroy, interfere, disturb, rage, storm, disaster," and even just "foul weather." And Seth was unavoidable as the murderer of his brother Osiris. Since Egyptian religion featured the moral ambivalence characteristic of mythic thought, Seth was not a lesser god for this, and he returned, with perhaps a Semitic overlay, as the patron deity of the XIX Dynasty. The violence of Seth could be associated with war, which was essential to the State, although he was never really a war god; and in daily life he could be associated with violent personalities.

The chronology of this period is largely speculative. The figures given are now largely from Kevin L. Johnson & Bill Petty, The Names of the Kings of Egypt, The Serekhs and Cartouches of Egypt's Pharaohs, along with Selected Queens [Museum Tours Press, 2011, 2012]. They gives us totals of about 170 years for the I Dynasty (about 21 years per reign) and 137 years for the II Dynasty (17 or 27 years per reign). Peter A. Clayton [Chronicle of the Pharaohs, Thames and Hudson, 1994] has 210 years for each dynasty, which adds up to about 23 years per reign for the I Dynasty and 26 years per reign for the II Dynasty -- but leaving out the three questionable kings of the II Dynasty raises that to 42 years per reign. This compares with averages of 18 years per reign for the IV Dynasty, 17 for the V, 26 for the XII, 20 for the XVIII, 14 for the XIX, and only 10 for the XX. The average length of reign in the VI Dynasty is anomalous, 40 years, because of small number of kings and the unusual reign of Pepi II.

Thus, 23 (or 21) years for the I Dynasty is possible, but seems optimistic. On the other hand, 26 years per reign for the II Dynasty sounds suspicious, while 42 years, with the three kings left out (whose reigns must have been short anyway), is really impossible given the unsettled nature of the times and absence of indication, let alone the probablity, of another reign as long as Pepi II. Johnson & Petty's average of 17 or 27 years for the II Dynasty overlaps Clayton's average 26 or 42 -- where the low 17 seems like the most likely number. A reasonable device would be to use an average of 20 years for the I Dynasty and 15 years for the II. This would put the beginning of the II Dynasty at 2800 and the I Dynasty at 2980, which are a little earlier than Johnson & Petty now have it. Lengths of 180 years for the I Dynasty and 120 for the II are in the range of variation for Old Kingdom dynasties.

Apart from Johnson & Petty and Clayton, the treatment here is based on W.B. Emery, Archaic Egypt [Penguin, 1961] and Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1966]. A more recent treatment can also be found in Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt [Thames & Husdon, 2004]. Dodson and Hilton begin the I Dynasty in 3150 and end the II Dynasty in 2584, providing no other dates -- all together much, much too long for the period. The three obscure Kings of the II Dynasty they combine as "Weneg" and "Sened" (as noted in the table) and have Peribsen following rather than preceding them (as Johnson & Petty also have it). They assert that Djoser, first King of the III Dynasty, was the son of Kha'sekhemui, I know not why.

Egyptian History Continued

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Kings of Sumer and Akkad

Dynasty I of Kish
21 Kings since the Flood
Etana the Herdsmanc.2750
A book by Samuel Noah Kramer is titled History Begins at Sumer [Doubleday Anchor, 1959]. This is true, but, as with early
Egyptian history, it is a vague and frustrating kind of history, with fragmentary or legendary literary sources, and without the succession of hard monuments that become the signposts of time in Egypt -- which even in Egypt at the time are without the epigraphic information so familiar from later. Sumer also has less of a presence than Egypt because it was politically fragmented into city states -- none with the concentrated power that enabled Khufu to make sure that he would never be forgotten.

Sumer or Sumeria are the names we use for this earliest nation. These words have no apparent connection, however, to the name of Sumer in Sumerian, which was Kiengir, expressed as in cuneiform. In later forms of the signs, down to the Neo-Assyrian Period, this could be written , , or . The name of Sumer that we use now comes from the Akkadian name of the place, Shumer, phonetically written , in Akkadian. As the Sumerian language died out, and Akkadian evolved into Babylonian and Assyrian, their Semitic name eclipsed the original one.

Here dynasties are given for Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Lagash. The early history of all these cities is mythologized in later documents. Thus, Gilgamesh might be regarded as a purely legendary figure if he did not also occur in the ordinary king lists. There is also some trouble, as in Egypt, reading the names, since the pronunciation of the early ideograms is not always certain from later phonetic indications.
Dynasty I of Uruk

While Sumerian history is apparently older than Egypt, the earliest dates here, around 2900 BC -- with no confidence until around 2700 -- appear to be later that those given for Egypt in the Archaic Period, beginning around 3100 BC. This effect is the result of the fragmentary nature of Sumerian chronology and the overestimation of the length of the Egyptian I and II Dynasties. The "21 Kings since the Flood" of Kish would put us back substantially before 2700, if not before 2900 -- if the numbers bear any relation to reality -- while a more reasonable length for the Archaic Period puts the beginning of Egypt more like around 2900. What is unavoidable is that we have little evidence apart from legend for Sumerian history, despite the archaeological indications that writing may have begun as early as 3400 BC, while in Egypt there are actual tombs for many of the I and II Dynasty Kings, at Saqqara, Abydos, or both. Egypt, as a unified Kingdom, unlike the continuing city states of Sumer, could be focusing its collective efforts on its records and its monuments, as Sumer could not, with the full resources of a large, organized state directed to preserving the past.

Dynasty I of Ur
Dynasty II of UrEnannatum Ic.2425
Identical to Uruk II in
Roux 1964; "4 kings
(names unknown)" in
Roux 1992
Enannatum II
The obscurity of early Sumer is compounded by later misconceptions. The Biblical expression, "Ur of the Chaldees," although used by the great excavator of Ur, C. Leonard Woolley, for the title of a book about the city [Norton Library, 1965], is extremely anachronistic and misleading. Ur was originally a city of the Sumerians, not of the Chaldeans. The latter were actually Aramaeans, who did not appear in Mesopotamia until nearly a thousand years after the end of the Sumerians as a distinct linguistic community. The Chaldeans dominated Mesopotamia in the "Neo-Babylonian" Period, not only long after the Sumerians but also long after any reasonable date for Abraham -- if Abraham came from "Ur of the Chaldees," this must be a different Ur, already Aramaean in Abraham's day, or it is just applying an anarchronistic epithet to a city that later was associated with the Chaldeans.
Dynasty II of Uruk
Dynasty III of Uruk
The Sumerian language itself was neither Semitic nor Indo-European, a representative of a now vanished pre-historic language family that may have also included the Elamite, Kassite, Hurrian, and Urartuan languages. Since unaffiliated languages still exist nearby in the Caucasus (e.g. Georgian), it is always possible that they were all related -- although there are no less than three language families discernable in the Caucasus alone.

History begins at Sumer because the Sumerians were undoubtedly the first to have a functioning system of writing. The origins of this are now plausibly explained by Denise Schmandt-Besserat (cf. Before Writing, Volume I, From Counting to Cuneiform [University of Texas Press, 1992]). For purposes of accounting, contracts, shipping, etc., little clay models were made of the kinds of commodities involved. For convenience, these models were then placed in clay wrappers. Then, so that the contents of the wrappers could be known without breaking them, little drawings of the models began to put on the wrappers. Soon it became obvious that the little drawings by themselves made the models superfluous.
Dynasty II of Kish
[2 kings]
Dynasty III of Kish
Dynasty IV of Kish
Dynasty V of Kish
The stylization of the models had already produced a certain abstraction and stylization in the drawings, which thus became proto-cuneiform -- a system already pre-adapted to representing numbers as well as concepts. Since thousands of the clay models have been found, the evidence for the process is abundant. No such antecedents have been found in Egypt or India, where writing began soon after the Sumerian precedent -- although some indications have now been found in Egypt. It is hard not to conclude that Sumerian influence, with the evidence of Sumerian artifacts to prove it -- and considerable actual Sumerian records about trade with India -- sparked the development of writing in those places. Where writing developed independently elsewhere, i.e China and the New World, Middle Eastern influence via Central Asia cannot be discounted on the former, while Mayan glyphs, only recently deciphered at all, had not progressed far, even three thousand years later, beyond the most basic versions of cuneiform or hieroglyphics. Nor were even the Aztecs still using the system at that level, while the Incas had no form of writing whatsoever. The achievement of the Sumerians thus represents a unique and pivotal moment in human history.

At the same time, the student of Egypt will find the visible material achievement of Sumeria disappointing. The pyramidal towers of Sumerian temples, the Ziggurats, are impressive, but not on the scale with the pyramids of Egypt, and made only from mud brick, now heavily eroded, and lacking the internal structure that is so rich a source of fantasies about Egypt. Indeed, the Egyptians had ready access to stone, while the Mespotamian civilizations, on the broad, flat plain of the Tigris and Euphrates, never would. Only Assyria at its height would exercise the will and organization necessary to ornament its capitals with stonework, such as the great winged lions familiar from evocative etchings and museums. Yet even these were modest enough in scale that they disappeared from view until excavated in the 19th century. At the same time, the excavation of the buried libraries of the Assyrian Kings revealed a mass of literature and knowledge surviving on clay tablets for which there was no counterpart in Egypt, with its more convenient, but far more perishable, papyrus records. This less dramatic but more substantive historical resource now suffers from the relative disinterest of the public, as gifted Assyriologists are unable to find academic or research positions and may find themselves required to change careers -- while some Egyptologists become kinds of international superstars, in both past (Howard Carter) and present (Zahi Hawass).

Dynasty of Akkad
Sharru-kîn, Sargon2371-2315/
Guti invasion, c.2193]
Despite the epic and formative role of Sumer as the first of all human civilizations, the Sumerians were doomed by history to an early end. The first chill came from the Semitic speakers, the Akkadians, who lived immediately north of them. Sargon of Akkad united all of Mesopotamia for the first time, contemporaneous with the Egyptian VI Dynasty, embracing all of Sumeria and extending far up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Sargon's name, Sharru-kîn, means "the king is legitimate," an almost sure sign that he wasn't -- the story of his royal birth but childhood among commoners is similar to the story of Moses in the Bible or of Karn.a in the Mahâbhârata, all of whom said they had been set adrift as infants and claimed a status opposite from what they started with. One of Sargon's successors also had a significant name:  Shar-kalli-sharri means "king of all kings." Shortened to just "king of kings," this became a standard title for later Urart.uan, Assyrian, and then Persian monarchs. It even survived in Modern Persian as , Shâhanshâh.

Akkadian is now the first attested Semitic language, with a very different kind of grammar from Sumerian. Nevertheless, with the combination of ideograms and phonetic signs, it was not too difficult to adapt cuneiform writing to the new language. "Akkad" itself could be written with an ideogram, , or phonetically, , , etc. "Old Akkadian" is the language of the time of Sargon. It would subsequently split into Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. But Sumerian would never be forgotten nor lose its cultural prestige.

Sargon's state looks like the first real "Empire" in Mesopotamian history, although its extension all to the way to the "Western Sea" is a bit speculative. It was certainly ephemeral. But its influence was profound. The Akkadian state spelled the coming dominance of Semitic languages in the Fertile Crescent, something occasionally qualified but even today present in full force (whether we think of Arabic or Hebrew). Sargon's name would turn up again in the last triumphant period of the Assyrians. An invasion of the Guti, a non-Semitic people in the Zagros, disrupted the Akkadian state and led to its downfall.

Dynasty IV of Uruk
[3 kings]2141-2124
Dynasty V of Uruk
Dynasty III of Ur
Amorites appear, c.2034
Elamites sack Ur, c.2004
Governors of
Lagash for Ur
As Sargon's empire did not long survive this ambitiously named king, it was followed by a Sumerian revival. The III Dynasty of Ur was the last brilliant moment for the Sumerians, ruling the whole country as none of the earlier dynasties had. But the set of the tide was already obvious:  The last three kings of Ur III already have names incorporating the Akkadian name of the moon god, Sîn, rather than the Sumerian name, Nanna.

Sumer was being linguistically overwhelmed. But not forgotten. Sumerian civilization did not vanish; it was simply translated; but even the translators did not forget Sumerian -- it was remembered by scholars, even by Kings of Assyria, centuries after it had last been uttered in ordinary speech. Sumerian became the first Classical Language, preserved as the storehouse of all that was fundamental in the continuing civilization that its speakers had created. Babylon and Assyria became the heirs of it all. But we are too. The process of translation continued, since our own days of the week are translations, through Latin and Greek, of the Babylonian and ultimately Sumerian names of the planets.

The remaining puzzle about the Sumerians is not what happened to their language, which is obvious, but what happened to them. As the spoken language shifted over to Akkadian and its derivatives, there is no evidence that the Sumerian people died out, were killed, left, or were driven away. As with the Kings of Ur, they appear to have just switched languages. We also have little to no information about the movements or presumed influx of the original speakers of Akkadian. In fact, there is no information and no indication at all of any real ethnic differences between Sumerians and Akkadians, or of any other clear distinctions between the communities. Consequently, some historians have considered the proposition that they were actually the same people, who somehow had unaccountably arrived in history speaking two different, and actually (profoundly) unrelated, languages. It is hard to imagine how such a thing would be possible, even while there are later parallels to the conventional picture, as in the assimilation of the Elamites by the Persians who for a while even preserved the old Elamite language -- which consequently is available for inspection by modern scholars. Unless a more intelligible theory is proposed, in continues to look like the Akkadians arrived in a migration familiar from later periods, e.g. with the Amorites, Aramaeans, and Arabs, and that the Sumerians were a distinct people, like the Elamites, Hurrians, Kassites, and other non-Indo-European, non-Semitic speaking communities of the ancient Middle East.

The list and dates here are originally from Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq [Penguin, 1966 edition and revised 1992 edition, pp. 502-504]. However, it now appears that Roux's dates are about 94 years too early. In "Astronomy and the Fall of Babylon," in the July 2000 Sky & Telescope [pp.40-45], Vahe G. Gurzadyan discusses changes that can be made in Babylonian chronology on the basis of analysis of Babylonian astronomical records (the Enûma Anu Enlil) and more accurate modern calculations of ancient eclipses. Three revised dates are given above for Ur III. A key event for this period was a lunar eclipse on 27 June 1954 BC, which was thought at the time to have foretold the death of King Shulgi of Ur. Some kings have now been added to the lists, primarily for Kish I, from Bruce R. Gordon's Regnal Chronologies. I have not attempted to square Gordon's dates either with Roux or with Gurzadyan.

My language sources for Sumerian and Akkadian include A Manual of Akkadian, by David Marcus [University Press of America, 1978], Introduction to Akkadian, by Richard Caplice and Daniel Snell [Fourth Edition, Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, Roma, 2002], the Sumerian Lexicon, by John Alan Halloran [Logogram Publishing, Los Angeles, 2006], and Sumerian Grammar, by Dietz Otto Edzard [Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2003]. To my astonishment, neither the Lexicon nor the Grammar contain a single bit of cuneiform. Initially, all of my actual information on cuneiform was from the Manual and some other resources for Akkadian and Assyrian. There are now on-line resources; but I find those a little difficult to use, in part because of organization that is not transparent and also because what one sees, or doesn't, depends in part on what fonts one has installed. This takes some figuring out. I am happy with one on-line source for Sumerian cuneiform, the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary. This is especially valuable for finding the original Sumerian ideograms ("logograms") whose use tends to decline as Akkadian is increasingly written phonetically, or the characters are simplified and regularized. Also, the site supplies its own images (as is done here), which means that there is no problem with using the right fonts.

Typical of the problems one encounters would be the Sumerian word for Sumer, "Kiengir," which can be written with a final sign that Halloran identifies as gir15, without (of course!) any hint in his book what this looked like. Marcus or Caplice and Snell are no help either. At Wikipedia, I see a sign for gir15 as in the Old Babylonian font. On the present page, however, I have been using the Neo-Assyrian form of the signs, which is what is used in Marcus and Caplice and Snell, even though their treatment is of the Akkadian language, which antedates the Old Babylonian Period. It is the tradition, from early Assyriology. When saved in a Neo-Assyrian font, gir15 appears in a form identical to the sign read ku, , as listed by Marcus and as seen in the word malku, "king," above -- Marcus gives a Sumerian reading of tukul, "trust," for this, which is unrelated to its meaning or pronunciation in Kiengir. I do not know what to make of this. It makes it look like the sign gir15 only occurs in Sumerian words. But if ku/tukul was also in Sumerian, I don't understand why it would appear for gir15 in the Neo-Assyrian font. I don't see any discussion of this on the cuneiform web pages I've seen -- and this is not too much to ask when Wikipedia has webpages on ki and en, but not on gir15.

Strangely enough, I may have found some answers in an unlikely source, the 1868 Assyrian Dictionary of Edwin Norris, which is available in reprint [Elibron Classics, 2005]. This was published early enough that Assyriologists weren't quite sure what "the ancient and now unknown province of Sumir" was [Part II, p.701]. But the Assyrian Kings knew about it, and they used an expression, , which combines , kur/mâtu, "land," with , lisanu, "language," and . Norris also explains that this could be written phonetically, as , and other ways. If is used as ideogram for "Sumer," then the use of to disambiguate the usage from the word for "language" would seem to rest on the latter being the Neo-Assyrian descendant of as a phonetic part of the original name in Sumerian. And that would explain why ku is returned for gir15 in a modern Neo-Assyrian font. At the same time, there is another mystery here, which is why Marcus does not have in his book, either as a cuneiform sign entry or even as lisanu in the Akkadian glossary. This is very odd, since, not only is lisanu certainly an Akkadian word, but it is also a root quite common in other Semitic languages, like Hebrew, , lâshôn, and Arabic, , lisân, which have the same meaning, "tongue" or "language." It is hard to imagine what severe restrictions on space would lead to this being left out.

Norris gives an example that I have seen in no other sources, which is the formula "Sumer and Akkad," which had been used since the days of Sargon:  . The Kings of Assyria were using this when both places as functioning place names were very distant memories.

A curious case of the use of cuneiform is the logo of the Liberty Fund publishers, who present the signs as meaning "liberty." This gets taken up and repeated by the author F. Paul Wilson in a couple of his recent "Repairman Jack" books. Here the nature and meaning of these signs is examined in a footnote.

The paucity of comprehensive print sources is indicative of an alarming situtation in Mesopotamian language scholarship, where the resources are, rather like Sumerian history itself, fragmentary, of peripheral provenance, and/or out of date. The formative texts of 19th scholarship in German or French are accessible to scholars in libraries, but there is little of modern work currently in print and available in thorough treatments for a wider audience. A Manual of Akkadian and the Introduction to Akkadian are a very elementary and introductory texts. Marcus is reproduced from typescript with hand-drawn cuneiform (a very sad artifact next to, for instance, Gardiner's handsome and formidable Egyptian Grammar). The Caplice and Snell volume is properly printed, but the cuneiform is still hand-drawn, in a form sometimes less distinct than in Marcus. Also, the vocabulary and sign list are sigificantly smaller than in Marcus (lisanu is not in their vocabulary either), in a smaller book that disturbingly approaches the look of a pamphlet. Yet these are the best all-round, modern sources I have for Akkadian grammar, vocabulary, and cuneiform writing. Somebody should be embarrassed for this degree of scholarly and publishing neglect, and for the obvious lack of respect and general interest that it betrays for the first literate human civilization -- the very place where history began. The Internet can make up for this, and there is certainly a large volume of material now available there, but I am not finding it very accessible.

I now have two more sources, the Complete Babylonian, by Martin Worthington [Teach Yourself, 2010] and A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, edited by Jeremy Black, Andrew George, and Nicholas Postgate [Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000, 2012]. Each of these is handsomely produced, modern, and comprehensive. However, neither one makes any attempt to provide information on cuneiform, either to read it, in Worthington, or for the lexical items in the Concise Dictionary. Worthington has a chapter (#40) where he shows us what cuneiform looks like, which I can only interpret as a cruel and mocking taunt for all those students who would actually like to know something about it. In a similar space, he could easily have given us the basic list of phonetic signs. Since he expresses no ambition to write a companion volume on cuneiform, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the Babylonian language, we are left with the impression of being tossed out the door on our own. Oh, we could order the Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon [Münster, 2003], which is a sign list recommended by Worthington; but my own perusal of and do not show this book as either in print or available as used. In the day of print-on-demand publishing, for a nearly unique resource, this is astonishing. But it is no less astonishing that there should be one book after an another that give us no knowledge of the writing system that we would need to read languages in their original written forms. If they published books like this about Egyptian, there would be riots -- everyone knows that "Egyptian" means hieroglyphics (or "hieroglyphic" to the pedants). As it is, apparently you can get away with this neglect for Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian, perhaps because few people are paying attention. I do not understand the attitude of people who could be pleased with books that are so deficient and defective. One might suspect that this reflects an ideological bias against written language, such as I have noted elsewhere.

Cuneiform for "Liberty"

Babylonian Calendar

Mesopotamian Kings Continued

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Kings of Sumer and Akkad, Note;
Cuneiform for "Liberty,"

The Liberty Fund publisher uses as a company logo the cuneiform signs , which they say is the earliest written expresson for "liberty." Indeed, the word in Sumerian is amagi, which John Alan Halloran's Sumerian Lexicon defines as "freedom, liberation" [op.cit., p.19]. However, there is a little more to it than that. Halloran also says that it means, "manumission" and "exemption from debts or obligations" [ibid.]. In Akkadian, we get the same meanings for the word andurâru(m), "freedom, exemption," "release from (debt) slavery" [A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, edited by Jeremy Black, Andrew George, and Nichols Postgate, Harrassowitz Verlag, Weisbaden, 2000, p.17].

How we get these meanings can be gleaned from the ultimate meaning of the signs, which are "mother" and "return, restore, put back" . "Mother" can also be written with the dative ending -ra, pronounced ama-ar-gi. Thus, the full writing actually means, "restored to mother." This is a particularly vivid way to express the idea of manumission, to be freed from slavery. You go home to mother. The other meanings follow. Thus, we might say that the notion of liberty or freedom begins because of the condition of its opposite, slavery. This is not too surprising.

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Mesopotamian Index

The Natural Law, with the Logo of the Liberty Fund

The Old Kingdom of Egypt

I visited the Pyramids, called by the Arabs,
the Mountains of Pharaoh...

MELTON, an English traveller, 1661; Leonard Cottrell, The Mountains of Pharaoh, 2,000 Years of Pyramid Exploration, 1956, Pan Books Ltd., London, 1963, p.3; not quoted in Arabic, "Mountains of Pharaoh" could be , 'Ajbâl Fir'aun

Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.

Proverb attributed to a "learned Arab of the twelfth century" but not attested before 1923, provenance and Arabic version unknown.

The III Dynasty begins a relatively brief period that has to be one of the most astounding in human history. The small stones that were used in the place of bricks in the elaborate Step Pyramid of Djoser quickly grew into gargantuan blocks weighing many tons, placed with no more apparent difficulty than Lego blocks, including enormous slabs of granite, up to 100 tons, brought all the way down the river from Aswan. In less than two centuries all the really big pyramids were built, during the III but mainly the IV Dynasties. And there is no avoiding or disparaging the fact they they were BIG....big beyond the budgets and will, if not actually the technology, of the modern world.

The Old Kingdom
& Petty
III Dynasty,
of ,
Djoser, Zoser

Sanakhte, Nebka2686-


Zawiyet el-Aryan?
The god Seth, who seems to have disrupted the
II Dynasty, was now forgotten in the royal cult (until the XIX Dynasty). Tombs are again built at Saqqara, and the palace façade of the I Dynasty tombs (royal or not), although returning in stone with Djoser, disappears forever by the time of the IV Dynasty.

The credit for the revolution in architecture was attributed by the Egyptians themselves to Imhotep, [Greek ], who was Djoser's minister and "overseer of works," i.e. the Royal builder. Imhotep was then deified, and since he had a reputation as a healer, he was mainly a god of medicine, and identified by the Greeks with their god , the Roman Aesculapius.

But the Step Pyramid of Djoser was not conceived as such from the beginning. It was at first a traditional flat mastaba, , enlarged, then with steps added on top, and then enlarged again, ultimately with six steps. The underground tomb, which contains the burial chamber, contains extensive gallaries, which still can confuse the unwary -- including a foolish archaeology intern of Zahi Hawass, who got stuck, after being warned not to wander away. The pyramid itself is surrounded by an extensive enclosure, containing ritual buildings and other tombs, with the first examples of carved stone columns, although not yet free-standing (but "engaged," i.e. attached to adjacent walls). The scale and detail of the project reflects the genius of Imhotep, which can contribute to our understanding of human capital.

Here we see the Step Pyramid of Djoser (in 1969). At left is the entrance gate, which opens into the columned hall with the "engaged" columns. The Egyptians weren't sure about that yet. As we see a lot in Egyptian architecture, there were other gates; but the other gates were carved closed, while only this one was actually open. So it led into something that must originally have seemed rather like a maze. At right we are inside the enclosure, in the ritual court, such as would have been used for the King's jubilee festival. Here in stone. Of course, what looks like fresh stonework here actually is. These things have been constructed. The old stonework, like the pyramid itself, is evidently old

Plenty of people still find it hard to believe that the mere Egyptians, at such a time, could have done anything like build the sort of massive and sophisticated structures we see in the pyramids of the IV Dynasty. Something miraculous, or at least extraterrestrial, seems called for. Unfortunately for such theories, we have the evidence of the development of the architecture, especially with the pyramids of Djoser and Seneferu, which are obviously experimental, with hesitations and mistakes. Also, the Egyptians, although leaving no contemporary record of their techniques, did leave some of their tools in the limestone and granite quarries, along with quarry marks from the work gangs on many blocks (from which the organization of the gangs can be reconstructed), and, before too long, the tombs of nobles responsible for later projects begin to show us the means of their realization.
& Petty
IV Dynasty,
of ,


Set?ka, Nebkare = Nebka?


Sadly, the III and IV Dynasty tombs do not yet show that, and the whole period is gravely lacking in inscriptions, especially in comparison to the thoroughness with which the Egyptians later covered every surface available. Where at Karnak hardly a square foot goes without the name of the king who had it made (or the later King who overwrote it with his own name), the major pyramids never even bothered to officially display the names of their owners. We are reduced to the few remaining quarrymen's marks, given fortunately in regal years, to positively identify several pyramids. Only one such mark survives (on accessible surfaces) to identify the Great Pyramid of Khufu, as only one small figure survives to represent the king himself. At least for Khafre and Menkaure we have abundant, magnificient statuary to show them to us.

Watching documentaries about Egypt on cable television, I've noticed that the narrators have begun talking about the "great pyramids" of Egypt. Formally, there is no such thing as the "great pyramids." The "Great Pyramid," singular, means the pyramid of King Khufu, which is the largest pyramid. Otherwise, it is not clear from the usage what the "great pyramids" is supposed to mean. Are they all the pyramids of Egypt? -- which means what? that they are "greater" than the pyramids of Mexico (or Kush)? -- or are they just some of the pyramids of Egypt? In that case, it is never specified which pyramids are "great" and which are not, although on one show it sounded like the pyramids at Giza, which include Khufu's, were the "great pyramids." To be sure, the pyramids of the III and IV Dynasty are definitely greater than those of the V, VI, or XII; but I have never seen such a distinction in Egyptian history books or books about the pyramids.

Since all the outer casing stones are missing from the Great Pyramid, except for some at the base that were long buried under debris (many remain on that of Khafre), which would have formed a smooth surface, and the apex pyramidion -- the single pyramid block that capped the pyramid -- are missing, creating a kind of staircase on the sides and a flat square space on the summit, it used to be that tourists could climb to the summit, with the help of a string of local guides. This has now long been prohibited, although the movie, The Bucket List [2007], shows Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson sitting at the top in the old manner. Nicholson's character, being a millionaire, could well have offered a sufficient gratuity, , baqshîsh (i.e., a bribe), to be escorted up. It could be on my bucket list.

The real mystery of the IV Dynasty is not so much how Khufu could have built his pyramid on such a scale but how his father, Seneferu, could, apparently, have done three of them nearly as big -- one at Meidum and two at Dahshur -- all within sight of each other. The pyramid at Meidum was begun as a step pyramid, perhaps by Huni of the III Dynasty. Evidence of this is missing, but Huni is usually credited with a long enough reign to have completed a large pyramid; and if Meidum isn't his, then where is his tomb? He did not spend a long reign building no tomb; but opinion now seems willing to accept that neither Meidum, nor anything else, is his. Which also happens to leave no completed pyramids in the entire III Dynasty after Djoser. Be that as it may, Meidum was then certainly finished as a true pyramid, with the steps filled in, by Seneferu. His name is on those blocks.

Why this was done is a good question, but one thing for certain is that it as not done well. The structure was unstable. At some point the outer parts actually collapsed, leaving the core looking rather like a huge cube -- although some now deny that there was a collapse, with the condition of the structure the result of later quarrying. That's possible, but evidence of the Egyptians still learning their architecture can be found with the undoubted problems at Dahshur.

Ancient beams of Lebanese cedar, preserved by the desert, shoring up a chamber in the Bent Pyramid
The first pyramid at Dahshur, the "Bent Pyramid," was then begun as a true pyramid from scratch, but it too had stability problems, and had to be finished with a flattened top. The full mastery of the medium then appears in the third pyramid, with a good foundation, larger blocks, and successful completion. The whole technique of truly large scale construction thus rapidly evolved in just one reign. Seneferu seems to have had money to spend, time to spare (in 24 some years), and a very clear end in mind. A shame he can't tell us about it. Unlike what we find in Herodotus, who repeates stories that all the pyramid builders were tyrants, the stories surviving in Egyptian literature all make out Seneferu as a kind and just king, despite the scale of his building.

One key feature we should note about the pyramid building is that the quarries for the finest limestone were on the opposite side of the Nile, at Tura, from the pyramid sites, and that the quarries for all the granite were far up the Nile at Aswan -- rough internal blocks for the pyramids were quarried nearby. This means that the best time to move all that rock from remote locations to the pyramid sites was during the season of the Flood, when the Nile would be the widest and deepest. Indeed, an essential part of all pyramid architecture was the dock at the edge of the desert, i.e. at the high water mark, with a causeway leading up to the pyramid foundation. It is not hard to imagine the government of Egypt impressing all the farmers idled by the Flood, the "corvée" , into a great effort to move a year's worth of stone up and/or across the Nile. The rest of the year, the more skilled stone masons would work to place the blocks, or would quarry the rougher, interior stone for the pyramids adjacent to the sites. In recent years, the village and burials of the pyramid workers have been discovered at Giza. As might be expected, the bones of common laborers show evidence of heavy labor.

& Petty
V Dynasty,
of ,
Neferirkare I
Djedkare Isesi

Nevertheless, intense debate continues about how the large pyramids were actually constructed. We know the Egyptians used construction ramps, which survive here and there, but the form of ramps for structures hundreds of feet in height offers such problems and alternatives that no consensus exists on the form these would have taken. The scale of the projects is still daunting, and a recent suggestion is that the core of the pyramids is rubble, and not worked stones as are visible on the exterior. Chances are, this would not have made for the structures that remain stable after 4000 years. From what interior blocks that can be seen, it does look like the block were less regular than those on the outside, and some gaps filled in, but a general use of rubble is not indicated.

Most recently, radiation studies have apparently detected a void above the Great Gallery in the Great Pyramid. This may have been to relieve pressure on the Gallery itself, as we already know about spaces above the King's Chamber. But those spaces have been accessible since Antiquity, while this new void is entirely a surprise. With modern technology, a small hole could be drilled to allow the intertion of a fiber-optic cable and a small camera. After some consideration and argument, hopefully this will be done.

The names of the pyramids, attested for most starting with the IV Dynasty, suffer from the ambiguity that it is not entirely obvious whether the qualities attributed belong the pyramid or to the King. The standard interpretation seems to be that the King's name is understood, even if it is not written as part of the pyramid name. An interesting case is the name of the pyramid of Pepi I, . This is usually read "Enduring Beauty," which, however, only makes the best sense when attributed to the pyramid. If we supply the King's name as understood, then we need a different interpretation, and this can be, "The Goodness of Pepi is Established." We are thrown back to the first reading, however, when this name becomes adopted as one of the names of the capital city of Memphis, . Indeed, this is the name "Memphis" -- in Greek. Here we still have the determinative of a pyramid for the name, with the addition of the determinative for a city. Mutatis mutandis, it is harder to read this with the name of Pepi understood, since the city as such has no direct connection to this particular King. Perhaps the goodness of Memphis is established, but beauty seems a more appropriate attribute.

Another circumstance we should note is that the Old Kingdom kings of Egypt did not, as far as we know, engage in the scale of foreign military adventures that become familiar in later dynasties. Many countries have impoverished themselves through war -- Louis XIV's gratuitous wars may have ultimately brought on the French Revolution -- but Seneferu through Menkaure focused the whole resources of their state on building their tombs. Not even the Egyptians were long able to keep that up. But it may occasion some reflection that the pyramids, however useless to subsequent, not just modern, judgment, nevertheless constitute monuments far more durable and majestic than the sanguine and temporary achievements of conquest.

The V Dynasty, indeed, ushered in an era of less colossal, but also more articulated, works. The mortuary temples became larger and more elaborate, private tombs began to tell the everyday stories of the time (though without the kind of historical narrative that we would like), and soon the pyramids themselves acquired a voice, as the "Pyramid Texts," starting in the pyramid of Unas, which related the perils of the voyage to the afterlife. The V Dynasty kings also built open air solar temples on the West Bank of the Nile, near the pyramids. These featured stout, open air forms, signifying the sun god, of what later would evolve into pillar-like obelisks -- elegant blocks of granite that so engaged ancient and modern attention that they now adorn the cities of Rome, Constantinople, London, Paris, and New York. These things were treasured -- some in Rome that broke or fell during the Middle Ages were lovingly restored in the Renaissance -- before their inscriptions could even be read. Unfortunately, they suffer in northern climates, and the New York obelisk, whose fate would have sorely puzzled Thutmose III, is now hidden, contrary to the intention of its hilltop installation, in the trees of Central Park. A prospect on it from the Egyptian exhibits of the Metropolitan Museum of Art would have been fitting but apparently was never contemplated and would now be inconvenient. The open air design of the V Dynasty temples suggests the later solar temples of Akhenaton. In Egyptian tradition, the Dynasty was founded by priests of Rê. It is unclear how historical this tradition is, or whether the increasing role of the sun god suggested it.

A curious interlude in the IV Dynasty is when King Shepseskaf returns to Saqqara to build his tomb and then builds, not a pyramid, but the kind of tomb that had not been seen for royalty since the II Dynasty. The name of the tomb, , does not even include the now customary pyramid determinative. Since the pyramid itself seems to reflect the cult of the Sun god Rê, whose name figures ever more frequently in the names of the Kings -- and whose festish object at Heliopolis, the "Benben," , seems to have been the archetype for all pyramids [note] -- both the move and the name of Shepseskaf have the echo of some obscure, perhaps idiosyncratic, religious dissent. If so, it failed rapidly, and it may even have provoked a backlash and a coup, since the V Dynasty traditionally was established by actual priests of Rê; and the cult of Rê is conspicuous in unique solar temples as well as in the names of the Kings. It would be nice to know what was going on, although Protestant historiography would have no difficulty supplying an explanation. Shepseskaf had obviously perceived the danger of the power and arrogance of the priests of Rê -- Papists before their time -- and was attempting to circumvent it. The absence of evidence for this has not prevently earlier Egyptologists from attributing such a strategy to Akhenaton, and suspicion of priests persists in recent interpretations of the Gnostic Gospels. Nevertheless, it would be nice to know Shepseskaf's motivations.

The IV Dynasty ends with another peculiar monument, the tomb of Khentkawes (or Khentkaus), , at Giza, a Queen who seems to be an important person, perhaps bridging the IV and V Dynasties, but whose role cannot be determined. She may have been a daughter of Menkaure who could have been married to Shepseskaf, perhaps not from the dynastic family himself, and perhaps even to Userkaf of the V Dynasty, with duties as Regent in the mix. That she might have ruled in her own right, as we see indicated by Lehner in 1997, is perhaps precluded by her name never appearing in a cartouche. What does appear is a curious title, , which looks like it says she is the mother of two Kings. Which two Kings that might be is as much a matter of speculation as everything else. A further complication is that two Queens of the V Dynasty bear the same name, with the first one also bearing the same title. The whole business suggests a situation such as we find with the Empress Zoë at the end of the Macedonian Dynasty of Romania, whose marriages perpetuated the dynasty but did not bridge the transition to the next, as may have happened with Khentkawes. Indeed, even if the IV Dynasty Khentkawes, and that of the V with the same title, were not the same person, the continued use of the name may be a good clue in itself that the dynasties were linked by marriage.

The entire period substantially ends with the child king, Pepi II (who later boasted perhaps the longest reign in world history), writing charming letters to his expedition leader, urging him to keep safe the pygmy or dwarf he was bringing back from deep in Africa -- how deep we do not know -- so that the king could enjoy seeing him. The wandering mind of an octogenarian and nonagenarian king, however, may have left the nobles too much to their own devices. The country broke up when the power that devolved on them lost its last remaining unity in the death of the old king.

& Hilton
& Petty
VI Dynasty,
of ,
x  2270-
Pepi I
Nemtyemsaf I
Pepi II
Nemtyemsaf II
, Nitoqerty
The king lists (and Manethô) contain the names of VI Dynasty Kings for whom tombs have never been found and whose existence has evidently been dismissed by many recent historians. Clayton and Lehner here are contrasted with James Henry Breasted, whose History [1905, 1909] accepted two other kings from the king lists -- but not Nitoqerty (from the Turin Canon), Manetho's Nitôcris. Clayton and Lehner do leave a year or two for a minor king (Userkare), but then they don't mention him. Now, a new VI Dynasty cemetery has been uncovered at Saqqara, apparently as part of a search for unfinished tombs of Userkare and others; but so far no dramatic new evidence about the kings has turned up.

The treatment here is based on I.E.S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt [Penguin Books, 1961], Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs [Thames and Hudson, 1994], Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids [Thames and Hudson, 1997], Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1961, 1966], James Henry Breasted, A History of Egypt [1905, 1909, Bantam Classic, 1964], and Kevin L. Johnson, The Names of hte Kings of Egypt, The Serekhs and Cartouches of Egypt's Pharaohs, Along with Selected Queens [Museum Tours Press, 2011, 2012].

A couple of touches have now been added from Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt [Thames & Husdon, 2004]. Thus, Dodson and Hilton think that Sanakhte followed rather than preceded Djoser. I have placed him there, while leaving the dates from Clayton and Lehner that show him coming first. Dodson and Hilton list a "Set?ka" after Djedefre, which may be the Nebka of Lehner, who follows Khafre. They take no notice of Lehner's Khentkawes at the end of the Dynasty. There are no significant differences in their treatment of the V Dynasty. In the VI Dynasty, I have provided Dodson and Hilton's dates, which they supply for more Kings than the other souces do. They disregard the obscure Nitoqerty at the end. Their chronology for the Old Kingdom begins in 2584 for Djoser, almost eighty years later than the other sources, and ends almost forty years later.

Visiting Egypt in 1969, I actually rode on horseback, with a guide and one companion, from Saqqara to Giza, passing close by the V Dynasty pyramids at Abusir. Eat your heart out, Indiana Jones. I had previously had a little more experience with horses than I ever have had since. The photo is the view we got approaching Giza. I don't think this is a perspective often seen, looking across cultivated fields and through palm trees. Usually we see Giza either from the desert or from the adjacent sprawl of Cairo. This may be the view that would have been more familiar to the Egyptians, over many centuries. The time is late in the day, and the December sun illuminates the southern, but not the eastern, faces of the pyramids.

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Copyright (c) 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2012, 2017, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Old Kingdom of Egypt, Note;
The Phoenix

The Benben also gives us the root of the name of the Egyptian bird, , whose apparent association with the solar cult leads us to identify it with the Phoenix, , spoken of by Herodotus [II:73]. His story is that the bird appears every 500 years, bringing its father, wrapped in myrrh, to be buried at Heliopolis. The form of the story where the phoenix immolates itself, and then is reborn from the ashes, is due to later sources that I have not been able to identity. The name "phoenix" derives the idea of Herodotus that the bird was golden (, "golden feathered") and red (), using the name of the Phoenician purple dye for it. However, the Egyptian bird, with its distinctive ideogram, was a heron; and herons are white (or gray, yellow, blue, brown, black, etc.). Herodotus might have confused the red of the fire for the bird, if only fire had been a part of his account. There is indeed a mythical Chinese bird, , which we have called a "Phoenix," because it is explicitly associated with the element fire and the color red. Meanwhile, the story in Herodotus, and subsequent versions with images of the "phoenix rising from the ashes" (and the capital of Arizona), are not attested in Egyptian sources.

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The First Intermediate Period of Egypt

The First Intermediate Period
VII Dynasty,
of Memphis,
"70 Kings in 70 days,"
or "5 Kings in 75 days";
No known historical kings
VIII Dynasty,
of Memphis,
Clayton, 2181-2161;
Lehner, 2150-2134;
Johnson & Petty, 2150-2118
Neferkare I
Neferkare II Neby

Neferkare III Khendu
Neferkare IV Tereru
Neferkauhor I
Neferkare V Pepysonbe

Qakara Ibi

Neferkauhor II Khuihapy 
Neferirkare II2119-
The treatment and dates here are based on Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs [Thames and Hudson, 1994], Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids [Thames and Hudson, 1997], Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1966], Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt [Thames & Husdon, 2004], and Kevin L. Johnson & Bill Petty, The Names of the Kings of Egypt, The Serekhs and Cartouches of Egypt's Pharaohs, along with Selected Queens [Museum Tours Press, Littleton, Colorado, 2011, 2012].

The 30+ year difference between the dates for the Old Kingdom given by Clayton and Lehner originates in the First Intermediate Period, specifically in the X Dynasty. Since so little is known about the First Intermediate Period, while the XII Dynasty is tied fairly securely with astronomical observations, Old Kingdom chronology has always depended on estimates for the First Intermediate Period -- James Henry Breasted, for instance [A History of Egypt, 1905, Bantam Classic, 1964, p.500], estimated the length of the period at 315 years, as opposed to 141 years for Clayton, 110 years for Lehner, and only 77 years for Dodson and Hilton.

Manethô himself, whose figures are often wild exaggerations, only gave 185 years for the X Dynasty -- this implies that he may have had better information about it than for the IX Dynasty, which he put at 409 years (in one version). If five kings are allowed for the X Dynasty, then Clayton has an average of 28.2 years per reign, which is a bit high. Lehner's time for the dynasty only gives an average of 22 years per reign, which is much more in line with the averages previously considered. With only 77 years for both IX (using the attested Kings shown) and X, we only get 7 years each, which could well be reasonable for the period (contrasting with the average of 3 years for Roman Emperors of the Crisis of the Third Century period).

However, the real number of kings is conjectural. For the X Dynasty, Manethô said there were 19 Kings, and the Turin Canon gave 18 (cf. Gardiner, p. 438). Dodson and Hilton supply more names than Clayton and Lehner, and I have added them to the lists. Dodson and Hilton combine the lists for the VII and VIII Dynasties, and for the IX and X Dynasties. I have divided the list for the IX and X Dynasties, perhaps arbitrarily, where Dodson and Hilton break the succession with a "Various" gloss.

Two Kings I have of the X Dynasty, Kaneferre and Meryibre Khety, are missing from Dodson and Hilton but given by Clayton, who also places Merykare before, rather than after, Akhtoy V. The last word about the dynasty, and the Period, therefore may well depend on some discovery to clarify who and how many the historical kings were. Since important items of Egyptian literature apparently date from the X Dynasty, testifying to cultural and literary activity, it is not impossible that something may come to light to clarify the succession. Heracleopolis would not again be a capital of Egypt until the Third Intermediate Period.

Johnson & Petty provide attested names in Egyptian for the Kings. Their note on the VII and VIII Dynasties is "Very little is known of Dynasty 7, and in it may be spurious. There are no kings who can be placed in that dynasty with any certainty" [p.25]. Their note on the IX and X Dynasties is, "This period includes many little-known kings ruling from Herakleopolis whose order is, at best, guesswork" [p.27]. For the Kings named "Khety" or "Akhtoy," the hieroglyphic writing provides no evidence for the initial vowel, which thus may derive from Manethô's Greek writing. His Achthôês is said to have been a very bad king, who was killed by a crocodile.

The traditional view of the First Intermediate Period is that something very bad happened. While that is more than reasonable, the direct evidence for it was thin, and those inclined to scepticism were free to shoot the idea apart. Most easily cited as evidence for bad conditions were texts available from the Middle Kingdom lamenting various obscure calamities, lawlessness, and social upheaval. Among these are the "Admonitions of Ipuwer" and the "Dispute Between a Man and His Ba" (where a man contemplates suicide and argues about it with his ba, , one of the parts of the soul).

For instance, Ipuwer says, "A man goes to plow with his shield...Crime is everywhere...The servant takes what he finds....Lo, women are barren, none conceive...Lo, many dead are buried in the river..." [Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, Miriam Lichtheim, University of California Press, 1973, 1975, pp.150-151]. The translator here, Miriam Lichtheim, thinks that this is a genre, not a report or memory of events, and does point out that some statements, e.g. "Lo, nobles lament, the poor rejoice" [p.151], do not seem consistent with simple anarchy or natural disasters. Actually, they could well be consistent with simple anarchy. Similar laments are found in the "Dispute," e.g. "Hearts are greedy, Everyone robs his comrade's goods...He who should enrage men by his crimes -- He makes everyone laugh <at> his evildoing...Men plunder, Everyone robs his comrade...None are righteous, The land is left to evildoers" [p.167].

While it would be strange if none of these texts are related to any actual events, there is the problem about the cause of such events. Traditionally, there wasn't much to go on. About the best historians might say is that the long reign of Pepi II allowed local nobility to take over, and the fragmentation of the state resulted in the referenced calamities. However, increased power to local nobility would not necessarily have resulted in general lawlessness,
IX Dynasty,
of Heracleopolis, ,
"4 Kings for 100 years,"
or "19 Kings for 409 years"
Johnson & Petty, 2118-2080

Achthôês, Meryibre

Akhtoy, Khety I
Neferkare VI

Akhtoy II
Neferkare Akhtoy III
Mery-? Akhtoy IV
X Dynasty,
of Heracleopolis,
Clayton, 2160-2040;
Lehner, 2134-2040


Akhtoy V
and such nobility would certainly not "lament" or be tolerant of servants robbing their masters. This would generally give the poor no reasons to "rejoice." Why women should become barren is even more incomprehensible.

A new hypothesis about the problems of the First Intermediate Period comes from climate and rainfall indicators. It looks like there was a serious cooling of the atmosphere and a drought affecting Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom. The failure of rainfall (and so of the Nile) is dated to 4200 years before the present -- about 2200 BC, right at the end of the reign of Pepi II by Clayton or Lehner's chronology. It also looks like the Faiyum actually dried up as a result of this, so that all the sediments from the Old Kingdom blew away. Such a dramatic transformation and misfortune has not happened since. The failure of agriculture easily led to the famine, violence, and chaos described in the lamentation texts, confirmed by recent archaeology -- though the rejoicing of the poor still seems a little anomalous if the conditions were those of famine. Nevertheless, the failure of women to conceive can easily be an effect of famine, something that no other explanation can cover.

An extreme distruption is certainly evident in the confused memories and lack of inscriptions or monuments for the VII Dynasty. Indeed, when Manethô says that there are "seventy kings in seventy days," we might wonder just what kinds of documents or texts he is looking at. This is the most extreme disorder in all of Egyptian history. The VIII Dynasty does slightly better, and one small pyramid even gets built; but it looks like the country only really begins to recover under the Heracleopolitan dynasties. Manethô's gloss for the first king of the IX Dynasty, Achthôês, a tyrant killed by a crocodile, looks like a bad start, and there seem to be no known tombs. But this Achthôês must have done something right to get his reign and domain started. Although generally we see the IX credited with following the VIII, it is reasonable to imagine a period of overlap, which would help shorten our estimates of the Period. Things may be getting close to normalcy during the X Dynasty, and the Egyptians have some memory of the Heracleopolitan Kings -- though nothing is like back to normal until the XI Dynasty, whose full restoration of Royal power and authority, with impressive monuments, sounds like nothing so much as the Sui in China. The XII Dynasty is then very much an Egyptian T'ang.

The climate evidence contributes here, as it does elsewhere, to an aspect of history that previously might have been disparaged, as in was in geology, as "catastrophism." That drought may have brought down the Maya and the Old Kingdom, and volcanic eruption the Minoan civilization, means that purely internal and institutional explanations, or invasions, do not have to aways bear the burden of explaining the decline or crises of cultures.

The Eloquent Peasant

If the Heracleopolitan dynasties begin inauspiciously, with a reputed tyrant, they may end with a very different tone. Thus, it is in the late reign of Nebkaure Akhtoy that the events in the "Tale of the Eloquent Peasant" are supposed to have happened.

A peasant, Khunanup (or Khun-Anup -- protected by Anubis, , , the god of embalming), a resident of the Wadi Natrun (the "Field of Salt"), taking to market his goods -- rushes, natron, salt, skins, etc. (most of which we don't know what the words mean) -- with his asses, attracts the attention of a corrupt overseer, Thothnakht (now read as "Nemtinakht"), a vassal of the "high steward" Rensi. Thothnakht covets the peasant's goods, and he has the public path covered with linens (perhaps burial shrouds), forcing the peasant to pass through the adjacent fields. There, one ass bites off some grain, and the overseer seizes all the asses and their loads, beats the peasant, and drives him away with the taunt that "The poor man's name is not pronounced save for his master's sake" -- i.e. the peasant has no protector. In the "Satire of the Trades," we see the assertion, "A peasant is not called a man" [Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, University of California Press, 1973, p.190]. But Khunanup, who, after all, appears to be a particularly prosperous peasant, knows that the master of Thothnakht, the steward Rensi, "restrains every robber throughout the entire land," and asks, "and shall I then be robbed in his own domain?"

After a week (ten days in Egypt) of futile appeals to Thothnakht, the peasant begins petitioning the steward Rensi, who sends someone to investigate. Rensi is advised to require Thothnakht to restore the goods, but without punishment over "a trifle of natron and a trifle of salt." He does not do this, but instead he tolerates petitions directly from the peasant exhorting him to administer , truth and justice. Otherwise he maintains a silent and aloof countenance.

Now, the lack of response from Rensi is consistence with Egyptian ideals of dispassionate judgment. The repeated remonstrations of the peasant, however, might strike readers of many subsequent ages as sometimes disrespectful -- as when a modern juror might voice Constitutional concerns to a judge and be asked "Have you been to law school?" i.e. a mere citizen, whose rights the Constitution protects, has no standing without a credential from the ruling class, i.e. from those whose sophistry reinterprets the Constitution, or ignores it, for their own interest and advantage, and often have little but contempt for regular citizens. The situation of the Eloquent Peasant is not unusual in the modern courtroom.

However, the Egyptians knew that justice was a divine power (natural law), not an earthly document, and they seem to have loved this story about the peasant, which survives in four copies (none of which is complete, but they overlap and cover each other's lacunae). Khunanup rebukes the steward:

Thou wast approinted to hear pleas, to decide between suitors, to repress the brigand; and behold, what thou dost is to support the thief. One puts faith in thee, and thou art become a transgressor. Thou wast set for a dam unto the poor man, take heed lest he drown; behold, thou art a swift current to him. [Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, Harper Torchbooks, 1948, 1961, p.150]

Rensi regarded this sort of thing as disrespectful enough that Khunanup did earn a beating, , but he was not discouraged or daunted. As a peasant, he was probably used to getting beaten anyway. The many petitions, nine in all, contained in the story, which might seem to go a bit far, may have been a large part of its appeal. Without the vowels for Egyptian, it is frustrating not to be able to get the full effect of what the Egyptians apparently regarded as classic, elevated, and beautiful moral and political rhetoric.

Even so, we can get some sense of the poetry of these petitions:

When you go down to the Lake of Ma'at [i.e. M39t],
You will sail on it with a good wind.
No part of your sail will be torn,
Nor will your ship stall,
No disaster will befall your mast
Nor break your yards.
You will not be too powerful[?],
Nor will you run aground.
You will not be carried away by a wave;
You will not taste the evil of the river.
You will not behold fear.
Darting fish will come to you.
You will catch fat birds.
For you are a father to the orphan,
A husband to the widow,
A brother to the divorced,
And a cloak to the one who is not a mother.
[Loren R. Fisher, The Eloquent Peasant, Cascade Books, Eugene Oregon, 2015, p.13; see the discussion elsewhere of the clues to the pronunciation of "Ma'at."]

Here we get images, drawn from the extensive experience of Egyptians in boats on the Nile, of the good effects of following Truth and Justice -- a bit like the assertion of the Tao Te Ch'ing that "sweet dew will fall" [Verse 72]. But it's not all just poety. The last four lines touch on the duties of the those charged with administering justice, which interestingly reflect confessions made in the Book of the Dead by those being judged in the Afterlife.

The steward Rensi has recognized the quality of the peasant's appeal, and after just one petition, he calls the attention of King Nebkaure, , to the case. The King instructs Rensi to continue to entertain the appeals, saying nothing in reply, while recording the (oral) petitions -- the peasant himself is certainly illiterate -- reporting everything to him, and secretly caring for the peasant's family, and for the peasant himself. Rensi and the King both enjoy the repeated statements of "the eternal foundation of righteousness" (as Calvin Coolidge put it). King Nebkaure will also be remembered in Egyptian literature for his "Instructions for King Merikare," his son, , on the duties and public benefits of Kingship. Both documents, long treasured by the Egyptians, thus attribute substantial wisdom to this one Heracleopolitan King. In the end, the King orders Rensi to render justice, and he does, restoring all Khunanup's possessions, and more, and appropriately punishing Thothnakht -- whose possessions and perhaps even his position (the text is corrupt) are given to Khunanup, a peasant no longer.

Loren Fisher gives us three lines in Egyptian with his translation. The small dots before "k" and "s" indicate that these are pronominal suffixes, used to inflect verbs, as the objects of prepositions, or as possessive pronouns. The "she" here is the lion goddess Sekhmet, , and the peasant, of course, is addressing Rensi:

If you have nothing, she has nothing.

If she has nothing, there is nothing for you.

If you do not do it, it is not done.

Later we will see some lion gods in relation to the city of Leontopolis. Here Khunanup is reproaching Rensi again, belaboring him for being greedy, unkind, and not unlike destructive gods, such as the crocodile god Khenty, , or Sekhmet, who can slaughter enemies, bring plagues, etc. -- which is why we see her in Fisher's translation as the "Lady of Pestilence."

Nevertheless, it is not clear to me exactly what Kunanup is saying here. There seems to be an identity asserted between Rensi and the goddess, such that a loss or lack in one is reflected in the other. Fisher also finds this puzzling, but the context is the comparison of the destructive course of Rensi, in neglecting justice, to that of the violent goddess. The final line, however, assigns to Rensi the task of correction, which indeed is the exhortation.

We get a fair idea from many sources of Egyptian ideals of justice and of the obligations of rulers. The "Eloquent Peasant" is a sterling example; and we leave the First Intermediate Period with a literary arc from the lamentations of the early texts to an exemplary text on what good government and the administration of justice should be like, with the addition of the "Instructions" to King Merykare. With this preparation, the Egyptians may have been about ready for the "Good Shepherd" Kings of the XII Dynasty.

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