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Chapter 11 Chapter 13

Egyptian Origins (12)
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Crushing All Opposition

Let us return to the separate populations living along the Nile and apparently associated with their totemic emblems. [Note 13] The similarity from one group to another in the poles and animal heads suggests that they participated in a single system of cultural symbols. Although they may have been highly competitive with each other, they would probably have been more or less similarly organized, whatever the organization was. The continuation of these same animals as symbols of the historic "nomes" suggests the same thing. It also suggests that the basis of differentiation was probably geography: position along the river. But the biggest difference seems to have been the world of Lower Egypt and the world of Upper Egypt.

Throughout Egyptian history, Pharaohs were described as ruling the "two lands" of Upper and Lower Egypt, and there are several pairs of symbols used in royal art to represent this: Papyrus was Upper Egypt, lotus Lower Egypt; vulture was Upper Egypt, cobra Lower Egypt; the sedge plant was Upper Egypt, the bee Lower Egypt. And so on. It is as though the two parts, however homogeneous each became internally, perpetually resisted the final step of full unification with each other.

Recognizing the difficulty of the final unification of the ecologically dissimilar Upper and Lower Egypts, Jill Kamil, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, developed a model (1984) in which the unification of the Egypt took place not in a single battle, but over about a century. Scorpion's mace head, she argued, was clearly a commemoration of military triumph, but probably not the successful unification of the Two Lands. And Narmer's palette might have represented more wishful thinking than historical reality.

Unification and Its Discontents. When unification finally did occur, it was not without its tensions, many of them visible to us in the continuing manipulation of symbols representing local interests. Most of the gods of the Egyptian pantheon seem to have had local affiliations, and initially every act of temple building or recounting of a myth encoded a claim of priority by one nome over another.

Narmer and Hor-Aha were of course, from Upper Egypt. Hor-Aha symbolized the union of the two major parts of the country by locating Memphis at the juncture point. One of the fragmentary king lists suggests that Hor-Aha's successor Djer founded a temple to a northern goddess at the town of Saïs in the Delta, presumably less as an act of piety than as a political gesture to show that the king loved northerners even though he was from Upper Egypt. The goal would have been to create a sense of common identity throughout Egypt. (When the second dynasty fell apart, it appears to have done so, like the USSR or Yugoslavia or modern Iraq, over the failure of this sense of united interests to occur.)

Recognizing how fragile the union was, First Dynasty kings created separate northern and southern versions of everything: granaries, advisory boards, treasuries. The early kings even appear to have had two tombs, one near Memphis and the other near Abydos (AH-be-dose) in Upper Egypt. [Note 14] Hor-Aha's palace at Memphis even seems to have had two separate entrances, one for each of the Two Lands (Kamil 1984: 31).

We glimpse more of the tension in a couple of bizarre name changes by two Pharaohs of the Second Dynasty. By the Second Dynasty, Horus was apparently firmly associated with Lower Egypt (despite his earlier association with Nekhen in Upper Egypt), and Seth, his enemy, had emerged from being the patron of Naqada, a competitor to Nekhen, to become a symbol for Upper Egypt. Pharaoh Sekhem-ib ("powerful of heart"), the fourth Pharaoh of that house, changed his name to Per-ib-sen ("hope of all hearts") and on his tomb in Abydos he replaced the falcon of Horus atop the serekh with a jackal representing Seth. [Note 15] One possibility is that the followers of Seth (Upper Egypt) had become so powerful that Per-ib-sen had no choice; another is that this was a desperate diplomatic move to appease them as they complained about Lower Egyptian dominance.


His successor apparently had the opposite problem and had to appease the Lower Egyptians; he married a Lower Egyptian woman, but then, perhaps seeking to stress that Egypt was a single entity, took the throne name Khase-khemwy ("the two powerful ones appear") and had both Horus and Seth atop his official serekh. [Note 16] We know about the serekh changes because a few fragments of inscriptions survive with serekhs on them. We will never know what other, more important measures may have been part of the same policies that changed the serekhs.

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