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Early Dynastic Period of Ancient Egypt

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Egyptians lived in one of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world, but how did this happen? In this lesson, explore the origins of Egyptian civilization, and see how it paved the way for a mighty empire to arise.

Early Dynastic Period

Everyone has to start somewhere. Even great empires were once little more than simple kingdoms. Just look at ancient Egypt--despite growing to become a mighty empire, Egypt began as two small kingdoms that didn't really get along. It wasn't until the Early Dynastic Period that these warring kingdoms were unified under a single ruler and the first glimpses of what would become Egyptian culture started to emerge. Between roughly 3150 and 2613 BCE, the rulers of the this period laid the foundations for what would become one of the strongest powers of the ancient world.

The Unification of Upper and Lower Egypt

Prior to roughly 3150 BCE, the Nile River was divided between two kingdoms. To the north was the kingdom of Lower Egypt, while the south was held by the kingdom of Upper Egypt. The king of Lower Egypt wore curved red crown with a protruding spiral, while the king of Upper Egypt wore a tall, narrow white crown. They were different people, with different crowns and different cultures.

So, how were these two kingdoms unified? The honest answer is that we don't know for sure. Since there was no unified Egyptian civilization, there was no true system of Egyptian writing yet. However, we have some clues. Right before the Early Dynastic Period there was a mysterious ruler who we call Scorpion II, thanks to the number of scorpion symbols associated with him. In the 19th century, archeologists found a macehead with an image of the king wearing the tall white crown of Upper Egypt. However, another macehead was later found showing this mysterious scorpion king wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt.

Was Scorpion II responsible for the first efforts to unify Egypt? Possibly, but tradition had identified the king who actually accomplished this as Menes. Archaeologists now believe that Menes was actually the king named Narmer. Narmer was a king of Upper Egypt, who took his armies and moved north, finally conquering Lower Egypt around 3150 BCE and creating, for the first time, a unified Egyptian kingdom.

The First Dynasty: Creating Egyptian Culture

What Narmer created was Egypt's First Dynasty, lasting from roughly 3150 to 2890 BCE--the first line of hereditary kings to rule all the people of the Nile valley. Narmer was succeeded by his son Hor-Aha, who was followed by his son Djer, then his son Djet. Djet's wife, Merneith, ruled Egypt when he died, making her the first female sole monarch of the kingdom, and their son, Den, went on to be the greatest king of the dynasty.

Image from the tomb of Den. Den was the first pharaoh to wear the double crown, which combined the red and white crowns of Lower and Upper Egypt into one
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Narmer and his heirs expanded the borders of the kingdom and developed complex systems of infrastructure to keep it all running smoothly. They also used their power to organize massive workforces and build new urban centers along the Nile. Congregating so many people in these cities helped unify Egyptian culture as well, and the famous Egyptian aesthetic was developed, as were the first true examples of the Egyptian hieroglyphic written language.

The results can be seen in one of the most famous artifacts of this time: the Narmer Palette. Roughly dated to the 31st century BCE (ranging from during Narmer's time to one hundred years after his reign), this stone tablet is believed to show the unification of Egypt under Narmer. On one side, we see the king wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. On the reverse side, Narmer wears the white crown of Upper Egypt. However, there are other subtle symbols of Egyptian unification on here as well. For one, this is the oldest example of the traditional Egyptian aesthetic, depicting a style of art that is a hallmark of unified Egyptian culture and was maintained with little change for millennia. Additionally, some of the oldest Egyptian hieroglyphics are found on the Narmer Palette, again indicating that Egyptian culture was in the full stages of development by this time.

The Narmer Palette
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