The Early Dynastic Period

Narmer’s triumph did not put an immediate end to conflict. There were many periods of localized warfare. Forces from the north and south clashed. For awhile, the two lands continued to think of themselves as separate kingdoms. Narmer, who was from Ta-Shomu, may have married a Ta-Mehu princess to establish his right to rule the north. Throughout Egyptian his- tory, many kings chose wives to strengthen their ties to the royal family or to cement a political or diplomatic relationship.

Second Dynasty king Khasekhemwy also married a northern princess. This period, known as the Early Dynastic Period, covers 375 years of what Egyptologists have named Dynasties 0 to 3 (3000 B.C.E.–2625 B.C.E.). Most information about the Early Dynastic Period comes from royal tombs at Abydos, and tombs of nobles at Saqqara. The few items missed by tomb robbers show that arts and crafts were already highly advanced. Early kings wanted to be assured of plenty of help and compan- ionship in the afterlife. When they died, servants and family members were killed and buried with them. First Dynasty king Djer was buried with more than 300 people.

This cruel, wasteful practice was abandoned by the end of the First Dynasty.  The population was growing rapidly, reaching an estimated 1 million by the end of the Second Dynasty. One of the king’s most important roles was to increase food production by extending irrigation systems and reclaiming land for farming. Land was reclaimed for farms, towns, and cities using dams and drainage canals. First Dynasty king Hor-Aha founded the capital city of Memphis on land reclaimed from the Nile. Memphis (which means “white walls”), at the southern tip of the Nile Delta, became one of the ancient world’s greatest cities.

Artistic, cultural, religious, and political traditions were established during the Early Dynastic Period that persisted throughout Egypt’s history. At Memphis, a highly centralized, bureaucratic government was soon in place and growing fast. The government employed legions of scribes, tax collectors, accountants, engineers, and architects. Specialists oversaw trade, irrigation, and drainage, and the distribution and storage of food. Scribes, whose job was to write down all important records, quickly converted from cumbersome hieroglyphics, based on pictures, to speedier hieratic script (a kind of hieroglyphic shorthand).

They wrote on sheets or rolls of papyrus, made from the fiber of the papyrus plant, which was already in wide use by Narmer’s time. Accountants and engineers had all the basic mathematical and surveying skills they needed to determine property boundaries and calculate crop yields. The 365-day calendar was in place. A system of weights and measures simplified trade and tax collection. Artists and craftsmen started using standardized proportion grids for depicting objects and people. Before beginning to paint or carve, the artist drew a grid of horizontal and vertical lines of predetermined size and spacing on his work surface (a tomb wall, for example).

Depending upon the rank and social position of the person being depicted, he or she was made a specific size in relation to the other figures in the composition. Also, each figure had to be structured in a specific way—a person was a certain number of “heads” tall, the legs were a certain length in relation to the torso, and so on. These very specific relationships were established early on and artisans seldom deviated from them. These conventions and proportions had deep religious, magical, cultural, and social significance. (There is more information about artistic conventions in chapter 6.)

The arts of pottery and stonework were highly advanced. There is evidence of roof beams, joists, and large doors made of cedar wood, in- dicating ongoing trade with Lebanon, which is on the Mediterranean coast more than 200 miles northeast of Egypt. Articles of ebony and ivory show that trade with Nubia, in north-central Africa south of Egypt, was well-established. Trade goods that came through the southerly routes from Nubia originated in Nubia itself, and from the peoples of the Sudan and of equatorial and sub-Saharan Africa.

Lapis lazuli ornaments show that Egyptian traders were also benefitting from a long-distance trade network that brought in gemstones and other luxury goods from as far as central Asia. The stage was set for a spectacular flowering of culture. Early Third Dynasty kings faced serious internal political problems and could not yet afford to concentrate on tomb-building. They granted large estates, herds, and rich gifts to trusted nobles who promised to keep the provinces quiet. These nobles enjoyed enormous local power and prestige, setting up a dangerous pattern repeated throughout the dynastic era: powerful local nobles becoming too wealthy and independent.

Besides putting down internal squabbles, kings were also busy obtaining reliable supplies of the industrial materials they needed and the luxury goods they craved. Third Dynasty kings began extensive mining in the Sinai Peninsula, especially for copper and turquoise. Keeping the mines open often meant military action against local Bedouin tribes. Keeping prized gold flowing north from Nubian mines was a prob- lem faced by kings throughout the dynastic era. Third Dynasty king  Djoser extended the boundary of Upper Egypt to the first cataract at Aswan to help secure the southern trade routes. Djoser’s success at managing internal affairs let him turn attention to his tomb.

He wanted to do something different, and had just the man to do it: his brilliant vizier (chief official), Imhotep. Imhotep designed the world’s first pyramid, the Step Pyramid, at Saqqara. The Step Pyramid is a stack of successively smaller mastabas (the Arabic word for “bench”; it is a small, oblong tomb with sloping sides and a flat roof) piled atop one another. It measures 467 feet by 393 feet, and is 200 feet tall. It was the first all-stone building in the world.

Photo of New Kingdom kings

The new kingdom period of Egypt is the period between the 16th century BC and the 11th century BC .The expulsion of the Hyksos, began during the late 17th Dynasty by Seqenenre or by Kamose and completed by 18th Dynasty monarch Ahmose in 1522, was the start of a series of conquests that would bring Egypt peace and prosperity. This was finally accomplished by Ahmose I, who reunited Egypt, ushering in the New Kingdom the third great era of Egyptian culture.