The emergence of cities in ancient Egypt was linked to the development of agriculture and the emergence of the state as the unifying and predominant form of political organization. By 3500 BCE, towns and cities consisted of large regional capitals linked to the capitals of smaller administrative districts. Since Greek times, the provinces are known as nomes, ruled by nomarchs. During the New Kingdom, the Egyptian word for “city” was nἰwt, a term that, in the earliest texts of the first dynasty, referred to “settlement.” The term for a “town” or large village is dmἰ, as known from the fifth dynasty. The term for “village,” with an etymology related to “household,” is wḥyt. The domain of Thebes as a city included the town of Western Thebes and smaller villages belonging to the town. The term grgt, used since the third dynasty, referred to settlements associated with agricultural estates and those established for a special purpose. There are also the two terms ḥwt and pr, both often used to mean “house,” that designated an estate or a domain, including a planned settlement, agricultural land, and other nearby resources; these served as sources of revenue to the royal palace (as an institution), the cult of a god, the cult of the king, or, in some circumstances, the cult of a high official.

Knowledge about Egyptian cities (and settlements in general) is limited. Settlements and cities were located on the floodplain, with a preference for proximity to the Nile, in order to receive goods by boat. Since the preferred building material was local Nile mud, throughout pharaonic times, shifts in the course of the Nile, aggradation (the build-up of the floodplain by the annual deposition of silt), and the impact of high Nile floods has led to the destruction, obliteration, and/or burial of riverside settlements. In addition, instead of settlements, archaeological investigations since the nineteenth century have focused on temples and tombs, with their rich and spectacular art, sculpture, and architecture. Memphis, the quintessential capital of Egypt, on the western bank of the Nile only 20 kilometers (13 miles) south of the center of modern Cairo, is almost completely obliterated; however, recent investigations using new techniques of subsurface prospecting are beginning to piece together the complex history of the city. They show that the site was moved eastward in response to invasions by sand dunes and a shift in the course of the Nile. The capital city of Thebes (which at times rivaled Memphis in its power), situated in the area now occupied by Luxor, remains unknown except for the data from its temples and monuments, and from some limited excavations. During the Middle Kingdom, Thebes created a mound of some 1000 by 500 meters (3,200 by 1,600 feet). The city was laid on a grid plan and was surrounded by a wall about 6 meters (20 feet) thick. The Middle Kingdom temple town seems to have been leveled at the beginning of the New Kingdom, to accommodate the creation of the Great Temple complex of Karnak, with a new residential area and suburbs that probably spread as far as 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the city center.

Situated at a fairly safe distance from the vagaries of high Nile floods, a village of workers at Deir el-Medina, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Thebes, provides a glimpse at the organization of a specialized village—and possibly a useful, albeit distorted, view of village life. Another workers' village was discovered at Illahun on the eastern end of the twelfth dynasty pyramid complex of Senwosret. The town was later occupied by officials in charge of this king's mortuary cult. A third workers' village, found at Tell el-Amarna, was associated with the new city of Akhetaten founded by the heretic king Akhenaten. Built by Akhenaten in Middle Egypt, on the edge of the desert to the east of the Nile, it provides the clearest indication of the plan and construction of a royal capital city. The new city was associated with a new religious ideology that was antithetical to the main Theban dogma, associated with the worship of Amon. Inasmuch as the city was a result of deliberate planning and the seat of a new ideology, how representative it is as an example of Egyptian national capitals is difficult to ascertain. Most likely, it is representative of the formula of a royal city—with a palace, separate administrative and religious complexes, residential quarters, suburbs, and a village for workmen.

Tell ed-Dabʿa, a town in the northeastern Nile Delta, was the residential site of Egyptianized Canaanites and Delta elite administrators. The town was possibly established on the site of an earlier estate, at the beginning of the twelfth dynasty, as a royal estate of Amenemhet I. The town, which became the capital city of Egypt under the Near Eastern Hyksos dynasty, from 1585 to 1532 BCE, perhaps owed its prominence to trade with the coastal Levant and the administration of mining activities in the Sinai. Later, during the Ramessid era, the new capital of Piramesse was relocated to the vicinity of Avaris, the Hyksos capital. During the Third Intermediate Period, another castle was established at Tanis, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) north of Piramesse. Sais, one of the earliest prominent settlements of the Delta, and situated on one of the western branches of the Nile (currently the Rosetta branch), became a powerful capital during the Late period. Under the Ptolemies, the port city of Alexandria—founded by Alexander the Great on the Mediterranean, northwest of Sais—became Egypt's capital until the Arab invasion of the seventh century CE, when al-Fustat, the precursor to medieval Cairo, was founded on the Nile. Today, Cairo is a metropolitan conglomerate that has sprawled to encompass all previous settlements founded by Islamic rulers, as well as many of the older villages in its vicinity. Cairo has also expanded to include some new settlements in the desert, to its east and north.

The cities of ancient Egypt—their locations, functions, and organizations—are related to various dynamics that shaped the course of Egyptian civilization, including both internal and external forces. The earliest towns and settlements were related to trade, cult centers, and the emergence of administrative districts. For example, Maadi was related to trade with the Near East; the prosperity and prominence of Hierakonpolis was probably a result of trade with Nubia; Naqada might originally have been a political-religious center; Buto was perhaps a religious center transformed through maritime trade to a trade center, then to a capital of a polity. Other towns might have developed as defensive settlements.

The rise of the Egyptian managerial and governing elite was associated with religious ideology, ritual, and mythology. The ideology was predicated upon a principle that linked the chief—afterwards the king—to a mortuary cult. The cult developed with the rise of kings and a religious creed, which linked the king to a family of gods and to a deceased god-king, who had been the first king of Egypt. Royal cemeteries served as the material manifestation of the divine ancestry of the king and were thus associated with centers of royal power. In Predynastic times, the emergence of social stratification was marked by the establishment of special burial grounds for the elite adjacent to their towns. Thus a royal necropolis at Saqqara was associated with the first national capital of Egypt at Memphis. The Pyramid of Pepy I in the necropolis at Saqqara (mn-nfr, meaning “established and beautiful”) gave its name to a royal city, which was called in Greek Memphis, in Arabic, Menf. The location of Memphis—near the apex of the Nile Delta, intermediate between the capitals of southern Egypt and the Delta—represented the role of kingship, establishing a central focus for the emerging nation-state that unified both regions. The position of Memphis also provided the king with a strategic control of the Delta and southern Egypt, at least as far south as Abydos. The possibility thus existed for developing additional centers of power (administrative, religious, or defensive) in outlying regions, either by the ruling sovereign (to consolidate his power) or by his opponents.

Abydos—situated to the north of Naqada and Hierakonpolis, where towns were established as capitals of powerful Predynastic polities in Upper Egypt—was probably the center of operations. It was the locus of a proto-national power that commanded parts of the Delta two centuries before the emergence of the first dynasty. A royal necropolis of the kings of this transitional stage (c.3300–3000 BCE) remained as a significant religious establishment well after the emergence of Memphis and its necropolis. It is also now agreed (but not conclusively established) that the kings of the first dynasty were buried at Abydos; their officials and nobles were buried at Saqqara. By the second dynasty, kings were buried at Saqqara, at a location now under the temple of Unas; however, the last two kings of the second dynasty, Peribsen and Khasekhemwy, were buried at Abydos. Following the First Intermediate Period, a time when centralized government collapsed, the reunification of Egypt was achieved by a family from Upper Egypt who established their dynastic rule at Thebes. Situated beyond the reach of the kings of the Delta (when the unity of Egypt came unglued) or from foreign invaders at the fringes of the Delta (as during the New Kingdom), Thebes proved to be a center of considerable power. During the New Kingdom's eighteenth dynasty, Thebes rivaled Memphis as an administrative and religious center.

Religion was always an important element of (theocratic) Egyptian kingship. The pharaohs were supported by a religious establishment that maintained the mortuary cults and the ceremonies central to the legitimization of their divine rule. Religion was also used for economic and political advantage, and it was used at times to undermine the rule of certain kings. During the New Kingdom, the establishment of Akhetaten as a center of a new religion might well have represented a threat to the power of the Theban priests, who had benefitted immensely from land donations and tax reduction. Akhenaten's reign and religion were, however, short-lived, and his city was abandoned. Also during the New Kingdom, Egypt was drawn to military conflicts with its Near Eastern neighbors. Although Memphis and Thebes remained the important religious and administrative centers, it became necessary to establish a frontier capital on the eastern edge of the Delta. The erosion of Egypt's centralized power—as a result of a series of wars and internal conflicts between rival religious and regional powers—not only led, during the Third Intermediate Period, to a split between Upper Egypt (ruled by the high priests of Amun at Thebes) and the Delta (ruled by northern kings at Tanis) but also, during the Late period, to its subdivision into several kingdoms. During the Late period, Egypt's last nationalist pharaohs managed to rule from the western edge of the Delta, from one of the religious centers at Sais.

With Egypt's conquest by the Macedonian, Alexander the Great, his port city of Alexandria was established to link Egypt with Greece and the Hellenistic world—a period that lasted almost a thousand years before the Arab bearers of Islam took Egypt in 643 CE. Alexandria was then neglected by them in favor of settlements on the eastern bank of the Nile, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) northeast of the ancient capital of Memphis; the new capitals, from Al-Fustat to Al-Qahira (Cairo), were located in a position that linked them via a land-bridge to the power base of the caliphs in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Earliest Urban Centers.

Until c.5000 BCE, the inhabitants of the Nile Valley were foragers who practiced fishing, fowling, hunting, and collecting wild plants. The first known farming community then occupied a site at the edge of the floodplain of the Nile Delta at Merimda Beni Salama, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the northwest of Cairo. The village was large, about 180,000 square meters (1.9 million square feet), and was populated for a thousand years, until about 4000 BCE, when clusters of semisubterranean huts were built from mud, with walls and floors mud-plastered. (The earliest dwellings had been windbreaks and various light constructions.) Merimde had residential areas interspersed with workshops and public areas. The orientation of huts in rows suggests the emergence of some organizational order, but there is no indication of elite areas or any pronounced hierarchical organization. Although initial estimates of occupants were around 16,000, investigations of several Predynastic settlements and comparisons with later urban settlements suggest a more likely size of 1,300 to 2,000 persons, if the whole area was simultaneously occupied.

By 3500 BCE, a settlement at Maadi, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) to the south of Cairo, was established as a trade center. The site shows evidence of huts, storage magazines, silos, and cellars. Maadi was the end of an overland trade route to Palestine and was probably occupied by middlemen from the Levant, as indicated by the house and grave patterns. Trade items included copper and bitumen from southwest Asia, and artifacts that show affinities with Upper Egypt suggest that Maadi was a trade link between Upper Egypt and the Levant. The size of the settlement was similar to that of Merimde Beni Salama. At about the same time in the Nile Valley, the two towns of Hierakonpolis and Naqada became much larger than the neighboring villages. Hierakonpolis consisted of an area of about 50,000 square meters (536,000 square feet), comparable in area to South Town in the Naqada region. Investigations of Hierakonpolis revealed that occupied areas shifted in a northeasterly direction, suggesting that older areas were abandoned and used for disposal. The inhabited area of the town was probably between 50,000 and 100,000 square meters, with perhaps no more than 1,500 to 2,000 persons. Prehistoric sites in the Nile Valley varied in size from as little as 16 square meters (170 square feet) to as much as 30,000 square meters (321,600 square feet). The largest sites probably represent repeated occupations, with lateral displacement through time. By contrast, the towns of Predynastic Egypt were the result of permanent occupation with a vertical build-up of deposits, a pattern also seen in the Predynastic villages at Naqada.

Before the emergence of South Town in the Naqada region, the area was dotted with small villages and hamlets, on the desert margin, at the edge of the floodplain. Dating to about 3800 BCE, the villages, spaced about two kilometers (1.3 miles) apart, consisted of flimsy huts of wattle and daub. By 3600 BCE, one of those villages developed into a town. No other villages at the edge of the desert are known from that time. Some of the rural population was incorporated into the emerging urban center, and a low Nile flood level caused some shifting of village communities closer to the river. South Town probably developed into an urban settlement because of its association with a religious cult and a shrine; if the custodians of the shrine were also involved in mediating community conflicts, the shrine became a center for solidarity among the villages, which were probably organized by kin-related lineages and clans. The custodians may also have been responsible for overseeing food exchanges and trade transactions among the villages, as well as between the villagers and the nomads of the Eastern Desert. The desert dwellers provided the Naqadans with desirable minerals and rocks from the Red Sea Hills, some of which included the much coveted gold and copper. Naqada established trade with Hierakonpolis, as well, where the development of an urban center was probably most related to its trade with Nubia and the Near East via Maadi; boats were used for river transport and donkeys were used for overland travel.

From 3500 to 3300 BCE, a decline in the Nile flood discharge and an increase in the demands for trade goods by expanding urban dwellers led to the integration of neighboring communities into large political units—territorial chiefdoms and petty kingdoms—as well as sporadic warfare. Fortified walled cities soon emerged, such as those depicted on the Libyan Palette. Each became associated with a mascot, or a territorial standard (similar to symbols, totems, or signifiers of tribal and ethnic groups). The political unrest and conflict did not lead to the emergence of city-states, as in Mesopotamia, perhaps because of the linear arrangement and limitations of the Nile floodplain. Instead, the course of Nile Valley urbanization followed a political transformation that led by about 3200 BCE, to the emergence of some subnational unity and, by 3000 BCE, to the unification of all the administrative districts under a single theocratic dynasty.

The kings of Egypt's first dynasty established their capital at Memphis, on the Nile, and by consolidating their power diminished the possibility of the rise of rival urban centers. A royal ideology was developed that bonded all the districts to the person of the king, rather than to any given territory. Some of the most powerful local deities were included in a cosmogony that removed them from their local political districts, to be embedded in an Egyptian cosmic space. The king was identified with a falcon god, Horus, who was the emblem for both Hierakonpolis and Behdet (which perhaps reflected their mutual affinity as trade partners). Horus, as the living king, was regarded as the son of the deity Osiris, who was regarded as the “real” first king of Egypt. Osiris was worshiped at Leopolis, Heliopolis, Memphis, Herakleopolis, Hermopolis, Busiris, and Abydos. The sanctuary at Busiris (Djedu) is mentioned in invocations formulae found in Old Kingdom courtiers' tombs. The cult center of Osiris at Abydos (Ibdju) is one of the oldest sanctuaries of the god and the most important. The wife of Osiris was Isis. Seth, a deity from Upper Egypt (Naqada), was amalgamated into the brother of Osiris. His wife, Nephthys, was Isis' sister. These divine personages were linked to a creator god Atum from Heliopolis in the Delta, in later times, the creator god was substituted by, or amalgamated with, Re (a sun god), Ptah, and Amun. Amalgamations and substitutions also affected Horus and Osiris. Various local gods and goddesses were introduced into religious rituals, ceremonies, and syntheses, and some became cosmic deities. (For example, Hathor—who might have been the “original” mother of Horus—was replaced with Isis.) Neith, the goddess of the city of Sais, became the “Lady of Lower Egypt”; Nekhbet of the city of Nekheb became the “Lady of Upper Egypt”; thus the two goddesses were called the “Two Mighty Ones,” the tutelary goddesses of unified Egypt.

The association of kingship with a royal cosmogonic ideology created a theocratic conjunction of palace, temple, and tomb. The royal residence was associated with restricted cemeteries and temples. Temples, following a standardized plan, signaled the centralized authority of the king. The largest temples were associated with the royal capitals at Memphis, Thebes, Piramesse, and for a short time, Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna). A major temple also existed at Heliopolis, the center of the royal cosmogony. At Karnak in Thebes, the temple of Amun-Re covered an area of some 30,000 square meters (321,000 square feet). Small temples were in the range of 1,000 to 1,500 square meters (10,720 to 16,080 square feet), whereas village temples were in the range of 150 to 200 square meters (1,608 to 2,144 square feet), with a national total of approximately two thousand temples. Some fourteen hundred villages then existed in ancient Egypt (compared with 956 in Egypt following the mid-seventh-century Arab conquest to 1,785 during the reign of Mohammed Ali Pasha, at the beginning of the nineteenth century).

The Urban Population.

Egypt had some seventeen cities and twenty-four towns in an administrative network that linked them to the national capital. The urban population of Egypt may be estimated at 100,000 to 200,000 persons. The populations of provincial capitals and towns were fairly small, ranging from 1,400 to 3,000 persons. Kahun, Edfu, Hierakonpolis, and Abydos, would have been populated by 2,200, 1,800, 1,400, and 900 inhabitants, respectively. As the national capital during the New Kingdom, the population of Tell el-Amarna was about 20,000 to 30,000 persons. The populations of the older capitals, Memphis and Thebes, probably reached 30,000 to 40,000 at their peaks of occupation. (Population estimates for the cities of Mesopotamia include the following: 24,000 for Ur in the late fourth millennium; 34,000 in the third millennium.)

Egyptian towns and cities were not urban in the modern sense, perhaps similar to today's provincial Egyptian towns, which have an unmistakable rural aspect to them. The towns consisted not only of urban dwellers but also of rural people, such as farmers and herdsmen (who went out to the countryside daily), as well as the artisans, scribes, priests, tax-collectors, servants, guards, soldiers, entertainers, and shopkeepers. The kings, the nobles, and the temples possessed estates that employed a variety of personnel. Citizens not dependent on a great lord or an institution lived either in cities or on their own farms outside the cities. In New Kingdom Egypt, towns commanded a district (sp't); that included, in addition to the major town, some satellite towns and villages and a rural hinterland supervised by a town mayor and a supervisor of the fields, who was assisted by a councilor of the rural district. The district was in charge of the local temples and the collection of revenues, as well as the general maintenance of the basin irrigation system, accounting, the registration of land claims, and other economic and legal transactions. Cities and towns had not only palaces, mansions, and temples but also the humble dwellings of the functionaries and peasants and workshops, granaries, storage magazines, shops, and local markets—all the institutions of residential urban life.

Cities and Power.

Regardless of their size, towns and cities were centers of power. In towns, the ruling elite (which included the priests, not just nobles) provided the fabric of the state ideology, as well the administration of major economic and legal affairs. Taxes were collected and transmitted to the royal house. Taxes were imposed on agricultural products, nonagricultural products, individuals, and officials. A vizier—sometimes two viziers, one for Upper Egypt and another for Lower Egypt—oversaw the collection taxes in the districts. The transport of taxes and all goods depended on donkeys and on Nile boats.

A royal capital.

Of all the capitals of ancient Egypt, the archaeology of Tell el-Amarna provides the best information about the structure and organization of Egypt's principal seat of power. The city district was some 16 by 13 kilometers (10 by 8 miles), as marked by boundary stelae. The central part of the city was at the waterfront. The city commanded a large cultivable area that could support as many as 25,000 farmers and 15,000 nonfarming inhabitants. The actual population of Akhetaten was perhaps closer to 20,000—but with offerings, tribute, and taxes from distant lands, a much large population could have been supported. Tell el-Amarna comprised three cities: northern, southern, and central, with the king's house as its center. The North City contained a riverside palace, with massive fortified walls, perhaps the principal royal residence. Storehouses, barracks, and other buildings filled the courtyard space between the palace and the wall. A road, the royal avenue, connected the three cities. Across the road from the palace in the North City, were the residences of the court and high officials. Warehouses, granaries, and administrative offices extended to the north of the North City, which nestled under a cliff that was both imposing and well defended.

To the south of the North City stood a palace for the eldest princess. Beyond this palace was the Northern Suburb, consisting of private houses; it was bordered on the south by the Central City, with a prominent Great Palace, intended for royal receptions, public occasions, and religious display. The Great Palace was adjacent to two temples, one of which was the Great Temple of Aten. To its south stretched a residential suburb with a large stone temple; the residential areas consisted of interconnected “villages.” The plans of the houses were uniform, consisting of domestic areas, granaries, animal byres, gardens, shrines, and workshops. The households were not secluded townhouses but were practically farm houses serving as centers for the storage, handling, and processing of farm products.

A pyramid town.

Settlements existed where priests and others were responsible for the rituals and observances related to the mortuary cult of the king. One of the Middle Kingdom pyramid towns is Illahun (Kahun), at the eastern end of the pyramid complex of Senwosret II, on the southeastern edge of the Faiyum Depression. The town is at the edge of the desert, adjacent to the valley temple of the pyramid, a large square settlement, some 384 meters (1,200 feet) on the north and 335 meters (1,000 feet) on the west; it consists of a main part separated from the rest of the town by a thick wall, with no evidence of fortification. The town consisted of houses, perhaps a temple and an administrative center, with storage buildings and granaries. The large houses included a residential area, a portico, a garden, a granary, and workshops. The small houses—two hundred and twenty are still recognizable—are far more common than the large houses, with a ratio of about 20:1. The population was not likely to have exceeded 3,000 persons and was perhaps closer to 2,000. Estimates of the capacity of the granaries suggests that 5,000 to 9,000 persons could have been supported. The town was probably an administrative center; in addition to its responsibility for maintaining the cult observances, it also engaged in economic transactions, supported (occasionally or regularly) a dependent population in nearby villages, and/or supplied revenues to other officials or to the royal house.

Fortress towns.

Clear examples of Egyptian fortress towns are known from Nubia, and they date to Middle Kingdom times. The Egyptian state had assumed a strategy to control the exploitation and flow of goods from Nubia; military activities by Egyptian kings in Nubia were conducted as early as the first dynasty. Following the First Intermediate Period, when centralized government in Egypt collapsed, Middle Kingdom Egypt reestablished control of Nubia by a series of campaigns and fortresses established to maintain Egyptian rule. Forts were built on flat land and on hills. One of the largest is the fortress excavated at Buhen, about 250 kilometers (160 miles) south of Aswan. The fortress was built on an Old Kingdom site and consisted of an inner citadel, measuring 150 by 138 meters (450 by 420 feet), which overlooked the Nile. The citadel was surrounded by a mud-brick enclosure wall 5 meters (15 feet) thick and 8 to 9 meters (18 feet) high. Residential areas surrounded the citadel and were adjacent to a temple. Fortresses commonly included towers, crenellations, bastions, and ditches. During the New Kingdom, the fortresses in Nubia were developed into towns, with temples and residential areas beyond the fortress.

[See also articles on individual cities.]


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Fekri Hassan