Egypt's Early Dynastic period (c.3050–2686 BCE), also called the Archaic, was a brief era in the long span of pharaonic history, but it was during those few centuries that many elements of what we now think of as “ancient Egyptian civilization” first appeared. The evidence suggests that the Nile Valley and Delta were first brought under the rule of a single pharaoh and the control of the national state administration in the Early Dynastic period. It was also during that period that the Egyptians developed a written language capable of expressing virtually the entire spoken language of Egypt, in a form that made this writing system an indispensable administrative tool. Another crucial development of this era was the shift of the centers of Egypt's central government from the South to the North. Before the Early Dynastic period, the largest and most important communities, such as Hierakonpolis and Naqada, were all in the South, in Upper Egypt. By 3000 BCE, the centers of power were in the North, in Lower Egypt, and the demographic center of the country also shifted, as Memphis (near modern Cairo) became the national capital and the Nile Delta became the agricultural heartland of the country. A simple geographic shift may seem unimportant in Egypt's long history, but the northward shift was an early and powerful demonstration of the effects of Egypt's increasingly important interactions with its neighbors, as the Mediterranean world began to affect Egypt's political history and, to a lesser degree, its culture. Another major development of the Early Dynastic period was the development of the national religious and political ideology and the economy, which served as the basic principles on which state and society were organized for most of pharaonic times.


Most Egyptologists identify the Early Dynastic period with (in modern terminology) the first and second dynasties, but there is reasonable evidence that a Dynasty “0”—referring to the transition between the Predynastic and the Early Dynastic period—should actually be included in the Early Dynastic period. The third dynasty, as well, has often been included in the Early Dynastic period, but some see it as a part of the early Old Kingdom period. In this article, the Early Dynastic period is considered to have encompassed Dynasty “0,” the first, and the second. The dates ascribed to all three dynasties are based largely on fragmentary texts written many centuries after the Early Dynastic period. Radiocarbon dates, however, roughly agree with the textual chronology, although there are some disparities. The bulk of the evidence suggests that what we label the Early Dynastic period was the interval between about 3100 and 2700 BCE.

Origins of the Early Dynastic State.

Almost all the developments in the Early Dynastic period had deep roots in the Predynastic period (c.4000–3050 BCE). The evolution of Egyptian civilization was a long and complex pattern of change, and terms such as “Predynastic” and “Early Dynastic” only roughly divide the continuum of cultural change undergone in Egypt.

The cultural changes that the term “Early Dynastic” was intended to describe can perhaps be best understood by way of comparison with the Predynastic. At about 3500 BCE, the evidence suggests that nearly all Egyptians were basically Neolithic farmers who lived in insubstantial houses of mud bricks or mud and straw, arranged in small communities that appear to have had little to do with one another except for some modest trade in stone tools and a few other commodities. Every extended family probably made almost all its own goods and did all the work necessary for its own survival, and almost every extended family made more or less the same goods and performed the same activities as every other family. They made crude pottery, bows and arrows, stone tools, thatched mud-brick huts, baskets and fabrics, and not much else. Their lives probably did not encompass much beyond the ordinary events of subsistence farmers everywhere—birth, marriage, death, and the incessant demands of extracting a reliable living by cultivating a few crops, herding some sheep, goats, and/or cattle, and supplementing their diet through hunting, fishing, and foraging. By 3000 BCE, and rapidly increasing thereafter, major cultural changes were underway. Like their Predynastic ancestors, the great mass of Egyptians still lived as illiterate peasants in small villages—but there are signs that they were becoming citizens of a national state. One of the earliest indications of the rise of the Egyptian state is in the humble form of pottery styles. The Predynastic peoples of the North of Egypt had significantly different styles of pottery and architecture from those in the South. Yet by about 3000 BCE, styles of architecture, pottery, and other artifacts were beginning to show great similarity throughout Egypt, from the Mediterranean to the Nubian frontier to the oases of the Western Desert.

The processes by which Egypt was changed from a Neolithic society to one of the first and most powerful states of antiquity have been debated by scholars for more than a century; many surmise that Egypt was politically unified through warfare. The Narmer Palette, for example, is particularly intriguing in this context. Found at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, the Narmer Palette probably dates to about 3200 to 3000 BCE—precisely the period in which Egypt first became a unified, powerful, wealthy, and literate state. Even if we knew nothing else about this era, the headless bodies, military-style flags, and mythical ferocious beasts incised so beautifully on this stone slate would suggest that the ancient Egyptians were no strangers to bloody warfare. Some scholars think the Narmer Palette was made to commemorate the initial formation of the Egyptian state by means of the Southern armies' conquest of the cities of the Delta, others, however, think that it commemorates later events that had nothing to do with the political unification of Egypt. Yet the Narmer Palette is engraved with various symbols conveying ideas that we know from later texts were at the very heart of the ancient Egyptians' idea of the nature of their state—for example, the symbols in the shape of crowns. When the Narmer Palette was made, these symbols may have referred to the political unification of small Southern polities. Most scholars think they were references to the political unity of “the Two Lands”—that is, Northern and Southern Egypt. The crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt (the White Crown and Red Crown, respectively) were depicted throughout the history of pharaonic Egypt, often in association with texts that clearly indicate this meaning. Another symbol on the Narmer Palette that may relate to the unification of Egypt is the bull that is shown apparently battering towns: this stylized depiction of architecture and the image of a bull as a symbol of the pharaoh's power may be an evocation of military attacks on fortified settlements. What the Narmer Palette and similar artifacts “mean” will always be ambiguous. What is certain, however, is that between 4000 and 3000 BCE, Egypt became a powerful integrated state, and most of the primary elements of pharaonic civilization first appeared.

Many ideas about the factors that produced Egyptian civilization have been argued. Donald Redford (1989), for example, has suggested that Near Eastern cultures of Southwest Asia may have influenced these first Egyptian states. He has documented the apparent presence of Semitic elements in early written Egyptian and, on the basis of this and other evidence, has suggested that the initial confrontation between these cultures may have occurred in the eastern Nile Delta. Redford notes that traditional interpretations of Egypt's Early Dynastic history argue a kind of “Drang nach Norden,” with the forces of political unification and expansion moving up the Nile Valley, engulfing the Delta, and expanding into Southwest Asia, but that “there is one element that is particularly difficult to accommodate within this south-north sweep of Egyptian political evolution, and that is the clear evidence in Gerzean and later sites of artifacts and artifact (and architectural) styles that are Syro-Palestinian and Irano-Mesopotamian in origin” (1989, p. 1). Redford also observes that for years scholars have debated what kinds of contacts these elements reflect, and he sees in these debates “a tendency toward an Egyptian view of the world, in which all things are in balance, and thus to postulate a priori an early and independent Delta polity opposing an independent Valley polity, and the eventual union of these” (1989, p. 2, also see Frankfort, 1956, pp. 15–23).

Whatever the influence of foreign cultures and internal factors in creating the Early Dynastic state, we do have some evidence about its history. Dynasty “0,” that time between the end of the Predynastic and the beginning of the Early Dynastic, is known from only a few excavations. Succeeding dynasties, however, are known from texts and other evidence.

The First Dynasty.

Many of the central elements of ancient Egyptian civilization, such as techniques of tomb construction, theology, and the national political administrative system, were present in embryonic form in Upper Egypt before 3200 BCE, but between about 3200 and 2700 BCE these elements achieved the basic form in which they were to persist for about three thousand years. With the Early Dynastic period, Egypt moved into the historical era; from about 3100 BCE onward, there are at least a few texts to aid in interpreting the archaeological data, but these texts are few and fragmentary. The later writings about this period may record as much legendary information as historiographical data, but some record the names of mothers, wives, and other people, not just the names and exploits of kings. To complement these texts, there is much spectacular archaeological data. Many tombs of the first and second dynasties were found at Abydos, Tarkhan, Helwan, and Saqqara; although most had been looted in antiquity, when they were excavated they still contained rich stores of grave goods, from food to tools to precious stones.

If we correlate the various Early Dynastic king lists, it seems that the first dynasty consisted of eight pharaohs, all of whom were probably buried at Abydos. After Narmer, Aha is the first known king, but Aha may have been the same person as Narmer, may have established Memphis as the permanent capital of Egypt, instituting the cults of the crocodile god Sobek (of the Faiyum) and the Apis bull (of Memphis) as major religious institutions. The Egyptians—at least until Akhenaten's time (c. 1350 BCE)—saw no conflict in a profusion of different gods or the combination of the attributes of several gods in one. Religion provided the connective tissue for all early states, and state religions provided efficient methods to get the population to pay taxes, serve in wars, and in general act as citizens of a nation: people acted in these socially constructive ways out of a sense of duty, not out of coercion. This is not to suggest that Aha or other Egyptian pharaohs cynically manipulated their subjects by inventing a religion; Aha, for example, almost certainly did not coldly calculate the costs/benefits ratio of raising the status of Sobek and the Apis bull in a cynical ploy to solidify his power. He probably genuinely believed in these gods.

If the fragmentary texts—and some inventive speculations based on these texts—are to be believed, Aha promoted the socioeconomic and political integration of the Nile Delta and Valley. It was an integrative process that probably began centuries earlier, in part perhaps by his marrying Neithhotep, who appears to have been the daughter of Delta royalty. He apparently also sent military expeditions to Nubia and Libya, while expanding trade with Syria-Palestine. Aha's political strategy was in some ways a model for every subsequent pharaoh: to legitimize his rule and unite the country, he associated himself with the gods and invoked their power and blessings, he used strategic marriage as a political tactic to maintain national solidarity, and he confronted his neighbors with both military might and trade relationships. In so doing, he enriched his state, defused possible invasions, and brought glory to himself.

Aha also either initiated or continued an important tradition, one where even in death the pharaoh served the needs of the state. Aha's tomb and cenotaph (a monument to the king that recorded his death but did not contain his body) emphasized the integration and unification of “the Two Lands.” Aha and most of the Early Dynastic pharaohs appear to have been buried at Abydos. The contemporary tombs at Saqqara were probably those of high government officials or provincial rulers.

After Aha's death (perhaps about 3100 BCE), there may have been some struggles in the line of succession, as there are gaps in the king lists. Ancient Egyptian texts suggest that after two or three others had succeeded Aha, a king named Djer ruled Egypt. Djer built a tomb at Abydos (in the South) and a temple at Memphis (in the North), apparently to express in architecture the principle of the integration of the Two Lands. The great wealth of the tombs of the time of Djer suggests a prosperous era, and as Nicolas Grimal notes (1992, p. 50), Djer is the first pharaoh who appears to have considered the importance of the mortuary needs of his subordinates; near Djer's tomb are the tombs of what are likely members of his royal court. Grimal suggests that there is no evidence that those royals were killed at the pharaoh's death in order to be entombed en masse, but the situation is ambiguous. This is an interesting point because both ritual murder or the suicide of a king's court were common in such other ancient cultures as Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica. As efficient as such ritual murder-suicide arrangements were in protecting the king against court intrigues, poisoning, or other forms of assassination, they were extremely expensive in terms of the loss of some of the most knowledgeable members of the royal family and bureaucracy, as well as much wealth. Marxist scholars have asserted that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” in the sense that religion can be used to keep a population docile and reasonably content with the premise that their nasty, brutish, short lives on earth will be followed by life in an eternal paradise. There are also clear advantages to a royal bureaucracy in which the elites, not just the king, could aspire to a rich eternal afterlife. They would thus have a stake in maintaining the royalty, amassing wealth, and remaining faithful to the ancient gods. Djer's mortuary complex may reflect the first formal recognition of the nobility's aspirations for eternal life, but some Egyptologists suspect that his mortuary complex reflects instead the ritual killing of nobles at Djer's death.

Little is known of Wadji (Djet), who followed Djer. The successor, Den, however, had a glorious reign of about fifty years, during which he seems (based on a few scanty texts) to have successfully dealt with problems that would face nearly every pharaoh for the next twenty-five hundred years. One particularly important and continuing problem was balancing the power of the pharaoh against that of royal officials and the provincial rulers and elites, while at the same time keeping the country under a unified administration. This delicate balancing act must have given many pharaohs sleepless nights and made them suspicious of intrigues. Den seems to have taken active steps to limit the power of his subordinates, and he created the post of “Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt” to help him maintain the unity of the state. The tomb of this official, named Hemaka, was large and lavishly furnished—a sign of the growing importance of bureaucratic functionaries in the Egyptian state.

There is some evidence that Den used a lactic that was employed by most pharaohs, in that he promoted the national religion by building temples and celebrating public rituals in honor of Atum, Apis, and other gods. Many of the pharaohs manipulated the state religion for political purposes, for example, by elevating the importance in the national religion of particular regional gods. Den also confronted another problem faced by all pharaohs: dealing with Egypt's neighbors. Den, for example, in his very first year as pharaoh, invaded Syria-Palestine and brought back, among other spoils of war, many women to stock his harem. An ivory label or small plaque found at Abydos shows King Den in battle, beating a Near Eastern–looking enemy on the head with a mace, the whole composition entitled “The First Occasion of Smiting the East” (Quirke and Spencer 1992, fig. 21). Although the figure of the enemy appears to be parrying the king's blow, it is not clear whether the king actually fought hand to hand in this fashion. This may simply represent the king's power as exercised through his soldiers.

Then, too, the figure of the warrior-king is a primary icon of all ancient societies. One of the more intractable questions about human history is why organized warfare is such an ancient and enduring part of our past. Den may well have had what for him were reasonable motives for his battles in Palestine. If later Egyptian history is any guide, Syrian-Palestinian groups, Nubians, and Libyans continually threatened Egypt's frontiers, probably in small hit-and-run attacks aimed at looting rather than conquest. Egypt probably did not have a permanent standing army until very late in its history, so foreigners along the borders could usually overpower local defenses, especially when the power of the central Egyptian government had weakened. In primitive warfare, the adage “the best defense is a good offense” is particularly true. Egyptian military expeditions could save the country much grief by periodically invading its neighbors and dispersing their troop concentrations.

Frequent military excursions were also a means to get material goods. When we look at the foreign commodities found in tombs and listed in texts, it is clear that the vast bulk of these items were not things that Egypt needed in any practical sense. Numerous texts record leopard and panther skins, ebony, cedar, turquoise, giraffes, monkeys, ostrich eggs, ivory, incense, gold, copper, and other exotic goods that had great symbolic importance but not much to do with the provisions of everyday life. Similarly, the capture of foreign women to stock a pharaoh's harem seems to have been a common military goal; that there was a shortage of Egyptian nubilia, which had to be supplemented by women captured abroad for harem duty, is not realistic. War prisoners captured and used as slaves were certainly numerous in some periods and of considerable economic value, but there is no evidence that they met some urgent labor requirements that could not be filled by locals. Many anthropologists would contend that this kind of cost-benefit analysis of Egyptian warfare is beside the point: these people did not live with a capitalistic, money-based economy, so these seemingly “worthless” exotic goods had enormous intrinsic value—they validated the power of the pharaoh and helped distinguish the elites from the common folk. Moreover, the pharaoh could only demonstrate his worthiness in traditional ways, and one of these was military exploits. Regardless of the personal motives of Den and his successors, Egypt, like all ancient states, appears to have been intrinsically expansionistic—an excellent evolutionary strategy for any organism, whether it be a biological population or sociopolitical organization.

Enedjib, Den's successor, apparently reigned only briefly, but he is the first pharaoh known to use the title “Lord of the Two Lands,” in the sense of uniting the gods Horus and Seth. As noted above, this title implies the reconciliation of these two potent, competing Egyptian deities. Horus's association with order and Seth's association with disorder, and their melding in the person of the pharaoh, are at the center of one of the many major ancient Egyptian concepts that we will probably never fully understand. “Disorder” was not necessarily and intrinsically bad—if it could be visited on Egypt's enemies (Grimal 1992, p. 48). We'll never know how often the disorder of an actual violent confrontation between the Delta and the Valley occurred in early Egyptian times, but from Enedjib onward pharaohs took names that involved the reconciliation of the Two Lands. They took as one of their titles a phrase that means “He of the Two Ladies”—a reference to the protection of the king by the cobra goddess Wadjyt of the community at Buto in the northern Delta and Lower Egypt and the vulture goddess Nekhbet of Hierakonpolis and Upper Egypt.

The Second Dynasty.

The kings of the second dynasty are poorly known, as are the reasons why a change of dynastic families occurred. The third-century BCE Greco-Egyptian historian Manetho reports the change but gives no explanation. During the second dynasty, some pharaohs may have been buried not at Abydos in the South as their predecessors apparently were, but at Saqqara, although the evidence is uncertain. Saqqara's increased importance was tied to the rise of the nearby city of Memphis as the capital of a united Egypt.

In the second dynasty, bronze vessels are known to have been made in Egypt for the first time. The appearance of bronze has been used as a major mark of cultural development, and the term “Bronze Age” is applied across the whole of the ancient Near East. The use of bronze for tools and other artifacts, however, may not have been that revolutionary, since flint knives and sickles continued to be the primary agricultural tools until the Late period. Nevertheless, the spread of bronze artifacts across the Mediterranean region from Southwest Asia probably reflects growing interactions among countries.

There is some evidence that during the reigns of the second dynasty's early kings the political relationships between Upper and Lower Egypt had deteriorated (Grimal 1992, pp. 52–59). A ruler named Peribsen rose to power in about 2734 BCE, but he may have ruled only Upper Egypt; he appointed a “Chancellor of the King of Upper Egypt,” and seals bearing Peribsen's name have been found as far south as Elephantine. Peribsen also chose Seth, the god of disorder as his tutelary deity—the god he hoped would instruct and protect him—instead of Horus, the traditional Early Dynastic choice.

Peribsen's successor, Khasekhem (“the powerful [Horus] is crowned”), was born at Hierakonpolis in the South; at the time of his coronation, he had incised on stone statues of himself and on stone vessels several texts that commemorated victories over the North. The bases of these statues were decorated with a tableau of dead and disarticulated bodies, presumably depicting the fate of rebels and enemy war casualties. Khasekhem's victory over the North may have been the reason that he “later changed his name to Khasekhemwy: ‘the Two Powers are crowned’, placing both Horus and Seth over the serekh. … At the same time he chose ‘the Two Mistresses are at peace through him’” (Grimal 1992, p. 56).

Khasekhemwy retained a primary interest in Southern Egypt, where he built large tombs and temples at Elkab, Abydos, and Hierakonpolis. His huge mud-brick “forts” at Hierakonpolis and Abydos were probably temple enclosures, not defensive fortifications, but they remain to this day very impressive building projects. Khasekhemwy's apparent reunification of Egypt, however, seems to have been quickly followed by another shift northward of Egypt's political center. Throughout pharaonic history, there were oscillations in the geographic center of political, economic, and religious power, but after Khasekhemwy, Memphis and Lower Egypt dominated the country for many centuries. Throughout much of the rest of the pharaonic era, ancient Egyptians thought of their country as balanced, like a weighing scale at Memphis—so the Memphite nome (province) was known as Mekhattawy (“balance of the Two Lands”). The national state fractured into two parts, on a few occasions, in later periods; but throughout the rest of pharaonic history, the union of the Two Lands was perceived as the only legitimate form of the state.



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  • Redford, Donald B. “Prolegomena to Archaeological Investigations of Mendes.” Manuscript, on file with the author. Seattle, 1989.
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Robert J. Wenke