site known in ancient Egyptian as Nekhen, located on the western bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt (25°06′N, 32°46′E). The site is intimately associated with kingship and the formation of the unified Egyptian state. The city was the major cult center of the god Horus, to whom every king of Egypt was assimilated and whose sacred bird figured in its later Greek name, Hierakonpolis (“city of the falcon”). Currently, the site is known in Arabic as Kom el-Ahmar (“the red mound”), after the potsherds heaped at the entrance to the low desert; but this descriptive name well suits the entire expanse of the vast site. The enormous growth of the settlement in late predynastic times (c.3500 BCE) testifies to the importance of Hierakonpolis as a regional center of power, possibly as the capital of an early, pre-unification kingdom.
Today, Hierakonpolis appears as two separate archaeological zones. One zone is the low mound located in the floodplain, constituting the remains of the town and the temple mound of the dynastic period site of Nekhen. The other zone has a group of interrelated sites, stretching for 3.5 kilometers (more than 2 miles) across the low desert and extending westward for 2 kilometers (about 1.5 miles) into a wadi of the Western Desert. These desert sites represent the largest Predynastic town still extant and accessible.
The first scientific exploration of Hierakonpolis was conducted from 1897 to 1899, by the British Egyptologists James E. Quibell and Fredrick W. Green. Within their first week of excavation on the town mound of Nekhen, they discovered the gold-headed cult statue of the falcon god Horus, as well as the life-sized copper statue of King Pepy I of the sixth dynasty and a smaller version, the earliest large-scale metal statuary known from antiquity. They were found beneath the floor of a mud-brick temple replacing an earlier shrine that once stood on a mound of clean, white sand supported by an oval stone wall. Presumably at this early shrine, the famous caches of discarded temple furnishings and votive offerings, known collectively as the “Main Deposit,” were originally dedicated. Among the hundreds of ivory, stone, and faience objects were some of the most important documents of the Early Dynastic period, among others, the large ceremonial mace heads of King “Scorpion” and Narmer, as well as the Narmer Palette. The discoveries support the ancient traditions about the importance of Hierakonpolis.
Although the site was subsequently investigated by a number of scholars, not until the ongoing expedition (led first by Walter Fairservis of Vassar College and later by Michael Hoffman of the University of South Carolina) began in 1967 did the Predynastic underpinnings of these traditions become evident. As a result of their work, a full picture of the city emerged and, with it, a better understanding of the developments that led to the rise of the world's first nation-state, at about 3100 BCE.
Intensive surveys and excavations have identified several functional zones within the vast desert town, and these include cemeteries, residential quarters, pottery kilns, breweries, ceremonial centers, petroglyph stations, and stone-built structures that were perhaps for administrative uses. The early complexity of Predynastic society was deduced from a series of kilns excavated in the wadi, which specialized in the production of fine black-topped pottery to be used for grave goods. Within the town, several potters were responsible for supplying utilitarian wares. Clearly, by 3500 BCE, craft specialization had been well developed.
Beer was another specialized product. At the desert's edge, there was an installation of huge pottery vats for brewing wheat-based beer; nearby, there was a kiln that manufactured standard-sized jars in which to package it. Egypt's earliest brewery has been estimated to produce about three hundred gallons of beer per day. At that rate, the brewery could supply a daily ration for more than two hundred people. So far, only a small fraction of that brewing quarter has been investigated. Thus, much of Hierakonpolis's greatness may stem from the organization of a Predynastic, redistributive economy. [See BEER.]
The growing social distinctions in Predynastic society were emphasized by separate cemeteries for the elite, the middle class, and the lower class. One elite cemetery is the site of the only known decorated, Predynastic tomb (about 1 kilometer to the south of the town). Renowned as the “Painted Tomb,” its paint-on-plaster walls provide the earliest examples of design motifs that would designate Egyptian kingship for the next three thousand years, including scenes of animal taming, the smiting of enemies, and the funerary flotilla. The owner of this tomb must have been a king and as such may have been crowned in Egypt's earliest religious complex. The religious complex was discovered in 1987, in the midst of the desert town. The complex included a tripartite shrine made out of mats and poles, fronted by four huge posts that faced onto a fenced, oval courtyard. The remains are similar to the Early Dynastic representations of the archetypal shrine of Upper Egypt, known as the pr-wr (“great house”). The home of this great shrine has long been thought to be at Hierakonpolis and it is possible that the recently uncovered remnants may be this very structure, later recreated in stone at the Saqqara Step Pyramid complex. When, owing to factors not yet understood, the desert town was abandoned and the population moved onto the floodplain, this complex was also abandoned for the new temple within the walls of Nekhen.
At Nekhen, a palace was found to the east of the temple in 1969; it had been used throughout the first two Egyptian dynasties. It is the only known example of nichedbrick architecture in a nonmortuary context. In contrast, there is the large rectangular mortuary enclosure standing at the desert's edge, built by Khasekhemwy, the last king of the second dynasty. The oldest standing mud-brick building in the world, its once white-plastered, niched walls rise to a height of 11 meters (34 feet) and are about 5 meters (15 feet) thick. This king was buried at Abydos, so why he built this commanding structure at Hierakonpolis remains unknown—but it may be his cenotaph.
After the Early Dynastic period, Hierakonpolis declined from a national to only a provincial center. The continued royal concern with its patron deity Horus, however, is clear from finds on the temple mound and from the tomb stela of the local official Horemkhawef, who boasted that he was commissioned to fetch a new cult image by a thirteenth dynasty king. In the eighteenth dynasty, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III built Horus a new temple. Later refurbished by Ramesses XI, the last king of the twentieth dynasty, it is illustrated in great detail on the walls of the local tomb of the priest Hormose.
A combination of changing environmental factors and the changing political map of Egypt led to the diminution of Hierakonpolis; it was reduced to the status of an ancestral shrine. Even so, throughout the millennia its early significance was not forgotten by the ancient Egyptians. Still preserved in its soil remain some of the earliest evidence for the artistic and architectural forms of pharaonic times, as well as some of the social and economic concepts that propelled Egypt into its development as one of the great nations of antiquity.
See also EARLY DYNASTIC PERIOD.
- Adams, Barbara. Ancient Nekhen: Garstang in the City of Hierakonpolis. New Malden, 1995. Recommended overview of research in the context of the rise and fall of the city forms two important chapters; with full bibliography.
- Friedman, Renée F. “The Ceremonial Centre at Hierakonpolis Locality HK29A.” In Aspects of Early Egypt, edited by Jeffrey Spencer, pp. 16–35. London, 1996. Discussion of the Predynastic ceremonial complex within the desert town.
- Friedman, Renée F., and Barbara Adams, eds. The Followers of Horus: Studies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman 1944–1990. Oxford, 1992. Many contributions cover site discoveries since 1982; includes other topics related to the site and objects found there.
- Hoffman, Michael A. Egypt before the Pharaohs. 2d rev. ed. Austin, 1991. Although the rate of new discoveries renders it out of date, provides a semipopular discussion of the entire Predynastic and Early Dynastic, with Hierakonpolis as its focus.
- Hoffman, Michael A., et al. The Predynastic of Hierakonpolis: An Interim Report. Cairo and Macomb, Ill., 1982. Preliminary reports on excavations in the Predynastic town, as undertaken between 1978 and 1980.
- Kemp, Barry J. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1989. Various aspects of the site and objects found within it are cogently discussed.
- Quibell, John, E. Hierakonpolis, vol. 1. London, 1900. Reprinted in 1989. Mainly photographs and line drawings of the artifacts from the “Main Deposit.”
- Quibell, John E., and Fredrick W. Green. Hierakonpolis, vol. 2. London, 1902. Reprinted in 1989. Account of the discoveries from 1897 to 1899.
Renée F. Friedman