I Gave Bread to the Hungry

“I gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked;
I anointed those who had no cosmetic oil;
I gave sandals to the barefooted;
I gave a wife to him who had no wife.”

If you looked at that and thought it didn’t look quite right then that’s more than likely because you were expecting part of the Gospel of Matthew but this is part of the autobiography of Ankhtifi, as carved into his tomb walls. Ankhtifi was a regional ruler of part of southern Upper Egypt during the First Intermediate Period, which falls between the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom c. 2100 BCE. Central authority had broken down at the end of the Old Kingdom and men like Ankhtifi rose to fill the power vacuum in their own region.

Ankhtifi’s tomb is at Mo’alla, which is about 25km south of Luxor on the east bank of the Nile opposite Gebelein. It is cut into the rock of a hillside as is common, but Ankhtifi chose his hillside with grand thoughts in mind. It is not part of a continuous cliff face, instead the hill is shaped like a pyramid thus giving Ankhtifi’s resting place a royal flavour. And he didn’t stop there with his usurpation of kingly attributes. In front of the tomb is a courtyard laid out like a temple, and there are signs of a causeway leading towards the Nile and of a valley building. All very reminiscent of an Old Kingdom pyramid complex. Despite the royal pretensions in the layout of the tomb it was not made by someone with the resources of royalty. The tomb chapel is not a regular shape, instead the craftsmen appear to’ve made use of the fractures in the limestone to create their walls. This suggests that their tools (and perhaps skills) were not up to the tougher job of carving out a symmetrical room through more intact rock.

Exterior of the Tomb of Ankhtifi at Mo’alla

The tomb chapel ceiling collapsed at some point during the Pharaonic period (presumably due to the poor quality of the limestone) and this preserved the tomb and its contents until modern times. John Romer suggests that it was only discovered & robbed in the last few years before archaeologists found the tomb in the 1920s – there was a surge of tomb furniture of the right period on the antiquities market at that time, which was thought to come from somewhere at Mo’alla. One of those tantalising might-have-beens, if only the archaeologists had got there first!

There’s not much information to be gleaned about Ankhtifi the man (as opposed to the ruler) from his tomb – he had a wife called Nebi who appears to’ve predeceased him, some daughters (one of whom also predeceased him) and four sons. The eldest of these sons was called Idy, but neither he nor his brothers appear to’ve inherited Ankhtifi’s rulership of the local area. What the tomb inscriptions do, in grandiose style and at length, is tell you what a fantastic ruler and man he was! No-one before him was this awesome, and no-one to come can possibly live up to the awesomeness that was Ankhtifi. I paraphrase, but I don’t exaggerate. As well as describing himself in terms such as “I am a hero without peer” it describes key events from his reign – his takeover of a second region which had been neglected by its overlord, his conflict with the Theban controlled regions to the north, his conscientious and effective administration that fed his people whilst all around them starved.

Well, I say “describes key events” but it’s important not to be over literal in interpreting the text. This inscription is an example of a literary genre of tomb autobiographies, it has clear poetic elements and features common tropes that show up throughout the history of Egyptian literature and beyond. The poetic elements come through even in translation – there are repeated elements, such as the phrase “I am a hero without peer” which is a regular refrain in the text and it makes extensive use of metaphor. In short, think Beowulf and other heroic poetry rather than a sober and accurate recounting of a life.

One reason I opened with the piece about feeding the hungry and the reminder of the resonance with the Gospel of Matthew is that this illustrates one of the common tropes of the autobiographical genre. From the Old Kingdom (when tomb autobiographies begin) onward and percolating out into modern Western culture via Christianity is a narrative that a virtuous wealthy individual is one who uses some of that wealth to help those in need. Perhaps it’s universal, I don’t know enough about anthropology to know. So when Ankhtifi tells us that he fed the hungry, and that no-one under his protection starved despite widespread famine, he might be talking about specific events – after all famines were not unusual at the time. But he’s at least as likely, if not more so, to be telling us he was a wealthy and virtuous man and exaggerating both the desperation of the times and the efficacy of his response.

The conflict with the Theban region that Ankhtifi also boasts of is open to an awful lot of interpretation. On the one hand you have Toby Wilkinson’s interpretation – armies marching north, fortresses sacked, a strategic refusal to engage in pitched battle on the part of the Thebans so that they could later sweep south and crush all before the might of their armies (obviously Ankhtifi doesn’t mention that last bit, it comes after his death and even if it didn’t it wasn’t glorious enough). And at the other extreme John Romer thinks it was some minor police action by a small militia group dealing with civic disturbances rather than anything approaching a war or armed conflict between regions. I’m inclined to think the truth lies somewhere between these extremes. I just can’t find it in me to buy into Romer’s peaceful interpretation – this is clearly a society that values military might, that’s why Ankhtifi is evoking the image of himself as a great war leader. But the image Wilkinson conjures up is rather large scale, and feels like he’s taking Ankhtifi’s rhetoric at face value rather than with a large pinch of salt. In Jan Assmann’s translation* of the relevant section of the text Ankhtifi refers to his “trusty young squad”. So rather than armies massing at borders are we really talking about raids by relatively small groups designed to cause mayhem, acquire wealth and intimidate the locals into switching allegiance to Ankhtifi so that he raids elsewhere for a change.

*Andrew Jenkin’s English translation of Assmann’s German translation, that is.

As well as giving us a very murky glimpse of the events of his life the autobiography does illustrate the way that Egyptian society is changing during this period. We’re on rather firmer footing once we zoom out to this meta-level too! There’s a clearly a complete breakdown in central authority. In the Old Kingdom period tombs of people of Ankhtifi’s rank are full of references to the king commanding this or rewarding the deceased for that. In Ankhtifi’s tomb the nominal king is mentioned once, and more as an ally than as an overlord – all the rest is Ankhtifi acting on his own initiative and the gods who are pleased with his behaviour and the source of authority. You can also see the evolution of later kingly rhetoric – the way Ankhtifi describes conditions before he arrived in the second region he took over is similar to how the Middle Kingdom kings referred to conditions during the First Intermediate Period. And the positioning of the king as steward for the gods also traces its roots to the rhetoric of men like Ankhtifi (rather than the Old Kingdom image of the king as an incarnation of a god).

Ankhtifi may or may not have been a successful regional ruler, and he certainly wasn’t successful in the long term as it was his Theban rivals who re-unified the Egyptian state. But nonetheless his tomb autobiography gives us a glimpse into the time in which he lived – not necessarily the specific events but the flavour and psychology of the society.

Resources used:

“The Mind of Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt’s So-Called First Intermediate Period and the Tomb of Ankhtifi” Glenn Godenho (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol. I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms” Miriam Lichtheim
“A History of Ancient Egypt Vol. 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“Decrees, Papyri and Biographies in the Age of the Pyramids” Nigel Strudwick (talk given to the Essex Egyptology group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Lives of Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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Creation By Heart and Word

My bonus article for November is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about the Memphite Theology: Creation by Heart and Word.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

How Everything Became

Come! Listen! I will tell you a tale of before. Before now and before the time of our fathers. Before Pharaoh and before the Two Lands. Before the inundation and before the Nile. Before the gods and before time itself.


Had there been eye to see there would have been nothing to see. All that was were the still, dark waters stretching far, far around. The waters were Nun and Naunet. And in their infinity the waters were Huh and Hauhet. In their darkness the waters were Kuk and Kauket. And in their hiddenness the waters were Amun and Amaunet. There was no time and no change, no life and no motion, that which was was that which had been, and that to come was that which was.

Listen now to how everything became!

The hidden one, Amun, stirred within the vast limitless waters pregnant with possibility. He spoke words into the silence. He cried out while all around was in stillness! And the seed of order concealed with the vast and limitless chaos was hidden no more. The egg inside which was the spark of life was revealed to him. He looked upon it and with the creative energy of Ptah he caused the egg to crack open and life to burst forth.

Now there was change where once there was stillness!

The first land rose in a great mound, separating itself from the vast deep waters. Land rose up out of Nun like the land after the inundation. Rich, black, fertile land and on that land a lotus bud solitary in its perfection. As it emerged from the waters the bud opened, and on that perfect flower sat Atum who shone upon the land as the sun shines upon us.

Solitary Atum was, upon the new land that Amun had caused to be. Although there was change there was not yet time, yet nonetheless Atum grew lonely and desired companionship. And so he took himself in hand and spilled his seed upon the land. From that divine first seed were born the twins Shu and Tefnut. Tefnut of moisture, of order, of eternity. Shu of the air and of the cycles of time. And so the one of Atum became three, and time began.

With the passage of time Shu and Tefnut grew and became close, and they knew each other as husband and wife. From their union was born Geb, he of the fertile earth, and Nut, she of the sky. And in the manner of their parents brother loved sister and sister loved brother. Their children were manifold and clustered around Nut shining as the stars in the sky. Yet this joyous state was not to last, for Nut turned upon her children as a sow will sometimes turn upon her piglets, and she swallowed them down. The fury of Geb, her brother, their father, was like the rumbling of an earthquake and Nut fled before it stretching herself across the upper limits of the world to escape. Their father Shu saw what had happened and put himself between them, he of the air kept them apart from one another. And thus was born the world as we live in it with the sky above, the air between and the land beneath it all. Each night Nut swallows the sun and gives birth to her children, and each morning she turns on her children and gives birth once more to the sun. Thus is the cycle of our days.

And the days rolled on, one after another, every one new and yet every one the same. As time passed Geb and Nut became reconciled, and they conceived more children. These were not stars for Nut to swallow, they were gods who would walk amongst men and rule over them. But their story, my friends, is a tale for another day.

Resources used:

“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

The creation myth of the Ancient Egyptians comes in many variants around some common themes, and isn’t written down as a coherent story in the sources. I’ve taken bits and pieces of the imagery that Shaw & Tyldesley discuss and stitched them into a narrative that follows the basic scheme, telling the story in my own words.

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Who gets remembered from history and what they are remembered for doesn’t always have a lot to do with what that person or their peers would expect. Look at Tutankhamun, now the most famous Pharaoh but relatively minor in his own time and altogether missed out of later king lists because he was too contaminated by Akhenaten’s religious changes. Or how about Taharqo? Who isn’t really a household name any more, but in the Victorian era he was interesting and exciting because he is mentioned in the Bible. And if you could go and tell Taharqo this I imagine he’d be rather startled and perhaps a bit annoyed – the incident in question is relatively minor albeit full of foreshadowing, happened before he was Pharaoh, and didn’t go well for him (or Judah). Probably he’d be even more nonplussed by the idea that his importance to modern Egyptology is that his accession to the throne is the earliest definite date in Egyptian history!

So who actually was Taharqo? He was the fourth Pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty, who are either the last rulers of the Third Intermediate Period or the first rulers of the Late Period depending on where you like to draw your boundaries. His family line originated in Nubia to the south of Egypt, and their history follows a pattern common to (re-)unifiers of Egypt – first they consolidate power in their local area before sweeping north to conquer the whole of Egypt. There are two significant differences to the pattern, however – firstly they weren’t Egyptian, they were Nubian, and thus outsiders conquering the country rather than insiders unifying it. This might not’ve mattered in the long run as they were very keen to assimilate and be more Egyptian than the Egyptians. Perhaps more critically they also did not really impose a centralised government across Egypt. In particular their control of Lower Egypt was more in the nature of an overlord to whom the local rulers deferred rather than a directly ruling king.

Taharqo Sheltered by the God Amun in the Form of a Ram

Taharqo’s relationship to his predecessors and their relationships to each other are a bit murky, and there’s even some controversy over the order of the kings. It’s pretty clear that Piye was the first of the dynasty to claim Egypt as well as Nubia, although it was his successor who finished off the job of conquering Lower Egypt. Inheritance of the throne does not appear to’ve followed a straightforward patrilineal scheme, and there are some indications that matrilineal descent may’ve been important in deciding who ruled (but that’s neither clear nor generally accepted amongst Egyptologists). Between Piye and Taharqo were two other Pharaohs – Shabaqo and Shabitqo. Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton reconstruct the family as follows: Shabaqo is the brother and son-in-law of Piye, Shabitqo might be the son of Shabaqo and is the son-in-law of Piye, Taharqo is the son of Piye, and Taharqo’s successor Tanutamani is the son of Shabaqo. Clear as mud, right? And other schemes are available! For a long time the accepted order of succession was Piye, then Shabaqo, then Shabitqo, then Taharqo and finally Tanutamani. But an inscription discovered relatively recently has thrown the ordering of Shabaqo & Shabitqo into doubt – although I went to a talk by Robert Morkot and he was pretty scathing about the idea that one might want to re-write anything on the basis of one inscription. Particularly as the names of the two kings are so similar (especially when written in cuneiform as this inscription is) that it could just be the carver’s version of a typo.

The books I looked at don’t talk much about Taharqo’s life before he took the throne, but one incident does come up because it’s the one that’s mentioned in the Bible. The two great powers facing off across the Levant at this point were Egypt and Assyria – both on the rise again after a period of decline. At first contact between the two was relatively cordial, but as Assyria’s might continued to grow relations soured and Egypt felt her interests were best served by propping up Levantine polities as Assyria flexed her muscles in the region. So when Hezekiah of Judah asked for Egyptian aid against Assyria the 20 year old Prince Taharqo was dispatched with an army to help. It didn’t work out well, and Taharqo was soundly defeated (sadly for him, not for the last time!). Taharqo’s aid to Judah is memorialised in 2 Kings 19:8-13 and Isaiah 37, and as I said above I suspect Taharqo would rather they’d not written that little piece of humiliation down.

Taharqo took the throne in 690 BCE at the age of 32. This date is the first fixed point in Egyptian history which is pretty late considering how far back that history extends. The Egyptians themselves dated events to regnal years for each monarch, and the vagaries of survival of records & inscriptions means that we often only have a lower limit for the length of a king’s reign and errors quite quickly build up. I don’t know the details of how the date of Taharqo’s accession was worked out, but the essence is that it’s from working backwards from Greek & Roman dates and sideways from other cultures (like the Assyrians, I assume).

Despite the ominously unsuccessful little skirmish with the Assyrians some ten years earlier Taharqo’s reign was the peak of the 25th Dynasty. And it is for the first 20 or so years that I think Taharqo would prefer to be remembered. He built widely across his country, both in Egypt and in Nubia – in fact I was a little disingenuous with my opening paragraph, as these building works are also part of what we remember about Taharqo. If you’ve been to the Karnak temple complex you will’ve seen some – the First Pylon was built by Taharqo, as well as other structures within the complex (not all of which survive). Taharqo was the first to adorn the pinnacle of the sacred mountain at Gebel Barkal (thought by the Nubians to be the birthplace of the god Amun) – he had an inscription carved high up on the cliff face and covered with gold so that it would gleam in the sun. The art style during Taharqo’s reign (and that of the rest of the 25th Dynasty) was strongly influenced by earlier art, in particular that of the Old Kingdom. But this wasn’t slavish copying, features from different eras of Egyptian art and from Nubian art were combined to generate a new aesthetic. Taharqo’s tomb at Nuri (in Nubia) illustrates this quite well. As with other members of his Dynasty he was buried beneath a pyramid, but this pyramid was proportioned differently to those of the Old & Middle Kingdoms – a smaller base & steeper sides for the Nubian ones. The burial chamber was underground, and based on the Osireion at Abydos, a New Kingdom structure. There was also a chapel decorated in an Egyptian style for Egyptian rituals. However, despite the Egyptian styling details of the layout of structures also hark back to the tummuli tombs of his ancestors before they started building pyramids.

Sadly this new golden age of Egypt was shortly to unravel, as I’ve been foreshadowing throughout the article. The Assyrians continued to expand, and to look westward. Under their king Esarhaddon an invasion of Egypt was launched in 674 BCE, and Taharqo managed to fight off this initial force. He hadn’t been resting on his laurels during the first part of his reign – military prowess was a key feature of 25th Dynasty ideas of kingship, and Taharqo did not neglect this aspect. There is a stela that records a training exercise for his army involving running from Memphis to the Faiyum and back – a round trip of about 60 miles, which they apparently covered in 9 hours plus a 2 hour break in the middle. Which sounds … not implausible? Still likely to be an exaggeration but I know people who could run that sort of distance in that sort of time (though perhaps not in the heat of the desert wearing army gear, even overnight, but you never know). The stela even says that Taharqo joined them for an hour of running. I imagine this was some sort of unusual exercise, because it was worth recording on a stela. Nonetheless it shows that Taharqo regarded the army and the fitness of his army as important concerns.

Military training and readiness didn’t help Taharqo much. The Assyrians came back only 3 years later, this time with Esarhaddon leading them in person. This time they got as far as Memphis, sacking the city – forcing Taharqo to flee, leaving his wife & son (and heir) to be captured and taken back to Assyria as booty. There’s a fair amount of back & forth and Taharqo and then Tanutamani do manage to regain control of Egypt at various points. But in the end Esarhaddon’s successor Ashurbanipal definitively crushes the Egyptians and drives the 25th Dynasty rulers out of Egypt and back to their Nubian homeland. Taharqo didn’t live to see the coup de grace, but as he died during one of the upswings for the Assyrians it must’ve been clear to him that the writing was on the wall. Taharqo died in 664 BCE in Nubia, and was buried under his pyramid at Nuri having ruled the Egyptian and Nubian kingdoms for 26 years.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile” ed. Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Kings from Kush: Egypt’s 25th Dynasty” Robert Morkot (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“The Rise & Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

She Who Loves Silence

Not all gods in Ancient Egypt had great big fancy temples dedicated by Pharaohs, a state run cult and stories of how they created the universe or such like. Some were much more domestic in scale – Bes and Taweret, for instance, who were invoked in ordinary people’s homes for protection. And some fell in between these poles – the goddess Meretseger is one of those. Worshipped by ordinary people, but not really part of the domestic sphere.

The cult of Meretseger was mostly geographically constrained to the Theban necropolis and centred on Deir el Medina, although her worship does show up in Elephantine – probably taken there by craftsmen from Deir el Medina sent to work on construction projects. She is also known as Dehenet-Imentet which means “The Peak of the West”. This name refers to the pyramidal shaped mountain that looms protectively over the tombs of Pharaohs, queens & other nobility in the Valley of the Kings and the rest of the Theban necropolis. The goddess was believed to dwell in this mountain & in some sense was this mountain. Meretseger means “She Who Loves Silence” which is an appropriate name for a goddess whose domain was mostly inhabited by the dead and a small village of craftsmen and their families. I once walked from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina and once you’re up & out of the Valley there’s a sense of being the only people in a vast empty landscape. I imagine this would’ve been enhanced for the original occupants of Deir el Medina as they walked from the hustle & bustle of a living village to a valley where the quiet was only broken by themselves working on another royal tomb. Although having said that, they presumably made quite a bit of noise themselves so probably most of them didn’t really think about it!

Ostracon Showing Meretseger as a Snake

Despite the strong association with the mountain peak Meretseger wasn’t represented as a mountain. She was mostly shown as a snake or a woman with snake’s head (or vice versa), or sometimes as a scorpion. There are quite a few snake deities in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon – male snake deities can be either good or bad but generally dwell in the Duat (the afterlife or underworld). Female snakes, in particular cobras, were regarded as good protective mothers and female snake deities show up more often in the living world. For instance the uraeus worn by a Pharaoh is the symbol of the goddess Wadjet protecting the king. Meretseger takes on this protective role for the whole Theban necropolis. And on a more prosaic level – the only things that seem to live natively in her desert home are snakes and scorpions so they are the most appropriate symbols for her.

During the peak of her cult many stelae (both formal and in the form of ostraca) were dedicated to her at Deir el Medina. I tend to think of Ancient Egyptian religion as emphasising knowledge over actions – if you know the right things to say then that will override the things you may’ve done. For instance if you have the spell to tell your heart not to testify against you then you will make it through the weighing of the heart regardless of your deeds in life. But some of the stelae dedicated to Meretseger show a different side to the religious life of more normal people. They show more of a sense of humility before the divine and implore the goddess for her forgiveness. From these stelae we learn that she was believed to punish people for their wrongdoing by blinding them or subjecting them to venomous bites, and that she could show mercy and cure the punished wrongdoer as well. The most famous of these stelae is now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin and was dedicated by a wealthy craftsman called Neferabu. It talks about how he was ignorant & foolish and knew not good from evil. He was punished by the goddess being “in her hand by day as by night”. But he propitiated her and “She was merciful to me, having made me see her hand. She returned to me appeased, she made my malady forgotten”.

Her cult was restricted in time as well as geography, and the period in question correlates well with the period when the Valley of the Kings was an active cemetery. She’s not attested as a goddess before the New Kingdom. Then once no more tombs are being built and the craftsmen leave Deir el Medina worship of Meretseger fades away leaving her in the silence that she loved (until the treasure hunters, tourists and archaeologists descended on the Valley of the Kings!).

Resources used:

“Interfaith Dialogue in Ancient Egypt. The anthropology of intercultural discourse in New Kingdom Elephantine and Deir el-Medineh” Martin Bommas (in “The Gods of the others, the gods and the others, Studi e Materiali di Storia delle religioni” ed P. Buzi & A. Colonna)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom” Miriam Lichtheim
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Lives: The Story of the Pharaohs’ Tombmakers” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods & Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

A Named Enigma

My bonus article for October is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about Neithhotep: A Named Enigma.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

The Two Lords are at Peace in Him

History gets divided up into epochs with hindsight, which makes it easier to understand and remember but doesn’t always reflect how it would’ve seemed to the people who lived through it. The high level narrative we have for early Egyptian history is pretty straightforward – Narmer unifies the two kingdoms under one ruler, there are then the rulers of the Early Dynastic Period. This is followed by a transition to the Old Kingdom, which ends with a collapse into the disunity and chaos of the First Intermediate Period after nearly a thousand years of unified stability. Of course once you begin to look more closely at the evidence there are signs that it wasn’t as straightforward nor as peaceful as that narrative would suggest. For instance there’s a period where it looks like Egypt began to fragment, long before the First Intermediate Period, but the process is halted by a re-assertion of royal control across the whole country.

This hiccup doesn’t happen quite where you might think, either. Just looking at the narrative I’d expect any discontinuity to happen just before the Old Kingdom – in the same way that the Middle Kingdom or New Kingdom start with a reunification of Egypt. Instead it is the last ruler of the Second Dynasty who re-asserts royal power across the whole of Egypt. So this reunifying ruler is either a person before or whole dynasty (plus a person) before the start of the Old Kingdom, depending on whether one puts the Third Dynasty into the Early Dynastic Period or the Old Kingdom.

The whole period is rather murky and it’s hard to figure out what actually happened. Not only is it a very long time ago (around 4.5 thousand years ago) so most surviving inscriptions are short cryptic fragments, but the Egyptians also had a habit of not writing down bad things. If writing fixes something for eternity, then it makes sense to only record favourable events but that really doesn’t help later historians! So the evidence is also tangential, and not all scholars agree – for instance in his book “A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer pours a certain amount of scorn on the idea of civil war during the Second Dynasty (although he doesn’t propose an alternative explanation as far as I could see).

Later king lists are fairly consistent in their lists of First Dynasty & Third Dynasty rulers, but the middle of the Second Dynasty has a lot of variation. This might suggest that there were differing viewpoints on which rulers were legitimate and which were rebels. There’s also a sudden oddity in the royal iconography. During this period rulers are generally referred to in inscriptions by their “Horus name“, which is written inside a schematic drawing of a palace facade (called a serekh) with a falcon (Horus) sitting on top of it. But there is one king whose name, Peribsen, is written inside a serekh with the Seth animal sitting on top of it. His successor, Khasekhem, writes his name in the traditional Horus topped serekh. Later in his reign he changes his name to Khasekhemwy and writes it in a serekh topped with both Horus and Seth together. Some scholars see this as evidence of a split in the country with a Seth faction and a Horus faction, and suggest this might be a historical seed from which the later myths of Horus and Seth fighting over the throne grew. Others (including Romer) think that’s a rather literal interpretation, and that perhaps it was just an attempted rebranding of the monarchy (I paraphrase). Personally I’m inclined to think that changes in iconography (or indeed branding) tend to mean something and combining the two symbols sends a message of unification. And you only need to make a propaganda point about that if it wasn’t unified before. Much like Henry VII’s use of the Tudor rose to combine emblems of the warring York & Lancaster factions in late 15th Century CE England.

Statue base, with feet of statue and Khasekhemwy's name in a serekh in front of the feet and dead enemies below.
Base of a statue of Khasekhemwy from the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis showing his name in a serekh at his feet and his dead enemies beneath

The name change of Khasekhemwy is also indicative of some sort of conflict. He starts off as Khasekhem which means “the power has appeared”, and inscriptions with this name are primarily found in Hierakonpolis. After he changes his name inscriptions are found more widely across the country and the new name, Khasekhemwy, means “the two powers have appeared”. He also added an epithet to his name of “the Two Lords are at peace in him”. All of which suggests that he started off a more regional power in Upper Egypt and then unified the two lands again.

Further supporting evidence comes from inscriptions on two statues of Khasekhemwy, and on some stone vessels found in his tomb. The statues show the king seated wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and round the base are carved contorted bodies of slain enemies. The inscription on the statues gives the number of “northern enemies” who were killed. The stone vessels show the Upper Egyptian vulture goddess Nekhbet standing on a ring containing the word “rebel” with an inscription that reads “the year of fighting the northern enemy”. Again it’s tangential evidence – the northern enemies needn’t be in Egypt, after all – but it’s another piece of the jigsaw.

To counterbalance all of this there is the fact that Khasekhemwy wasn’t remembered by later Egyptians as one of the great unifiers of the Two Lands. When Montuhotep II does it some 600 years later to found the Middle Kingdom he’s remembered as a second Narmer, and Ahmose I is also venerated for reunifying the country to begin the New Kingdom. So this perhaps suggests that there was no civil war, and Khasekhemwy did nothing as impressive as the other unifiers. Or maybe Khasekhemwy was just overshadowed by his son Djoser whose tangible and visible construction of the first monumental stone building outweighs the political reunification of Egypt in the memory of the people.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

My Robe No Mortal Has Yet Uncovered

If you ask someone to name an Egyptian goddess, you’ll get a variety of answers: maybe Isis, maybe Sekhmet (my personal favourite), maybe Hathor, maybe Bast (for the cat lovers out there).  There are a lot to choose from, after all.  However, I think it’s unlikely that the average person on the Clapham omnibus will answer “Neith”.  But she’s attested through more of Egyptian history than the others I mention, and at various times rather more important too!

This may be understandable – she doesn’t seem to have any good surviving stories. I’d hoped to write a Neith story article to go with this one, but she only shows up as a bit part in stories with narrative.  The closest we get is The Contendings of Horus and Seth: a Ramesside period text which has the Universal God trying to make a judgement between Horus and Seth as to who should be Osiris’s successor.  Horus is in the right, and wins every challenge or contest, but the judge would prefer Seth to get the office.  Neith is written to for her opinion, which boils down to “Give Horus the job, compensate Seth with wealth & marriage, do what I tell you or I’ll bring the sky crashing down!”.  The gods ignore this; the books I read make no mention of her response but the sky does still seem to be up where it should be.  That’s not really Neith’s story, though, she’s just another instance among many demonstrating that Horus is in the right. Neith does have a family, but that isn’t a story either – the Egyptians liked to group their deities into families, and temples are often dedicated to the god X, his consort Y and their child Z. Neith is a bit unusual here in that whilst she is often said to be the mother of Sobek, her consort isn’t entirely clear (although he may be Seth, at some times & places).

Predynastic pot painted with red decoration including an early version of the Neith symbol of crossed arrows on a pole.
Pot with an early version of the crossed arrows on a pole symbol for Neith

So, no stories, but there is plenty of evidence for her cult throughout Ancient Egyptian history.  She is an important goddess in the Early Dynastic Period, with solid evidence going back to the 1st Dynasty and enough hints to let Egyptologists extrapolate back into the Predynastic Period and earlier.  She’s closely associated with royalty during those periods, royal women in particular have names that reference Neith.  For instance Neithhotep (“Neith is satisfied”) is the wife of the king who is credited with unifying Egypt (Narmer). Neith’s cult waxes and wanes through the centuries, but even into the Roman period she is still an important deity. There are texts at the (relatively late) temple of Khnum at Esna which retrofit her as an Upper Egyptian creator goddess who only moves to the Lower Egyptian town of Sais after she’s done with creating the gods.

Neith is normally shown in human form from the Old Kingdom onward, and wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt from the 5th Dynasty.  She may also be shown in reliefs with a crown of two stylised bows and her earliest symbol was two crossed arrows.  To this were later added two click beetles (Agrypnus notodonta) facing each other across the arrows to make a symbol that’s referred to as the “bilobate sign”.  This rather odd sounding name is really a cover-up for the fact that for a long time Egyptologists couldn’t identify the parts of the symbol.  It seems that even the Egyptians forgot the original meaning over their history and the symbol morphed into an oval with crossed arrows which was then identified as a shield with crossed arrows.  Some of the books I read while writing this article said it was a shield or a bow, but “Dawn of Egyptian Art” (ed. Diana Craig Patch) was firm that it has now been convincingly argued that the two lobes are click beetles.  These beetles do show up in other contexts associated with Neith, including on a model shrine that dates back to the Predynastic Period. She does have some anthropomorphic representations during later periods, including as a cow (in her creator role) and a serpent (in her protective role).

This is the point in the article at which I should say something like “Neith was the goddess of X”, but it’s not that simple. She may have no stories, but she has several different associations and roles. I’ve touched on two of them already – the first of these is that she’s a goddess of hunting and warfare, hence the weapons for her earliest iconography. And she is strongly associated with Lower Egypt, not only the town of Sais but also she is the protector goddess of the Red Crown. This is also an aggressive role judging by a reference in the Pyramid Texts to “May the terror of you come into being … like the Neith Crown which is on the King of Lower Egypt”. Another pair of overlapping roles is that she is a creator goddess and a mother goddess. The first references to these roles come relatively late in the timeline for Neith – the Pharaoh Amenhotep II claims that he is “one who was moulded by Neith”. She also comes to be associated with the waters of Nun that preceded creation and with the process of creation itself. And she is also a funerary goddess – as early as the Pyramid Texts she is one of the goddesses associated with the Sons of Horus. As their role evolves into protectors of the deceased’s internal organs the goddesses take on the role of protectors of the protectors. In this role Neith is the protector of Duamutef who is the guardian of the stomach.

A difficult goddess to pin down across this gulf in time and distance in culture from the Ancient Egyptians. But even to them she was a mystery, Joyce Tyldesley quotes an inscription on a statue of Neith in Sais that rather aptly reads: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my robe no mortal has yet uncovered”.

Resources used:

“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” ed. Diana Craig Patch
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson

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The One Who Unites the Two Lands

If you’ve been to Luxor to see the ancient sites, then you have almost certainly been to see Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. While there you may not’ve paid much attention to the ruins of a temple just to the south – certainly I didn’t the first time I visited, and I don’t think tourists are allowed to go and walk round it. But that temple was one of the reasons Hatshepsut put her temple where she did, and that temple’s terraced design formed the inspiration for her own more elaborate version. This was a deliberate association of herself with the great king Montuhotep II who reunified Egypt and was venerated alongside Narmer and Ahmose I as one of the three founders of the state.

Montuhotep II was born around 4000 years ago at the end of what we nowadays call the First Intermediate Period, and the Egyptians themselves saw as an era of disorder and disunity. Following the reign of Pepi II at the end of the Old Kingdom the central government of Egypt began to disintegrate and the country splintered with each region operating autonomously. Although at first these local rulers paid lip service to the idea that they were ruled by an overall king by the time Montuhotep was born this was not even nominally the case, and new powers were jockeying for the title. In Lower Egypt the House of Khety had taken control, governing from their home base of Herakleopolis. In Upper Egypt Montuhotep’s predecessors, three generations of rulers called Intef, had done the same from their home base of Thebes.

Ruined columns of the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri.
Mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri

The local war god worshipped at Thebes was called Montu, and Montuhotep means “Montu is satisfied” – and our king certainly did his best to live up to that name. Given the length of his reign (50 or so years) he must’ve taken the throne in his teens or early 20s, and all seems to’ve been quiet for the first 14 years. In Year 14 of his reign he took advantage of the rebellion of a province to his north (called This, which includes the town of Abydos) to make his move. Having crushed the rebellion he then swept north with his armies and eventually defeated the House of Khety at Herakleopolis itself. The timeline other than the turning point of Year 14 isn’t entirely clear. There’s evidence of unrest rumbling on for a while, so it wasn’t a single campaign and done. Certainly by Year 39 he feels he has completed the job – at some point before this (probably when he celebrated his jubilee) he changed part of his royal titulary to reflect that. His Horus name is changed to Sematawy which means “the one who unites the two lands”.

Montuhotep II’s reunification of the land ushered in a new golden age of high culture in Egypt. During the fragmentation of the country art styles in the regions had diverged from each other, and early reliefs from Montuhotep II’s time (including some of the decoration of his mortuary temple) are in a local Theban style. The Old Kingdom style of art had survived in the Memphite region, where the capital had been in that period. As part of asserting his legitimacy as a continuation of the Old Kingdom Montuhotep II employed artisans from Memphis on his own building projects and over his reign both styles merge with the Memphite style coming to dominate. As well as a return to a sophisticated and unified art style there is also a increase in historical documentation surviving from his reign and an increase in building projects throughout the country.

A fair amount is known about Montuhotep II’s family, mostly from burials within his mortuary temple complex although also from other sources. We know that he was the son of Intef III* and Iah, and we know the names of several wives although only one child. His chief wife was his sister Neferu who appears to’ve died early in his reign. The other senior wife was called Tem, and she had the title of “Mother of the Dual King” – this means that Montuhotep II’s successor (Montuhotep III) must’ve been her son. There are also six other female burials in Montuhotep II’s mortuary complex. Three of these women were definitely wives: Ashayet, Henhenet (who died in childbirth) and Sadhe. One was definitely not: a child of 5 or 6 years old called Mayet. And two who might also have been wives or concubines: Kawit and Kemsit. Montuhotep III is the only known child of Montuhotep II – which is one of those cases where one needs to remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Records of royal children are often patchy, particularly of sons until they are adults. And we only have evidence of Montuhotep III because he rules after his father, not during his childhood.

*Although Gae Callendar, writing in “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw, is less sure of this – she feels he makes too much fuss about his father being Intef III for it to’ve been that straightforward.

As well as Montu other gods were also important to Montuhotep II. The women buried in his mortuary complex all have titles that call them Priestess or Prophetess of Hathor, as did Montuhotep II’s mother. And Hathor was behind his choice of site for his mortuary complex – she was thought to dwell as a cow in the Western Mountain at Thebes. So Montuhotep II’s tomb and temple were situated so that he would spend eternity in the embrace of Hathor. The temple also faces towards Karnak across the Nile – the temple of Amun. I think the evidence for his support of the cult of Amun is circumstantial but it is known that this is the period when the cult begins to rise.

Another god that was important to Montuhotep II was … himself. There’s evidence Montuhotep II was, unusually, deified in his own lifetime – the only one of the three founder kings who achieved that. It may be that this was a key part of reasserting central control over the newly reunified kingdom. During the First Intermediate Period local rulers had begun justifying their authority as having been handed to them by this god or that god rather than from the king. So by setting himself up as a god Montuhotep II fit neatly into this new narrative for propaganda purposes. He was also to be worshipped after his death as a god – which doesn’t seem so unusual to us because that became the standard situation in the New Kingdom several hundred years later. But he took it further than had been the previous norm. And his self-deification appears to’ve stuck, despite his relative lack of name recognition in the modern day. There is evidence that later Middle Kingdom rulers venerated him, erecting statues of themselves in his temple precinct or dedicating objects to him. Hatshepsut clearly felt the association with him would enhance her status. Even into the 20th Dynasty there are private tombs which have inscriptions celebrating him as a founder of Egypt.

In many ways Montuhotep II is the archetypal Pharaoh – great war leader; bringer of peace, prosperity and order from chaos; a god to his people. Montu must indeed have been satisfied with this monarch.

Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Ancient Egyptian Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“A History of Ancient Egypt Volume II: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

The Sister of Isis

My bonus article for September is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about Nephthys: The Sister of Isis.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!