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

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