Some 50 miles south of Luxor are the remains of two of the earliest urban centres from the Early Dynastic period of Egyptian history. On the west bank lies Nekhen (also called Hierakonpolis) – perhaps most well known as the site where the Narmer palette was found. And on the east bank lies Nekheb (modern name is el Kab), whose local goddess (Nekhbet) is one of the Two Ladies who represent Upper & Lower Egypt. Before I visited el Kab in 2014 I’d probably heard more about about Nekhen – not just the Narmer palette but I’d also seen the famous ivories and other objects from the Main Deposit in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and been to a talk by Renee Friedmann about her work on the Predynastic settlement and cemeteries there. But Nekheb is also a fascinating (and important) site with evidence of ancient Egyptians from very early indeed through to late antiquity.

In fact el Kab gives its name to one of the cultures of Prehistoric Egypt – the stone tools and camp remains of the Elkabian culture were first found here in the late 1960s. Three layers of camps were found one on top of the other dating between c. 6400 BCE and c. 5980 BCE on the riverbank of the ancient channel of the Nile. As well as the stone tools and waste from making stone tools there were ostrich shell beads, and lots of fish bones. The latter gives us a good idea of why the people were here! The position of the camps relative to the Nile means that they wouldn’t’ve been inhabitable during the inundation, so we can conjure up a vision of a semi-nomadic group of people who each year came to live by the banks of the Nile for a while to eat the abundant fish and (presumably) the plants that grew on the well watered & fertilised soil.

There’s not much obvious continuity between these Elkabian people and the later Predynastic communities either culturally or temporally – a gap of perhaps a thousand years or more. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t any continuity – what gets preserved and what gets later found at any site are only tiny fractions of the material that was once there. But there definitely is evidence of occupation from the late Predynastic, around the time when the Egyptian state was forming, which ranges from extensive cemeteries to domestic remains. And from there on the site is continuously occupied through until late antiquity – after which it ceases to be a town, which is pretty great for archaeologists as it means there aren’t modern people living on top of the archaeology.

Vulture Rock

The town itself was built on the banks of the Nile, and if you visit now you will see it surrounded by the remains of a large mudbrick wall measuring around 550×550 metres (with one of the corners washed away by the shifting path of the Nile). Actually as a tourist you don’t get to go into that bit – you visit the tombs built into the cliff near the town, the temples in the Wadi Hilal and Vulture Rock. This last feature was actually my favourite part of the site when I visited. It’s a large rocky outcrop in the middle of the wadi that from some angles looks a bit like the body of a vulture as the Egyptians would draw it for a hieroglyph. And it is completely covered from top to bottom in inscriptions and graffiti (as are the walls of the wadi nearby) – encompassing nearly the whole of the time of occupation of the site, from prehistoric petroglyphs through to Ptolemaic inscriptions.

The walls that are visible around the town are from the Late Period, but inside there are some remains of a much much earlier wall. This one probably dates to the Early Dynastic Period and is circular. Inside there are some domestic remains from the late Predynastic Period and a little Early Dynastic stuff. However, rather frustratingly for finding out about the early settlement it seems that at some point in the late Early Dynastic Period or the early Old Kingdom this part of the site was levelled off and swept clear of remains in order to build a temple. In general there’s not much securely datable evidence of the Early Dynastic Period occupation of the site – some remains of stone buildings including a block found (and now lost) with Khasekhemwy’s name on it, and some high status graves. It was clearly an important place, however, as the local goddesses of backwater villages don’t tend to end up the representative of a whole region! But nonetheless it was still overshadowed by Nekhen across the river during this period. However by the end of the Second Intermediate Period Nekheb had risen sufficiently in prominence to take over from Nekhen as capital of the Nome (administrative district), and it was to keep this position through the New Kingdom. Subsequently it becomes less important again – but is clearly still a thriving town throughout the Ptolemaic Period.

Outside the town and cut into the hillside are the tombs of the town’s inhabitants. Even if you’re only thinking of the high-status people with their tombs cut into the rock of the cliff there were still a lot of these over the millennia, and at a talk I went to by Luigi Prada he described the rock as being like a “block of Gruyère” because so much has been cut into it. The most interesting tombs for a modern scholar are a clutch of late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom tombs (which include the ones that you get into as a tourist). Egyptian officials often include an autobiographical text in the decoration of their tomb – the edited highlights of their life, focusing on everything they did that was great and good. And some of these officials detail their service in (and command of) the armies involved in the reunification of Egypt that started the New Kingdom period – and it’s these inscriptions that give us most of our information about that period. One of the inscriptions also provides evidence of a previously unknown incursion by a Kushite force – and explains the presence of Second Intermediate Period Egyptian artifacts at the Kushite site of Kerma (in modern Sudan) as the loot carried off by this expedition.

As you move away from the town and necropolis in a north-easterly direction up the Wadi Hilal you come to two temples (as well as Vulture Rock which I already talked about). The first of these is called the Hemispeos, because it is half cut into the rock. It was begun by Ramesses II, but later extensively re-worked by the Ptolemies – and later still turned into a Coptic hermitage, at which point they destroyed the decoration up to about 2m so that there wasn’t pagan imagery at eye-height in a Christian place. The other temple is quite far into the wadi, and is actually a barque shrine. When deities were taken on procession they were carried by priests in model boats (called barques), and on processional routes there were often small temples where the barque (and the deity within) rested before moving on to the next place. This example was initially begun by Amenhotep III (or his father Thutmose IV), and was dedicated to Amun-Ra, Nekhbet and Horus of Nekhen – and would’ve been where Nekhbet rested when she visited this part of her domain. Later in Graeco-Roman times the religious focus had shifted a bit – this was now a place where a form of the goddess Hathor rested while on a procession commemorating a winter solstice myth. In this myth Hathor fled south to Nubia after an argument with Re (and as his Eye she took the light of the sun with her), and then Thoth was sent to persuade her to return (and so to bring the sun back to Egypt). And you can see how the temple decoration was updated by the people of the time – adding ibises and baboons as red ink graffiti.

It’s the sense of the whole sweep of history and the way you can see (even as an amateur) how there was both continuity and evolution of culture across the millennia that makes el Kab so fascinating to visit. Vulture Rock was the place to leave one’s mark, even if the rationale behind it must’ve been different for the first person to carve as compared to the carvers of the Ptolemaic Period inscriptions with all that weight of history around them. The temples weren’t static (or rebuilt as a single event by kingly decree), they evolved in meaning and were altered in less formal ways to suit. Even the tombs underwent some evolution: parts would always have been open to visitors so that they could leave offerings for the deceased, and these have graffiti from centuries after the initial burial, sometimes reinterpreting this ancient tomb as a shrine to a minor deity. This happened everywhere, of course, I just found that I could feel it at el Kab.

Resources used:

“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt Before the Pharaohs” Michael A. Hoffman
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Travellers and Pilgrims Under the Last Pharaohs: Recent Investigations by the Oxford Expedition to Elkab” Luigi Prada (talk given at the October 2019 meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and written up on my other blog)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“Tombs and Temples of El Kab: Current Fieldwork and Research”; Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day 2 June 2018

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Beautiful Are the Places of Unas

My bonus article for March is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about the pyramid of Unas: Beautiful Are the Places of Unas.

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All the Common People Adore the Pharaoh

When you visit an Egyptian temple and look around at the decoration one motif you’ll often see repeated on columns and near the bases of walls is of a bird with its wings twisted behind its back. It also has human arms, raised up towards a star (and often beyond that a cartouche of a Pharaoh) and it sits on what looks like a bowl or nest. This is what the Egyptians called a rekhyt bird, easily recognisable by the distinctive crest on its head – we call it a lapwing, it’s a species of plover called Vanellus vanellus.

Rekhyt Bird Motif

One of the first surviving representations of the rekhyt bird is from around the time of the unification of Egypt into a single country. The Scorpion macehead is a large ceremonial macehead decorated on the surviving part with a scene of a man wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt performing some sort of agricultural ceremony. This is King Scorpion, hence the name of the macehead. The part of the decorative scheme we’re interested in today is the top frame of the scene which consists of a row of poles and from each pole swings a rekhyt bird on a rope, hung by the neck. It’s actually a pretty brutal image for a decorative motif, particularly once you know that these birds are generally thought to represent the peoples of Northern Egypt who were being conquered during the unification of the country. Even John Romer, who tends towards a peaceful interpretation whenever he can, sees this as indicating that “the relationship between the court and the people of the Lower Nile may have been somewhat fraught.”!

The next depiction we have of rekhyt birds is less overtly brutal, but nonetheless indicative of oppression. They show up on the base of a large standing statue of the 3rd Dynasty king Djoser (the builder of the Step Pyramid). As his statue strides forth it is walking directly on a depiction of nine bows, a motif found throughout Pharaonic Egyptian art representing the enemies of Egypt. Once Djoser takes his next step onward from crushing his enemies he will stand on a row of 3 bound rekhyt birds, crushing them in their turn. Here the birds are juxtaposed with the enemies of Egypt, rather than being one of them and it’s generally assumed that they now (or always did?) represent the whole of the common people of Egypt – the king’s subjects, who also needed to be kept in their place under the sandal of the king.

It’s not all oppression and death when it comes to rekhyt birds in the Old Kingdom, though. They are also found depicted as part of the scenes of idealised wildlife that were part of the decorative scheme for the mastaba tombs of the elite. Here the birds are alive, and shown flying or sitting in nests. There’s even a case where a child (or perhaps woman) is shown carrying one by its wings – perhaps a pet bird? In the Middle Kingdom there are very few depictions of rekhyt birds, whether as symbolic people or as representations of living things. But when we get to the New Kingdom and on into the Ptolemaic Period & beyond there is a great renewal of enthusiasm for representations of the bird, as seen on the temple walls that still survive. Most of the books I looked at said that the rekhyt bird was used as a way of indicating to the common people where they could stand in a temple when they were let into the outer areas during festivals – a useful visual cue for the illiterate. Kenneth Griffin disagrees because the motif also appears deep inside the temple where only priests could enter, he thinks it’s more plausible that it’s part of making the temple into a model of the cosmos – if you’re symbolising the whole of the world then you need to represent the common people as well even in areas that they were too profane to actually enter in person.

But that’s not the only way the rekhyt bird was used during these periods of Egyptian history. The motif I described at the beginning of this article is a rebus – a collection of symbols that has a meaning as well as being decorative. The bowl shape that the bird sits on is the neb hieroglyph and it means “all”. The 5-pointed star is the dwa hieroglyph which represents the verb “to adore”, which is backed up by the (human) arms of the bird that are raised in the traditional gesture of worship. In this context the bird itself is most likely to represent the common people of Egypt and so the motif reads “All the common people adore…”. In a temple context there’s often a pair of these motifs facing each other with a cartouche in the middle – so the common people are adoring the Pharaoh named in the cartouche. In a palace it’s thought that the tiles with rekhyt birds on them would face towards doors or thrones, directing their adoration at the actual king.

There is still a strong flavour of subjugation to the relationship between king and the rekhyt-people in this motif. They might adore him, but they still get shown on his footstool (there’s an example from Tutankhamun’s tomb) alongside the enemies he’s placing his feet on. And they’re definitely not shown as free. The pose of the bird, sort of lying down on its legs with its wings crossed over behind its back, doesn’t look terribly comfortable – in fact it’s rather reminiscent of the imagery of a bound captive also found in Egyptian art & writing. You can apparently still find ducks in Egyptian markets in the modern day trussed up like this – it not only stops them flying away but it also stops them from standing up properly so they sit there in the same pose as the rekhyt birds waiting for the cook pot.

A salutary reminder that the Egyptian monarch brought order out of chaos by imposing it from the top down and at the business end of a mace. All the common people adore the king, if they know what’s good for them.

Resources used:

“Images of the Rekhyt from Ancient Egypt” Kenneth Griffin (Ancient Egypt Magazine 7: 2)
“A Reinterpretation of the Use and Function of the Rekhyt Rebus in New Kingdom Temples” Kenneth Griffin, Current Research in Egyptology 2006, 2007
“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” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson


My bonus article for January is available on Patreon for my subscribers at all tiers and is about Amenemhat III’s second pyramid: Hawara.

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Peace, Calm and a War God

My bonus article for August is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about the temple at el-Tod: Peace, Calm and a War God.

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