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The formation of the ancient Egyptian state

Egyptologists in the early twentieth century interpreted the formation of the Egyptian state as a Darwinian process: the desiccation of the Sahara forced people into the Nile Valley, which gradually led to the development of villages, then ‘chiefdoms’. Over time, the chiefdoms were absorbed into two major Kingdoms, Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley), and Lower Egypt (the Delta). The two were united by the king Meni, who heads the Egyptian king lists. This process appears to have been achieved largely through military action and political marriages.

The formation of Egyptian civilization should be seen within a context of evidence from the whole of north-east Africa and western Asia. The evidence from Nubia shows a parallel development of stratified society there, and strong contacts with Upper Egypt, just as the evidence from the Delta indicates trade and contacts with Western Asia and Mesopotamia. In Upper Egypt the phases are named after the important site of Naqada, just north of Thebes. Our knowledge of the Predynastic era has been greatly enhanced by two sites of excavation – Nekhen and Aydos.

Early excavations at Nekhen found major monuments, such as ceremonial mace heads and slate palettes, which had been dedicated by the early ‘proto-pharaohs’, ‘Scorpion’ and Narmer. Many of the regalia and attributes of the pharaonic monarchy appear in the later Naqada phases: crowns, the bull’s tail attached to the belt, sandals, mace of club, flail and staffs. The evidence suggested that Nekhen rose to be the dominant kingdom of Upper Egypt and eventually conquered the north. More recent material excavated in the cemetery of Abydos suggests that the region of Tjeny may have supplanted Nekhen as the most important place in Upper Egypt a century or more before unification

In the Naqada II period (3800-3300 BC), there were major centres throughout Upper Egypt from Nekhen in the south to Abydos and Matmar, extending into northern Middle Egypt. By this phase, there was increasing social stratification to be seen in the cemetery sites at Abydos, Naqada and Nekhen. The elite burials are increasingly large and complex, employing mud-brick in their construction, and their contents reveal wide-ranging trading contacts with Nubia ad the Delta, and through the Delta with western Asia and Mesopotamia.

It is unclear what brought about this social change. Some archaeologists suggest that the more limited land available in Upper Egypt could have led to conflict and competition, hence providing the impetus for social complexity. The Naqada culture appears to have developed as the environment became more arid, forcing the cattle herders of the margins into the Nile Valley, where the population consisted mainly of fishermen and hunter gatherers. Indeed, the Egytian kingship displays strong similarities with that of East African cattle cultures.

Another important factor was the development of long-distance trade, and exploitation of resources. The Naqada II phase shows the beginning of urban centres as elite residences and also ceremonial and production centres. There is considerable evidence for craft specialization and for trade in gold and copper from the Eastern Desert. Seal impressions suggest the beginning of the administrative system. In the second half of the Naqada II phase the towns at Naqada and Nekhen were enclosed with walls, protecting the new centres of wealth.

The external contacts of Upper Egypt are important. The old idea of the ‘Dynastic Race’ has been abandoned now, but contacts with Sumer and Elam re revealed by artistic themes. How these contacts were effected is still controversial, and they may have been indirect. It is easier to document the very strong links with the culture of Lower Nubia.

In the Delta region, the dominant culture is named after the two sites of Maadi near Cairo and Buto in the western Delta. This Maadi-based culture had strong links with Canaan in South western Asia. There were also settled groups of people from the same regions, indicated by the local production of south Levantine vessels at Buto itself, and the evidence of a small number of houses of the Canaanite Beersheba culture on the outskirts of the Maadi settlement. There were certainly trading links across Sinai and exploitation of Sinai’s resources.

In the late Naqada II period, the Upper Egyptian culture expanded Northwards into that of Maadi-Buto. There is no evidence to indicate that this was a military conquest as was previously assumed. The result was a single state (the Naqada III phase) and an homogenous culture throughout Egypt. Large quantities of imported Canaanite storage and wine jars are not found in tombs. Vine cultivation was introduced into the Delta towards the end of the Naqada II period, and became an important feature of Egyptian agriculture. The Egyptians bureaucratic system also manifests itself at this time, with standardized and locally made wine jars in royal and elite burials.

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