Late Predynastic Period (3300-3100 BC)
Development of the Egyptian Political System in Naqada II-III
In the Naqada III Period (33-3100 BC) Egypt experienced a period of rapid change and growth, contemporary with the late Uruk period of Mesopotamia, which drew on political and ideological features already in place to create the institutional base of Egyptian Pharaonic Civilization.
The Centers of Power
1. The evolution of Egyptian political structure is best seen in the emergence of four important local centers by the Naqada III period. These centers were expressions of a single evolving process and their interaction and competition played an important role in shaping subsequent Egyptian history.
2. The early “urban” centers of Naqada, Hierakonpolis and Abydos in Upper Egypt and the settlement center of Qustul, in Lower Nubia illustrate the emergence of the Upper Egyptian system and reveal that in the late predynastic period Egyptian civilization coalesced around a group of towns, each with its surrounding rural hinterland. This early urban pattern never evolved into the Mesopotamian form with its many city-states. Instead, although there were always important towns, these were relatively small in number compared with Sumer and, following the end of Naqada III and the formation of the Egyptian “state” were never again autonomous.
3. Qustul was the center of a social development, archaeologically known as the Nubia A-Group Culture, located in today’s northern Sudan, that rivaled Upper Egypt in its early development of social complexity, hierarchical society, and centralized government headed probably by a powerful elite individual and his retainers. Qustul, a large settlement, was the center of the Nubia A kingdom to the south of Egypt, which shared some of its culture and centralized and hierarchical developments. Qustul contained a large cemetery with elaborate royal tombs that held offerings decorated in the iconography of Upper Egypt; they also included cattle burials that appear in Hierakonpolis at the same time, indicating cultural connections and/or diffusion. It is probable that the rulers of Nubia A-Group became powerful by controlling the routes by which the small early Upper Egyptian polities acquired valued commodities from further south in Africa (gold, ebony, incense ostrich eggs), and shared with their northern neighbors in the moves towards social complexity. Upper Egyptians conquered the Nubia A-Group Culture at the end of the predynastic period, probably so that the Egyptian rulers could directly control the trade with the south.
4. Naqada. This town with origins back into the Naqada I (Badarian) was located near the mouth of the Wadi Hammamat on the great eastward bend of the Nile in southern Egypt. The town was thus ideally located to access the minerals of the Red Sea Hills and the coast of the Red Sea for maritime communication (with the east?). The large cemeteries associated with Naqada indicate that by the Naqada III period rulers were being buried in brick lined double chambers with large quantities of offerings of ceremonial and subsistence goods, a practice that continued to evolve into the pharaonic period. The local god of Naqada was Seth, a divinity of great importance in the emergence of divine kingship and the principal divinity of Upper Egypt in the historic period.
5. Hierakonpolis was also founded in the early dynastic period. Hierakonpolis was the largest Naqada III town, and was probably the dominant center during much of the later predynastic period. Archaeological investigation shows that the town clustered around a limestone temple with another religious compound located in the nearby desert, both dedicated to the god Horus who was to become central to Egyptian divine kingship and a rival of his “brother” Seth. The Hierakonpolis ruler’s “painted tomb” with its symbols of leadership (see below) indicates the evolving concepts of kingship at this time.
6. Abydos founded in Naqada III (later than other sites) as a large town reveals the connection between the concentration of power and urbanism in the late predynastic period. At very end of period Abydos became ascendant over Hierakonpolis and Naqada and its center of This furnished the kings of United Egypt. The earliest kings were buried in multi-chambered tombs that seem in their general form to replicate the plan of the king’s palace. This pattern suggests that the concept of royal divinity was already coalescing and being expressed in funerary ritual with belief that the ruler still required the material forms of life such as his home and furnishings in the afterlife. Abydos maintained its importance into the early dynasties of pharaonic Egypt and many of the early kings of united Egypt were buried there.
Economy and Technology
1. Part of the stimulus of the rapid late predynastic movement towards political complexity and unification was economic. The Upper Egyptian urban centers mentioned above utilized raw resources from nearby (Red Sea Hills/ Eastern Desert) and from afar (Central Africa/ Palestine/Sinai/Syria/ possibly Mesopotamia) and developed an economic system to acquire these resources and, when possible, to directly control them.
2. There is abundant evidence of contacts with Mesopotamia in the iconography, cylinder seals, of the Uruk and Susa cultures that appear in Upper Egypt. Likewise there is plenty of evidence in Naqada III of Upper Egyptian trade with Syria and Palestine. This is especially apparent in the numerous foreign vessels of the royal graves, especially at Abydos (U-j), probably used for importation of wine. Shows that even before unification there was considerable contact between Upper and Lower Egypt and between both and the southern Levant, Syria, and Sinai. This trade was partially by land from Palestine and probably partly by sea from Syria down the eastern Mediterranean coast to the Delta.
3. Craft specialization and technological development indicate emergence of specialized craftsmen working for the rulers of Upper Egyptian towns. The introduction of a new ceramic technology in late Naqada II times at Hierakonpolis using desert clays required more precise firing controls and higher firing temperature than did alluvial clay. The use of this involved technique to produce large quantities of funerary ware indicates the rise of specialists attached to the ruler’s courts. This Upper Egyptian pottery began to infiltrate into Lower Egypt in Naqada III showing cultural intrusion prior to the unification. This probably facilitated the changes towards social complexity seen at the end of the Lower Egyptian sequence. Also the presence of a site in eastern Delta with solely Upper Egyptian pottery gives indication of a “trading colony” for the Palestinian trade even before unification. Thus economic needs may well have prepared the way for political domination of the north by southern polities.
1. There was increased emphasis on "powerfacts" in Naqada III - elaborate symbolic items that either depict elite rule or symbolize wealth and status (contrast with northern egalitarian tradition).
2. Royal iconography appears early in the Naqada sequence. Stone Palettes and elaborately carved ivory knife handles incorporate Mesopotamian iconography in a peculiarly Egyptian symbolic context. Elsewhere, the Upper Egyptian king is presented in animal form, symbolizing his coercive power and identification with the powers of nature. The practice of depicting the king in large size begins at this time, while elaborate pottery, figurines; decorative and ceremonial items illustrate existence of sophisticated and complex royal courts.
3. The “Painted Tomb” of Hierakonpolis displays several expressions of royalty: the Hero Figure borrowed from Mesopotamia, the procession of boats with the royal person on board forecasts later royal ritual processions on the Nile (as does the Gebelein painted cloth); the ruler smiting a group of bound captives forecasts the typical ruler motif of the pharaohs.
4. These iconographic elements show that at end of Naqada II- Naqada III many of the motifs of pharaonic ideology were already coalescing into an Upper Egyptian ideological system of central power nearly 300 years before the dynastic period began.
At this early period writing is embryonic, mostly consisting of a few characters that chiefly mark the property of the elite and most commonly to relate events of importance to the king (contrast with commercial use in Sumer). However, this early pattern continued into the subsequent periods when writing became primarily an adjunct of central ideology and political authority. As such writing in its pictorial (hieroglyphic) form was used to embellish the great monuments of state power with the accomplishments and status of the king, divine kingship, and Egyptian religion. A more flexible form of writing – cursive – was developed by the Old kingdom and primarily used by a class of specialized scribes kept the official records of the state and the accounting records necessary to control the far-reaching economy, writing on papyrus paper. However, writing as part of commercial transactions at all level society in the Mesopotamian sense did not emerge until much later in Egyptian history.
Mechanisms of Unification
1. Up until Gerzean (Naqada II) period the process toward hierarchy and specialization (social complexity) evolved slowly. However, the pace changed drastically in the Naqada III period when small walled towns emerged in context of competition, warfare, and struggle for economic control of distant resources used for status items – the artifacts of power.
2. The surge of Mesopotamian and Levantine contact and influence also provided an economic and prestige boost to aspiring local elites. Probably local elites used the prestige gained from control of distant status symbols and trade to heighten their own ideological and economic status in a way characteristic of chiefs. This control also placed them in a powerful position as distributors of wealth to their retainers.
3. The growing power of local elites also affected the status of local religious cults. Their association with expansionist political centers gave them increasing importance as formal ideological systems, while their local divinities gained power as the successful supernatural facilitators of the consolidating system. In turn these expanded religious systems gave justification and support for the continued growth of royal authority. Over time the local divinities and rulers became members of a divine pantheon central to the existence of the Egyptian state and society while the growing need for more prominent symbols of the system stimulated the elaboration of funerary ritual with its associated conspicuous consumption of symbolism and wealth.
4. All of this Resulted in emergence of local elites in the Upper Egyptian towns competing for power & using combination of warfare, economic and religious formation to create political power, a process that was in general terms quite similar to that of Early Dynastic Mesopotamia at a slightly later period. However, it resulted in very different type of political structure - one of a unified state headed by a divine king as the various local centers were gradually incorporated into the kingdom headed by the kings of This (Abydos) and all of the local divinities and cults merged into a single cosmic and transcendental religion.
5. It appears that after the end of the Naqada II (Gerzean) period rulers of Upper Egypt first unified under strong leaders from Hierakonpolis (Horus cult), who seized dominance from Naqada (Seth Cult). Later the Hierakonpolis leaders, either moved their capital to a new town Abydos (This), or other rulers established the new town and adopted the cult of Horus from Hierakonpolis. The rulers of Abydos (This) then conquered Lower Egypt, with their town becoming the first capital of united Egypt and its god Horus the central symbol of its kingship.
6. It is not entirely certain when this unification occurred. It is quite possible that in the century or less from 3100 BC – a series of Upper Egyptian Kings gradually unified Upper Egypt then the north in a series of raids and withdrawals. This is the period now known as Dynasty 0 with such little-known kings as the Scorpion King and Ka participating in the process. It is now more certain that the slightly later founder of the First Dynasty (3000- 2800) – Narmer – ruled a united Egypt. These were probably descendants of rulers of Abydos – the Thiite Kings who founded a second, northern capital at Memphis but continued to build their funerary monuments in Upper Egypt at Abydos.
7. Subsequent to the unification in the 2nd Dynasty (2800 BC) the kings of Egypt moved the site of their principal funerary monuments north to Saqqara near the new northern capital Memphis. However, two of these kings were buried back at Abydos, suggesting internal tension (Peribsen who identified with the Seth Cult & Khasekhemwy) in the dynasty and the continued, though ultimately diminishing political prestige of Abydos. It is possible that permanent unification did not occur until the later 2nd Dynasty after an earlier period of unity under Narmer and his 1st Dynasty successors.