Image: The Narmer Palette
The Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago is presenting an exhibition titled “Before the Pyramids: The Origins of Egyptian Civilization.” The purpose of the exhibition is to illustrate the story of the emergence of Egypt as a nation-state five thousands years ago.
The exhibit highlights the reign of Narmer. Pharaoh Narmer is considered by many scholars to be the unifier of Egypt and the founder of the First Dynasty. Narmer was the first Pharaoh of unified Egypt.
To promote the exhibition, the Chicago Tribune has published an article by Toby Wilkinson titled “Egypt’s Echoes of the Ancients.” Wilkinson is an Egyptologist and a fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge, England. He is the author of the book The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.
Below is an excerpt from the article in which he details the times and reign of Narmer:
This was a remote era indeed: the Great Pyramid of Giza would not be built for another 500 years; Tutankhamen’s glittering reign was still 1,700 years away; Cleopatra’s 3,000. The pharaoh who inspired the Oriental Institute exhibition (and the first ruler of the First Egyptian dynasty), King Narmer, is unknown to many outside Egyptology. Yet the pattern of government he established would characterize Egypt, not just for the duration of pharaonic civilization but, arguably, up to the present day.
Like all governments, Narmer’s was primarily interested in economic matters. An unbaked clay sealing in the exhibit bearing Narmer’s royal cipher demonstrates the eagerness of rulers throughout history to — quite literally — stamp their mark on the means of production and exchange. But if the exercise of power meant the control of wealth, power could only be won by political and military means. Narmer was, at heart, a successful army commander.
On the most famous monument to survive from his reign, a ceremonial stone palette (now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square), Narmer is shown smiting a bound captive and inspecting rows of defeated enemies. In a further metaphor of the king’s power, a wild bull is shown tearing down the walls of a hostile town and trampling one of its citizens underfoot.
Narmer’s political strategy was as clear and uncompromising as his art: By defeating his political rivals within the Nile Valley, he forged a unified state with himself as its ruler; by promulgating a personality cult and controlling the written record, Narmer made himself the sole focus of national unity. From now on, opposing the ruler was deemed threatening to the very stability and integrity of the country. Sound familiar?
Read the article in its entirety by visiting the Chicago Tribune here.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary