Ancient Egypt before the Pharoahs

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Egypt before the Pharaohs

By Gamal Nkrumah

Dynastic Egypt, the classical “Two Lands” of the Pharaohs, did not miraculously spring fully ordered in all its fabled splendour. It took some five millennia before 3,500 BC for the inhabitants of the Nile Valley and Delta of Egypt to reach the cultural attainments now instantly and universally recognisable as unique to dynastic Egypt. There is abundant archaeological evidence of several predynastic kingdoms in Upper Egypt. It is commonly acknowledged that at least rudimentary political structures existed in Upper Egypt about 7,000 years ago. Because of the rise in the water table, it is rather more difficult to ascertain whether similar kingdoms existed in the Delta.

So, who were the people whose culture laid the seeds of the very first nation-state in recorded history? There is scarce, but categorical, evidence of very ancient human presence in Nubia and Upper Egypt. Early Paleolithic — Stone Age — hand axes believed to be over 70,000 years old were found in the vicinity of Abu Simbel, Nubia. But skeletal remains dating to that very distant past are yet to be discovered. How and why did the Nile Valley’s Neolithic, or late Stone Age, hunter-gatherers who had started experimenting with agriculture and animal husbandry, so rapidly progress to urbanisation and state formation at a time when the rest of humanity slumbered in prehistory? A precise answer is still a matter of conjecture.

However, Egyptologists all agree that the bounty of the lush Nile Valley was instrumental to the luxuriant flowering of Ancient Egypt. The Sahara was not always a desolate wasteland. Some 10,000 years ago, the Sahara received considerably more rain than it does today, permitting a savanna-like vegetation of open grasslands peppered with shrubs and trees, much like the East African plains of today. And, like their modern counterpart in East Africa, the Sahara was teaming with game and nomadic people who herded cattle — perhaps the first to do so in all of Africa — and roamed the savanna in search of grazing land. For watering cattle, they congregated along the banks of lakes. One such former lake is Nabta Playa — a mere 45 kilometres west of Ramses II’s temple of Abu Simbel. Today the site where these people performed their religious rituals is marked by a circle of small upright stone slabs only four metres in diameter. The curious circle looks like a miniature replica of England’s Stonehenge except that it was set up some 2,000 years earlier. Perhaps, these nomadic Saharan people were the ancestors of the early Nile Valley inhabitants?

There is evidence to suggest that around 6,000 years ago, these nomadic desert-dwellers left the Sahara Desert as it turned into the barren waste it now is and journeyed towards the life-giving waters of the River Nile and the lush Valley where first they practised hunting and gathering and gradually with the annual inundation that occurred every summer, year after year, they turned to settled agriculture. It seems that they journeyed along the tributaries of the Nile or wadi, today’s dried-up watercourses, until they reached the banks of the great river itself. The cultural remains of these prehistoric people can be traced in places like Wadi Es-Sebua, Abu Simbel and Toshka, 160 kilometres south of Aswan.

Nevertheless, the earliest human skeletal remains in Egypt’s Nile Valley were found in Jabal Sahaba, Nubia, and is some 12,000 years old. An excellent venue, therefore, in which to kick-start an exploration of predynastic cultural remains is the Nubian Museum of Aswan. The impetus for early predynastic cultural advancement in all probability came from the Khartoum Mesolithic people around 6,000 BC. These were the first people to domesticate cattle and cultivate cereal crops in the Nile Valley. In the Nubian Museum, Aswan, you can sample some of the ceramics, decorated ostrich-eggs and rock-carvings of these predynastic people. The principal material remains of these people are their stone tools, jewellery and numerous rock paintings, showing the animals they hunted. (See exhibition zones C, D and E, which display an interesting array of tools, utensils and handicrafts of the earliest inhabitants of the Nile Valley.)

The cultural influences of the Khartoum Mesolithic people appear to have drifted northwards, along the banks of the River Nile, into Lower Nubia and Upper Egypt over the next millennium. In the process, the Mesolithic cultures evolved into more advanced Neolithic culture. Between 5,500 BC and 3,100 BC, a number of successive Neolithic cultures in both Lower Egypt and, especially, Upper Egypt evolved into large, hierarchical and well organised communities. They excelled in the crafts of basketry, weaving, the tanning of animal hides and their pottery in particular was of outstanding quality. These cultures were the forerunners of dynastic Egypt. Many of the cultural features that later came to characterise dynastic Egypt originated first in predynastic Egypt. In the last stages of predynastic Egypt, sometimes referred to in literature as protodynastic Egypt, predynastic culture resembled dynastic, especially Old Kingdom, culture in more ways than one. Predynastic culture was fast acquiring those specificities that we today instantly recognise as characteristic of dynastic Egypt: an obsession with tombs and the afterlife, a preponderance of animal deities, a centralised government and the appurtenances of statehood, the first etchings of hieroglyphics, royal symbols and religious iconography. The provincial administrative divisions in dynastic times, which the Greeks called nomes, perhaps even represented the clan totems or fetishes of predynastic Egypt. Against this backdrop emerged the earliest urbanised societies in the world.

In the late Paleolithic period, from 25,000 BC, Egypt was inhabited by egalitarian nomadic bands who lived in small temporary camps close to the Nile and depended for their survival on hunting and fishing. Their material means of existence differed little from similar groups of Stone Age hunter-gatherers the world over. Beginning in 5,500 BC, Egypt’s nomadic bands began to build permanent settlements focused around agriculture, particularly the growing of cereal grains like wheat and barley. By the Neolithic period, the trend towards the establishment of more settled societies accelerated to such an extent that these people began to boldly experiment with stone, mud, metals, wood and leather to produce useful household utensils and artifacts.

The first nomadic tribesmen dwelt in temporary camps of reed or grass huts and moved with the seasons. They appeared to be acutely aware of the ebbing and subsiding of the Nile and sensibly built settlements that avoided the inundation. The mound, so prominent a feature in the creation myths and legends of dynastic Egypt, must have assumed special importance in predynastic times. The people, however, came in close proximity to the river in spite of the annual flood because it was a rich source of food. Later, they discovered that it was not only their lifeline, but a convenient highway as well. Most of their settlements were located at the edge of the floodplain. Rock-shelters were also used, and towards the end of the fourth millennium BC permanent settlements, on mounds, had become the norm. Very occasionally, the settlements even had one or two stone houses.

By 4,000 BC Neolithic communities ceased being organised into hunting bands, discarded the nomadic way of life and became settled agriculturists, artisans and traders. By this time, as their graves so graphically suggest, they were clearly divided into rulers and ruled, rich and poor. While hunting was no longer the only way of life, the early inhabitants of the Nile Valley held tenaciously to their animal totems — the falcon, the vulture, the ibis, the frog, the snake, the crocodile, the lioness, the hound and the hippopotamus. These were to emerge as gods in dynastic times. With urbanisation and settled agriculture came social organisation and a rigidly hierarchical society. The seeds of the hierarchical Pharaonic civilisation, with god-king or Pharaoh at the apex and commoners making up the base, were sown.

No study of predynastic Egypt can be complete without a reference to the work of the Father of Pots, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, a British archaeologist who meticulously unearthed the pots and grave goods of the predynastic period. Even though Petrie’s work was not confined to the predynastic, he was perhaps the first Egyptologist to scrupulously jot down notes about the predynastic objects he excavated.

Around 4,000 BC some of the finest and most elegant pottery were being produced in Upper Egypt. They were of a far superior quality to the pots produced in the Delta. At first the predynastic people of the Delta tried to imitate Upper Egyptian pottery but differences were eventually blurred when during the protodynastic period — the two or three centuries immediately preceding dynastic Egypt, Upper Egyptian kings overran the Delta and ultimately united the Two Lands. The Delta people then adopted the ways of the culturally dominant Upper Egyptian people. Indigenous pottery from the Delta ceased to exist and was replaced by pottery from Upper Egypt. Even the Delta houses ceased to be made of the traditional bundled papyrus and mats. The vanquished Lower Egyptians began to build their houses with mud bricks like those of the conquerors from the South, a style widely regarded as the prototype for dynastic houses. Several clay models of houses discovered in Hieraconpolis graves closely resembled future Old Kingdom dwellings. Other Upper Egyptian customs and traditions, like placing valuable grave goods with the deceased, were adopted by the people of the Delta. This particular custom emerged as an essential feature of dynastic Egyptian culture. Once set in place, the Egyptian civilisation was to prevail in all the splendour of its cardinal characteristics for the next 4,000 years.

Unconventional pottery, some with elaborate decoration, and an extraordinary ivory comb (bottom left) are among the finds in the new Nubia Museum in Aswan
Ivory comb

Archaeologists divide the predynastic period into separate stages of development. The first relatively sophisticated Neolithic culture in Egypt proper, as opposed to Nubia, was of a people today commonly described as Badarians, in reference to the site at the village of Al-Badari, to the immediate south of Assiut, Upper Egypt, where many of their cultural remains were found. Next came the Amratian and Gerzean civilisations, also referred to as Naqada I and Naqada II — a site a few kilometres north of Luxor, where an impressive array of their cultural remains was located. The Amratians and especially the Gerzeans displayed an even more sophisticated cultural distinction than the Badarians. The Gerzean Civilisation can be regarded as the immediate forerunner of dynastic Egypt.

You can view all these people’s beautiful handicrafts at various museums abroad: The British Museum, London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, are among the best-stocked. In Egypt, the Nubian Museum, Aswan, the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; and hopefully the Maadi predynastic Museum, Cairo, which will open its doors to the public soon.

In Egypt, the Chalcolithic Period, sometimes also called Primitive predynastic, saw the emergence of Badarian agrarians. The Badarian culture also witnessed the first beginnings of stonemasonry in Egypt, which differed qualitatively from the primitive art of Stone Age toolmaking that had existed for millennia. The Badarians appear to have lived in shelters made of animal skins and dressed also in animal skins. They were skilled artisans who, while not entirely giving up hunting, bartered trade goods, had began to experiment with agriculture, and domesticated many animals. The Badarians obviously were a gregarious people who, judging from the artifacts they left behind, were fond of dance. The preponderance of female figurines in Badarian tombs hint at a more matrilineal political system or female-oriented religion than that which prevailed in Egypt in dynastic times, when male-gods predominated. Dancer figurines, mostly female, with upraised arms were common in graves. Perhaps these figurines represented the original belly dancers. Such figures are now scattered in museums all over the world. One especially expressive and mirthful figurine is deposited at the Musée de Lyon, France. Other figures are to be found in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; the Musée du Louvre, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Art, Boston; the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Museum; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; and several museums in London including the Victoria and Albert; the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology; and the British Museum.

The Badarians’ wardrobe must have been essentially a collection of animal skins. But strong evidence suggests that the Badarians discovered the loom and were, therefore, producing textiles as well. A pottery dish depicting a horizontal ground-loom was found at a tomb at Al-Badari. The earliest known Egyptian flax and Neolithic linen goes back to the Badarian period.

The Badarians also cleverly crafted combs of ivory, bone and wood which are remarkably reminiscent of traditional African combs. But perhaps the most impressive feature of Badarian culture was their highly distinctive pottery. Of superlative quality, the Badarians’ pottery was of a reddish brown finish and the tops were burned black, by being inverted in the ashes of the kiln. The walls of the Badarian ceramics were fired to something of a metallic hardness even though they were often eggshell-thin.

But the handiwork of the Badarians pale into relative insignificance when compared with those of its two successor civilisations — the Amratian and the Gerzean. The first is named for the site at Al Amra (or Naqada I) in the vicinity of modern Luxor. Naqada, 30 kilometres north of Luxor, is one of the most important predynastic sites in Egypt. Carpentry and furniture-making began in earnest during the Amratian period. In time, objects began to be made not just with function in mind, but with aesthetic value as well. The beautiful black-topped pottery so characteristic of the time was produced in abundance.

Around 4,500 BC this new, dynamic and relatively sophisticated culture known today as Naqada I or the Amratian Period, produced veritable works of art. There was a distinct change in pottery decorations. Previously ceramics were decorated by simple geometric designs and bold bands of paint. But, in the Amratian period, the ever more complex designs that were not just purely functional came into vogue. Among the grave goods the Amratians left behind were solemn-looking cloaked and bearded male figures in ivory and clay. These figures are instantly recognisable as the antecedent of Osiris Lord of the Dead, Resurrection and Rebirth. Such figures are also reminiscent of the tightly-fitted Hed-Seb ceremonial dress of dynastic Pharaohs.

The Amratians grew Emmer wheat and baked bread. Food production gradually became a more sophisticated process and the domestication of cattle was firmly established by the fourth millennium. The Amratians traded with the peoples of Nubia, the Red Sea, the Delta and the Levant, perhaps even further afield.

One of the most important predynastic trading settlements was in the southern Cairo suburb of Maadi. A distinctly Maadi feature was the burial of dogs and gazelles. There is evidence of the extensive use of copper in the Maadi predynastic settlement. Copper was hammered cold and shaped into pins and harpoon heads. Such objects are found in the Maadi predynastic Museum, Cairo. Trade with the people of Sinai and Palestine was crucial to the economic well-being of the Maadi settlement. Donkeys were used as draft animals. Palestinian pottery and other artifacts from the Levant were found in abundance in Maadi. Jewellery and artifacts for personal adornment show a marked level of artistry. Moreover, the strong and astonishingly intact samples of teeth reveal that the people of predynastic Maadi had an exceptionally healthy and varied diet of grain, fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products.

Other important and distinct predynastic cultures in Lower Egypt were found in Fayoum and Merimda in the Delta. A notable feature of Lower Egyptian predynastic sites like Maadi, Fayoum and Merimda is that they were once living quarters or trading settlements as opposed to the primarily grave sites of Upper Egypt.

The third stage of predynastic cultural development began at around 4,000 BC and is referred to as the Gerzean Period or Naqada III, in reference to the village of Gerzah halfway between Saqqara and Fayoum, on the western bank of the Nile. But the Gerzean predynastic culture spanned a long stretch of the Nile in Lower, Middle and Upper Egypt. In Hemamiya, just south of Assiut, Badarian artifacts were found beneath Amratian and Gerzean levels, suggesting a strong sense of continuity of predynastic cultures.

Artifacts from the Gerzean Period, however, are decidedly different from those produced in the earlier Amratian and Badarian periods. The difference between the Gerzean and the two other cultures is perhaps most marked in ceramics. Gerzean pottery was produced along not merely functional lines. The aesthetic or decorative aspect of ceramics became the hallmark of Gerzean culture. Geometric motifs on ceramics dating to the Gerzean period could be interpreted as a form of early writing. Gerzean exquisitely painted desert-hunting scenes and animals such as the ostrich and the inex abound. Another favourite object depicted on Gerzean ceramics was the boat.

The art of dyeing, using natural colours of local origin, was known in Egypt as early as the Gerzean period, with the textile fibres spun and then dyed. Spinning and weaving were practised in ancient Egypt from the Neolithic period, technical evidence being afforded by depiction, models and the surviving artifacts. But it is beginning of the Gerzean times that the art of dressmaking approached the excellence of dynastic times. Spare clothing for the afterlife was an archaic Egyptian custom, and dates back to the Gerzean Period when hanks of yarn were traditionally placed with the body of the deceased. Copper and silver needles and pins with loop heads are some of the surviving objects that were in everyday usage during the Gerzean period.

The Hierakonpolis Expedition uncovered a brewery, perhaps what is Egypt’s earliest temple destined to become the prototype for dynastic Egyptian temples. The predynastic rulers of Hierakonpolis were in all probability the kings who eventually united all Egypt: Delta and Nile Valley. Surviving dwellings from the predynastic periods are uncommon and a rare exception, however, is the house and workshop of a potter who signed his pots in one of Egypt’s earliest urban settlements — Hierakonpolis, the Falcon city. Hierakonpolis was a sprawling settlement of over 11 acres on the desert’s edge. The potter’s subterranean rectangular house was burnt down after what appears to be a devastating fire. The potter wisely rebuilt his house in stone. Because of the fossilised remains of the potter’s house, we are able to glimpse something of the architectural creativity of the late predynastic period.

Among the most important items left behind by these predynastic people were palettes of slate for grinding cosmetics — many in the shape of animals, birds and fish. Boats were the dominant theme of the pottery of the late predynastic, or protodynastic times. Naval battles were also depicted as on the handle of a knife discovered at Jabal Al-Arak. The names of certain predynastic kings such as Scorpion were depicted in a serekh, or cartouche, like their dynastic counterparts. By this time, of course, it is not entirely clear whether we are still talking of predynastic times. For it is at that historical moment that the predynastic, or protodynastic, metamorphosed into the far more familiar dynastic Egypt.

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