Egyptian history constitutes an awesome period of time. Including the Ptolemies, it covers at least three thousand years (c.3100-30 BC). By contrast, the Roman Emperor Augustus
was living just two thousand years ago. Only China, with a continuous history since the Shang (c.1500 BC), has at least equalled this, but just barely if we bring Egyptian history down to the last hieroglyphic inscription (394 AD).
To the Egyptians, Egypt was , the “Black Land.” Some people think that this referred to the skin color of the Egyptians. However, the Egyptians contrasted themselves with the black skinned people to the south of them. The “Black Land” refers to the color of the earth brought by the Nile and is contrasted with the “Red Land,” , i.e. the desert that surrounds Egypt. So, unless Sitting Bull was out in the desert, skin color was not the issue. The Egyptian name for Egypt is still preserved in Coptic, written in its version of the Greek alphabet: , Kême, or , Khême — this is reflected in Greek itself as . The “t” is a feminine ending which, as in Hebrew and Arabic, is usually not pronounced. “Egypt” itself is from Greek , which looks like it is from Egyptian , the “Soul House of Ptah,” i.e. the temple of the god Ptah — one of the names of the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis, whose patron god was Ptah. The name “Memphis” that we use, from Greek, dervies from the Egyptian name , “Enduring Beauty,” which has a pyramid determinative in it because it was originally the name of the pyramid of Pepi I. It thus postdates most of the Old Kingdom.
Basic knowledge of Egyptian history largely comes from Egyptian sources, i.e. in the early days nobody else was telling us about what was going on. Details come from monumental inscriptions, which really only become common in the New Kingdom (there are really none, for instance, from the III or IV Dynasties), but the fundamental structure is from king lists like the “Turin Canon” hieratic papyrus (which dates from the time of Ramesses II), so called because it ended up in Turin, the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia, having been found in Egypt by the consul Drovetti. There are also sources like the “Table of Abydos” or “Abydos King List,” carved on the Temple of Osiris at Abydos (begun by Seti I and finished by Ramesses II), and the “Table of Saqqara” — from the reign of Ramesses II again. A slightly earlier list is the “Table of Karnak,” from the reign of Thutmose III. All these epigraphic Egyptian texts, however, when discovered, could be compared with an already existing list from ancient literature, from the history of Egypt written by the priest Manethô in the Hellenistic Period.
Manethô certainly had access to the old king lists like the Turin Canon. With such vast numbers of names to deal with, he divided all of Egyptian history, down to Alexander the Great, into thirty dynasties. This is still a useful and reasonably accurate system. One or two extra dynasties have been suggested by ancient and modern writers, and the whole has, in modern history, been divided into the classic “Old,” “Middle,” and “New” Kingdoms, with various “Intermediate” Periods and other flourishes. There are some drawbacks to Manethô, however. (1) He was writing in Greek and thus produces versions of the Egyptian names that are sometimes hard to match up with Egyptian originals. (2) His historiography was uncritical and so, among other things, assumes that all dyansties are successive, when at times they appear to be contemporaneous. And (3) the original text of Manethô’s history is lost, and we are dependent on fragments that appear in later writers, e.g. the Jewish historian Josephus (c.70 AD) and Christians like Sextus Julius Africanus (early 3rd century AD), Eusebius (early 4th century AD), and George “the Monk” Syncellus (c.800 AD). Each of these introduces his own errors into the text, apart from the kind of errors that creep into any Mediaeval manuscripts that must be periodically recopied.
The fragments of Manethô, in both Greek and translation (by W.G. Waddell), are available in the Loeb Classical Library, No. 350, Manetho [Harvard University Press, 1940, 1980]. A good discussion of all these sources is in Sir Alan Gardiner’s Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1961, 1966]. As the greatest expert on Egyptian in his age, present, for instance, to read inscriptions as Tutankhamon’s tomb was opened, Gardiner had to deal with all the king lists and other evidence first hand.
Actual Greek and Roman writers are almost worthless as sources on Egyptian history. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus does no more than repeat popular stories, in which the sequence of Ramesses II and the pyramid builders is actually reversed. The king lists were apparently not public knowledge at the time, especially for foreign tourists. Similarly, writers from the Roman period introduced the idea that Egyptian hieroglyphics represented allegorical and mystical meanings rather than the plain Egyptian language. This is the view of Plutarch (c.46-c.120 AD), who must have known nothing about Egyptian, in his Isis and Osiris. Other writers, like Clement of Alexandria (c.200 AD, in Stromateis) were at least aware that some hieroglyphics were phonetic and mundane. A more sensible account might have been expected in the Hieroglyphica of the Egyptian Horapollo (late 5th century AD), but, unfortunately, this was not a systematic grammar book or lexicon. Accurate meanings are combined with allegorical explanations, in a period when use of hieroglyphics themselves had already lapsed.
Surviving ancient literature, then, did not contain accounts of facts that must have been familar to many Greeks and Romans, i.e. that hieroglyphics wrote the Egyptian language and could simply translate, for instance, a Greek text — as on the Rosetta Stone. This confused picture could then produce grotesque speculations, like the “translation” by Athanasius Kircher (in his Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus of 1636) of the name of the king Apriês, of the XXVI Dynasty, as “the benefits of the divine Osiris are to be produced by means of sacred ceremonies and of the chain of the Genii, in order that the benefits of the Nile may be obtained.” On the other hand, Kircher already had good information about Coptic, the surviving Egyptian language written in the Greek alphabet, which in the fullness of time would be one of the keys for the true decipherment of hieroglyphics.
The timeline of Egyptian history can be compared with that of the Roman Empire, shown at left from Augustus all the way to the Fall of Constantinople. For analysis of this structure, see the “Rome and Romania” topic elsewhere. After 30 BC, the history of Egypt of course continues as part of Roman history, until the Islâmic conquest of Egypt in 640 AD. Afterwards, the gradual Arabization of Egypt produced the most profound break with the Ancient land of the Nile. The Copts, besieged in modern Egypt, represent the last connection to the ancient nation.
Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
Index of Mesopotamian and Ancient Middle Eastern History
Mesopotamia is “between” (or in the middle of, mesos) the “rivers” (potamoi). Those are the Tigris and the Euphrates. These rivers arise near each other in the mountains of Anatolia. The Tigris, to the east, runs more or less straight down to the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates, to the west, wanders off further to the west for a while. The large plain between the two rivers in the north is the jazîra, the “island,” or the nahrain, the “two rivers,” in Arabic. This area is now divided between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The historic kingdom actually based in the jazîra was Mitanni. Just below midcourse, the rivers approach each other. In this area one finds the historic cities of Babylon, Seleucia, Ctesiphon, and Baghdad, progressing roughly from south to north. Babylon was on the Euphrates, the later cities all on the Tigris. Below these cities, the rivers spread out again before merging into the Shatt-al-Arab, which flows into the Gulf. This southern area between the rivers, lying entirely in modern Iraq, constituted ancient Sumeria. Akkad, which conquered Sumeria under Sargon, straddled the rivers north and south of their middle course convergence. Sumer and Akkad together become Babylonia. The Tigris valley north of this becomes the heartland of Assyria. Assyria frequently sought to expand across the jazîra and eventually conquered not only Babylonia but the Levant, the mountains to the north and east of Assyria, and, briefly, even distant Egypt. The Persian Empire finally encompased all this area, including the Iranian plateau and central Asia. This index covers ancient Mesopotamia down to Alexander the Great, and the culturally related nearby states in Anatolia, the Levant, and Iran. Egyptian history is indexed separately.
Copyright (c) 2004 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
Kings of Sumer and Akkad
|Dynasty I of Kish
|21 Kings since the Flood|
|Etana the Herdsman||c.2750|
A book by Samuel Noah Kramer is titled History Begins at Sumer [Doubleday Anchor, 1959]. This is true, but, as with early Egyptian history, it is a vague and frustrating kind of history, with fragmentary or legendary literary sources, and without the succession of hard monuments that become the signposts of time in Egypt — which even in Egypt at the time are without the epigraphic information so familiar from later. Sumer also has less of a presence than Egypt because it was politically fragmented into city states — none with the concentrated power that enabled Khufu to make sure that he would never be forgotten.
Sumer or Sumeria are the names we use for this earliest nation. These words have no apparent connection, however, to the name of Sumer in Sumerian, which was Kiengir, expressed as in cuneiform. In later forms of the signs, down to the Neo-Assyrian Period, this could be written , , or . The name of Sumer that we use now comes from the Akkadian name of the place, Shumer, phonetically written , in Akkadian. As the Sumerian language died out, and Akkadian evolved into Babylonian and Assyrian, their Semiticname eclipsed the original one.
Here dynasties are given for Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Lagash. The early history of all these cities is mythologized in later documents. Thus, Gilgamesh might be regarded as a purely legendary figure if he did not also occur in the ordinary king lists. There is also some trouble, as in Egypt, reading the names, since the pronunciation of the early ideograms is not always certain from later phonetic indications.
|Dynasty I of Uruk
While Sumerian history is apparently older than Egypt, the earliest dates here, around 2900 BC — with no confidence until around 2700 — appear to be later that those given for Egypt in the Archaic Period, beginning around 3100 BC. This effect is the result of the fragmentary nature of Sumerian chronology and the overestimation of the length of the Egyptian I and II Dynasties. The “21 Kings since the Flood” of Kish would put us back substantially before 2700, if not before 2900 — if the numbers bear any relation to reality — while a more reasonable length for the Archaic Period puts the beginning of Egypt more like around 2900. What is unavoidable is that we have little evidence apart from legend for Sumerian history, despite the archaeological indications that writing may have begun as early as 3400 BC, while in Egypt there are actual tombs for many of the I and II Dynasty Kings, at Saqqara, Abydos, or both. Egypt, as a unified Kingdom, unlike the continuing city states of Sumer, could be focusing its collective efforts on its records and its monuments, as Sumer could not, with the full resources of a large, organized state directed to preserving the past.
|Dynasty I of Ur
|Dynasty II of Ur||Enannatum I||c.2425|
|Identical to Uruk II in
Roux 1964; “4 kings
(names unknown)” in
The obscurity of early Sumer is compounded by later misconceptions. The Biblical expression, “Ur of the Chaldees,” although used by the great excavator of Ur, C. Leonard Woolley, for the title of a book about the city [Norton Library, 1965], is extremely anachronistic and misleading. Ur was originally a city of the Sumerians, not of the Chaldeans. The latter were actually Aramaeans, who did not appear in Mesopotamia until nearly a thousand years after the end of the Sumerians as a distinct linguistic community. The Chaldeans dominated Mesopotamia in the “Neo-Babylonian” Period, not only long after the Sumerians but also long after any reasonable date for Abraham — if Abraham came from “Ur of the Chaldees,” this must be a different Ur, already Aramaean in Abraham’s day, or it is just applying an anarchronistic epithet to a city that later was associated with the Chaldeans.
|Dynasty II of Uruk
|Dynasty III of Uruk|
The Sumerian language itself was neither Semitic nor Indo-European, a representative of a now vanished pre-historic language family that may have also included the Elamite, Kassite, Hurrian, and Urartuan languages. Since unaffiliated languages still exist nearby in the Caucasus (e.g. Georgian), it is always possible that they were all related.
History begins at Sumer because the Sumerians were undoubtedly the first to have a functioning system of writing. The origins of this are now plausibly explained by Denise Schmandt-Besserat (cf. Before Writing, Volume I, From Counting to Cuneiform [University of Texas Press, 1992]). For purposes of accounting, contracts, shipping, etc., little clay models were made of the kinds of commodities involved. For convenience, these models were then placed in clay wrappers. Then, so that the contents of the wrappers could be known without breaking them, little drawings of the models began to put on the wrappers. Soon it became obvious that the little drawings by themselves made the models superfluous.
|Dynasty II of Kish
|Dynasty III of Kish|
|Dynasty IV of Kish|
|Dynasty V of Kish|
The stylization of the models had already produced a certain abstraction and stylization in the drawings, which thus became proto-cuneiform — a system already pre-adapted to representing numbers as well as concepts. Since thousands of the clay models have been found, the evidence for the process is abundant. No such antecedents have been found in Egypt or India, where writing began soon after the Sumerian precedent — although some indications have now been found in Egypt. It is hard not to conclude that Sumerian influence, with the evidence of Sumerian artifacts to prove it — and considerable actual Sumerian records about trade with India — sparked the development of writing in those places. Where writing developed independently elsewhere, i.e China and the New World, Middle Eastern influence via Central Asia cannot be discounted on the former, while Mayan glyphs, only recently deciphered at all, had not progressed far, even three thousand years later, beyond the most basic versions of cuneiform or hieroglyphics. Nor were even the Aztecs still using the system at that level, while the Incas had no form of writing whatsoever. The achievement of the Sumerians thus represents a unique and pivotal moment in human history.
At the same time, the student of Egypt will find the visible material achievement of Sumeria disappointing. The pyramidal towers of Sumerian temples, the Ziggurats, are impressive, but not on the scale with the pyramids of Egypt, made only from mud brick, now heavily eroded, and lacking the internal structure that is so rich a source of fantasies about Egypt. Indeed, the Egyptians had ready access to stone, while the Mespotamian civilizations, on the broad, flat plain of the Tigris and Euphrates, never would. Only Assyria at its height would exercise the will and organization necessary to ornament its capitals with stonework, such as the great winged lions familiar from evocative etchings and museums. Yet even these were modest enough in scale that they disappeared from view until excavated in the 19th century. At the same time, the excavation of the buried libraries of the Assyrian Kings revealed a mass of literature and knowledge surviving on clay tablets for which there was no counterpart in Egypt, with its more convenient, but far more perishable, papyrus records. This less dramatic but more substantive historical resource now suffers from the relative disinterest of the public, as gifted Assyriologists are unable to find academic or research positions and may find themselves required to change careers — while some Egyptologists become kinds of international superstars, in both past (Howard Carter) and present (Zahi Hawass).
|Dynasty of Akkad
Guti invasion, c.2193]
Despite the epic and formative role of Sumer as the first of all human civilizations, the Sumerians were doomed by history to an early end. The first chill came from the Semitic speakers, the Akkadians, who lived immediately north of them. Sargon of Akkad united all of Mesopotamia for the first time, contemporaneous with the Egyptian VI Dynasty, embracing all of Sumeria and extending far up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Sargon’s name, Sharru-kîn, means “the king is legitimate,” an almost sure sign that he wasn’t — the story of his royal birth but childhood among commoners is similar to the story of Moses in the Bible or of Karn.a in the Mahâbhârata, all of whom said they had been set adrift as infants and claimed a status opposite from what they started with. One of Sargon’s successors also had a significant name: Shar-kalli-sharri means “king of all kings.” Shortened to just “king of kings,” this became a standard title for later Urart.uan, Assyrian, and then Persian monarchs. It even survived in Modern Persian as Shâhanshâh.
Akkadian is now the first attested Semitic language, with a very different kind of grammar from Sumerian. Nevertheless, with the combination of ideograms and phonetic signs, it was not too difficult to adapt cuneiform writing to the new language. “Akkad” itself could be written with an ideogram, , or phonetically, , , etc. “Old Akkadian” is the language of the time of Sargon. It would subsequently split into Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. But Sumerian would never be forgotten nor lose its cultural prestige.
Sargon’s state looks like the first real “Empire” in Mesopotamian history, although its extension all to the way to the “Western Sea” is a bit speculative. It was certainly ephemeral. But its influence was profound. The Akkadian state spelled the coming dominance of Semitic languages in the Fertile Crescent, something occasionally qualified but even today present in full force (whether we think of Arabic or Hebrew). Sargon’s name would turn up again in the last triumphant period of the Assyrians. An invasion of the Guti, a non-Semitic people in the Zagros, disrupted the Akkadian state and led to its downfall.
|Dynasty IV of Uruk
|Dynasty V of Uruk|
|Dynasty III of Ur
|Amorites appear, c.2034|
|Elamites sack Ur, c.2004|
Lagash for Ur
As Sargon’s empire did not long survive this ambitiously named king, it was followed by a Sumerian revival. The III Dynasty of Ur was the last brilliant moment for the Sumerians, ruling the whole country as none of the earlier dynasties had. But the set of the tide was already obvious: The last three kings of Ur III already have names incorporating the Akkadian name of the moon god, Sîn, rather than the Sumerian name, Nanna.
Sumer was being linguistically overwhelmed. But not forgotten. Sumerian civilization did not vanish; it was simply translated; but even the translators did not forget Sumerian — it was remembered by scholars, even by Kings of Assyria, centuries after it had last been uttered in ordinary speech. Sumerian became the first Classical Language, preserved as the storehouse of all that was fundamental in the continuing civilization that its speakers had created. Babylon and Assyria became the heirs of it all. But we are too. The process of translation continued, since our own days of the week are translations, through Latin and Greek, of the Babylonian and ultimately Sumerian names of the planets.
The remaining puzzle about the Sumerians is not what happened to their language, which is obvious, but what happened to them. As the spoken language shifted over to Akkadian and its derivatives, there is no evidence that the Sumerian people died out, were killed, left, or were driven away. As with the Kings of Ur, they appear to have just switched languages. We also have little to no information about the movements or presumed influx of the original speakers of Akkadian. In fact, there is no information and no indication at all of any real ethnic differences between Sumerians and Akkadians, or of any other clear distinctions between the communities. Consequently, some historians have considered the proposition that they were actually the same people, who somehow had unaccountably arrived in history speaking two different, and actually (profoundly) unrelated, languages. It is hard to imagine how such a thing would be possible, even while there are later parallels to the conventional picture, as in the assimilation of the Elamites by the Persians who for a while even preserved the old Elamite language — which consequently is available for inspection by modern scholars. Unless a more intelligible theory is proposed, in continues to look like the Akkadians arrived in a migration familiar from later periods, e.g. with the Amorites, Aramaeans, and Arabs, and that the Sumerians were a distinct people, like the Elamites, Hurrians, Kassites, and other non-Indo-European, non-Semitic speaking communities of the ancient Middle East.
The list and dates here are originally from Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq [Penguin, 1966 edition and revised 1992 edition, pp. 502-504]. However, it now appears that Roux’s dates are about 94 years too early. In “Astronomy and the Fall of Babylon,” in the July 2000 Sky & Telescope [pp.40-45], Vahe G. Gurzadyan discusses changes that can be made in Babylonian chronology on the basis of analysis of Babylonian astronomical records (the Enûma Anu Enlil) and more accurate modern calculations of ancient eclipses. Three revised dates are given above for Ur III. A key event for this period was a lunar eclipse on 27 June 1954 BC, which was thought at the time to have foretold the death of King Shulgi of Ur. Some kings have now been added to the lists, primarily for Kish I, from Bruce R. Gordon’s Regnal Chronologies. I have not attempted to square Gordon’s dates either with Roux or with Gurzadyan.
My language sources for Sumerian and Akkadian include A Manual of Akkadian, by David Marcus [University Press of America, 1978], Introduction to Akkadian, by Richard Caplice and Daniel Snell [Fourth Edition, Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, Roma, 2002], the Sumerian Lexicon, by John Alan Halloran [Logogram Publishing, Los Angeles, 2006], and Sumerian Grammar, by Dietz Otto Edzard [Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2003]. To my astonishment, neither the Lexicon nor the Grammar contain a single bit of cuneiform. Initially, all of my actual information on cuneiform was from the Manual and some other resources for Akkadian and Assyrian. There are now on-line resources; but I find those a little difficult to use, in part because of organization that is not transparent and also because what one sees, or doesn’t, depends in part on what fonts one has installed. This takes some figuring out. I am happy with one on-line source for Sumerian cuneiform, the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary. This is especially valuable for finding the original Sumerian ideograms (“logograms“) whose use tends to decline as Akkadian is increasingly written phonetically, or the characters are simplified and regularized. Also, the site supplies its own images (as is done here), which means that there is no problem with using the right fonts.
Typical of the problems one encounters would be the Sumerian word for Sumer, “Kiengir,” which can be written with a final sign that Halloran identifies as gir15, without (of course!) any hint in his book what this looked like. Marcus or Caplice and Snell are no help either. At Wikipedia, I see a sign for gir15 as in the Old Babylonian font. On the present page, however, I have been using the Neo-Assyrian form of the signs, which is what is used in Marcus and Caplice and Snell, even though their treatment is of the Akkadian language, which antedates the Old Babylonian Period. It is the tradition, from early Assyriology. When saved in a Neo-Assyrian font, gir15 appears in a form identical to the sign read ku, , as listed by Marcus and as seen in the word malku, “king,” above — Marcus gives a Sumerian reading of tukul, “trust,” for this, which is unrelated to its meaning or pronunciation in Kiengir. I do not know what to make of this. It makes it look like the sign gir15 only occurs in Sumerian words. But if ku/tukul was also in Sumerian, I don’t understand why it would appear for gir15 in the Neo-Assyrian font. I don’t see any discussion of this on the cuneiform web pages I’ve seen — and this is not too much to ask when Wikipedia has webpages on ki and en, but not on gir15.
Strangely enough, I may have found some answers in an unlikely source, the 1868 Assyrian Dictionary of Edwin Norris, which is available in reprint [Elibron Classics, 2005]. This was published early enough that Assyriologists weren’t quite sure what “the ancient and now unknown province of Sumir” was [Part II, p.701]. But the Assyrian Kings knew about it, and they used an expression, , which combines , kur/mâtu, “land,” with , lisanu, “language,” and . Norris also explains that this could be written phonetically, as , and other ways. If is used as ideogram for “Sumer,” then the use of to disambiguate the usage from the word for “language” would seem to rest on the latter being the Neo-Assyrian descendant of as a phonetic part of the original name in Sumerian. And that would explain why ku is returned for gir15 in a modern Neo-Assyrian font. At the same time, there is another mystery here, which is why Marcus does not have in his book, either as a cuneiform sign entry or even as lisanu in the Akkadian glossary. This is very odd, since, not only is lisanu certainly an Akkadian word, but it is also a root quite common in other Semitic languages, like Hebrew, , lâshôn, and Arabic, , lisân, which have the same meaning, “tongue” or “language.” It is hard to imagine what severe restrictions on space would lead to this being left out.
Norris gives an example that I have seen in no other sources, which is the formula “Sumer and Akkad,” which had been used since the days of Sargon: . The Kings of Assyria were using this when both places as functioning place names were very distant memories.
A curious case of the use of cuneiform is the logo of the Liberty Fund publishers, who present the signs as meaning “liberty.” This gets taken up and repeated by the author F. Paul Wilson in a couple of his recent “Repairman Jack” books. Here the nature and meaning of these signs is examined in a footnote.
The paucity of comprehensive print sources is indicative of an alarming situtation in Mesopotamian language scholarship, where the resources are, rather like Sumerian history itself, fragmentary, of peripheral provenance, and/or out of date. The formative texts of 19th scholarship in German or French are accessible to scholars in libraries, but there is little of modern work currently in print and available in thorough treatments for a wider audience. A Manual of Akkadian and the Introduction to Akkadian are a very elementary and introductory texts. Marcus is reproduced from typescript with hand-drawn cuneiform (a very sad artifact next to, for instance, Gardiner’s handsome and formidable Egyptian Grammar). The Caplice and Snell volume is properly printed, but the cuneiform is still hand-drawn, in a form sometimes less distinct than in Marcus. Also, the vocabulary and sign list are sigificantly smaller than in Marcus (lisanu is not in their vocabulary either), in a smaller book that disturbingly approaches the look of a pamphlet. Yet these are the best all-round, modern sources I have for Akkadian grammar, vocabulary, and cuneiform writing. Somebody should be embarrassed for this degree of scholarly and publishing neglect, and for the obvious lack of respect and general interest that it betrays for the first literate human civilization — the very place where history began. The Internet can make up for this, and there is certainly a large volume of material now available there, but I am not finding it very accessible.
I now have two more sources, the Complete Babylonian, by Martin Worthington [Teach Yourself, 2010] and A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, edited by Jeremy Black, Andrew George, and Nicholas Postgate [Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000, 2012]. Each of these is handsomely produced, modern, and comprehensive. However, neither one makes any attempt to provide information on cuneiform, either to read it, in Worthington, or for the lexical items in the Concise Dictionary. Worthington has a chapter (#40) where he shows us what cuneiform looks like, which I can only interpret as a cruel and mocking taunt for all those students who would actually like to know something about it. In a similar space, he could easily have given us the basic list of phonetic signs. Since he expresses no ambition to write a companion volume on cuneiform, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the Babylonian language, we are left with the impression of being tossed out the door on our own. Oh, we could order the Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon [Münster, 2003], which is a sign list recommended by Worthington; but my own perusal of amazon.com and amazon.de do not show this book as either in print or available as used. In the day of print-on-demand publishing, for a nearly unique resource, this is astonishing. But it is no less astonishing that there should be one book after an another that give us no knowledge of the writing system that we would need to read languages in their original written forms. If they published books like this about Egyptian, there would be riots — everyone knows that “Egyptian” means hieroglyphics (or “hieroglyphic” to the pedants). As it is, apparently you can get away with this neglect for Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian, perhaps because few people are paying attention. I do not understand the attitude of people who could be pleased with books that are so deficient and defective. One might suspect that this reflects an ideological bias against written language, such as I have noted elsewhere.
Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
Kings of Sumer and Akkad, Note;
Cuneiform for “Liberty,”
The Liberty Fund publisher uses as a company logo the cuneiform signs , which they say is the earliest written expresson for “liberty.” Indeed, the word in Sumerian is amagi, which John Alan Halloran’s Sumerian Lexicon defines as “freedom, liberation” [op.cit., p.19]. However, there is a little more to it than that. Halloran also says that it means, “manumission” and “exemption from debts or obligations” [ibid.]. In Akkadian, we get the same meanings for the word andurâru(m), “freedom, exemption,” “release from (debt) slavery” [A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, edited by Jeremy Black, Andrew George, and Nichols Postgate, Harrassowitz Verlag, Weisbaden, 2000, p.17].
How we get these meanings can be gleaned from the ultimate meaning of the signs, which are “mother” and “return, restore, put back” . “Mother” can also be written with the dative ending -ra, pronounced ama-ar-gi. Thus, the full writing actually means, “restored to mother.” This is a particularly vivid way to express the idea of manumission, to be freed from slavery. You go home to mother. The other meanings follow. Thus, we might say that the notion of liberty or freedom begins because of the condition of its opposite, slavery. This is not too surprising.
The Archaic or
Early Dynastic Period of Egypt
The trouble with the earliest days of Egyptian history is that there isn’t much history. We know from pictorial representations, like the Na’rmer Palette, as well as from later sources, that Upper Egypt was conquering Lower Egypt. The details, however, are lost.
The Archaic Period
|Hor-‘Ah,a, Men, “Menes”||c.3050||Abydos, Saqqara?|
|Djer, Zer||Abydos, Saqqara?|
|Djet, Uadji||Abydos, Saqqara?|
|Den, Udimu||Abydos, Saqqara?|
|Anedjib, Enezib, Adjib||Abydos, Saqqara?|
|Qa’a, Ka’a||Abydos, Saqqara?|
It has even taken a while to identify the king who traditionally was said to be the first king of a united Egypt, Mênês (in Greek). Na’rmer, evidently assuming the distinctive crown of Lower Egypt, was a good candidate, but then a tablet of Horus ‘Ah.a appears to use the hieroglyph mn, “endure,” as a name. Although the argument about this has been going on for years, it looks like more people than not now accept that this is where the name “Mênês” comes from, and that Horus ‘Ah.a was the first king of a united Egypt. Nevertheless, Na’rmer and the previous “Scorpion” king are given in the I Dynasty here just because the line of kings is certain to antedate the unification of the country. “Mênês” does not need to start the Dynasty. This argument over names is complicated by the incomplete development of heiroglyphic writing at the time. Partaking as much of the nature of cartoons as of linguistic representation, Egyptian writing at this point poses many of the same problems of interpretation as Aztec codices or Mayan inscriptions.
The “Scorpion” King has recently become the subject of fantastic ahistorical movies (e.g. The Mummy Returns, 2001, and The Scorpion King, 2002) and a matter of increasing archaeological interest with some new discoveries. There may even have been more than one Scorpion King, with an earlier Scorpion I as long ago as 3250 BC. With a “Scorpion” tomb at Abydos, it may be that this traditional city of Osiris united Upper Egypt by conquering the power, perhaps of the god Seth, based in the city of Naqâda, across the great bend in the Nile from which the Coptos road leads to the Red Sea. The relationship of this conflict to the later twin capitals of Nekhen and Nekheb (Hieraconpolis and El Kâb), further up the River, is more obscure. That tomb itself has yielded matter that may be of revolutionary importance. Precursors of writing, abundant in Mesopotamia, have hitherto been missing in Egypt. Now the Scorpion King has provided them, with what look like many small pictorial tabs, very unlike in form and material from what existed in Sumer. Hopefully new discoveries will expand on this novel window into Egyptian pre-history. Meanwhile, Kings like the Scorpion and Na’rmer are sometimes assigned to a “Dynasty Zero,” probably much the horror of ordinalistseverywhere.
All these kings are titled “Horus.” The queens, on the other hand, seem to be titled “Neith,” after the goddess familiar at Sais in later centuries. This has overtones of a political marriage between an Upper Egyptian king and a Lower Egyptian princess; but this inference is about as far as we can go with it.
The cult symbol of Neith, crossed arrows, occurs later associated with the goddess Athena in Mycenaean Linear B tablets. The identity of the two goddesses is mentioned by Plato, “a goddess whose Egyptian name is Nêith, and in Greek, as they assert, Athênâ” [Timaeus 21e]. Since goddesses such as Athena are, one suspects, pre-Greek, even Minoan, an ancient connection between Crete and the Egyptian Delta is not beyond consideration. How Plato would know, or guess, about this is a good question.
When W.B. Emery excavated the I Dynasty necropolis at Saqqara, just outside the new capital at Memphis (Mn Nfr, “Enduring Beauty”), he though he had found royal tombs of the period. Since I Dynasty royal tombs were also known from Abydos, the sacred city of Osiris, this posed a difficulty. Emery concluded that the Abydos tombs, which often were smaller, were cenotaphs, created out of deference for the sacred and traditional location. The Saqqara tombs are flat and oblong, “mastaba” tombs, with a distinctive, palace-like and Sumerian looking façade — which we also see in the serekh or the square frame, topped by the hawk of Horus, for the name of the king. Some of the tombs seem to include the burial of retainers, killed to attend the king in the afterlife, like similar practices in contemporary Sumer (and later in Shang China). However, opinion now seems to have swung against the Saqqara tombs being the actual royal burials, or even having been royal tombs at all, and attribution has been made for some of them to specific Court individuals. To me, this seems stranger than the idea that there were cenotaphs at Adydos (or that the Saqqara tombs are cenotaphs). To have people, even royal relatives, building great (for the period) tombs, larger than the royal tombs, within sight of the capital of Egypt, seems wholly bizarre and out of line with all later Egyptian practice. That III Dynasty royal tombs are at Saqqara is unquestioned, and it was always thought that the wall around Djoser’s pyramid complex was simply the distinctive façade of the I Dynasty tombs made large. Now this comparison would seem to lapse, unless the I Dynasty tombs represent something upon which everyone has failed to reckon. I await developments.
|Neteren, Nynetjer, Ninetjer|
Something serious seems to have happened in the transition from the I to the II Dynasty, but we are at a loss to say what it was. The line of tombs at Saqqara abruptly ends, and the epigraphic sources, miserable as they were, become more so. So there seems to be some kind of compromise to the authority or the power of the kings. Soon another indication emerges.The fourth king, Sekhemib, abandons his name and Horus title and becomes a “Seth” king with a new name (Peribsen). The serekh is now topped by the dog of Seth rather than the hawk of Horus. This could reasonably be taken to indicate some kind of religious conflict or revolution. No contemporary evidence of the next three kings occurs. This can be taken to mean that they never existed, or it could be taken to mean that the country was so disrupted that too little in the kings’ names was made to survive.
The Dynasty ends with another interesting turn. Two names occur, “Kha’sekhem,” “The Power Arises,” and “Kha’sekhemui,” “The Two Powers Arise.” The serekh of Kha’sekhemui is uniquely topped by both Horus hawk and Seth dog. The inference is irresistable that Kha’sekhem restored the country with a compromise and fusion between the two cults or factions, changing his name to reflect this. The restoration seems to have worked, but not the fusion, since the III Dynasty immediately begins with strong rule but not a hint of Seth again as a royal title. With such mysterious and tantalizing clues, our frustration at the limited evidence is considerable.
The chronology of this period is largely speculative. The figures given, from Clayton, 210 years for each dynasty, add up to about 23 years per reign for the I Dynasty and 26 years per reign for the II Dynasty — but leaving out the three questionable kings raises that to 42 years per reign. This compares with averages of 18 years per reign for the IV Dynasty, 17 for the V, 26 for the XII, 20 for the XVIII, 14 for the XIX, and only 10 for the XX. The average length of reign in the VI Dynasty is anomalous, 40 years, because of small number of kings and the unusual reign of Pepi II. Thus, 23 years for the I Dynasty is possible, but seems optimistic. On the other hand, 26 years per reign for the II Dynasty sounds suspicious, while 42 years, with the three kings left out (whose reigns must have been short anyway), is really impossible given the unsettled nature of the times and absence of indication, let alone the probablity, of another reign as long as Pepi II. A reasonable device would be to use an average of 20 years for the I Dynasty and 15 years for the II. This would put the beginning of the II Dynasty at 2800 and the I Dynasty at 2980. Lengths of 180 years for the I Dynasty and 120 for the II are in the range of variation for Old Kingdom dynasties.
The treatment here is based on W.B. Emery, Archaic Egypt [Penguin, 1961], Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1966], and Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs [Thames and Hudson, 1994]. A comparison is of interest with a more recent treatment, Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton in The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt [Thames & Husdon, 2004]. Dodson and Hilton begin the I Dynasty in 3150 and end the II Dynasty in 2584, providing no other dates. The three obscure Kings of the II Dynasty they combine as “Weneg” and “Sened” (as noted in the table) and have Peribsen following rather than preceding them. They assert that Djoser, first King of the III Dynasty, was the son of Kha’sekhemui.
The Old Kingdom of Egypt
The III Dynasty begins a relatively brief period that has to be one of the most astounding in human history. The small stones that were used in the place of bricks in the elaborate Step Pyramid of Djoser quickly grew into gargantuan blocks weighing many tons, placed with no more apparent difficulty than Lego blocks. In less than two centuries all the really big pyramids were built, during the III but mainly the IV Dynasties. And there is no avoiding or disparaging the fact they they were BIG….big beyond the budgets and will, if not actually the technology, of the modern world.
Seth was now forgotten in the royal cult. Tombs are again built at Saqqara, and the palace façade of the I Dynasty tombs (royal or not), although returning in stone with Djoser, disappears forever by the time of the IV Dynasty.
Watching documentaries about Egypt on cable television, I’ve noticed that the narrators have begun talking about the “great pyramids” of Egypt. Formally, there is no such thing as the “great pyramids.” The “Great Pyramid,” singular, means the pyramid of King Khufu, which is the largest pyramid. Otherwise, it is not clear from the usage what the “great pyramids” is supposed to mean. Are they all the pyramids of Egypt? — which means what? that they are “greater” than the pyramids of Mexico (or Kush)? — or are they just some of the pyramids of Egypt? In that case, it is never specified which pyramids are “great” and which are not, although on one show it sounded like the pyramids at Giza, which include Khufu’s, were the “great pyramids.” To be sure, the pyramids of the III and IV Dynasty are definitely greater than those of the V, VI, or XII; but I have never seen such a distinction in Egyptian history books or books about the pyramids.
Plenty of people still find it hard to believe that the mere Egyptians, at such a time, could have done anything like build the sort of massive and sophisticated structures we see in the pyramids of the IV Dynasty. Something miraculous, or at least extraterrestrial, seems called for. Unfortunately for such theories, the Egyptians, although leaving no contemporary record of their techniques, did leave some of their tools in the limestone quarries and quarry marks from the work gangs on many blocks (from which the organization of the gangs can be reconstructed), and, before too long, the tombs of nobles responsible for later projects begin to show us the means of their realization. Sadly, the III and IV Dynasty tombs do not yet show that, and the whole period is gravely lacking in inscriptions, especially in comparison to the thoroughness with which the Egyptians later covered every surface available. Where at Karnak hardly a square foot goes without the name of the king who had it made, the major pyramids never bothered to officially display the names of their owners. We are reduced to the few remaining quarrymen’s marks, given fortunately in regal years, to positively identify several pyramids. Only one such mark survives (on accessible surfaces) to identify the Great Pyramid of Khufu, as only one small figure survives to represent the king himself.
|Set?ka, Nebkare = Nebka?|
The real mystery of the IV Dynasty is not so much how Khufu could have built his pyramid on such a scale but how his father, Seneferu, could, apparently, have done three of them nearly as big, one at Meidum and two at Dahshur, all within sight of each other. The pyramid at Meidum was begun as a step pyramid, perhaps by Huni of the III Dynasty (although evidence of this is missing, Huni is usually credited with a long enough reign to have completed a large pyramid), but was then certainly finished as a true pyramid, with the steps filled in, by Seneferu. Why this was done is a good question, but one thing for certain is that it as not done well. The structure was unstable. At some point the outer parts actually collapsed, leaving the core looking rather like a huge cube — although some now deny that there was a collapse, with the condition of the structure the result of later quarrying. The first pyramid at Dahshur, the “Bent Pyramid,” was then begun as a true pyramid from scratch, but it too had stability problems, and had to be finished with a flattened top. The full mastery of the medium then appears in the third pyramid, with a good foundation, larger blocks, and successful completion. The whole technique of truly large scale construction thus rapidly evolved in just one reign. Seneferu seems to have had money to spend, time to spare (in 24 some years), and a very clear end in mind. A shame he can’t tell us about it. Unlike what we find in Herodotus, who repeates stories that all the pyramid builders were tyrants, the stories surviving in Egyptian literature all make out Seneferu as a kind and just king, despite the scale of his building.
One key feature we should note about the pyramid building is that the quarries for the finest limestone were on the opposite side of the Nile from the pyramid sites, and that the quarries for all the granite were far up the Nile at Aswan (rough internal blocks for the pyramids were quarried nearby). This means that the best time to move all that rock to the pyramid sites was during the season of the Flood, when the Nile would be the widest and deepest.
Indeed, an essential part of all pyramid architecture was the dock at the edge of the desert, i.e. at the high water mark, with a causeway leading up to the pyramid foundation. It is not hard to imagine the government of Egypt impressing all the farmers idled by the Flood into a great effort to move a year’s worth of stone up and/or across the Nile. The rest of the year, the more skilled stone masons would work to place the blocks, or would quarry the rougher, interior stone for the pyramids adjacent to the sites. In recent years, the village and burials of the pyramid workers have been discovered at Giza. As might be expected, the bones of common laborers show evidence of heavy labor.
Another feature we should note is that the Old Kingdom kings of Egypt did not, as far as we know, engage in the scale of foreign military adventures that become familiar in later dynasties. Many countries have impoverished themselves through war — Louis XIV‘s gratuitous wars may have ultimately brought on the French Revolution — but Seneferu through Menkaure focused the whole resources of their state on building their tombs. Not even the Egyptians were long able to keep that up.
The V Dynasty, indeed, ushered in an era of less colossal, but also more articulated, works. The mortuary temples became larger and more elaborate, private tombs began to tell the everyday stories of the time (though without the kind of historical narrative that we would like), and soon the pyramids themselves acquired a voice, as the “Pyramid Texts,” starting in the pyramid of Unas, which related the perils of the voyage to the afterlife. The V Dynasty kings also built open air solar temples on the West Bank of the Nile, near the pyramids. These featured stout forms of what later would evolve into pillar-like obelisks. The open air design suggests the later solar temples of Akhenaton. In Egyptian tradition, the Dynasty was founded by priests of Rê. It is unclear how historical this tradition is, or whether the increasing role of the sun god suggested it.
The entire period substantially ends with the child king, Pepi II (who later boasted perhaps the longest reign in world history), writing charming letters to his expedition leader, urging him to keep safe the pygmy or dwarf he was bringing back from deep in Africa — how deep we do not know — so that the king could enjoy seeing him. The wandering mind of an octogenarian and nonagenarian king, however, may have left the nobles too much to their own devices. The country broke up when the power that devolved on them lost its last remaining unity in the death of the old king.
The king lists (and Manetho) contain the names of VI Dynasty Kings for whom tombs have never been found and whose existence has evidently been dismissed by many recent historians. Clayton and Lehner here are contrasted with James Henry Breasted, whose History [1905, 1909] accepted two other kings from the king lists — but not Nitoqerty (from the Turin Canon), Manetho’s Nitôcris. Clayer and Lehner do leave a year or two for a minor king (Userkare), but then they don’t mention him. Now, a new VI Dynasty cemetery has been uncovered at Saqqara, apparently as part of a search for unfinished tombs of Userkare and others; but so far no dramatic new evidence about the kings has turned up.
The treatment here is based on I.E.S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt [Penguin Books, 1961], Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs [Thames and Hudson, 1994], Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids [Thames and Hudson, 1997], Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1961, 1966], and James Henry Breasted, A History of Egypt [1905, 1909, Bantam Classic, 1964]. A couple of touches have now been added from Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt [Thames & Husdon, 2004]. Thus, Dodson and Hilton think that Sanakhte followed rather than preceded Djoser. I have placed him there, while leaving the dates from Clayton and Lehner that show him coming first. Dodson and Hilton list a “Set?ka” after Djedefre, which may be the Nebka of Lehner, who follows Khafre. They take no notice of Lehner’s Khentkawes at the end of the Dynasty. There are no significant differences in their treatment of the V Dynasty. In the VI Dynasty, I have provided Dodson and Hilton’s dates, which they supply for more Kings than the other souces do. They disregard the obscure Nitoqerty at the end. Their chronology for the Old Kingdom begins in 2584 for Djoser, almost eighty years later than the other sources, and ends almost forty years later.
Copyright (c) 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
The First Intermediate Period of Egypt
The treatment and dates here are based on Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs [Thames and Hudson, 1994], Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids [Thames and Hudson, 1997], Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs [Oxford, 1966], and now Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt [Thames & Husdon, 2004]. The 30+ year difference between the dates for the Old Kingdom given by Clayton and Lehner originates in the First Intermediate Period, specifically in the X Dynasty. Since so little is known about the First Intermediate Period, while the XII Dynasty is tied fairly securely with astronomical observations, Old Kingdom chronology has always depended on estimates for the First Intermediate Period — James Henry Breasted, for instance [A History of Egypt, 1905, Bantam Classic, 1964, p.500], estimated the length of the period at 315 years, as opposed to 141 years for Clayton, 110 years for Lehner, and only 77 years for Dodson and Hilton. Manetho himself, whose figures are often wild exaggerations, only gave 185 years for the X Dynasty — this implies that he may have had better information about it than for the IX Dynasty, which he put at 409 years (in one version). If five kings are allowed for the X Dynasty, then Clayton has an average of 28.2 years per reign, which is a bit high. Lehner’s time for the dynasty only gives an average of 22 years per reign, which is much more in line with the averages previously considered. With only 77 years for both IX (using the attested Kings shown) and X, we only get 7 years each, which could well be reasonable for the period (contrasting with the average of 3 years for Roman Emperors of the Crisis of the Third Century period). However, the real number of kings is conjectural. For the X Dynasty, Manetho said there were 19 Kings, and the Turin Canon gave 18 (cf. Gardiner, p. 438).
Dodson and Hilton supply more names than Clayton and Lehner, and I have added them to the lists. Dodson and Hilton combine the lists for the VII and VIII Dynasties, and for the IX and X Dynasties. I have divided the list for the IX and X Dynasties, perhaps arbitrarily, where Dodson and Hilton break the succession with a “Various” gloss. Two Kings I have of the X Dynasty, Kaneferre and Meryibre Khety, are missing from Dodson and Hilton but given by Clayton, who also places Merykare before, rather than after, Akhtoy V. The last word about the dynasty, and the Period, therefore may well depend on some discovery to clarify who and how many the historical kings were. Since important items of Egyptian literature apparently date from the X Dynasty, testifying to cultural and literary activity, it is not impossible that something may come to light to clarify the succession.
The traditional view of the First Intermediate Period is that something very bad happened. While that is more than reasonable, the direct evidence for it was thin, and those inclined to scepticism were free to shoot the idea apart. Most easily cited as evidence for bad conditions were texts available from the Middle Kingdom lamenting various obscure calamities, lawlessness, and social upheaval. Among these are the “Admonitions of Ipuwer” and the “Dispute Between a Man and His Ba” (where a man contemplates suicide and argues about it with his ba, one of the parts of the soul). For instance, Ipuwer says [Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, Miriam Lichtheim, University of California Press, 1973, 1975], “A man goes to plow with his shield…Crime is everywhere…The servant takes what he finds….Lo, women are barren, none conceive…Lo, many dead are buried in the river…” [pp.150-151]. The translator here, Miriam Lichtheim, thinks that this is a genre, not a report or memory of events, and does point out that some statements, e.g. “Lo, nobles lament, the poor rejoice” [p.151], do not seem consistent with simple anarchy or natural disasters. Actually, they could well be consistent with simple anarchy. Similar laments are found in the “Dispute,” e.g. “Hearts are greedy, Everyone robs his comrade’s goods…He who should enrage men by his crimes — He makes everyone laugh <at> his evildoing…Men plunder, Everyone robs his comrade…None are righteous, The land is left to evildoers” [p.167]. While it would be strange if none of these texts are related to any actual events, there is the problem about the cause of such events. Traditionally, there wasn’t much to go on. About the best historians might say is that the long reign of Pepi II allowed local nobility to take over, and the fragmentation of the state resulted in the referenced calamities. However, increased power to local nobility would not necessarily have resulted in general lawlessness, and such nobility would certainly not “lament” or be tolerant of servants robbing their masters. This would generally give the poor no reasons to “rejoice.” Why women should become barren is even more incomprehensible.
A new hypothesis about the problems of the First Intermediate Period comes from climate and rainfall indicators. It looks like there was a serious cooling of the atmosphere and a drought affecting Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom. The failure of rainfall (and so of the Nile) is dated to 4200 years before the present — about 2200 BC, right at the end of the reign of Pepi II by Clayton or Lehner’s chronology. It also looks like the Faiyum actually dried up as a result of this, so that all the sediments from the Old Kingdom blew away. This has not happened since. The failure of agriculture easily led to the famine, violence, and chaos described in the lamentation texts, confirmed by recent archaeology — though the rejoicing of the poor still seems a little anomalous if the conditions were those of famine. Nevertheless, the failure of women to conceive can easily be an effect of famine. An extreme distruption is certainly evident in the confused memories and lack of monuments for the (contemporaneous) VII and IX Dynasties. The VIII does slightly better, but the country only begins to recover during the X — though nothing is like back to normal until the XI Dynasty. This climate evidence contributes here, as it does elsewhere, to an aspect of history that previously might have been disparaged, as in was in geology, as “catastrophism.” That drought may have brought down the Maya and the Old Kingdom, and volcanic eruption the Minoan civilization, means that purely internal and institutional explanations, or invasions, do not have to aways bear the burden of explaining the decline of cultures.