Finding the Ist Dynasty Kings

TRAVELERS up Nile, after steaming 341 miles, pass the town of Girgeh, said to be the site of ancient This. They are naturally enough taken back in thought to those shadowy kings of the Ist dynasty of Egypt, and their immediate predecessors, who are supposed to have had their royal place of abode there till they conceived the idea of dominating the Delta, and of founding “the City of the White Wall,” Memphis, — “ The Haven of the Good.” But somehow or other they forget all about the Ist dynasty. Henceforth up to Assouan, the kings that assert themselves are the Pharaohs of the XVIIIth, XIXth dynasties, and it is of Thothmes, Amenhotep, of Seti and Rameses II., or some of the Ptolemies that their minds are full as they go south to the First Cataract.

If they are under the guiding star of Cook & Sons, they will be sure to have pointed out to them, a few miles south of Girgeh on the west bank, a low cluster of buildings, and a great mound, beyond the wide green plain of “ bersim ” and corn. They will be told that there is Abydos; that there stand the beautiful alabaster temples of Seti and Rameses II.; that there is the burial place of the head of Osiris; but they will also be told that they will not land till their return journey, and that then, while some of them go and examine the famous tablet of Abydos, which gives in their cartouches the names of the seventy-six kings of Egypt, from Mena to Seti I., others interested in later Egyptian history may visit the quaint Coptic monastery of Amba-Musas hard by. I shall be much astonished if Messrs. Cook & Sons are able in the coming years to postpone the visit to Abydos till the return journey. Abydos has suddenly become, to all lovers of ancient Egyptian history, the most interesting spot in the valley of the Nile. For whilst war and rumors of war were heard all round the world, the patient, peace-loving Professor Petrie was quietly digging away at a rubbish heap that had been, it was supposed, thoroughly searched ; and he has done his scientific scavenger work so thoroughly, that he has virtually redated Greek civilization, and made the misty half-mythic kings of the Ist dynasty a reality to all the world.

The old temples of Abydos refused to listen to the sound of harper or flute player in the days when Osirian mysteries went forward, but there is an older burial ground beyond the temples, where to-day the triumphant song of the explorer is loud, and the mysteries of the resurrection of Egypt’s oldest kings go forward to such historic harmonies as were seldom before heard.

We have all heard of Mena and thought of him as a bare possibility. Was not his name written large in the stone tables of the kings adored by Seti I. and Rameses II. at Abydos, and on the walls of the tomb of Thunury at Sakkarah ? was it not guessed at in the fragmentary Turin papyrus ? Did not the scribe priest of the Ptolemies, Manetho, write down for our learning the names of eight kings in that Ist dynasty ? But the monuments were absolutely silent about this and the next two dynasties, and, after all, the Egyptian chronicling was the result of a kind of order in council, a bit of statecraft in the XIXth dynasty 3400 years after the event. The Ptolemaic scribe when he compiled his list did but go to the existing stone documents at Abydos, and such papyri as he could lay hands on, none probably more than 1000 years old, and Manetho compiled his list more than 1000 years after the first shrewd guesses of the sculptor at Abydos.

All this was unsatisfactory to the soul of the hunter after truth. The man who wanted to speak with Mena face to face was not content with being told that he was the first king who built temples in the land and enjoined divine worship ; that he was the great engineer who, coming from This, founded the city of Memphis and turned aside the Nile, by constructing a mighty dam, to give a pleasant suburb and open spaces and a milk supply to his fellow townsmen some years before 4500 B. C. ; that he whose name meant “ The Constant One ” remained true to his name in works for the blessing of the land, till a crocodile took him, and he vanished from among men.

For the readers of history, the cloud of doubt was always on the page. Did Mena or Menes ever exist at all, or was the Ist dynasty of kings of flesh and blood in Egypt only an unsubstantial figment to fade at the touch of inquiry into thin air, and,

“ like the baseless fabric of this vision . . .
Leave not a rack behind ” ?

I confess that as I used to stroll along the great rampart wall beneath the palms of Memphis, or busy myself with visits to the tombs of the great prince farmers of the Vth dynasty, I was always wishing that the dumb sands would speak and tell me of the man who came from This, to bend the great Nile flood with the might of his arm, and to rear such temples to the gods that the people who came after spoke of him as the first king who turned his people to holy worship. But the sands were silent. Then came the startling message from the graveyards of Ballas that a new race, earlier than any known of, had peopled the land of Nile, and one began to expect that Professor Flinders Petrie would yet be able to report of a chapter in Egyptian history which would make the Ist dynasty king a kind of comparatively modern being, whose ways of life and worship, and whose coming in and going out, would all be as surely known to us as the ways and life of the Pyramid builders, or the doings of the Ramessid period were clear and sure.

What one hoped for has come to pass : that Ist shadowy dynasty has become a fact, and any one who cares to visit the University Museum in Gower Street may make personal acquaintance with the eight kings who ruled the land of Nile between 4715 and 4514 1 B. C. ; may in imagination stand face to face with two of the ten kings who preceded them, Zeser and Narmer, and two of those who followed them, Perabsen and Khasekhemui ; may see something of the chairs they sat in, the jewelry they wore, the coin they paid their workmen, the dishes they drank from, the sceptres they held, the ivories they valued, the games of chance they played ; may even get an idea of the way they came to appear before their God ; may understand what dandies they were, how careful of eye paint and facial decoration; may realize what lovers of sport they were, and know how they shot the gazelle, and how they harpooned the dragons of the slime ; what warriors they were, and how with stone battle-axe and diorite-headed mace and knives and arrows of flint they went to the battle ; and how on the feast day they drank their wine, and ate their barley bread and their fig-tree fruit as any king of the Ist dynasty had a right to do, when after war he took his royal ease.

All this is now known to us, and all this knowledge has come by clever scavengering from a refuse heap, which had been cast “ as worthless rubbish to the void” by former Egyptian explorers in the plain beneath the Libyan hills about half an hour’s donkey ride from the temples of Seti and Rameses at Abydos. Any one standing on the top of Komes-Sultan hard by those temples, and looking beyond the old fort in a westsouthwesterly direction toward the yellow-gray hills, would see that the plain half a mile away was rolled up into waves of purple light and shadow, and would perceive that that place must have been a place of graves. But it is not to this burial place of the XVIIIth dynasty we look ; far beyond it and nearer to the roots of the hills, making a kind of dark blot of shadow in the burning flint-strewn field of utter desolation, lies another burial ground.

That is the burial ground of the Ist dynasty kings. There lay unremembered, all down the centuries, each in his tombchamber, surrounded by small chambers of offerings, or as in some cases with smaller tomb-chambers for the servants of the household, the mighty kings, Aha better known as Mena, Zer or Teta, Zet or Ateth, Merneit or Ata, Den or Setui, Azab or Merpaba, Mersekha or Semenptah, Qa or Sen; protected probably from harm by reason of the fact that as yet the raised “ mastaba,” as known to us in the Pyramid age, was unused. Hence when the seat of government was shifted from This to Abydos, the desert sands may have sealed from sight the exact whereabouts of the royal resting place of the Ist dynasty. Afterwards, when the cult of Osiris was revived and the Egyptian dead were brought for burial round the tomb beneath the mound where the head of the god was buried, or later, when, more than 3000 years after Mena had been carried to his House of Eternity, the kings of the XIXth dynasty built their white marble temples at Abydos, the exact whereabouts of the royal burial ground of the Ist dynasty may have been forgotten, and so these ancient kings had rest.

But the story of this wondrous resurrection of Aha-Mena and his seven successors from the desert dust of oblivion after the lapse of sixty-six centuries reads like a fairy tale. During the past four years a French exploration party, under the direction of M. Amélineau, had been digging away at the place where the Ist dynasty kings were buried ; had indeed opened all the tombs but one, and it was quite clear from the finds that they belonged to the earliest historical age ; but M. Amélineau was, it would seem, not well served by his workmen, and he considered that the rubbish mounds he searched had yielded up all the secrets they possessed. Indeed, so sure was he that he had exhausted his ground, that though he had another year of his concession yet to run, he did not think it worth while to return to Egypt, and gave Professor Flinders Petrie to understand that he considered his work was at an end. This was all Professor Petrie wanted, and he at once determined to take the workmen he had in past years carefully trained to use their eyes, and as carefully encouraged by generous backshish to bring all their eyes could light on to him for examination, and set himself and his plucky wife, who was his comrade, to go over the exhausted rubbish heaps the Frenchmen had left, and see what they could do to bring order out of chaos, and find the historic links with recorded history that were wanting.

It was a master stroke of genius, this determined making of research among the already explored rubbish mounds of the Abydos plain. How far it was rewarded may be guessed from the fact that the throne homes of four kings of the Ist dynasty have been recovered, and that the whole course of the Ist dynasty is now made plain, while there is proof positive that before them other kings, as Manetho stated, reigned in Egypt.

Let us enter the temporary museum at the London University, pass beneath the blue-lettered portal of the tomb of Amenemhat, son of Hor-hotap and his mother Erdus, who passed from the sunshine of Abydos about 2400 years before Christ. That exquisitely incised door portal now serves for the doorway to the room where what remains to us of the Ist dynasty kings lies unveiled. To pass through the grave door that was placed in position more than 4300 years ago is a fit preparation for our eyes that would behold the relics of the kings who ruled between 4800 and 4514 B. c. The tables to the right and left of the door are covered with the remains of the new race.

These prehistoric folk knew nothing about the potter’s wheel or the turner’s lathe, and pottery and stone jar alike were moulded and hollowed by hand. One can externally feel the handmarks of the men who smoothed their vases ere they went to the kiln. But pottery was expensive in those days, and housewives were careful, so at least one jar testifies. It has been broken and a number of drill holes have been most carefully made all round the edge at the break, so that by some system of lacing with green hide, the broken vase may again be made whole. These men knew nothing of bronze or iron, but they could sharpen axe heads of hard limestone for the tomahawking of their foes, could make fine lances of flint as may here be seen. What interested one most in these remains of the new race was the fact that even the prehistoric babe needed toys. Here were the animals rudely made of clay with which the baby of the prehistoric nursery played at farmyard.

Next one was astonished at the evident love of ornament that already had hold of the people. Here was a dainty little jewel box of pottery, six inches by two in length, carefully ornamented with drawings of fishes at the end and drawings of gazelles or ibexes at the sides ; whilst a little dish has its ornament in red paint that seems to remind one of the quaint conventionalizing of the bamboo on rough Japanese pottery. There is another bowl of black pottery, whose imitation string pattern has been incised and filled with white paint that has a sort of mid-African look. But one is struck most with the evidence of facepainting extraordinary which must have been in vogue in that dim dawn. Palettes of slate, some in shape of fish, some in shape of birds, some rhomboidal, seem to have been the necessary toilet accompaniments of the dead and therefore of the living; and that green paint was the rage is evidenced by tiny fragments of it still adhering to the palettes.

The centre of interest for us to-day, however, is the Ist dynasty time ; and how far advanced in the arts of life were the men of that age may be seen by the beauty of the shape of the stone and alabaster vases now brought to view, and the exquisite workmanship of a little toilet-nard or eye-paint box carved out of a single block of ivory, and made in the shape of a couple of ducks whose tails are twisted together to form, as it were, the hinge of the box. The great gentleman who owned this was buried with thirty jars of offerings in his brick tomb, whilst sixteen stone vases were near his body. He had as pillow stone a sandstone block for corn-grinding, and a beautifully shaped tazza of slate had been apparently placed at his head. This had fallen over it, and the weight of earth above had at a future time crushed in the cranium. There among his vases had lain this mighty man for his 6400 years when Professor Flinders Petrie and Mr. John Garstang brought his skull bones and his funeral furniture to the light of day.

But it is to the table in the centre of the room that we turn, where are placed contemporary carvings in wood and ivory, weapons and pieces of the royal drinking bowls and furniture of seven of the eight kings of the Ist dynasty, and the work of two that preceded AhaMena. Here is a fragment of a slate bowl that the lips of Zeser, the pre-Menite king, perhaps have touched. Here is a fragment of an alabaster jar that bears upon it the name of Narmer, the succeeding sovereign ; but my eyes went at once to the little bit of crystal vase which bore the name of Mena; for now I seemed to feel myth fade away, and the real king, who drank from a crystal goblet to the success of the city of Memphis, the city he had built in fair fields, from which he had turned the great Nile flood, seemed to stand before me.

I saw nothing that belonged to the second king Zer or Teta, but from the tomb of the next king in succession ZetAteth, who reigned between 4658 and 4627 B. C., there were ivory castanets, part of a mace-head of diorite, a wooden sceptre in shape of a hand, carnelian beads and purple glaze, and wood ornamented with the same sun-worship rings we may still see upon the vulture legbones the Bedouins use for powder flasks.

King Zet lived at a time when men worked in gold, and gold foil was evidently for royal ornament at the time he lived among his craftsmen. Zet was a hunter; there are his ivory arrowheads dyed with henna, which were laid by his side for hunting in the fields of Heaven. The king, too, had his physicians; how else could one account for the doctor Aukh’s name upon a piece of pottery ? The king was also a man of business, and saw that his workmen should keep strict accounts, for here before one lies a piece of pottery with the workman’s account written upon it in square and triangle and dot, and as I looked upon it, the voice of one of Professor Petrie’s staff said, “ That is probably the oldest piece of cursive writing yet discovered in the world.” But the king had ideas of splendor such as none before him had, or he would scarcely have insisted that the ivory castanets, which were used by him when he came to appear before his God with a dance, should have been so incrusted with gems as were the ones that have been discovered in his tomb ; and the king had dealings with merchants from beyond the sea, how else can one account for the piece of Ægean pottery found buried with him.

After Zet-Ateth, reigned, between 4627 and 4604 B. C., Merneit-Ata, and one is not surprised to hear that the king, whose name indicates that he had put his trust in the goddess Neith, should have been entombed with a large limestone stele five feet high whereon were carven the emblems of the goddess, — two arrows crossed upon an upright distaff. Those of us who are interested in reviving the uses of handmade linen are grateful to the explorer for giving back from the darkness of so many centuries the honor due to the distaff as being the chosen symbol of the goddess of the woven shroud, and the protectress of the dead. It was a royal chair, — that one with the legs carved to represent the legs of a bull, in which the king sat; and that he loved the emblems of strength that the Britisher still delights in may be seen from the fact that another bull’s leg carven in ivory was found in his tomb. Slate appears to have been the favorite or perhaps the fashionable substance for the king’s dishes, but he seems to have been specially proud of some water jars wrought from serpentine and most daintily ornamented with a string or small cord pattern carved all over in low relief. The reeds of the Nile were evidently a motive for carvers and graven ornament in the days when Merneit was king.

After Merneit had been laid to rest among his bull - leg furniture and his reeded ornaments, there came to the throne a certain Den-Setui. He probably reigned between 4604 and 4584 B. C. Ebony appears to have been as much sought after in his reign as ivory, and copper is evidently wrought. As for recreation the king cared for hunting with the spear, and when he rested from the chase we may, from the bunch of sycamore figs, and the clay cylinder of the wine vase, and the fragments of crystal cup that bear his royal name, conjecture that he drank his wine from crystal and did not despise the fig of the country. He honored the god, and with a joyous worship, too, if one may judge from the number of tablets that were found with him that speak of the temple festivals.

The king that reigned when DenSetui slept with his fathers was AzabMerpaba. He dwelt in two palaces, one called Qed-hotep, the other Dua-KhatHor ; and he drank from bowls of pink gneiss and black-and-white syenite, and he honored the goddess Hathor. So at least we may gather from the bowls that were found inscribed with his name, and the ivory plaque that was buried with him. In his day the workers had grown cunning in the art of inlaying; in his day the carpenters had improved the shape of their adze handles; in his time the workers of ornament seemed to have grown tired of the everlasting use of the reed or offering mat for motive, and developed a chain or loop ornament of which they seem to have been proud. But it would appear that his tomb-chamber was too well furnished to escape the envious eyes of Mersekha, who in the year 4558 B. C. succeeded him. For in Mersekha’s tomb were found many vases from which Azab’s name had been removed, and which had been appropriated by Mersekha.

It was in the tomb of this king Mersekha-Semenptah that the most astonishing find was made. This is none other than a collection of Ægean pottery that will probably oblige us all to correct our notions as to the age of Greek civilization. For here is yellowish pottery evidently of Mycenæan clay, yellow ornamented with red coloring of semiamphoræ shape. Coming from a tomb whose date is 4500 B. c. it puts back the Grecian potter’s art to a time as far anterior to Mycenæ and its craft as the golden age of the potter of Mycenæ is anterior to our own. This was evidently a treasure in the time of Mersekha the king, and so far is a unique one. No other pottery of the kind, except a fragment in the tomb of Zet and Den, has been found at Abydos. This pottery is proof that the Grecian merchants sailed the seas in 4500, and this does not astonish us, seeing that on the prehistoric memorials of the new race there have been seen pictures of vessels with sixty oarsmen, vessels quite large enough for crossing the Middle Sea.

It is clear from the other finds in the tomb of Mersekha that the arts had made considerable progress in his time. A strong and well-made pair of copper tweezers is seen, copper nails are found in woodwork, copper needles, a copper rymer, and a well-shaped copper dish with the hammer marks still upon it. We might have expected this, seeing the king must have held in special honor the god of the forge, the Vulcan of his day, or he would hardly have been called Semenptah. Flint knives of beautiful workmanship and bowls of crystal are evidence that the workers in stone were as clever as workers of metal. Mersekha, too, has evidently found that the burden of the state is too heavy for him to bear. He has a vizier, Henuka by name, and that he keeps an eye upon the foodless in time of famine may be guessed by one of his titles found inscribed upon a bowl fragment. Mersekha, the Rekhyt, “Lord of the House of Life,” though it is but right to say that this may refer only to the dead king in his tomb. If it does, we have evidence here that in 4558 men believed in a life beyond the bounds of this mortality, and thought of the dead, as in after ages they spoke of them, as “ The Everlasting Ones.”

One of the objects that would strike any one who cares about delicate workmanship was a bull-leg ornament carven from ivory; so delicately had the veining of the leg been conventionalized as to make one think it might well have been a bit of Italian Renaissance work, and this nearly one thousand years before the Pyramids.

There were found in Mersekha’s tomb several references to the “ Sed festival,” and it is clear from these references that the old kings of the Ist dynasty knew all about leap year, had a year of 365 days, and regulated their calendar as we do still. When Mersekha-Semenptah entered his abode of eternity in 4540 B. c. the eighth king, Qa-Sen by name, came to the throne and appears to have sat upon that throne for the next twentysix years. His palace was called Hathor-pa-ua, his tomb was spoken of as Hat-sa-ha-neb ; that he built a temple we know from a vase of volcanic ash inscribed for “ the priest of the temple of King Qa.” That he was a mighty hunter before the Lord we may guess from the splendid harpoon that was placed in his grave. The workers of gold were probably encouraged in his day, and if one may judge by pieces of ribbed ivory with dovetail tenons, the hands of the cabinetmakers had not lost their cunning, whilst as for woodcarving, nothing more delicate in the whole collection may be seen than a bit of wood carved to represent the feathers of a bird, — it is Japanese for nicety of craftsmanship.

A kind of calling card was in fashion. When friends sent offerings to the tomb they tied up their little tablets of ivory as one to-day sees calling cards tied to the wreaths that are sent to a friend’s funeral. The servants of the king were evidently had in honor ; in the earlier tombs they had only had their bare names given ; now though it is considered that imitation stone vases, that is, solid stones painted to look like marble, unhollowed and only roughly hewn into vase shape, are generally good enough for the domestic, their titles and office are given. In one instance, at least, the domestic is a man of such worth and substance as to be buried with tall alabaster jar and exquisite alabaster and slate bowl. Both the jar and bowl give one the idea that they have been turned in a lathe; their workmanship is very good.

It is clear that the little people — the dwarfs — were held in high esteem. There is on one of the limestone stele a representation of them, and their little bones were found at the foot of the stele. But the stele of greatest importance in connection with King Qa is a great black quartzose stele that bears his name. The time of cartouches is not yet; the names of the kings of the Ist dynasty are in simple squares.

As to worship, one thing is plain. The worship of animals or of gods, or the attributes of gods under animal forms, has not yet begun. One god, and he Osiris, the Ist dynasty kings seem to acknowledge. In these days of a revived interest in the dance, as being able to express the inner meaning of a musician’s composition, it may be of interest to know that as David danced before his God, so did Mena and his successors appear with a dance before their deity. One of the most instructive and interesting little illustrations of the king at prayers, which Professor Petrie and his workers have brought from the refuse heap at Abydos, shows the king in a curtained inclosure, — hid from common eyes, dancing his dance of prayer before the god Osiris. But this is the more remarkable, this early dancing worship of the Ist dynasty, when one remembers that those who in Ramessid times came to appear before Osiris at Abydos were forbidden the sound of the harp and pipe, and presumably forwent the dance. Yet there must have been a tragic side to the burial of a king of the Ist dynasty. It can hardly be doubted, after seeing the little cells or “ loculi ” for tomb-chambers of the servants that surround the larger tomb of the king and its store places of offerings for the use of the royal dead, that when a king died and was buried a number of his retainers were sacrificed and sent into the shadow world with their master.

We leave the quiet room with its signs of the life and the art and the worship and the reverence for the dead men who lived by the banks of Nile more than 4500 years before Christ, and go out into the roar of London life and art, so young, so modern, we scarce can feel it has any interest for the student of history and lover of the days of yore. But as we go, Memphis with its palm and meadows, its palaces and rampart walls, goes with us, and we are grateful to that prince of scientific dust-heap scavengers and his lynx-eyed fellahin for bringing back the half-mythic kings of Memphis from their graves at Abydos.

H. D. Rawnsley.

  1. It should be understood that the dates given are only approximate.