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Narmer: the Pharaoh that Started Egypt

Updated on July 5, 2012

The first Pharaoh of Egypt, Narmer, lived around 3200 BC. Before him, there were two kingdoms - the Kingdom of Upper Egypt and the Kingdom of Lower Egypt. These were ruled by two king, one in the South, wearing a tall white crown, and one in the North, wearing a shorter red crown with a feather in front. We know that for 3000 years Egyptian pharaohs wore crowns. Yet, no crown has ever been found.

Narmer was the king of the South who first marched his armed forces to the borders of the North and conquered it, thus making Egypt into one nation. In fact, he wasn't just the first king of Egypt, but also the ruler from whose time we have the very first historical document in the world, called the Narmer Palette.

Narmer Palette, reverse and obverse sides: facsimila on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada
Narmer Palette, reverse and obverse sides: facsimila on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada | Source

The Narmer Palette

The Narmer Palette was a ceremonial palette like the ones used in temples. In an Egyptian temple, you would have a bronze statue of the god the temple belonged to, placed in a shrine in the Holy of Holies. This statue of the god would be annointed with cosmetics by a priest every single day.

The Narmer Palette even tells a story, the story of the unification of Egypt. The palette depicts the king with the tall white crown as he is holding a mace above an enemy's head and is about to smash it. This is the famous pose in which all kings of Egypt will be shown for 3000 years after Narmer.

We also have the very first hieroglyphic inscriptions in the history of Egypt on the Narmer Palette, insriptions that basically tell us the name of the person depicted on the palette. It's a rectangle with a fish and a chisel within that forms a word that is pronounced "Nar mer." Hieroglyphs are not just phonetic or just pictographic, they are a mixture. In our case, the fish and the chisel represent sounds.

On the same side of the Narmer Palette we can see a falcon, representing the god Horus, as he holds the captive of the king by the nose, thus beginning another tradition that proceeds through the whole of Egyptian history, that is, the king being called "the Horus on Earth." On this first side, we almost have the whole story of how Narmer, the King of the South, captured the North.

Egyptian lady applying cosmetics.
Egyptian lady applying cosmetics. | Source

What Palettes Were For

Palettes were common in ancient Egypt, almost everybody had one. These were small, smooth pieces of slate, usually smaller than the Narmer Palette, that were used for grinding cosmetics on and mixing them with fats. (Even today cosmetics are made in big part from animal fats like chicken skin.)

Literally everybody wore cosmetics in Egypt, if only for the purpose of absorbing the glare of the Sun, made possible by the black paint that the Egyptians wore under the eye.

On the other side of the palette we can see Narmer again with his name put in hieroglyphs right in front of him. The difference is that this time, having conquered the kind of the North, he is now wearing his red crown, becoming the first pharaoh of the united Upper and Lower Egypt. The big figure of Narmer (2x as large as anyone else on the palette) is walking in a procession. This is the tradition called hierarchial proportions, where the more important the person, the bigger he is.

In front of Narmer, we have a smaller man hunched over in an odd posture with hieroglyphs above him, saying "Vizier." Narmer has come with his assistent who is wearing one of the most important tokens of authority, heavy leopard skin. In front of the Vizier, even smaller figures are holding up banners. They are all marching towards a group of beheaded people, captives with arms tied behind their backs.

Beneath this scene, we have two mythological animals that look like leopards with necks as long as those of giraffes. The necks are intertwined forming a circle, basically putting a spot on the palette where the cosmetics could be ground. These intertwined necks might symbolize the joining of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Beneath the mythological creatures, we have a bull breaking down a section of city wall and trampling on somebody. Beside the falcon, the bull is another symbol that is used to represent the pharaoh in ancient Egypt. While the falcon symbolizes divinity, the bull stands for power.

Pharaoh depicted with the double crown of upper and lower Egypt.
Pharaoh depicted with the double crown of upper and lower Egypt. | Source

About the Crown of the Pharaoh

In ancient Egypt, the king was called fighting Horus (Hor aha), to emphasize the victorious solar principle present in him. The Egyptian pharaoh, believed to be of heavenly descent, and enthroned as one of the gods, was from time to time reconfirmed in his role as king and ruler of Egypt by way of rituals imitating the victory of the solar god Horus over Typhon-Set, a demon from the netherworld. These rituals were believed to renew the life force that encompassed the king's person, the same essential force that made the Sun rise in the East each morning.

The hieroglyphic sign for this force (uas) is the scepter handled by gods and kings alike. Sometimes portrayed as a bolt of lightning, the regal force appears as a kind of dazzling, heavenly power. The combination of hieroglyphics, denoting this power (anshus), create a word for “fiery milk," a substance that is the nourishment of the immortals. This word is important because it relates to the divine flame (uaeus), life-giving but dangerously destructive, that crowns the head of the Egyptian pharaoh in the form of a serpent.

Narmer's Legacy

During his reign, Narmer gave Egypt a strong central government with all power concentrated in one hand. He ordered even more food to be grown by making the farmers dig irrigation canals deep into the land.

With this surplus food, Narmer could set up a standing army, able to afford having a bunch of guys not contributing to the economy. Instead, they would practice all day and become professional soldiers. So began the military history of Egypt wherein the Egyptians made a habit of marching out and beating up anybody in the neighborhood.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I think i'm going to earn an A+ with the information found here. greate job who ever created this site

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks, Cyndi. :)

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      7 years ago from Georgia

      Hello Haunty, Very interesting information found here. Egyptian history from any period is always fascinating to me. Voted up.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks for stopping in and reading, Harald, Shelley, SkeetyD, and k12rswow.

      k12rswow, thank for the very interesting information and links!

    • k12rswow profile image


      7 years ago from New England

      Hi Haunty,

      The Father of the Egyptians is found in Genesis 10:6

      The sons of Ham were Kush, Mitzrayim, Put and Kena‘an.

      Most English Bibles have "Mitzrayim" but if you look up in the Hebrew Bible, Egypt is called Mitzrayim.

      Egyptologist will fight this tooth and nail, since they're Arabs, and hate the Jews.

      Here are some references:

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great hub!

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting hub on Narmer - thank you, voted up and interesting!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      7 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Another interesting hub on ancient egypt, Haunty. Your text had me checking and rechecking the palette, since, without a practiced eye, I didn't see half the stuff you mentioned until you mentioned it. Very interesting, voted up.


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