How Did the Ancient Egyptian State Form?

The Narmer Palette: Front (Left) and Back (right)

Ancient Egypt is known for many things that immediately come to mind: pyramids, large temples, and the life giving Nile River are the three most apparent, and of course there are hundreds of other features that made the early civilization among the most important and unique in the ancient world. One of the less apparent but no less important features of ancient Egyptian civilization was its amazing stability and endurance. Pharaonic culture existed in some form for more than 3,000 years and an Egyptian state functioned on and off, more the former than the latter, for almost as long. The power of the Egyptian state did not just happen overnight, but it was instead the culmination of a long process.

Egypt before the pharaohs, referred to by scholars as “Pre-Dynastic Egypt,” was a land that was divided by north and south and can be more accurately described as two lands. The regions developed separately until around 3,100 when a strong leader named Narmer, “Menes” in the Greek texts, forcefully united the two lands and created the First Dynasty, ushering in the “Early Dynastic Period” of ancient Egyptian history in the process. Narmer created the Egyptian state, but it was the responsibility of his successors in the First and Second dynasties to ensure that the state would survive. Narmer’s successors did so by consolidating the power base he created around the new city of Memphis as well as making the southern city of Abydos an important spiritual center.

Predynastic Egypt

Ancient Egyptian culture began long before there was an Egyptian state. As was the case in other regions during the Neolithic Period (10,000-4,000 BC), humans began to coalesce into progressively larger groups until they formed definite cultures. In Egypt, regional cultures began appearing around 4,000 BC, but the most important and widespread cultures were in southern or Upper Egypt. The Naqada I culture (c. 4,000-3,500 BC) began in the vicinity of the Upper Egyptian town of Naqada and spread quickly to the north and south. Far to the north in the Egyptian Delta, the Omari culture was contemporary with Naqada I. From an early point, the Naqada I sites demonstrated more cultural unity, which allowed its culture to take root and eventually dominate most of Egypt. Since these cultural movements and migrations were taking place before writing was discovered, most of what archaeologists know from this period comes from extant pottery. [1]

The Naqada II phase began around 3,500 BC and lasted until 3,200 BC. Naqada II pottery made an intrusion into Lower Egypt (the Delta) during this time, [2] which may indicate the beginning of conflict, but it was not until the Naqada III phase (c. 3,200-3,000 BC) when the war between Upper and Lower Egypt took place. Upper Egypt had the advantage of a larger population and the first towns, giving them the ability to raise a larger army. It is possible that the Upper Egyptian cities of Abydos and Hierakonpolis formed an alliance at the beginning of the Naqada III phase that gave them the ability to successfully subdue the north. [3] However the details happened, the impetus for unity certainly came from the south.

Narmer Comes to Power

Map Showing the Early Dynastic Sites of Abydos and Memphis in Relation to Other Pharaonic Sites

Many mysteries still surround Narmer, the first king of Upper and Lower Egypt. The date that he came to power will probably never be known, although it was around 3,100 BC and some even doubt his historicity, claiming that Egypt’s first king was Aha, although it could be that they were the same person. The circumstance surrounding Narmer’s rise to power are also an enigma, but it is believed that an increase in aridity in the desert led to population movements in the Nile Valley near Hierakonpolis. [4] Despite the questions about Narmer’s accession to the throne and unification of Egypt, there are a number of primary sources that document the event.

Although many of the Greek sources were written about 3,000 years after Narmer’s conquest, they are still considered primary sources and are a valuable source of information. The third century BC Hellenized Egyptian priest and historian, Manetho, lists Narmer/Menes as a great conqueror.

“In succession to the Spirits of the Dead and the Demigods, the Egyptians reckon the First Dynasty to consist of eight kings. The first of these was Mênês, who won renown in the government of his kingdom. Beginning with him, I shall carefully record the royal families one by one: their succession in detail is as follows: Mênês of This (whom Herodotus named Min) and his seven descendants. He reigned for 30 years, and advanced with his army beyond the frontiers of his realm, winning renown by his exploits. He was carried off by a hippopotamus god.” [5]

Later, the first century BC Greek historian, Diodorus, attributed even grander achievements to Narmer, writing that it was he who brought civilization to Egypt.

“After the gods, the first king of Egypt, according to the priests, was Menas, who taught the people to worship gods and offer sacrifices, and also to supply themselves with tables and couches and to use costly bedding, and, in a word, introduced luxury and an extravagant manner of life.” [6]

In addition to the later Greek sources, a number of Egyptian sources depict Narmer as the first king. Narmer is listed in the New Kingdom “Turin Canon” and “Abydos List” king-lists as the first king of a unified Egypt. His warrior activities are also depicted on the so-called “Macehead of King Narmer” and the “Macehead of King Scorpion.” Neither of these pieces, though, show the details of the well-preserved “Narmer Palette,” which is now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. The Narmer Palette depicts a violent situation that most Egyptologists interpret as the forceful unification of Egypt, although it probably was not achieved in a single event. Narmer more than likely had to lead several military campaigns into the north before he could make the rightful claim to be the King of Upper and Lower Egypt. [7]

Early Dynastic Egypt

Limestone Statue of King Khasekhemwy
Illustration of the Layout of a Typical Mastaba

The first two dynasties of Egyptian history are often known collectively as the “Early Dynastic Period.” They are not generally considered to be part of the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2125 BC), but neither are they Predynastic, as the Egyptian state had been unified by that point. Narmer established control of the land from the Delta to the first cataract of the Nile near present day Aswan, built the capital in Memphis, and also established other political and cultural precedents such as royal burial. [8]

The new city of Memphis quickly became the political capital of Egypt, and stayed so for most of pharaonic history, but the Upper Egyptian city of Abydos maintained its spiritual importance for the early kings. All of the kings of the First Dynasty and the last two kings of the Second Dynasty were buried in Abydos’ royal necropolis. These early kings were interred in large pits covered with brick superstructures known as a mastabas. The mastabas of the earliest kings, including Narmer, have been identified at Abydos, [9] which apparently continued to be a place of pride and possibly provided a bit of nostalgia for the kings from the south.

Narmer’s successors continued to build on his successes, which continued until the end of the Second Dynasty during the reign of King Khasekhemway (ruled c. 2640 BC). Khasekhemway’s rule is best remembered for his mastaba tomb, located just west of Abydos. Known as “Shunet ez-Zebib,” the massive tomb measures 177 by 370 feet internally and 400 by 213 feet externally, surrounded by a mudbrick double wall eighteen feet thick. [10] Khasekhemway’s tomb was much more than a typical mastaba, but was an elaborate complex that influenced the pyramid temple complex’s of the Old Kingdom. Known as the “fortress of the gods,” Khasekhemway’s mastaba complex was viewed as a place where the gods, including the deceased king, gathered on earth. [11]

The initiatives of Narmer, Khasekhemway, and other kings of the Early Dynastic Period helped establish the Egyptian state and many of the elements of Egyptian culture that would persist for another three and a half thousand years. Narmer united Upper and Lower Egypt and then the kings of the Second Dynasty laid the political and economic foundations that would later mark the Old Kingdom. Mastaba architecture proved to be the foundation for the pyramids of the Old Kingdom and the funerary rituals and mortuary beliefs established in the First Dynasty influenced how Egyptian religion was practiced throughout its history. [12]


The formation of the ancient Egyptian state was one of the most important events in world history. When Narmer unified Upper and Lower Egypt around 3,100 BC, he helped move humanity out of the Neolithic Period by creating one of the world’s first two true civilizations. Narmer had to use force to accomplish this goal, but his successors followed in his footsteps by establishing the political, economic, and religious ideas that were characteristic of ancient Egyptian culture.


  1. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), pgs. 128-32
  2. Bard, Kathryn A. “The Emergence of the Egyptian State (c. 3200-2686 BC).” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 63
  3. Bard, p. 64
  4. Kuhrt, p. 132
  5. Manetho. Aegyptiaca. Translated by W. G. Waddell. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Fr. 7.b
  6. Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Translated by C.H. Oldfather. (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), I, 45
  7. Bard, p. 65
  8. Bard, p. 67
  9. Arnold, Dieter. “Royal Cult Complexes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms.” In Temples of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Byron Shafer. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 40
  10. Kemp, Barry. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 53
  11. Arnold, p. 34
  12. Bard, pgs. 85-87