Egypt before the pyramids

In Egyptian hieroglyphs you will sometimes find signs grouped together in a kind of loop, a cartouche. Those cartouches are well known as they played a role in the decipherment of ancient Egyptian writing. The signs inside the loop represented the name of a ruler and were thus more or less alphabetic. Since the story of the decipherment is fairly well known, the term ‘cartouche’ is one of the few examples of professional jargon that has become ingrained among a wider audience.

A serekh is essentially a square cartouche, as in the photo, above. (Incidentally, that beautiful alabaster bowl can be seen in the recently re-opened Egyptian department of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.) But why is there a difference between a serekh and a cartouche?

The answer is that the rulers of Egypts had different names. One of these was his real name. The other names – four, once the system had become well established – were titles that the king appropriated when he assumed the throne. The serekh shows those one of those assumed titles and the word serekh thus means ‘that which makes known’, namely the king’s chosen identity.

The serekh on the bowl, pictured above, belongs to King Djer, one of the first kings of Egypt. His reign dates to the thirtieth century BC. The lower register resembles the façade of a palace. In the square area above we find the assumed name of the king whose name was really Iteti: Djer, ‘he who comes to aid’. At the very top we can see a falcon, a bird that in later times was regarded as the manifestation of the god Horus. Since a falcon often tops a serekh, the title shown in the square area is also referred to as the king’s ‘Horus name’.

Later Egyptian kings focused more on their fourth and fifth names, which were written as cartouches. Cartouches thus became more and more popular over time. Serekhs are therefore often – but no always – an indication that we’re dealing with an early king. Recently, I have seen quite a few of these, as I was working on the fourth issue of your favourite magazine, Ancient History Magazine (subscribe now!). Issue 4 is dedicated to the theme of Egypt before the pyramids.

It is a very interesting issue, starting with a general introduction and a review of the archaeological evidence, such as the remains of what is referred to as the Naqada culture. It is often said that the unification of Egypt was caused by trade on the Nile, and that ships played an important role. But one of the articles in this issue reminds us that no ships from this age have ever been found and it’s doubtful whether ship-like depictions on pottery and wall-paintings actually represent ships.

Naturally, the issue also covers the development of writing, followed by the reign of Khasekhemwy, who unified the country after a large conflict. His successor was Djoser, who you may recognize as the builder of the step pyramid at Saqqara, to which another article has been dedicated: a large artificial mountain was, after all, quite an innovation. That article deals with the architectural traditions of Upper- and Lower Egypt, how they influenced each other, and how the step pyramid – which is located in Lower Egypt – nevertheless fits in the building tradition of Upper Egypt.

The last article deals with pyramid texts that – as you are probably able to deduce – have been found inside pyramids. However, they document religious ideas from the age before the Egyptians knew how to write.

In addition, this fourth issue of Ancient History Magazine also includes articles on ancient solar eclipses, on the hedonism of Epicurus, on St Elmo’s fire, druids, a coin of Emperor Postumus, and about the question what historians do when they claim to explain the past. In short, it’s an issue that has something for everyone, and you’ll hopefully read it with pleasure. The issue will be sent to you automatically if you’re a subscriber, but can also be bought directly from our webshop

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