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The Narmer Palette discovered at Nekhen. Source: Public domain

Predynastic Site Emerges from the Sand: Nekhen, City of the Hawk

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Nekhen was once a bustling city located on the western bank of the River Nile in predynastic ancient Egypt, well before the construction of the pyramids. Also known as Hierakonpolis, the Greek for “City of the Hawk”, these days the archaeological site is known as Kom el-Ahmar. In reality, Nekhen is a key site for historians looking to understand how dynastic Egyptian civilization came about and is the biggest predynastic Egyptian site to have been discovered so far. The ruins themselves date back to between 4000 and 2890 BC.

According to the Hierakonpolis Expedition , “at its peak, at about 3600-3500 BC, Hierakonpolis must have been one of, it not, the largest urban units along the Nile, a regional center of power and a capital of an early kingdom.” The city later became the cult center to the important falcon god Horus, one of the most important deities in the ancient Egyptian pantheon, as pharaohs were believed to be the earthly embodiment of the god.

As explained in Ancient Origins in an article about the cult of Horus , “the inhabitants of Nekhen believed that the reigning king was the manifestation of Horus. When Narmer, a ruler from Nekhen considered to be the unifier of Egypt , succeeded in controlling both  Upper and Lower Egypt , this concept of the pharaoh as an earthly manifestation of Horus achieved national importance.”

Illustration depicting the ruins of ancient Nekhen / Hierakonpolis from 1802. (British Museum)

Illustration depicting the ruins of ancient Nekhen / Hierakonpolis from 1802. ( British Museum )

The Discovery of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis)

The site has now undergone more than a century of archaeological research, which continues up until today with the Hierakonpolis Expedition which continues to uncover new finds. The first record of the site dates back to 1798 when Vivant Denon visited the area as part of the Napoleonic Expedition to Egypt . While he didn’t recognize the importance of the site, he did include in his illustration the remains of an ancient temple on the horizon. After his six-month journey he published his memoirs entitled Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte (1802).

While later travelers did note the presence of debris in the area, it was Flinders Petrie who formed the Egyptian Research Account who sent J. E. Quibell to try to excavate the site in 1897. Although the site had already been looted over time, they began excavations of what is now recognized as being “the largest predynastic settlement still extant.”

The temple illustrated by Denon had been removed years before, but during excavations of a mound, Quibell made an incredible find: a gold and copper cult statue of Horus the hawk god beneath the remains of a mud-brick temple. This was followed by the unearthing of a life-sized statue of King Pepi, which contained a similar statue of his son King Merenre, which can be seen at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Copper statue of Pepi I and smaller statue of his son at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Ovedc / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Copper statue of Pepi I and smaller statue of his son at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Ovedc / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Important Discoveries from Nekhen

The interdisciplinary Hierakonpolis Expedition began in 1967 and continues up until today. So far, archaeologists have unearthed several different aspects of this ancient city, from domestic architecture and trash mounds, to religious and cult centers, cemeteries, graves, and an early dynastic palace. They have discovered industrial architecture such as breweries and pottery workshops and even uncovered evidence of a zoo or menagerie, with the remains of crocodiles, elephants, baboons, a leopard, hippos, and more, as well as animal graves in or near elite tombs.

The various expeditions to the site have led to the finding of various artifacts such as ivory statuettes, mace heads, stone statues, ceramic masks, pottery, a lapis lazuli figurine, terracotta statuettes, as archaeologists delve deeper underground into the predynastic remains.

Some of the Nekhen objects unearthed when the site was discovered. (Public domain)

Some of the Nekhen objects unearthed when the site was discovered. ( Public domain )

One of the most important artifacts unearthed at Nekhen to date is known as the Palette of King Narmer (see top image) which dates back to the Early Dynastic Period around 3100 BC. Discovered within the deposit of the temple of Nekhen in the 1890s, it includes hieroglyphic inscriptions which have been deemed to make it one of the “first political documents in history”. Some historians argue that these hieroglyphics represent the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is one of the first ever representations of an Egyptian king, which archaeologists have identified as being Narmer or Menes.

Drawing of painted mural within tomb T100 at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen), believed to be the earliest example of an Egyptian tomb mural. (Francesco Raffaele / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Drawing of painted mural within tomb T100 at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen), believed to be the earliest example of an Egyptian tomb mural. (Francesco Raffaele / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Another important find is known as the painted tomb from about 3500 to 3200 BC, a mural found within a burial chamber at Nekhen. The walls of this tomb were painted in what is the earliest example of painted walls from ancient Egypt discovered to date. The scene shows a funerary procession, with images which depict reed boats from Mesopotamia, staffs, goddesses and animals.

A mud-brick enclosure known as the “fort” at Hierakonpolis, also known as Nekhen, from circa 2700 BC. (kairoinfo4u / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A mud-brick enclosure known as the “fort” at Hierakonpolis, also known as Nekhen, from circa 2700 BC. (kairoinfo4u / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Visiting Nekhen (Hierakonpolis)

Unfortunately, public access to the site is prohibited. Those desperate to explore the fascinating remains at Nekhen need to apply for permission at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. You can also read up on the latest discoveries made by the Hierakonpolis Expedition to get a feel for this incredible location.

Top image: The Narmer Palette discovered at Nekhen. Source: Public domain

By Cecilia Bogaard

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