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City of the Hawk Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Renée Friedman

From ancient breweries to the earliest mummies, excavations at Hierakonpolis are rewriting the origins of Egyptian civilization.

In early 1897, the antiquities markets of Luxor were awash with objects dating from the Predynastic period (4000-3100 B.C.). It was suspected that the source of these artifacts was Hierakonpolis, 60 miles to the south. British archaeologist James Quibell rushed to the site to investigate and within a week discovered a gold-headed cult statue of a falcon god. His colleague Frederick Green soon joined him, and together they found a finely carved gray stone palette depicting a king named Narmer, on which our understanding of the rise of Egyptian civilization would be based for the next hundred years.

The Greek name Hierakonpolis (hierakon means "of the hawk") comes from the falcon-headed god Horus of the city Nekhen, the site's ancient Egyptian name. Pharaohs were considered the earthly incarnation of this all-seeing celestial bird, who was the patron deity of kingship. And the first pharaoh? On either side of the palette, Narmer is shown engaged in battle and its aftermath wearing the traditional crowns of the two culturally and politically distinct regions of Egypt: the white crown of the Nile Valley and the red crown of the Delta. The palette was thought to celebrate the unification of the two lands after a bloody battle won by Narmer, who marched forth from his capital of Hierakonpolis in about 3100 B.C. and, with his victory over the Delta people, inaugurated Egypt's 1st Dynasty.

Today, Hierakonpolis is a sandy, desolate landscape with mounds and craters left by farmers who mine its organic-rich middens to fertilize their fields. It is difficult to envision the site in Narmer's time, or even 500 years before that, when it was a vibrant, bustling city--perhaps the largest in all of Egypt--stretching for almost three miles along the edge of the Nile floodplain. From ongoing excavations here, begun some thirty years ago by the late Michael Hoffman of the University of South Carolina, we now know that the rise of Egypt did not happen suddenly with Narmer's victory but was a gradual, if not necessarily peaceful, process and that unification was only the end point of social and technological developments that began at least five centuries before Narmer was born.

Taken together, the evidence of industrial production, temples, masks, mummies, and funerary architecture as early as 3500 B.C. is placing Hierakonpolis at the forefront of traditions and practices that would come to typify Egyptian culture centuries later. These discoveries may have knocked Narmer and his palette off their historical pedestal, but they confirm the central role the city played in the long development of Egyptian civilization. It is little wonder that for millennia the deified early kings of Hierakonpolis, called the Souls of Nekhen, were honored guests at the coronations and funerals of all pharaohs.

Renée Friedman directs excavations at Hierakonpolis, made possible by permission of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and its secretary general Zahi Hawass with funds from the National Science Foundation, University of Arkansas, Tom and Linda Heagy, and the Friends of Nekhen.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America