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Ancient Nekhen (Hierakonpolis)

Explore the City of the Hawk (Hierakonpolis Expedition Online)

Hierakonpolis, the City of the Hawk, ancient Egyptian Nekhen, is one of the most important archaeological sites for understanding the foundations of ancient Egyptian society. Well before the construction of the pyramids Hierakonpolis was one of the largest urban centers along the Nile -- a vibrant bustling city containing many of the features that would later come to typify Dynastic Egyptian civilization. Stretching for over 3 km along the edge of the Nile flood plain, already by 3600 BC it was a city of many neighborhoods and quarters. Best known as the home of the ceremonial Palette of Narmer, one of the first political documents in history and attributed to the first king of the First Dynasty at about 3100 BC (1).


In the mid-fourth millennium BC Upper Egypt seems to have been divided between three kingdoms, centering on Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), Nagada and This. Very likely they were rivals. Hierakonpolis was the cult centre of the hawk god Horus and Nagada of the god Seth. One of the great mythological themes in Egyptian religion was the conflict of Horus and Seth, the sons of Osiris, the king of the dead. Many scholars now believe these myths dimly reflect a real struggle between the two kingdoms which preceded the conquest of the Delta by the ‘Horus Kings’ (2).

Central to all these questions, indeed to the whole story of the uniting of Egypt, are the remarkable excavations which took place at Hierakonpolis in 1897-8. Today it is an obscure little village fifty miles upstream from Luxor; its name Kom el-Ahmar, ‘the red mound.’ Here was the centre of the prehistoric tribal kingdom of Nekhen, the shrine of a local divinity called Horus, the hawk. Hence its Greek name, which literally means ‘hawk town’. In 1897 two British archaeologists, James Quibell and F. W. Green (3), came here looking for the origins of Egypt, at a time when the archaeologists of the European colonial powers were uncovering imperial origins elsewhere, at Mycenae -- Boghazköy -- Babylon -- Nineveh and Assur. Hierakonpolis had been an insignificant place in later Pharaonic Egypt: there were fragmentary remains of a New Kingdom town here with mudbrick walls. But Quibell and Green were looking for clues from earlier still. For Egyptian royal tradition always insisted that this place had been the cult centre of the kings who united Egypt; indeed right till the end of Pharaonic Egypt its name would still retain an honorific precedence among the royal titles. In a field beyond the village, they made a thrilling discovery. Underneath the later Horus temple they found a heap of ceremonial palettes, ivories and maceheads from the ritual stores of Egypt’s first kings, kings with totemic names like Cobra -- Catfish -- Scorpion -- Hawk; kings who inhabited a glittering, barbaric world very different from that of the historical pharaohs (2).

(1) Hierakonpolis Online --- Hierakonpolis Expedition © 2012-2017

(2) In Search Of The First Civilizations by Michael Wood (2013)

(3) Hierakonpolis --- Part II by James Edward Quibell -- Frederick Wastie Green -- Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1902)

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium