Menes's reign of Egypt from 3407 to 3346 B.C. was treated as the dawn of Egyptian civilization in many classical histories. In earlier Egyptian lore he was called Ohe and Mena, "The Fighter," and then was referred to as "The Established." He is remembered as the conqueror who first united Egypt under one rule and established the famous capital of Memphis, the seat of Egypt's unparalleled cultural achievements during the time of the Pharaohs.
In the fourth century B.C., Ptolemy II Philadelphus ordered the priest Manetho to compile a complete history of Egypt for his great library at Alexandria. Menes was the earliest man that he mentioned by name, as the first king of the First Dynasty of Upper and Lower Egypt. Modern archaeological findings have since displaced Menes as the first name in Egyptian history, and though experts today agree that Mena is the correct name for one of the first kings of Upper and Lower Egypt, there is some doubt that Menes was the military "Unifier of the Two Lands." Discerning the role of Menes in the "hazy outline of the general drift of events" in predynastic Egypt has been a major topic of discussion for J. H. Breasted and other twentieth century Egyptologists, and the reader of modern histories of Egypt will find that Menes is still a favorite subject for creative hypothesis and scholarly debate. He is still regarded by some scholars as the legendary military conqueror who unified Egypt through war, but others now hypothesize that Lower Egypt had already been conquered at least a generation before Menes, and that Menes was actually a savvy politician who consolidated the legal claim to the throne of the southern "Hawk-kings" by assuming the gods and rituals of the north, and by marrying into their most prominent royal family.
The Unification of Upper and Lower Egypt
Manetho's treatment of the generations before Menes as "prehistoric" or "predynastic" has fostered the misconception that Menes was the first king in Egypt. Today it is known that Egypt contained a number of advanced and organized societies as early as the sixth millennium B.C. The ancestors of Menes, named "Horus-people" or " Hawk-people" after an early king who became one of their chief gods, consolidated the disparate southern districts around the First Cataract of Aswan in the Nile Valley into the Upper Kingdom, named for its location upstream on the northward-flowing Nile. The Hawk-people established their center at Theni during the reigns of as many as 50 kings while they gradually fought their way northward (down the Nile) against the "Set-people," presumably a wealthier and more advanced civilization who controlled the enviable farmland in the Fertile Crescent. Besides ideal farmland that never required irrigation, the Delta region also had the advantage of proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient highway of commerce, for trading with the ancient Syrians and Libyans. In roughly 3400 B.C. after a very long period of war, the Horus-worshipers defeated the north in a battle near Anu (Heliopolis), and established their rule over the Delta region and the entrance to the sea.
By the account of Manetho, recorded three millennia later, the victorious Hawk-king was Menes. Egyptologists in the twentieth century, however, try to give Manetho as little credence as the availability of more reliable evidence allows. J. H. Breasted, the premier Egyptian scholar of the early 20th century, even called Manetho's writings "the compilation of puerile folk-tale…. hardly worthy of the name history." In the case of Menes, however, the most informative artifacts have actually confused his identity by providing the descriptions of two other kings that correspond in name or in deed with his legend: Narmer and Aha.
The most famous piece of evidence concerning the "Unifier of the Two Lands" is a predynastic slate palette found among the ruins of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) and entitled 'Narmer.' The slate depicts a king wearing the signature White Crown of the south with a mace held over his head, preparing to club a kneeling figure wearing the Red Crown of the north. Scholars all agree that Narmer was the king who took control of the north, but because it was traditional for Egyptian kings to be known by as many as five names, some Egyptologists are comfortable with the simple explanation that Menes and Narmer were two names used by the same man. The complications with the archaeological record arose when a piece of ivory label was found near Thebes, bearing the first and only contemporary mention of the fabled Menes.
The Horus-king inscription was that of Aha, previously known as a king who reigned shortly before or shortly after Narmer. Along with the Horus-inscription was a so-called Nebti title, which referred to the two great goddesses of the north and south, indicating that the label referred to a time after the unification of the two lands. This sign bore the name of Mena, and many scholars now argue that Aha is the Upper Kingdom or Horus-name, and Mena the combined kingdom or Nebti-name for the same king. In 1961 Sir Alan Gardiner gave a scenario in which Ohe Meni (Aha-Menes) was actually the son of Narmer, born a Horus-king, who took several important political steps in consolidating the kingdom after the military conquest that later earned him the title of Meni "The Established" in the north and in the south.
Gardiner posited that Menes followed Narmer as the Hawk-king at Theni when he was not much older than 15, at which time he was known as Ohe or Aha. Some time after he was recognized in the south he married Princess Neihotpe, the heiress to the throne of the Set-people of Fayum, just south of the Delta region and then took on the title of Meni. This strategic marriage could explain why Menes could become tradition's first king of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms even if Narmer had gained the surrender of the northern armies before Menes acceded the throne. According to Gardiner, "The Egyptians were ever sticklers for legal form," and the northern people would not be apt to recognize the power of a man who had no legal ties to their ruling family. Menes's name could easily have eclipsed Narmer's as the story was passed down through generations if his kingship was more widely recognized.
Menes's Architectural and Cultural Legacy
Menes left the temples and festivals of Set in place, and assumed the other gods of the north as well. His wise actions make it clear that the worshipers of Horus had no intention of wiping out the advancements of the Set-people, but attacked in order to establish a premise for the civilizations to merge, albeit under Horus's control. It was not until the fifth king of the unified kingdom, King Semti, that the combined hieroglyph meaning "King of the South, King of the North" was put into use, indicating that the First Dynasty kings did establish their power in the north gradually, and not in a single, decisive, imperialistic step.
The city of Memphis, a Greek rendering of the Egyptian Men-nofre, meaning "The Well-Established," was built on the site of an earlier stronghold of the Upper or "White" Kingdom known as White Wall. It was strategically located in the center of the unified kingdom, a few miles south of modern Cairo on the west side of the Nile. In order to capture "the sweet northern breeze" that blew south along the Nile from the Mediterranean, Menes built the city right in the Nile's flood plain, and constructed a great dam to divert the river during the annual inundation. Memphis was a nearly unassailable city, because the temperate valley of the Nile turned immediately into hot, barren desert on the East and West.
Diodorus recorded that Menes established the rituals of divine worship in the new city, and that he taught the citizens "how to adorn their couches and tables with rich cloths and coverings, and was the first that brought in an elegant and sumptuous way of living." The tradition continued that Menes founded the temple of Ptah, the divine Craftsman and Potter of the gods, and we can see from later events that Ptah was lavishly worshiped at Memphis. Some 600 years later the Third Dynasty vizier Imhotep, who became the divine son of Ptah, was said to have appeased the god by instructing his King Zoser to make an offering of 70 miles on either side of the Nile along with its full harvest, in addition to the temple's usual endowment of food and precious metals.
With the Upper and Lower Kingdoms continuing to stabilize as a single culture, the Memphites took advantage of the security of the capital and the superb farming conditions there to amass an unprecedentedly large surplus of food, a luxury which historians believe was the key to the rapid advancement of government institutions and the phenomenal leaps in technology that occurred at Memphis over the next thousand years. With easy access to the Mediterranean, the surplus food could be dearly traded with the Syria-Palestinians, Libyans, and Mesopotamians, and the Memphites quickly progressed from the elegant, sumptuous way of living introduced by Menes to the opulent displays of wealth and achievement that they are known for today.
Duplicate Tombs Present Questions
The ancient Egyptians had a custom of honoring their kings by taking their bodies to the site of their rule for burial. For the kings who ruled exclusively at Memphis, the burial site was nearby Sakkara. Menes and the other kings of the First Dynasty who ruled during the construction of Memphis, however, were also recognized at Theni, posing a dilemma for those who had to decide where they should be enshrined. The First Dynasty kings, including King Aha, solved this problem by constructing tombs at both Sakkara and Abydos—a real tomb which would house the mummy, and a cenotaph, an empty tomb to serve as a shrine rather than an actual grave. Since no bones were found in either location, Egyptologists will never know which was the real grave and which was the empty marker, and the scant evidence that can be gleaned from Menes's burial is as duplicitous as the record of his life. Instead of providing new answers, the evidence of Aha's tombs has provided only another heated topic for discussion in the attempt to discover the identity of Menes.
Further Reading on King Menes
Mertz, Barbara, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1964.
Breasted, James Henry, A History of the Ancient Egyptians, John Murray, 1928.
Budge, E. A. Wallace, A Short History of the Egyptian People, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1914.
Gardiner, Sir Alan, Egypt of the Pharaohs:, Oxford University Press, 1961.