The Story of Menes, the First Pharaoh of Egypt

Egypt's First Pharaoh Ruled About 3150 B.C.

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Who was the first pharaoh to unite Upper and Lower Egypt? The political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt occurred about 3150 B.C., thousands of years before historians began to write such things down. Egypt was an ancient civilization even to the Greeks and Romans, who were as far removed in time from this early period of Egypt as we are from them today.

According to the Egyptian historian Manetho, who lived in the late fourth century B.C., the Ptolemaic period, the founder of the unified Egyptian state which combined Upper and Lower Egypt under a single monarchy was Menes.

But the exact identity of this ruler remains a mystery.

Was Narmer or Aha the First Pharoh?

There is almost no mention of Menes in the archeological record. Instead, archaeologists are unsure whether “Menes” should be identified as either Narmer or Aha, the first and second kings of the First Dynasty. Both rulers are credited at different times and by different sources with the unification of Egypt.

Archaeological evidence exists for both possibilities: the Narmer Palette excavated at Hierakonpolis shows on one side King Narmer wearing the crown of Upper Egypt — the conical white Hedjet — and on the reverse side wearing the crown of Lower Egypt — the red, bowl-shaped Deshret. Meanwhile, an ivory plaque excavated at Naqada bears both the names “Aha” and “Men” (Menes).

A seal impression discovered at Umm el-Qaab lists the first six rulers of the First Dynasty as Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djet, Den and [Queen] Merneith, which suggests that Narmer and Aha may have been father and son.

Menes is never seen on such early records.

He Who Endures

By 500 B.C., Menes is mentioned as receiving the throne of Egypt directly from the god Horus. As such, he comes to occupy the role of founding figure much as Remus and Romulus did from ancient Romans.

Archaeologists agree that it is likely that the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt occurred over the reigns of several First Dynasty kings, and that the legend of Menes was, perhaps, created at a much later date to represent those involved.

The name “Menes” means “He Who Endures,” and it may have come to connote all of the proto-dynastic kings who made unification a reality.

Other Sources

The Greek historian Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C., refers to the first king of a unified Egypt as Min and claims that he was responsible for the draining of the plain of Memphis and founding the Egyptian capital there. It’s easy to see Min and Menes as the same figure.

In addition, Menes was credited with introducing the worship of gods and the practice of sacrifice to Egypt, two hallmarks of its civilization. The Roman writer Pliny credited Menes with the introduction of writing to Egypt as well. His achievements brought an era of royal luxury to Egyptian society, and he was taken to task for this during the reigns of reformers such as Teknakht, in the eighth century B.C.