Menes (c 3150 BCE) is a legendary Egyptian king who is credited with uniting Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. During his reign, Menes is credited with ushering a new era of prosperity, peace and expansion of arts, culture, religion and literature. Menes is also credited with introducing papyrus and writing. Historical evidence on Menes is scanty, and most historians believe Menes is an honorific title, and his legend is based on a variety of kings. In particular, Menes is believed to be based on the Egyptian king Narmer.
The historical Menes
Knowledge of Menes comes from historical accounts written many years after he lived. Archaeological digs never found any direct evidence of Menes as a pharaoh, and as a result, some Egyptologists believe that Menes was an honorific title which means “he who endures”. Menes was not an actual individual but had come to represent the concept of an ideal Pharoah who had achieved the goal of uniting Egypt. It is quite likely some aspects of the later historical records were a mixture of fact and convenient legend. It is likely that Menes is a combination of more than one king, not just Narmer, but also his son Hor-Aha.
A key aspect of Egyptian philosophy and religion is harmonising opposing poles – light and dark, order and chaos. This is a concept known as ma’at – or harmony. Thus, uniting of the northern region of Egypt and the southern region of Egypt, was particularly significant. In Egypt, lower Egypt was by the sea in the north. Upper Egypt was in the more mountainous area in the south.
The historical King Narmer appears on a slate palette wearing both the red and white crowns of lower and Upper Egypt. Other artwork – in particular – the Narmer Palette, also depicts Narmer as the king of Upper Egypt in the successful conquest of lower Egypt, an important record of the political objective to unite the country.
Although little detail is known about Menes or Narmer, the Egyptian Pharaohs wielded tremendous influence on the country. To unite the country and create a base for its long-term future would have required military, diplomatic and political skills. However, the turmoil of Egypt in the period of the Second dynasty (2980 – c. 2670 BC) suggests the process of uniting Egypt was a long and fragmentary affair – probably the work of more than one individual.
According to some accounts, Menes reigned for 62 years and was killed by a hippopotamus – death by hippopotamus was considered very symbolic of being taken by chaos (and usually a very bad way to die in Egypt), and so it was probably made up for the benefit of the legend.
The act of uniting Egypt was an important moment in world history as it enabled Egypt to make rapid progress socially, culturally and economically. After this period, there was growth in the use of hieroglyphics and writing. The historian Pliny credits Menes with inventing writing, though this is unlikely to be true. In archaeology, Egypt became advanced in building physical structures, and it made Egypt one of the most advanced civilisations in the world at the time. Egypt also became a key trading nation.
The Greek historian Diodorus, writing in the first century BC, wrote that Menes was so successful in improving the prosperity of Egypt, that he enabled a new concept of luxury – free leisure time to enjoy material comforts. Diodorus also claimed that Menes introduced the worship of the gods and the practice of sacrifice.
As well as cultural achievements, Menes is credited with impressive building works, such as diverting the Nile river and founding Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Menes”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net, 6 July 2019.
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