The First Pharaoh
What drew you to write about ancient Egypt?
As a child my father would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and we would invariably visit their fabulous Egyptian collection. My father loved history… actually he was interested in most everything, but he was particularly fascinated by ancient Egypt. I think my love of ancient Egypt is an outgrowth of those special times with my father.
How did you come up with the idea for The First Pharaoh?
I’ve always been interested in ancient Egypt, but the question that has always intrigued me is: How did the whole thing start? Who had the vision to create what evolved to become arguably the most successful civilization the world has ever seen? So, my research eventually led me to Narmer and the story of his uniting Upper and Lower Egypt.
How do we know that Narmer really existed?
For much of the past two hundred years, Egyptologists thought that Narmer, also known as Menes, was mythical. He was so revered by succeeding Kings and priests, and so deified, many thought he was a mythical creation.
Then, in 1898, what is known as the Narmer Palette (see image) was found buried in the desert in what was known as Nekhen (later known as Hierenkopolis). The palette clearly tells an elaborate story of how a King of Upper Egypt defeated one from Lower Egypt. The cartouche, with the famed catfish and chisel, indicates his name was Narmer, although the letters actually only spell out “Nrmr.”
In recent years, Dr. Gunther Dryer of the German Archaeological Institute, has excavated Narmer’s tomb and has found wine jugs with tax stamps on them that refer definitively to Narmer’s War of Unification.
Why does the word “Pharaoh” never appear in the book?
The word Pharaoh as applied to the ruler of Egypt was not used until much later, around the 18th Dynasty, more than a thousand years after Narmer. The word Pharaoh means “Great House” and refers to the immense palaces built by the rulers by that time. However, nearly all Westerners know Ancient Egyptian rulers by the term Pharaoh, no matter what Dynasty they were from. In The First Pharaoh, as well as the sequel, The Dagger of Isis, I chose to use the correct term used at that time, King.
Can you tell us more about the Narmer Palette?
Finding the palette buried in the desert sands close to where Narmer ruled was a pivotal find in sorting out Egyptian Dynastic rule. Before the find most Egyptologists felt that Narmer was a mythical figure. Combined with Dr. Gunther Dryer’s find of Narmer’s tomb a half-century later, the palette proved Narmer’s existence.
After I began my research, I stumbled upon Mark Warden, an Englishman and a stone carver who had done work for the Royal family. He was in Egypt helping Egyptologists better understand how ancient carvers managed to carve pallets as elaborate as the Narmer Palette. I was immediately intrigued. As soon as I returned to the States, I contacted Mark who by then had moved to a nearby state. I immediately commissioned him to carve a copy of the Narmer Palette, which now graces my home library. Here you see Mark holding the work-in-progress.
The palette had a functional as well as a ceremonial use. Where the creatures of chaos intertwine, the resulting convex surface was used to grind cosmetics, which would have then been applied to King Narmer’s face. Note how the priest’s are controlling the forces of chaos.
The palette tells an amazing tale of the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt, Narmer’s vanquishing of King W’ash, and his slaying of the enemy warriors. Note Narmer’s serekh at the top center of the palette, showing the catfish and chisel symbols.
If you are interested in seeing how Master Craftsman Mark Warden carves his intricate stonework, you can follow his creations on YouTube.
Where did you do your research?
Of course my research started with books, scholarly articles and countless Internet sources. I also was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Dr. Toby Wilkinson of Cambridge University, one of the pre-eminent historians of the early Dynastic period. He served as one of my mentors and I was able to spend time with him in Cambridge asking him every conceivable question about Egypt circa 3100 B.C.
I was also fortunate to be mentored by Dr. Gunther Dryer of the German Archaeological Institute, whose knowledge of Narmer and the First Dynasty runs deep. My visits with him in Cairo and Berlin proved invaluable.
A visit to the ancient city of Nekhen (Hierenkopolis) being excavated by Dr. Renee Friedman was extremely helpful and my interviews with her clarified many details of ancient life.
Finally, I was able to stay with a Bedouin tribe in Egypt’s Eastern desert. My host, Sheikh Abdel Zaher Sulleiman, is the leader of these remarkable people who to this day manage to thrive under the most hostile conditions imaginable. I learned much about the desert environment from Abdel Zaher.
Elsewhere on this site you will find a bibliography of books I would recommend to those interested in learning more about the people, culture and leaders of the First Dynasty.
What about the major characters in the book? Did they really exist?
Perhaps. We cannot be sure about all of them. We now know with certainty that King Narmer lived and conquered Lower Egypt to unite Egypt into one country. Based on the structure of the court of succeeding rulers, of whom we know quite a bit more, it is likely that King Narmer had one or more trusted advisors, so the figure of Anhotek is likely to have been seen in the royal court. We know that Narmer married, but we know nothing else about the Queen. All the other characters are fictionalized.
From the descriptions in the book, Neith-Hotep’s (El-Or) heritage appears to be semitic. Are you suggesting that there were Jews living in that time period?
My research and my personal beliefs are that Judaism as a defined religion appeared much later in history and, in fact, is indebted to Egypt for many of its beliefs and traditions. From circumcision, death rituals, dietary restrictions, and many other practices, one can clearly see the influence of ancient Egyptian culture on Jewish practices. However, for this story I extrapolated that there may have been semitic nomads even in earliest times that believed in a single God.
I’d like to learn more about the First Dynasty period. Can you recommend some books and/or articles?
For those of you bitten by the bug that is ancient Egypt, I can assure you there is no cure. However, I recommend the following books as a starting point if you want to delve deeper into the topic.
Early Dynastic Egypt by Toby A. H. Wilkinson (Routledge, 1999).
Genesis of the Pharaohs by Toby Wilkinson (Thames & Hudson, 2003).
What Life Was Like On The Banks of the Nile by The Editors (Time-Life Books, undated).
Egypt Before the Pharaohs by Michael A. Hoffman (Barnes & Noble Books, 1993).
Chronicles of the Pharaohs by Peter A. Clayton (Thames & Hudson, 1994).
Bedouin Life in the Egyptian Wilderness by Joseph J. Hobbs (University of Texas Press, 1989).
Egyptian Women of the Old Kingdom by Henry George Fischer (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989).
Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, Edited by Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel (Konemann Publishers, 2011)
I welcome your suggestions of other books to add to this list. Please write to me with the full citation. Please indicate if you wish me to use your name as the referring source.
If you have more questions concerning The First Pharaoh please write to me so that I may include them in the FAQ section.