Egypt: Aha! Or is it King Menes?, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Aha! Or is it King Menes?

By Marie Parson

The name of Aha

Manetho and Herodotus are the "best" historical sources for the tradition that Menes was the unifier and first King of a unified Egypt. Manetho lived in Sebennytos in the Delta during the Ptolemaic period. He was a priest, perhaps chief priest, of Ra, and served as a consultant to the early Ptolemaic rulers on the cult of Serapis.

Using perhaps source materials such as the annals now called the Palermo Stone and the Turin Canon, Manetho recorded a list of the Kings of ancient Egypt from pre-dynastic times through to the Persian conquest.

The Palermo stone, inscribed on both sides of a black basalt slab, dates from the Fifth Dynasty and records names of the kings of the 1-5th Dynasties. The first three dynasties consist almost exclusively of events that give the years their names.

Drawing of Clay Jar Seal from Abydos

The King-list on this stone mentions several pre-dynastic kings as well as the name of Narmer, Menes, and Aha. The King-list at Abydos in the temple of Seti I also includes the name of Menes. But is Menes also Narmer, or is Menes, Aha, that is, a second, or nisw bity name, for either of these kings? Was Menes a name at all, or was Menes a title? Confusions about names and corresponding identities by the way may have to do with the fact that later king lists show the nbty names, while those on monuments usually list the Horus names.

We know of Narmer by his famous palette, macehead, and by jar seals. It should be noted herein that fragments of clay jar seals from Abydos, alternating Narmer and the word or name mn, suggests that mn was a leading person and possibly successor to Narmer.

We know the name of Hor-Aha, or Aha, the Fighter or Fighting Hawk, by his name sign appearing in a serekh on a potsherd, now in the British Museum, and by an ivory label from the tomb at Naqada of Nithotep (possibly his mother and the wife of King Narmer). This label also shows the nbty name Mn in front of the serekh. The reading of the hieroglyphic sign of mn on several ivory tablets belonging to King Aha, and on a plate fragment, has prompted speculation that Aha is Menes. Some scholars however do not accept that mn equates with Menes. Some speculate the mn to mean merely a "someone", i.e. designating any person on whose behalf ritual ceremonies were undertaken.

The name of Aha

This second name Mn which could means "established," could be the origin of the name Menes by Manetho and still later by Herodotus, but this is by no means certain.

A label found at Abydos, where he had at least one tomb constructed, shows the Horus name of Aha, with sacred barks, a shrine of Nit, and possibly some indication of the name Memphis. A wooden label from Abydos indicates he had to subdue rebels in Nubia, and another label indicates he built a temple to Neith or Nit in the Delta at Sais. One of these labels may show a ceremony called "Receiving the South and the North" over an unidentified object, possibly first representation of the binding together of lotus and papyrus stalks which later came to represent both halves of Egypt. If Aha was the successor to Narmer, that is, the first king to begin his reign over a fully unified Egypt, it may make sense that he would establish a new capital and undertake such a ceremony as may have been represented.

The first line on the Palermo stone is determined by hieroglyphs for "king", some shown wearing the red crown and some the double, that is both white and red, crowns.

So for the reign of Aha, who may be Menes, the Annals record this:

Year X + 1: The Year of . In which took place the Festival of the Birth of Anubis.
Year X + 2: The Year of . In which took place..Bull.
Year X + 3: The Year of .. in which took place the Festival of the Birth of.
Year X + 7 (?) + 1: The Year of the Following of Horus in which took place the Festival of the Birth of Anubis.
Year X + 7 (?) + 2: The last civil year of the reign of the King, of which he reigned the first six months and seven days.

King Menes is traditionally believed to have begun Egyptian history. But according to the Turin Canon and Manetho, there were historical events which preceded Menes, such as a series of semi-divine rulers who filled the gap between the reign of gods and of the emergence of Menes. The Palermo stone mentions these "followers of Horus." It is also thought that perhaps the Followers of Horus referred to a royal progress through the cities of Upper and Lower Egypt so that the King could visit his domain.

Manetho wrote this about King Menes: "After the dead and the demigods comes the 1st Dynasty, with 8 kings of whom Menes was the first. He was an excellent leader. In what follows are recorded the rulers from all of the ruling houses in succession.

Menes of Thinis, whom Herodotus calls Men, and his 7 descendants. [Thinis, or This, was apparently a city or town near Abydos and the point of origin for the first dynasties.

Menes, we are told ruled for about 62 years, led the army across the frontier and won great glory. He was killed by a hippopotamus."

Herodotus was a Greek historian who traveled in Egypt and recorded his own observations as well as the stories that he was told by priests and other Egyptians. Herodotus wrote that Menes was the first king of Egypt and dammed up the Nile near what was to become Memphis, in order to reclaim land on which he then founded the city.

Certainly, about the time of Aha, Memphis did become the administrative center of government. Although it is believed that Aha built his grave at Abydos, his name has been found inscribed on material from cemeteries in the Memphite region, at Tura, Tarkhan and Helwan. Under his reign, tombs were built at Saqqara, which have been attributed to high-ranking government officials and nobles.

The tomb of Aha was a complex of three large brick-lined chambers number B10/15/19 roofed over with wood. To the east were a set of graves whose young male occupants were apparently sacrificed at the time of burial. The monumental part of this tomb lay to the northeast where a large rectangular enclosure of brick, with corner bastions and towers was erected.

King Ahas grave was built of several separate chambers, in three stages. It shows traces of large wooden shrines in three chambers, and 33 subsidiary burials containing the remains of young males aged 20-25 years old. Seven young lions also were buried nearby one of those graves.

As more work is done at both Abydos and Saqqara, new evidence may come to light which will help fill in some of the gaps surrounding the mystery of who Menes may in fact have been.

Last Updated: August 21st, 2011

Sources: (source for the hieroglyphics graphic)

Berossos and Manetho, by Verbrugghe and Wickersham

Ancient Egyptian Science Vol.1 by Marshall Clagett

Ancient Egyptian Kingship ed. by David OConnor & David Silverman

Egypt Before the Pharoahs by Michael Hoffman

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt ed. By Ian Shaw

Prehistory of Egypt by Beatrix Midant-Reynes

Monarchs of the Nile by Aidan Dodson

Chronicle of the Pharaohs by Peter Clayton

Early Dynastic Egypt by Toby Wilkinson