Menes: Unification King of Egypt

The Narmer Palette, c. 3000 BCE | Courtesy of the British Museum

At the dawn of civilization, the Egyptian Nile Valley cradled the richest, most fertile land in the ancient world. Called “the gift of the Nile,” civilizations formed around the rich silt that the Nile carried north to her banks, providing a way of living as the cultivation of crops began to thrive. The delta in the north was the gate to the Mediterranean, allowing for trade and commerce. It was the delta of the mouth of the river that had the most prosperous and fertile land, the crown jewel of the Nile.1 Because of the Nile’s northern current, the southern kingdom is referred to as Upper Egypt and the northern kingdom as Lower Egypt. This soil allowed the people that lived in “Lower Egypt” to cultivate a civilization and accumulate wealth, making them as rich as the soil the Nile provided. It was this rich and beautiful land that Menes established the first dynasty of Egypt, uniting the Nile River valley’s Upper and Lower Egypt.

Map of Ancient Egypt | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Around 3100 BCE, the “Horus” people of Upper Egypt in the south set out on an expedition north to face the “Set” people. These hawk people took their name from their patron god of kingship and the sky. According to Egyptian mythological tradition, Horus warred with the usurper god Set, his younger brother, for his inheritance. Horus was the god of the sky and of kingship with the head of a hawk, while the center of the cult of Set was centered in the north.2 Like the gods, the northern people set out to conquer what was rightfully theirs. Menes led the Horus people into battle as a powerful military figure against the Set people. Menes emerged victorious. He married the northern princess, Netihotpe, thereby legally binding the two lands and giving him rightful claim to having united the two kingdoms of Egypt.3

Menes turned out to be just as charismatic a political figure as he was a skilled and powerful general. He allowed the Northern people to keep their religious customs, including festivals celebrating Set. The gesture was welcomed as a sign from the gods that the southern people meant no harm to the northerners. They only meant to take their place as the rightful kings of a unified Egypt and establish discipline and order.4 To centralize the two kingdoms, Menes established a new city between the two kingdoms, founding the city of Memphis. By establishing a city in the floodplain of the Nile, the city grew prosperous with surpluses of food and a clear path to trade, advancing the civilization at the seat of the government.5 This city also became the place where the north and south could meet culturally. During the rule of Menes, the combined crown of Upper and Lower Egypt became the symbol of a unified Egypt, the white symbolic of Upper Egypt and the red of Lower Egypt.6 This symbolizes the establishment of the first dynasty in Egypt, making Menes the first pharaoh. By the time of his death, Menes had established a civilization that allowed Egyptians to continue to develop a complex social hierarchy, political system, commercial center, and powerful economy.7 In his death, Menes was granted two tombs, one at Theni, the capital in the north, and one at Memphis, the seat of unified Egypt.8

The Crown of Unified Egypt | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian scholars largely agree that the southern people of Upper Egypt conquered the northern people of Lower Egypt through military conquest.9 However, it is hard for scholars to distinguish the king and conqueror that united the kingdoms. Egyptian tradition holds that it was King Menes that unified the kingdoms. However, this unification occurred during the prehistoric period of Egyptian civilization, called the Pre-Dynastic Era. Therefore, there is no evidence that Menes was the conqueror of the Egyptian kingdoms. The most well-known surviving piece of evidence from the dawn of Egyptian civilization is the Palette of Narmer, pictured above.10 In this earliest depiction of pharaoh, a leader with the southern crown is pictured with a mace raised above his head, as he holds the king with the northern crown down.11 The image of Narmer is the dominant figure in the palette, declaring his victory over the ancient Egyptians. According to archaeological evidence, the era from which the palette was made corresponds with the time that the southern people conquered the northern people. This is evident, based on the movement of the art shifting to where parts of the body are in front view while others remain in side view. In the palette, Narmer’s chest is in front view, while the rest of his body is in side view. In addition, the main figure, Narmer, is showcased by his size in comparison to the rest of the figures, another development in art during this time period.12 The era that followed marked the flourishing of social and political hierarchy, a strong economy, and a powerful role in commerce.13

Detail on the Throne of Sesostris I of Horus and Set with the Symbol of Unity, 12th dynasty | Wikimedia Commons

If Menes was the king that conquered, why is this palette named for Narmer? The answer is far from simple. It is Egyptian tradition that holds that the king that unified Egypt was named Menes. However, there are many historical debates about the name for the unification king and the date in which he united Egypt. Historians believe that it is possible that the king answered to both Menes and Narmer, but this explanation conflicts with archaeological findings near Thebes. The most popular theory is that Narmer led the military conquest of Lower Egypt, while his son, Menes, was the charismatic leader that united the cultures of the south and north, solidifying the unification through marriage. Through his marriage to Netihotpe, the heir to the southern kingdom, Menes became the king of the south legally, which is why he is held up as the unification king in tradition. Some say that Narmer and his son, Aha, took the title “Meni,” meaning “the established,” to consolidate the kingdoms. Aha is again mentioned as the name for the king of the Horus people. When the kingdom was united, historians speculate that he took the name Menes, to solidify his dynasty to include the Set people.14 But, because there is no written record of the dynasty of Menes, none of these explanations can be confirmed. In fact, it was Manetho under Ptolemy II Philadelphus who named Menes the earliest of the pharaohs. So, Menes remains as a legendary figure in Egyptian history.15

Despite historical and archaeological conflicts with legend, the influence of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is clear. No matter what the name of the king was, he unified Egypt and strengthened Egyptian civilization as a whole, becoming the first pharaoh. He established the seat of government at Memphis as a cultural, political, and economic center. Most importantly, he is an important cultural and traditional figure. He fulfilled the destiny of Horus and reclaimed the rightful place of the southern people. For these accomplishments, it is Menes that is recognized as the unification king.

  1. Robert J. Wenke, “Egypt: Origins of Complex Societies,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 18 (1989): 144-148.
  2. Arts and Humanities Through the Eras, 2005, s.v. “Myths of Horus, Seth, and Amun,” by Edward I. Beilberg, James Allan Evans, Kristen Mossler Figg, Philip M. Soergel, and John Block Friedman.
  3. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “King Menes” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne Michele Bourgoin.
  4. Valentin Müller, “The Origin of the Early Dynastic Style: (Studies in Oriental Archaeology II),”  Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 58, No. 1 (March 1938): 143-147.
  5. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “King Menes” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne Michele Bourgoin.
  6. Ancient Civilizations Reference Library, 2000, s.v. “Egypt” by Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell.
  7. Robert J. Wenke, “Egypt: Origins of Complex Societies,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 18 (1989): 144-148.
  8. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “King Menes” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne Michele Bourgoin.
  9. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Rise of the Egyptian State,” by Alfred J. Andrea and Carolyn Neel.
  10. Richard Bussmann, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections (London: UCL Press, 2015), 42-43.
  11. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “Rise of the Egyptian State,” by Alfred J. Andrea and Carolyn Neel.
  12. Valentin Müller, “The Origin of the Early Dynastic Style: (Studies in Oriental Archaeology II),”  Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 58, No. 1 (March 1938): 143-147.
  13. Robert J. Wenke, “Egypt: Origins of Complex Societies,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 18 (1989): 144-148.
  14. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “King Menes” by Paula K. Byers and Suzanne Michele Bourgoin.
  15. Ancient Civilizations Reference Library, 2000, s.v. “Egypt,” by Judson Knight and Stacy A. McConnell.
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28 Comments

  • Very intriguing and interesting article. There are several scenarios related to the unification of Egypt in ancient history, but all point to Menes truly tying the knot with the northern princess to intertwine civilizations and unite people of different cultures. There may not be any definitive evidence to support these scenarios, but ancient Egyptian people were nevertheless prosperous from the Mediterranean to Memphis.

  • This was a very interesting article on Menes, and the unification of Egypt. Menes married Netihotpe, who was the northern princess, and this marriage allowed for Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt to merge. Menes allowed the northern people to keep their religious customs, while he established the city of Memphis. Overall, this was a great article on Menes, and how Egypt was unified.

  • Though they try their best, history teachers always lost me when they taught about the ancient world. This article does a fantastic job at keeping your attention, all the while still informing you what your history teacher wanted you to learn just a few years ago. The crown of Unified Egypt was very interesting to look at, a bizarre headpiece for sure.

  • One of the reasons why I love history is that there are so many stories that contain so much mystery and other parts are so entangled with legend, that it’s impossible to see where the facts are. King Menes is just one of those examples in history where so many people know of him yet there isn’t substantial evidence that he even existed. The same can be said with the city Atlantis or with legendary King Arthur. It reminds us that the past is filled with stories that are shaped by time, by people and no matter how famous one was, the future will never quite have all the details of their stories.

  • This article had so much information on the unification of the Egyptian Kingdoms. I was informative on how the kingdoms were formed through marriage and not just by conquest and Menes might have been the first to do that. Becoming the first Pharaoh is no little feat in regards to the history of the Egyptians. Though the written history does not show Menes as responsible for the unification of peace between the north and south, the oral tradition of Egypt’s history has always held this as the truth. I think this article is a great glimpse of history in regards to Menes and pushes me to want to further research Egyptian history, from the knowns to the oral history of the society.

  • First and foremost, allow me to give the author of this article a compliment: this article was an amazing read. The use of grammar, and, to a much further extent, the very progression of ideas were both amazing in their own regards. Egypt and its creation reminds me of the formation of Israel, what with the 13 Hebrew tribes getting together to form a collective, national government. The fact that it was formed peacefully rather than conquest did little to stop me from immediately making the connection, and the similarities between the two are shocking.

  • Menes did a great thing by founding both a literal and cultural ‘middle ground’ in the building the city of Memphis. By marrying the Lower Kingdom’s heir, he established legal regain over a united Egypt, leading to the first dynasty. Despite the historical controversy and confusion, Menes is credited with accomplishing what none other before him could.

  • Nice article. We just finished covering Egypt in my survey class. We talked about Menes of Egypt, but I did not know that there was some disagreement between scholars as to who founded the unified kingdom. I think the father son duo makes sense. Not that I am any position to say which is the most accurate story. Regardless Menes founded a powerful kingdom whose wealth is hard to imagine. Ancient Egypt has always been that way though. Extremely rich beyond most countries wildest dreams. Whoever founded the united Egypt should be proud they founded a great kingdom

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