Encounter of Narmer with people from Lower Egypt

This stone, double-sided ornamented slab was made over three thousand years BC, so more than fifty centuries ago. Symbolically it marks the beginning of Egyptian ancient art, both due to the time of its creation and the theme of its reliefs. It is also one of the first visual stories of conquest, with the image of the triumphant victor and an adversary at his mercy.

Narmer Palette, ca. 3100 B.C.E., Museum of Cairo

The areas of ancient Egypt stretched along the life-giving river Nile. The northern part, called Lower Egypt, fertile due to its convenient placement in the river’s delta, was densely populated. Southern part – Upper Egypt – was mostly desert inhabited by nomadic tribes. Relation between both regions was remaining in unstable balance until the appearance of Narmer, who is considered to be the founder of the first dynasty of the pharaohs.

Narmer, as commander of the forces of the Upper Egypt, conquered the delta’s region and led to the unification of both territories under the rule of the pharaoh. This union is symbolized by two crowns worn by the ruler – so called white in the form of a cone and red in the form of a cap with a high back. The king is presented here in each crown, on each side of the so-called Narmer Pallete.

Looking at the obverse we are witnessing the crucial moment of the combat between the ruler from the South and the warrior from the North. Narmer’s figure fascinates – we admire a youthful, strong body, with its weight firmly rested on the legs. Our attention is drawn to the muscular arm raised to strike. The other hand holds the defeated by his hair, his head is soon to be crushed by the pharaoh. The prisoner is deprived of all agency: defenseless, kneeling in anticipation of his end. This is not a story about respect for the opponent, recognition of his skills and attributes. It is a scene of absolute triumph.

This prisoner is the last living enemy in this battle, symbolically along with his death the fertile delta land will be conquered. Under the feet of the pharaoh are the bodies of the already defeated warriors and he is trampling over them in the act of ultimate victory. This can be seen as a manifestation of the original need to separate oneself – one’s race, one’s tribe, one’s nation – from the “others”. As described by Yuval Noah Harari – People instinctively divide humanity into two parts, “us” and “others”. “Us” are people like you and me, sharing language, religion and customs with us. (…) It is difficult to even call them [others] humans. In the language of the Dinka people from Sudan, “dinka” simply means “people”. People who are not dinkas are not human.

This rhetoric of Egypt’s superiority over other people, showed in Narmer Palette, persisted throughout the reign of the pharaohs. It expressed itself in many ways, such as imagining the subordinated provinces in the form of the “nine bows” stepped on by the ruler. Also the canon of visual arts was oriented towards distinguishing foreign nations by assigning them certain skin color and physiognomic traits. This way all non-Egyptians were labeled as “foreigners”, “others”.

Already at this early stage of the development of the art language the creator of the Narmer Palette had recognized its potential to build suggestive stories. Symbols and images that are long dead in our eyes, once were creating a strong narrative. The one that was unfavorable for all “foreign” inhabitants of Egypt, it reminded them of their subjected position.

detail of a monument with Queen’s feet standing on the “nine bows”©

This palette was most probably a votive work, an expression of gratitude to the deities for winning of the war. Its decoration clearly sets the boundary between winners and defeated. And thus – I will venture to paraphrase here Harari – the depicted scene stimulates the conviction that people who were not Egyptians were not humans.

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