Khasekhemwy: Egypt’s Re-Founding Father

Darkness clouds the land of Egypt. The two lands are divided once again, as Horus and Set renewed their eternal war. Out of this chaos, this disturbance to Ma’at, came a man appropriately named “The Two Powers Appear.” He was Khasekhemwy, the king that would reunite Egypt, paving the way for the golden age to come.

Khasekhemwy

Background

Narmer united Egypt into a single kingdom around 3,100 BC. This first founding father of Egypt created many of the traditions and institutions which were to last for over 3,000 years. The union of “the Two Lands” was of cosmic importance. It was at the center of the Egyptian worldview. Cosmic assumptions and royal ideology weren’t immune from real-world problems, though. It would take more than Narmer to form a durable nation-state in the remote mists of time.

Narmer’s direct dynasty, the First Dynasty of Egypt, ended after about 200 years on the throne, probably after some kind of civil disturbance. Signs of decay had set in by the end of the First Dynasty, a preview of things to come.

We are now entering one of the murkiest times in Egyptian history. We know even less about the Second Dynasty than about the First, so our picture of events is incomplete at best. Yet, we can discern a few things.

The first kings of the Second Dynasty ruled as before, although they decided to move their tombs from Abydos to Sakkara. Evidently the institutions Narmer created, despite having taken some hits, were still secure. The key figure who would change this situation was Nynetejer.

Nynetejer is attributed with a long reign. It lasted around 45 years, depending on the source. Apparently, something happened during his reign to give him the idea that he needed to split the kingdom in two once again. Maybe. Egyptian history from here on out gets extremely cloudy.

Kings pop up all over the place of dubious validity. They are often restricted to certain areas of the country, suggesting a confused situation that must have devolved to a greater extent than Nynetejer had planned on.

In certain respects, a divided country, or a unified, but weak central government, is unremarkable. It resembles the Intermediate Periods in Egyptian history or the late New Kingdom during the 20th Dynasty. What makes the unrest in the Second Dynasty unique is that it also had a religious character.

A Religious Revolution?

The most famous story in Egyptian mythology is that of Isis and Osiris. Osiris, the “first” king of Egypt, was murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother, Set. Isis, his devoted wife and sister (sadly a common occurrence in ancient Egypt), dutifully found his body parts and resurrected him. He then became the god of the dead.

Revenge would come through their son, Horus. Isis hid from Set and gave birth to the falcon-headed god. Horus then confronted and defeated Set, taking the throne, and restoring order in Egypt. Forever afterward, he became the symbol of Egyptian kingship. The first title of a king would be his Horus title, displayed under a “Serekh.”

So it must have been shocking to see a king of Egypt reject Horus and use Set’s symbol for his royal title instead.

Peribsen Serekh
The Serekh of Peribsen. Normally, the falcon for Horus should be on top of the box.

Polytheism is usually a tolerant mindset because there is no logical contradiction in accepting new gods into the pantheon, even for gods of the same thing. There is nothing inherently opposed to the idea of two storm gods, for example. This is in contrast to monotheism, which Akhenaten would later attempt to impose by force. If there’s only one god, it cannot have competitors.

The Pharaoh Peribsen was no Akhenaten, but he partially anticipated his distant successor by taking the stunning step of identifying himself with Set, and casting aside Horus, the traditional god of kingship. This identification was written in the stone of his Serekh.

The Egyptians were an easygoing people. They were not as concerned with logical consistency as we are today. Peribsen probably bothered some of them, though. They didn’t harp on logical consistency but did have a strong belief in Ma’at – cosmic order. Peribsen went against this notion with his religious revolution. We can’t be sure of the details as to how far it went. He did not prohibit the worship of other deities, and also unlike his distant successor, his name was not damned after his death. Nevertheless, this is a sign of the civil unrest during the Second Dynasty. There is evidence that Peribsen ruled Upper Egypt (the south – upstream on the Nile) only.

Out of this religious upheaval (of whatever extent) and internal weakness, came Khasekhemwy.

Khasekhemwy – A Holy Warrior?

Admittedly, the label is for ease of reading. We need to be careful about applying such concepts to people in the remote past. Khasekhemwy seems to have given Peribsen his proper due in death. Still, Khasekemwy was a warrior, known for his military exploits.

The results at the end of his reign speak volumes. The records are once again consistent with Khasekemwy. There are no more questions about Egypt being divided or confused. He was a strong king and he solved the religious “problem,” too.

If there were indeed two factions – the devotees of Horus and Set, Khasekemwy united them by placing both god’s icons above his own name. This was the dual Serekh, known only from his reign.

Khasekhemwy Serekh
Khasekhemwy’s resolution of the religious conflict. It was very Narmer-esque in the union of the symbols.

We unfortunately cannot reconstruct his campaigns, but we can say that he left Egypt far better off than he found it. He restored the continuity of Narmer and would have made the first pharaoh proud.

Khasekemwy the Builder

Khasekemwy was also among the first known kings to work with stone, rather than the traditional mudbrick. His buildings were not completely made of stone, but they did have stone elements. The most famous is his funerary temple, now called Shunet El Zebib. This structure is mostly made of mudbrick, but there were some stone parts.

In this way, Khasekemwy paved the way for Imhotep and the Step Pyramid, built during the reign of his successor and likely son, Djoser. Thus began the Third Dynasty, ending the murky period of the Second, and starting the first true golden age of Egypt, the Old Kingdom.

We cannot say much more about Khasekemwy, unfortunately. Like so many great men, he didn’t live to see the full fruit of his labor. Like Narmer, we will simply have to rest assured that a strong and charismatic king ended a time of troubles, setting his kingdom up for greatness in centuries to come. Perhaps some sources of Khasekemwy are still lurking beneath the sands of Upper Egypt, or the swamps in Lower Egypt, waiting for a reader.

In our own time of division and unrest, we could use a few more guys like Khasekemwy.

You can read more about guys like him in Lives of the Luminaries, a book which starts with Narmer himself.

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