Tell el-Farkha

A photo exhibition presented outside the Museum in Świętosławska Street from March 2016

Exhibition curator: dr Małgorzata Kabacińska

One of the most important issues that still preoccupy Egyptologists is the question of how it happened that about five thousand years ago in the Nile basin emerged the first fully formed territorial state in the world. There are many hypotheses explaining this phenomenon. The most popular one holds that a small tribal state, which was established in the first half of the fourth millennium BC in the southern part of Upper Egypt expanded its territory gradually through conquests. At the same time, in the Nile Delta existed another well organized kingdom. It was conquered by the ruler of Upper Egypt – Menes, who is described in ancient records as the creator of a unified Egyptian state.

This event echoed through the later history of Egypt. The pharaoh was always portrayed as a king of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the union of the two states became a recurrent motif in Egyptian art.

Today, Menes is most often identified as Narmer, the founder of Dynasty I. However, the latest research has indicated that in the time of his reign Egypt had already long been a unified state both in political and cultural terms.

The answer to the question of the unification process should be sought in the Nile Delta. The path that may help resolve the puzzle leads to Tell el-Farcha, the site discovered twenty-five years ago and examined by the Polish Expedition to the Eastern Nile Delta.

The settlement existing in this place for over 1000 years was founded long before the emergence of the Pharaohs’ state and abandoned in the beginnings of the Old Kingdom. It witnessed the birth of the unified Egyptian state and played, as it seems, a vital role in this process. In the earliest period of its history (from about 3700 to about 3300 BC) Tell el-Farcha was inhabited by indigenous people of the Nile Delta. Approximately 3300 BC, from the south arrived the first settlers associated with the earliest political centres evolving in that period in Upper Egypt. The heyday of the Lower Egyptian settlement fell within the Protodynastic period, Dynasty 0 and Dynasty I (3200-2950 BC). In the middle of the rule of the latter, the settlement began to decline. Increasingly poor people abandoned Tell el-Farcha in the time when the great pyramids were built at Giza.

Today, the remains of the settlement consist of three hills located on the outskirts of Gazala village, 120 km north of Cairo. The ancient inhabitants of Tell el-Farcha left behind a six-meter thick layer of the remains of material culture. The first dwellings were large wooden structures. Soon, the settlement inhabitants erected thick mud-brick walls around the most important buildings. In the centre of the settlement stood a residence of a local ruler, while its western side was occupied by breweries representing ones of the earliest structures of this kind in the world. The discoveries made at the site confirm the wealth of the community and their participation in far-reaching trade exchange with both Upper Egypt and the Levant.

Located on an important trade route, Tell el-Farcha attracted attention of southern Egyptian proto-kingdoms, interested in luxury goods imported from the Levant, such as copper, wine, olive and cedar wood. The desire to take control over trade was the reason for the southerners to establish a trade outpost on the borders of the Lower Egyptian settlement. The coexistence of the two different communities led to cultural assimilation and to the adoption of the more attractive cultural patterns from the south.

In the next stage, the settlement inhabitants built an extensive residence, one of the largest buildings in Egypt dating to this period (ok. 3300-3200 BC). It was undoubtedly inhabited by a person connected with the contemporary Egyptian rulers residing in the south – in Abydos or Hierakonpolis. The building was destroyed in a fire associated with an unknown disaster; on its ruins, in the Early Dynastic period, a monumental administrative complex was erected, one of the oldest in Egypt. Within this area archaeologists discovered places of cult with votive deposits containing outstanding works of art, in large part the oldest items of this kind recorded so far in the region.

The inhabitants of Tell el-Farcha were buried on a cemetery located on the east side of the settlement. The vessels deposited in graves were signed with kings’ names, including the three successive rulers: Iry-Hor, Ka and Narmer. A monumental tomb (mastaba) unearthed at this necropolis is the oldest hitherto known example of such structures, which in later periods marked the burial sites of eminent Egyptians. In its vicinity archaeologists found two gold figurines representing men, and two ritual flint knives.

The results of research carried out at Tell el-Farcha have challenged the hypothesis about the invasion of the southerners and the extermination of the late Lower Egyptian culture communities inhabiting the Nile Delta. In the light of new findings, it is more likely that the incomers from the south infiltrated the north of Egypt slowly and gradually, settling both in previously uninhabited areas and in already existing settlement centres.

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 Photo: R. Słaboński