The Narmer Palette, from circa 3100 B.C. and housed at the Egyptian Museum, depicts the king, who wears the red crown of Lower Egypt.

Who was Egypt's first pharaoh?

Five thousand years ago in North Africa, an ambitious king, known today as Narmer, unified two lands into the world's first great territorial state—Egypt.

Founder of a dynasty

Surveying his fallen foes, Narmer is depicted wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt on the Narmer Palette, which dates to circa 3100 B.C. and is housed at the Egyptian Museum.
Scala, Florence

Five thousand years ago, there was no single nation of Egypt—at least not as it exists today. There were, and had been for thousands of years, two lands: Upper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the north. There are millennia-old inscriptions on ceramics and depictions of leaders from each kingdom that show two distinct entities with different sets of traditions.

Prior to unification, depictions of kings showed different regalia. Rulers of Upper Egypt wore a tall white crown called a hedjet, while in Lower Egypt kings donned a short red crown called a deshret. Around 3100 B.C., a king of Upper Egypt, known as Narmer, changed all that. By incorporating the lands west of the fertile, triangular Nile Delta region into his own kingdom—which spanned the lush Nile Valley area in the south (roughly from what is Cairo today to Lake Nasser)—he created a united Egypt, the world’s first great territorial state.

When the two lands united, it marked not only the beginnings of a political state, but also the origins of a great cultural one. Beginning with Narmer, Egypt began developing its own distinctive visual style, one that would echo through the ages as the iconography and symbols embraced by Narmer and his successors took hold. These symbols became tools used by pharaohs—from Khufu to Hatshepsut to Ptolemy XII—to convey power, strength, and unity for millennia.

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