Since ancient times Egypt has been considered as the venerable grandfather of all civilizations on Earth. Egypt was “re-discovered” by the French expedition led by Bonaparte during the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries (1798-1801). The first consul was accompanied by the most eminent scientists of France whose research is now considered one of the primordial steps for the modern knowledge of Ancient Egypt. The result of the Comission’s expeditions was the publication of the colossal volumes of the famous work Description de l’Egypte published between 1809 and 1829. Another important step in the then incipient science of Egyptology was the discovery in Rosetta (in the Nile Delta) in 1799 by a soldier of Napoleon of a stone with a trilingual inscription in Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic writing. Carefully studying and comparing these three writings, Jean -François Champollion could finally interpret the Egyptian hieroglyphs which greatly pull forward the advancement in the knowledge of the history and culture of Ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Egypt was a huge oasis stretching along the Nile River over a distance of two thousand kilometers. The ancient Egyptians called their country by the name of Kemi (Black Earth) because of the dark color of the silt deposited during the annual flooding of the Nile in order to differentiate it from the surrounding deserts which they called Khaset (Red Earth). The Hebrews called Egypt Mizraim and the Greeks since the times of Homer called it Aigyptos, hence the name we now give to it.
Between four and five thousand years BC, Ancient Egypt was divided in two regions clearly defined by its physical geography: Lower Egypt that includes the Nile Delta which is a fertile triangle crossed by the many branches of the river in its mouth, and Upper Egypt that includes the long, narrow strip of land between the deserts. They should be respectively the domains of the “Cane” kings, whose totem was the cobra which later was placed in the pharaohs’ crowns, and the “Bee” kings whose totem was the vulture.
The early inhabitants of the Nile valley lived naked, tattooed, and painted as most of the European Neolithic tribes did. This habit was kept for long time in the lower classes as well as the custom of accentuating the eyebrows and eyelids with the scented kohl (an ancient eye cosmetic, traditionally made by grinding lead sulfide and other ingredients). We can still appreciate this practice in the frescoes of the pharaonic temples. The prehistoric paintings and engravings of Upper Egypt and the Nubian dolmens are just like their European counterparts. The pre-pharaonic ceramic showed only two colors: red on the background, and dark purple of the additional decor. On this ceramic the Ancient Egyptians painted people, birds, boats, gazelles, and -among wavy lines- the Nile river. These ceramics reveal many details of the life of the primitive inhabitants of Egypt. In the ancient Egyptian predynastic culture women were represented naked. For their funerary practices, the women used long ivory combs which were probably used to keep the veil during the burial ceremonies. These combs are also profusely decorated with animal figures.
Another artifact that also provides historic, not to say, legendary information from Egyptian predynastic times are the slate plates known collectively as “cosmetic palettes”. This “palettes” bore a circular repository in the center which is thought to serve as a small deposit to dilute the kohl and other cosmetics used by pharaohs and magnates. It is for this reason that we have given them the name of “Cosmetic palettes”. Many of the scenes represented in the reliefs of these “palettes” are undoubtedly epic episodes concerning conquests. Notable cosmetic palettes are:
- The Narmer Palette, thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the pharaoh Narmer, (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)
- Libyan Palette, (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)
- The Dogs Palette, displaying canines, giraffes, and other quadrupeds, (Louvre)
- The Battlefield Palette, (British Museum and Ashmolean Museum)
- The Bulls Palette, showing a bull, representing the king, goring his enemies
- The Hunters Palette, (British Museum and Louvre)
The primitive Egyptians were initially separated in small independent clans which later came to be known –until the appearance of pharaonic times- as nomos or provinces along the Nile. These small States were gradually absorbed into two big principalities: those of Upper and of Lower Egypt, respectively characterized by the high tiara or white crown of the ancient “Cane” kings and the red crown of the “Bee” kings. A first pharaoh called Menes (Narmer) joined both principalities towards the 3,200 BC and was crowned with the white and red double crown thus inaugurating the First Dynasty of Egypt.