Art of Ancient Egypt: Predynastic (4210 BC–2680 BC) and Old Kingdom (2680 BC–2258 BC) periods – Part II

The Narmer palette contains many predynastic reminiscences but also includes writing and a great change in terms of Egyptian art. Here appears fully developed the representative system of the human body to which the Egyptians will be true throughout their history: heads and legs are in profile while torsos are represented in front view except in female portrayals in which -as we shall see- the breasts are drawn in profile.

Detail of the front of the Palette of King Nar-Mer (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). In this palette appeared well defined the typical Egyptian representation system of the human body with face and legs in profile and torso in front view.

One of the most important artworks of the first two dynasties which form the so-called Archaic period is the great Stele of Pharaoh Uto the King Snake. His hieroglyph name –Snake- is placed on the Palace’s façade which also has two doors and three towers. This entire scene appears nestled under Horus-the-hawk the patronymic god of Upper Egypt which was thought to be embodied in the members of the royalty.

The stele of King Uto or “Snake King” (Louvre) of the First Dynasty. It is the top of a tall stele that adorned the door of this king´s cenotaph. The God Horus, the falcon, dominates the banner. The hieroglyph of the snake is enclosed within a patio bounded by a wall with three towers, this wall represents the image of the walls of the primitive Egyptian cities.
Mastaba type tomb in the Necropolis of Giza (Cairo, Egypt).

The tomb of Menes and other pharaohs of the first two dynasties were built underground and were entirely different from the ones of the last monarchs of the third and subsequent dynasties which were buried in high hypogea. The underground tomb is for the worshipers of Osiris -Lord of the Dead- the popular and beloved god at the beginning of pharaonic Egypt.

Step pyramid of Zoser in Saqqara. This pyramid, dedicated to the founder of the Third Dynasty, was built by the royal architect Imhotep. Is 60 m tall and its structure is based on a series of overlapping mastabas.

But with the Third Dynasty a great change took place in Egypt and this is reflected in the way royalty was buried. This big change is the reason why historians place here the beginning of the first of the great periods of Pharaonic Egypt: the so-called Old Kingdom (2680-2258 BC). It must have been a religious reform that did not transcend the common people –always devotees of Osiris- but that was imposed upon the great judges, high officials, and especially, members of the royal family. Without entirely ignore Osiris these upper classes were devoted -with a fervor that led them to develop great constructions- to another religious concept, or rather, to other philosophical system: that of Ra the Sun god. Around 3,000 years B.C. a pharaoh named Zoser of the Third Dynasty was profoundly interested in the concept of Ra and imposed it to members of his family and court. Since then the tomb was no longer an underground precinct but an outdoor construction: the pharaohs were buried in pyramids because those inclined walls were the symbol of the world dominated by the vertex or apex where is Ra sailing in his solar ship. Therefore from Zoser and in subsequent dynasties Egyptian funerary monuments were of two types: common graves built for high officials which have been called mastabas, and the royal tombs whose main element is the pyramid. The “step” pyramid of Zoser in Sakkarah is staggered. It suggests a gigantic mastaba on top of which a smaller one was built, and above it another was built, and then another, and another …, until seven of them were completed. So this first pyramid “experiment” appeared as a consequence of multiplication and superposition of the mastaba form built atop one another. This first attempt of pyramid was later abandoned and finally evolved in the form of the classic Egyptian pyramid which we are all familiar these days. The author of this first model of a pyramid was probably the vizier Imhotep, architect and physician of the pharaoh Zoser founder of the Third Dynasty.

Reconstruction of the funerary complex of the Pyramid of Zoser, in Saqqara.