Predynastic site emerges from the sand: Nekhen, city of the Hawk

Nekhen was a busy city on the western bank of the Nile in predynastic ancient Egypt, long before the pyramids were built. The ancient site was once called as Hierakonpolis, Greek meaning “City of the Hawk,” but is now known as Kom el-Ahmar.

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Illustration depicting the ruins of ancient Nekhen/Hierakonpolis from 1802. © Image Credit: British Museum

In truth, Nekhen is an important site for historians seeking to understand the origins of dynasty Egyptian civilization, and it is the largest predynastic Egyptian site yet uncovered. The remains itself date from 4000 to 2890 BC.

According to the Hierakonpolis Expedition, “at its peak, at about 3600-3500 BC, Hierakonpolis must have been one of, if not, the largest urban units along the Nile, a regional center of power and a capital of an early kingdom.” The city eventually became a religious center for the falcon god Horus, one of the most significant deities in the ancient Egyptian pantheon, because pharaohs were thought to be the deity’s earthly manifestation.

As explained in an article about the cult of Horus, “the inhabitants of Nekhen believed that the reigning king was the manifestation of Horus. When Narmer, a ruler from Nekhen considered to be the unifier of Egypt, succeeded in controlling both Upper and Lower Egypt, this concept of the pharaoh as an earthly manifestation of Horus achieved national importance.”

The discovery of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis)

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Copper statue of Pepi I and smaller statue of his son at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The site has now been the subject of more than a century of archaeological investigation, which is still ongoing today with the Hierakonpolis Expedition, which is uncovering fresh discoveries. The location was first mentioned in 1798 when Vivant Denon explored the region as part of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt.

While he did not grasp the significance of the place, he did depict the ruins of an old temple on the horizon in his drawing. Following his six-month voyage, he published his memoirs, Voyage Dans la Basse et Haute Egypte (1802).

While other visitors did see debris in the region, it was Flinders Petrie, who founded the Egyptian Research Account, who despatched J. E. Quibell to try to dig the site in 1897. Despite the fact that the site had already been looted, they began excavations on what is now known as “the largest predynastic settlement still extant.”

The temple depicted by Denon had been dismantled years previously, but during mound excavations, Quibell discovered an extraordinary find: a gold and copper cult figure of Horus the falcon deity beneath the ruins of a mud-brick temple.

This was followed by the discovery of a life-sized statue of King Pepi, which held a similar figure of his son King Merenre, and is now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Nekhen’s significant discoveries

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Some of the Nekhen objects unearthed when the site was discovered. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The multidisciplinary Hierakonpolis Expedition started in 1967 and is still going on today. Archaeologists have discovered a variety of features of this ancient city, ranging from household structures and garbage mounds to religious and cult centers, cemeteries, burials, and an early dynasty palace.

They’ve unearthed breweries and pottery studios, as well as evidence of a zoo or menagerie, including crocodiles, elephants, baboons, a leopard, hippos, and more, as well as animal burials in or near-elite tombs.

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Drawing of painted mural within tomb T100 at Hierakonpolis (Nekhen), believed to be the earliest example of an Egyptian tomb mural. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As researchers dive farther into the predynastic ruins, they have discovered items such as ivory statuettes, mace heads, stone sculptures, ceramic masks, ceramics, a lapis lazuli figure, and terracotta statuettes.

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The Narmer Palette discovered at Nekhen. © Image Credit: Public Domain

The Palette of King Narmer (see top picture) is one of the most important objects discovered in Nekhen to date, dating back to the Early Dynastic Period approximately 3100 BC. It was discovered in the 1890s within the deposit of the temple of Nekhen and contains hieroglyphic writings that have been believed to be among the “first political documents in history.”

According to some historians, these hieroglyphics depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is one of the earliest depictions of an Egyptian king, which researchers believe is Narmer or Menes. Another significant discovery is the painted tomb, which was discovered within a burial chamber at Nekhen between 3500 and 3200 BC.

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A mud-brick enclosure known as the “fort” at Hierakonpolis, also known as Nekhen, from circa 2700 BC. © Image Credit: flickr

This tomb’s walls were painted, making it the oldest example of painted Egyptian walls known to date. The tableau depicts a burial procession with depictions of Mesopotamian reed boats, staffs, deities, and animals.

Visiting Nekhen (Hierakonpolis)

Unfortunately, the facility is not open to the public. Those who want to investigate the interesting remnants of Nekhen must first get authorization from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. To gain a sense of this extraordinary place, read up on the newest findings made by the Hierakonpolis Expedition.