Archeologists digging in the ruins of an ancient Egyptian city that became the first capital of the world's first nation-state 5,100 years ago have found the remains of the oldest known Egyptian temple.
Evidence indicates that the temple was built in the century or two before the city emerged as a great power center, and suggests that the facility may have contributed to the centralization of power by serving as the focus of ceremonial rituals not just to placate the gods but to sanctify the political domination of the local ruler.
According to Egyptian legend, the first pharaoh of a unified Egypt was the divine king Narmer -- ancient Egyptian for "catfish" -- who came from a city then called Nekhen -- better known today by the Greek name Hierakonpolis. In predynastic times, Hierakonpolis was the largest settlement in Egypt.
As the king of Hierakonpolis, Narmer conquered other Egyptian cities along the Nile, welding the many city-states into the world's first nation-state, an entity larger and more powerful than any of the city-states of Mesopotamia or Greece. Narmer, known in later times as Menes, founded ancient Egypt's first dynasty and established a form of Egyptian political organization -- a nation-state led by a divine king -- that lasted 3,000 years.
"It's speculation as to what role the temple had in this process, but the architectural plan looks very much like the plan of the later temples that were so important in Egyptian politics," said Michael A. Hoffman, leader of an expedition that has been digging in the ruins of Hierakonpolis for 11 years.
Hoffman, a research professor at the University of South Carolina's Earth Sciences and Resources Institute, said the temple was found about 400 miles south of Cairo last winter by his 12-member team of archeologists, Egyptologists, botanists, a zoologist and a geologist.
"What we found seems to have been the ceremonial focal point of a complex and sophisticated settlement," Hoffman said. "Hierakonpolis was one of the places where the traditional symbols of pharaonic power developed, making the temple complex especially significant as a precedent for the great historical ceremonial centers in Memphis, Saqqara, Karnak and Luxor."
The temple is believed to have been built between 3350 B.C. and 3200 B.C. Narmer is thought to have unified Egypt around 3100 B.C. The first pyramids were built around 2600 B.C.
Though less grand in its time than the later examples, the newly found temple must have been impressive in a small city of between 5,000 and 10,000 people where the houses were usually small and made of mud-brick or wattle and daub, a method in which mud is plastered over a framework of sticks and reeds.
Situated just under half a mile from the town ruins, the temple complex included an oval-shaped courtyard 43 feet wide and at least 105 feet long. One end has still not been excavated. The courtyard was enclosed by a fence originally made of mud-covered reeds. At a later time, it appears, the fence was replaced by a more substantial mud-brick wall. Flanking one long wall was a row of small rectangular buildings of unknown function.
In the same long side of the wall was a gate between two tall wooden poles. On the opposite side was the temple itself, a large building supported on wooden poles that may have been about 20 feet high. Later Egyptian artworks show temple facades with the same four poles sheathed with bundled reeds. Later stone temples recreated this impression by carving the image of reeds around stone columns.
Inside the temple were mud-covered reed fences dividing the interior into rectangles, another architectural feature that appears in later Egyptian temples. Most of the temple has yet to be excavated.
The courtyard floor, Hoffman found, was replaced four times by smoothing new layers of wet Nile mud over the old floor. Footprints of animals, possibly dogs, and small humans, possibly children, were found in one mud layer. Hoffman speculates that before the new floor hardened, children trooped through with their pets.
Opposite the temple but inside the fence was a long, low mud-brick wall. At the high end of the sloped courtyard, to one side of the temple, was a single tall wooden pole.
Because later Egyptian paintings show similar temple structures, Hoffman speculated that the lone pole supported a flag or a carved wooden totem representing the god worshipped in the temple, perhaps the falcon-headed god Horus. Hierakonpolis means "city of the falcon." Hoffman said most of the wooden structures had long since deteriorated but that careful excavation revealed their former existence through the post holes left behind.
Even though the holes had been filled, it proved possible to discern the shape of the hole from differences in color and consistency of the soil as archeologists dug down. The height of the poles can be estimated from their depth. The most impressive post holes at the temple were about six feet deep and held large, shaped stones at the bottom upon which the posts rested. At the gate, excavators found the pivot stone, with a pit in which the gate's pivot post turned. During the last winter's dig at the site, excavators also turned up more than 285,000 potsherds and two whole pots. Some pottery was of a style previously unknown from Egypt.
Among the most spectacular finds were pieces of what Hoffman called "beautifully crafted stone vessels" found on the courtyard floor. One was part of the rim of a white marble jar with flaring lips and incised decorations.
Barbara Adams, an expert in Egyptian pottery from London's Petrie Museum and a member of Hoffman's team, said the best stone vases from the site are comparable with others found in the 19th century that are generally considered sacred vessels used in Egyptian temples.
Although older temples are known from other parts of the ancient world, particularly Turkey, none is associated with a major shift in political organization such as took place at Hierakonpolis.
Hoffman has specialized in studying how simple farming and fishing villages along the Nile transformed themselves into a powerful and durable nation-state. His earlier excavations have established that Hierakonpolis was not only the largest Egyptian city of its time but probably the home of Egypt's biggest pottery factory, making and selling the goods up and down the Nile. Hoffman found the remains of the large pottery factory and the kilns a few years ago.
Hoffman says he suspects that pottery barons accumulated great wealth which, over the generations, translated itself into local political power as the elite invested in palaces and elaborate tombs and public works such as irrigation systems, village walls and temples.
Between 3200 B.C. and 3100 B.C., warfare raged up and down the Nile as local kings sought domination. In the end Narmer, the king of Hierakonpolis, perhaps enjoying the greatest wealth and power, prevailed, conquering all of Egypt and establishing a form of national government that survived for some 3,000 years.