Although ancient Egypt was once described as a “civilization without cities,” contrary archaeological evidence has mounted as increasing numbers of settlement sites have been surveyed and excavated. Settlement archaeology began taking off in Egyptology in the 1970s, and was manifested particularly in the innovative research projects at El-Amarna, Elephantine, and Hierakonpolis, amongst other sites. These programs were partly designed to answer the question of what we know about ancient Egyptian cities, towns, and villages apart from their architectural details.
Ancient cities were unique in deriving a substantial portion of their income from their rural hinterland. As such, a broad-based model can take as its basis that a city is a unit of hierarchical settlement performing specialized tasks with an interactive hinterland network.
Developmental differences in urbanization, as expressed through evolving nature and functions, are the underlying premise of Wilson’s claim that ancient Egypt did not possess cities until the New Kingdom. Wilson’s biological metaphor assumes what Kemp has termed “an intuitive appreciation of culture in which archaeology has little place,” and narrowly defines the concept of urbanism on the basis of Mesopotamian size and style.
Wilson’s evaluation does not differ fundamentally from the rationale presented for the development of Egyptian settlements by Helck in his Handbuch der Orientalistik. Both models are based on varying Egyptian religious texts from different periods and an interpretative approach that excludes towns due to the “spiritual” foundations of Egyptian society.
The problem with using the religious Pyramid and Coffin texts to inform on the nature and degree of urbanism, per Wilson and Helck, is that the ancient Egyptian designations for their own settlements tends to be overlooked. There was no distinction made in the Old Kingdom between towns and other settlement forms.
A different model has been proposed by Hassan, who postulates that the ideological and social context of agriculture and trade differed from the mercantile economies of the preindustrial Middle Ages in Europe. Thus, these activities may be reflected in a territorial state spatial organization, with settlements hierarchical in character tending toward activity boundaries being defined, and the activities themselves becoming the domain of specialists. Thus activities would be focal in nature, designed to take advantage of the scaled settlement patterns relating the city to its hinterland, and to minimize the fluctuations in agricultural yield, caused by the unpredictability of the Nile flood levels, through food transportation networks.
Hassan’s definition of “capital cities,” referring to national capitals (for example, Memphis and Thebes), “town” to nome capitals, and “village” to rural settlements, is applicable to later dynastic Egypt. However, his model fails to demonstrate their appropriateness for both late Predynastic (Nagada I—III) and Early Dynastic Egypt. Hassan discretely broaches this problem when stating that a structure of 22 nomes was fixed by Fifth Dynasty times; however, nome boundaries were mobile. Because his model for the spacing of settlements is dependent upon population estimates generalized over the time span of dynastic Egypt, and a hierarchical structure of administrative and redistributive sizes for settlements, its inherent inflexibility renders it problematic for the developing nucleated city-states of the predynastic, and the evolving manifestations of the territorial Pharaonic State.
Bietak defines four additional characteristics for distinguishing between settlement types: (1) Artificially-planned towns such as Amarna, Piramesse, and probably Early Dynastic Memphis; (2) Gezira-towns, which predominate in the Delta (e.g., Buto and Tell Ibrahim Awad); (3) Levee-towns, built on the top of high levee-banks; and (4) Tell-towns. A comprehensive inventory of 217 cities, towns and fortresses was compiled from Egyptian textual sources and analyzed by Butzer. His category, “city,” refers to Luxor-Karnak and Memphis, the two national metropolises. The small and large centers were defined as market redistributive nodes for agricultural, economic (crafts, harbors), residential, and religious (cult centers with connected wide-ranging temple estates) activities.
Despite the large-scale, monumental architecture dating from the Middle Kingdom onward, no in situ Early Dynastic or Old Kingdom remains have been located. While possibly later occupational activity and/or sebakh-diggers may be responsible for this discrepancy, it has been argued that early Memphis was a mobile capital located close to the pyramid complex being constructed by the particular pharaoh at the time in the Memphite necropolis, Lower Egyptian Memphite nome. Love bases her hypothesis on scattered remains from Giza, Abu Rowash, Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur as well as on linguistics. The Greek-derived name Memphis stems from Mn-nfr meaning “Pepi is firm[ly established] and well.” Thus Lehner has referred to the necropolis as a “capital zone,” a nonnucleated 30 km stretch.
Assmann described New Kingdom Egypt as “the exact imitation of cosmic government on earth.” O’Connor has applied this concept to royal cities such as el-Amarna and Thebes, suggesting that these cities were laid out to replicate and function as the cosmos. The temples were the reciprocators of the cosmic power, channeled to the citizens through the palaces, and thus maintaining the relationship between the city and the cosmos, and the pharaoh and his people.
In this hypothesis, Amun-Re at Thebes was the cosmic ruler of a cosmic and secular entity. The administrative palace and the temple were linked, but O’Connor pushes the limits of his hypothesis by postulating “the residential palace, like Amun-Re’s horizon, was perhaps remote from the city proper.” His hypothesis is more solid for al-Amarna where the residential palace is located at the northern edge of the settlement, mirroring the sun-Disc’s emergence at the cosmos’ edge, the eastern horizon (akhet). The pharaoh and the Disc join in sacred union in the city centre, before the pharaoh continues on to govern in the “secular city.”
O’Connor combines Egyptian texts with archaeological data to further inform the available evidence on the Egyptian’s worldview about the interrelationships between city, state, and the cosmos through examining not only temples but also the internal layout of palaces and towns.
O’Connor fails to adequately develop his cosmological hypothesis to account for population numbers and spatial interrelationships between cities, towns, and villages, and for the spacing of the settlements in the landscape. Hassan’s functionalist model fails to adequately account for the ecological variability of the Nile floodplain. The fundamental principle of versatility and state ideology sometimes superseding functional constraints is clearly evident when viewed from peripheral sites such as Elephantine.
Instead, it is most plausible to conclude that ancient Egypt was a territorial state with a plurality of hierarchical settlements distributed across its landscape, constrained and reinforced by considerations of ecology and mobility, as well as logistical and ideological considerations.
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