Hierakonpolis is the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian city of Nekhen. Hierakon means "falcon”, polis means “city”. Hierakonpolis is the City of the Falcon. It was the first large settlement in Egypt. At the time, Egypt was not yet a nation, it was still just a collection of warring tribes.
Tomb 100 is dated to the Predynastic Period of Egyptian history (circa 3400 BC) before the unification of Egypt in 3100 BC by king Narmer (Hierakonpolis was his capital city). The tomb is more than 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid. It dates to the very beginning of Egyptian civilization.
The mural of Tomb 100 decorated the burial chamber of a local Egyptian
lord. His name is not known (I call him Lord Hierakon). The tomb was discovered in 1899, but it had been
looted by robbers a few years previously, so no valuable artifacts were
found. The painting covered one wall of the tomb (see the layout of the tomb).
There were other paintings on the walls that were too badly deteriorated for preservation. The painting was removed and transported to the Cairo Museum. Tomb 100 of Hierakonpolis was later destroyed when the land was returned to cultivation.
The mural is very confusing. For more than a century, scholars tried to make some sense of this
painting. It is described as “jumbled” and “chaotic”, with hunting scenes
interspersed with battle scenes, plus a random selection of vignettes portraying
priests, dancing women, animal sacrifice, funerary rites −
you name it. The painting is most often described as a “catalog of themes and motifs”,
a variety of unrelated images without any coherent meaning.
Click on the above image to enlarge it in a separate window. You
may want to reference it during the following discussion. I recommend
that you take a few minutes to study the painting. See if you can figure out what is happening in this enigmatic picture.
The first time I saw the Hierakonpolis mural, my attention was immediately drawn to the Sumerian “Master of Animals”. His heroic stance
between two animals symbolizes his dominance over the natural world.
Because there are so many boats in the painting, I briefly considered the possibility that it depicted a seaborne invasion of Egypt by the Sumerians, but I quickly
discarded this theory for a couple of reasons. First, I knew it was impossible
for the Sumerians to conduct an invasion of Egypt, which is almost 4,000 miles
away by sea; and second, all of the boats are definitely Egyptian, not Sumerian.
This was seven years ago. Occasionally I would see the
painting in my Pictures File. I would study it for a while, but I couldn’t make
any sense of it, so I eventually gave up trying and I didn’t pay much attention to the painting
after that. Basically, if it’s not Sumerian, then I’m not
A few days ago, I was idly looking through my Pictures File
when once again I came across the Hierakonpolis painting. I took one look at
the “Master of Animals” and I instantly knew what this painting is all about.
The big difference between then and now is that I recently
identified the Gebel el-Arak knife as being a clear and unequivocal portrayal
of a Sumerian seaborne invasion of Egypt. The Gebel el-Arak knife dates to
3400 BC, making it contemporary with the Hierakonpolis mural. Now the idea
of a Sumerian attack on Egypt no longer seemed so farfetched.
The Master of Animals on the Hierakonpolis mural. He stands
between two lions.
The Master of Animals, between two lions, on the Gebel
Scholars have identified the Master of Animals as
“Mesopotamian”, but it is specifically Sumerian. Although Mesopotamia (and other civilizations) later adopted the motif of the Master of Animals, at
this early point in history, it was used exclusively by the Sumerians.
The first time I saw the Master of Animals on the Hierakonpolis
painting, I assumed (like everyone else) that it was merely an item from the
“catalog of motifs” that is unrelated to the rest of the picture. I figured
that the artist added it to the mural simply because it is a very compelling
image (especially for the Egyptians, as will be later explained).
This time, when I looked at the Hierakonpolis painting, I
studied it more carefully.
I started with the Sumerian Master of Animals. He is colored in red. I noticed that other
men in the painting are likewise colored red, so these are the Sumerians. Some
men are colored in white. They are the Egyptians.
Then I noticed that the red Sumerians are definitely the
aggressors in this attack. They are “the bad guys” in this story.
Next, I noticed that the red men arrived on boats.
A red Sumerian helmsman is sitting on the back of the
So... the Master of Animals is quintessentially Sumerian, the invaders
are his men, and they arrive in Egypt by boat.
I therefore categorically state, in no uncertain terms, the
Hierakonpolis mural, like the Gebel el-Arak knife, depicts a seaborne invasion
of Egypt by the Sumerians.
You may be thinking, “Didn’t he just say it can’t be a
Sumerian invasion because the boats are definitely Egyptian? How can it be a Sumerian invasion without Sumerian boats?”
Funny you should mention that.
There are six boats in the painting. This is the invasion
fleet. All of them face in the same direction. All of them have the same palm leaf “standard” on the front of the boats.
Palm standards (insignia) on the prows of all the boats depicted on the
Hierakonpolis mural, in the order of their appearance, from left to right.
I was surprised when I first noticed that there aren't any people on
the boats, except for the helmsman shown above. Then I realized the Sumerians
had disembarked from their boats and all of them were on the shore, wreaking havoc
on the Egyptians.
The Sumerian helmsman is on a white boat. There are four
other white boats. They are similar in design and construction (with steep
hulls and twin cabins) and they have the same color scheme (white hulls with red
cabins). This means all of the white boats are Sumerian.
One boat is very different than the others.
sinister Black Ship. It belongs to the Sumerian commander of the invasion fleet. The cabin is richly decorated, suggesting royalty.
A Sumerian boat
Black Ship is the only ship on the mural that looks like it might possibly be Sumerian, but
it could just as easily be Egyptian, as shown in a picture of Egyptian rock paintings.
Since the Black Ship is so different than the others, it's tempting to say that it is Egyptian, under the assumption that at least one Egyptian boat is involved in the conflict. However, the Black Ship is Sumerian because it is facing in the same direction as the other ships and it has the same palm leaf standard.
precise rendering of the Sumerian ships on the Gebel el-Arak knife proves that it
depicts a Sumerian seaborne invasion. The same cannot be said about the Hierakonpolis
As mentioned earlier, the boats on the mural are truly Egyptian. That's because the artist was drawing what he knew best − Egyptian
boats, boats he had been drawing his entire life. Except for the Black
Ship, he made little pretense that he was trying to duplicate the
complicated architecture of Sumerian ships. Besides, as can be seen below, artists are not always accurate in their illustrations of foreign ships:
A Japanese painting of a Portuguese ship that looks like a
It is the Egyptian boats on
the Hierakonpolis mural that prevented the scholars (and me) from recognizing the Sumerian context of the painting in the first place, so we need to forget about the boats. They are only important in showing that this is a seaborne invasion by foreigners, and not just some backwater dispute among neighboring tribes in the region.
In other words, the boats may look Egyptian, but they belong to the Sumerians.
On an entirely unrelated subject…
There is never a good time to bring up such an
indelicate matter, but as a warning to the younger members of the reading
audience, it should be noted that many of the men in the painting (Sumerians
and Egyptians alike) wear penis sheathes. On the Gebel el-Arak knife, all of the men wear penis sheathes.
Again with the Egyptians and their penis sheathes! For the
record, the Sumerians never wore this ridiculous apparatus. It was much
too primitive and barbaric for the Sumerians. In my opinion, it proves that the
Sumerians were far more civilized than the Egyptians during this period of
history. There, I said it. Someone had to say it.
But I digress…
This image on the Hierakonpolis painting has baffled
scholars for 100 years.
What is it? The first time I saw it, I thought it was a
carousel. The more times I looked at it, the more it looked like a carousel. I
finally realized that it is actually a corral. The animals are standing in it.
This is an important clue to the painting. You cannot
understand the Hierakonpolis mural until you understand the meaning of this corral.
Notice that the animals in the corral are not the usual forms
of domesticated livestock (horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, etc.). They are
essentially wild animals (antelopes, gazelles, impalas, and the like).
You never see antelopes and gazelles in a corral. They are
animals of the open plain and they cannot be domesticated. Some animals refuse to reconcile themselves to captivity. They will never stop trying to escape from confinement. They
will refuse to eat, and they eventually sicken and die if held in captivity for
Nevertheless, the attempted control and
domestication of wild animals continued to be an important part of Egyptian
culture for quite some time. It was part of the Egyptian world view. It defined their proper place in the cosmos as the intermediaries between animals and gods. The Egyptians
kept trying to tame and control wild animals long after everyone else had given
up on the idea (at 3400 BC, this mural is proof of it).
This is why the Master of Animals was such a compelling figure for the ancient Egyptians. He is someone the Egyptians could identify with, someone they could admire, even worship. To the ancient Egyptians, the Master of Animals seemed god-like and superhuman.
Although the wild animals in the corral are not truly domesticated, they
are essentially “livestock”. The same is true for the wild animals in the field.
their long horns, ibexes are highly-prized game animals for hunters. That is why everyone thought the mural had hunting scenes,
but in the overall context of the painting, the ibexes are just livestock, like
their cousins in the corral. Basically, all hooved animals on the Hierakonpolis
mural are livestock.
Within the context of livestock, the animals are not being
hunted, they are being “rustled”. When looking at the Hierakonpolis mural,
think in terms of “tribal warfare”. Think in terms of “cattle raid”.
In an article published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (Dec. 1962), the authors,
Humphrey Case and Joan Crowfoot Payne, claim that “Most writers have seen an
element of narrative [i.e., storytelling] in the painting, but some have
exaggerated the role of warfare.”
I suggest there is not just an element of narrative in
the painting, it is all narrative,
and it's all about warfare.
The Hierakonpolis mural is not just a collection of
unrelated themes and motifs, it is a complex and cohesive narrative. It is a
story of high drama and subtle nuances, with some surprising twists in the plot, and it even has a bit of humor.
Where before the Hierakonpolis painting seemed so confusing,
now, within the context of a Sumerian invasion, it suddenly makes perfect sense.
A narrative of the events portrayed on the Hierakonpolis mural.
The narrative begins with a Sumerian attack. They arrive in
a flotilla of ships, seemingly from out of nowhere. This is a surprise attack,
like the one shown on the Gebel el-Arak knife. The Sumerians beach their boats
on the shore. They quickly disembark from the boats and fan out across the
countryside, wreaking havoc on the Egyptians and stealing their livestock.
The lower right corner of the painting is completely damaged except for a single Sumerian attacker. There would have been others, which are now missing due to damage. Presumably, some Egyptians were facing the Sumerians and fending off the attack.
The remaining narrative starts in the upper right corner and moves
counterclockwise around the mural.
lassoes a horse. The Sumerians will capture as many animals as they
can. This kind of tribal raid on livestock had happened all along the Nile for
thousands of years, and the raids would continue until well after the unification of Egypt in 3100 BC.
After the Sumerians capture as many animals as they can, they
run off the rest. In this case, it is a herd of ibexes. The Sumerian is shouting and waving
his arms, like people always do when they want to scare away
As in any livestock raid, the herds are scattered to deny
them to the villagers. Also, the Egyptians will go chasing after their scattered herds
instead of chasing after the Sumerians, giving the invaders enough time to load up their stolen livestock and escape in their boats.
This picture indicates that the Sumerians came to Egypt as
"cattle raiders" and not as conquerors. They would not run off the livestock if they
intended to settle in the region.
This scene looks as if three Sumerians in long white skirts
are waving their arms to scare off another herd of ibexes (one female and
thee males), but this isn’t what’s really happening.
The animals are already running away, far off in the distance. They’re
long gone, so the Sumerians aren’t interested in the animals anymore. They’re focused
on what’s happening right in their midst.
Notice the man beneath the awning (canopy). It looks as if
he is sitting in a wheelhouse on top of the cabin. However, there are several
problems with this assumption:
1) None of the other boats have a wheelhouse.
2) He is an Egyptian on a Sumerian boat.
3) The man is seriously out of scale with the big red helmsman on the back of the boat (not that the artist was overly concerned with
the subtleties of perspective), and
4) The man is sitting on top of the oars.
I suggest the oars were inserted through the double loops on
top of the cabins for storage during the attack (I’ve always wondered about
these double loops seen on so many Egyptian ships). Four of the ships in the
painting have their oars stowed away like this.
The man under the awning is actually on land, in the background behind the ship. He is sitting in
a royal pavilion.
King Narmer sits on his throne in a royal pavilion. Detail from a ceremonial
macehead. See the entire drawing.
This man is obviously very important. He sits in a pavilion,
beneath a white plume standard with black tips. He is drawn much larger than
the man standing in front of him, symbolizing his greater importance. He is an Egyptian
lord, and the Sumerians have him surrounded.
The captured lord
That is why the Sumerians have their arms outstretched. They
are surrounding him, closing in on him and preventing his escape. A Sumerian
stands before the Egyptian lord. This is the moment when the lord is captured. He
bends his knees and bows down in submission.
Clearly, this is not Lord Hierakon. He would not forever immortalize his ignominious capture by depicting it on his burial tomb for all of eternity. This is a neighboring Egyptian
lord, perhaps a friend of Lord Hierakon, perhaps an enemy.
The battle is not going well for the Egyptians, and it’s about
to get worse. The Egyptians are surprised and overwhelmed, like on the Gebel
el-Arak knife. Meanwhile, we keep looking for some sign of the inevitable Egyptian
And where is Lord Hierakon?
The Sumerian rampage continues. A huge Sumerian menacingly
raises his war club. The circle on the left is a corral that was busted
open and emptied of its livestock. The circle on the right is a ruined village
hut, reduced to its timbers. Beside it, a tiny forlorn Egyptian picks up the
What’s really interesting is what’s happening with the two lions.
Case and Payne and other scholars consider this to be a “Confrontation with the
Lions”. This raises a couple of intriguing possibilities:
1) The Sumerian is
going to kill the lions. Normally, in a fight between a man and a lion, I'd
bet on the lion, even if the man has a stick − but look at the size of that
man, look at the size of that stick. The Sumerian doesn’t seem the least bit
afraid of the lions. In fact, he seems to be reaching out to grab a lion by the
throat before bashing its head with a club. This could symbolize the Sumerian’s
total mastery of the animal world. Not even the lions scare him.
2) But there are two lions. Perhaps the lions are going
to kill the Sumerian. This could symbolize the turning tide of battle as the
lions begin to attack the Sumerians. This would be the supreme irony, a
“master of the animals” getting killed and eaten by his own two lions. You have
to admit, it’s rather funny, in a morbid kind of way.
I suggest the scene is not a "confrontation with the lions". The Sumerians and the lions have no intention of attacking each other. The scene has a different, unexpected meaning. It is something very mythological, something eerie and supernatural.
The Sumerian and the lions are not enemies, they are friends and allies. The raised club of the Sumerian refers to the destruction he is inflicting on the Egyptians by demolishing their homes and corrals. It has nothing to do with the lions. The Sumerian isn't grabbing a lion by the throat before clubbing it, he is summoning the lion with a wave of his hand. The lions are not in a posture of attack, they're just walking along. They follow the Sumerians around like pets. The lions are the “animal familiars” of the Sumerians, doing their bidding.
Referring back to the dispersal of the ibex herds:
The animal on the left is a female ibex. In front of
the Sumerian is a lion, attacking the herd of ibexes. The Sumerian is not just shouting and waving his
arms to scare off the ibexes, he is siccing his lion on them.
Another lion is shown on the
right, tending to a herd of antelopes.
For the ancient Egyptians, the Master of Animals is not just a symbol of human dominance over the natural world. He is literally the controller of animals, directing their actions. He casts his spell upon the lions, making them his minions, controlling them from afar.
In the expanded view, we can see how the lions and the Sumerians work together to rustle the animals. Whichever direction the animals turn, they are confronted by either a lion or a Sumerian. The lion on the right is acting like a sheep dog, helping to herd the animals so they can be captured by the Sumerians. He drives the antelopes toward a Sumerian while at the same time preventing the horses from escaping. The lead horse comes to a dead stop when he sees the lion.
As in any livestock raid, the Sumerians capture as many animals as they can, and then they run off the rest, so the lion on the left is helping to disperse (stampede) the ibexes that haven't already been rustled by the Sumerians.
It's easy to imagine the astonished looks on the ibex faces when they first behold a man siccing a lion on them.
story of the Master of Animals controlling the lions is truly
extraordinary. It is an original work of fiction that infuses a dark
magic into the events of a local cattle raid, making it into a mythic
battle of epic proportions. There's nothing else like it anywhere in
the ancient world.
This scene has been labeled as “threatening the prisoners”,
but it is much worse than that.
The execution of the prisoners. Three Sumerian prisoners are
kneeling on the ground, tied together with a long rope. The Egyptian “guard”
grabs one of them by the hair before cracking his skull with a war club. The
other two prisoners cower in fear, while awaiting the same impending fate.
This scene is the beginning of a long tradition of showing the pharaoh holding his captured enemies by the hair and "smiting the prisoners":
I suggest that when the pharaoh is shown with his weapon on his shoulder, it means he is capturing the prisoners.
When his weapon is raised, it means he is executing them.
On the Hierakonpolis mural, is the execution of the Sumerian prisoners a sign that the Egyptians
have finally won the battle?
No, not really. The next scene shows that the battle continues.
This scene is often described as “combat between two men”,
but it seems to me that they are not facing each other. It looks like the
Egyptian is running away from the Sumerian.
Both men carry curved weapons. They have been described as
“shepherd crooks”, which makes some sense in the context of a livestock raid, but I believe they really are weapons, either adzes or battleaxes. The
blades of the weapons were made of copper or stone (there was no bronze at this
stage of history). An adze is a construction tool that readily lends itself to
warfare. See an example of some Sumerian adzes and battleaxes. The Egyptians
had similar weapons.
Meanwhile, it is still a desperate struggle. The Egyptians are losing the battle.
The Sumerian base
This corral was captured intact with its livestock by the Sumerians.
This is also where they herd their captured animals before loading them
onto the ships. At the bottom, a captured gazelle tries to escape, trailing a rope
behind him. The white antelope is also trailing a rope. On the
right, a Sumerian “hog ties” an antelope, trussing up its feet so it can’t
escape. The antelope is now ready to be loaded and transported on one of the ships. This is the only way that a wild antelope can be forced to board a ship.
On the Gebel el-Arak knife, the Master of Animals is a Sumerian king. I don’t believe this is the case on the Hierakonpolis
mural. Neither do I believe that the Master of Animals is the Sumerian
commander of the invasion. The commander is elsewhere, next to his black
On the Gebel el-Arak knife, the Master of Animals is just a figurehead He is not involved in the battle. On the Hierakonpolis mural, he is part of the narrative. He is on the scene, actively involved in the conflict by controlling the animals. He is a shaman/priest/god/demon of
the Sumerians. He is a supernatural being, radiating his power across the
landscape, causing fear and panic throughout the human and animal kingdoms of
Egypt. He is the source of the Sumerians' supernatural power over the animals, the lions in particular.
You may be skeptical that the Master of Animals magically
controls the lions from afar. If so, then consider this: All of the Sumerians
walk among the lions without any sign of fear. In this picture, the Sumerian who
is tying up the antelope isn’t the least bit concerned that two big lions are
standing right behind him. So, either the Master of Animals is the only one
controlling the lions, or all of the Sumerians have this mystical power. In
other words, only one Sumerian controls the lions, or they all do. It is, of course, highly unlikely that every single Sumerian has this godlike power.
Besides, why else would the Master of Animals be on the
field, except to control the lions? He’s not there just to strike a pose, he is
there to cast his spell. This is the only plausible explanation for the symbiotic relationship between the
Sumerians and the lions.
The Master of Animals is supposed to be a positive image. It represents humanity's efforts to tame the wilderness and to bring forth civilization, but on the mural, the Master of Animals is portrayed as a sinister demon who uses his magical power over the animals for evil rather than for good.
This scene is often mistaken as combat between two men because
it looks like the figure on the left is holding a spotted shield. However, it
seems odd that one man is holding a shield with the same markings as the spotted
garment worn by the man he is fighting. The red man on the left is obviously Sumerian.
Surprisingly, so is the man in front of him. Look at those red legs.
A Sumerian on the left is holding an item of clothing,
probably a leopard skin. It matches the spotted standard of the captive Egyptian
lord. The Sumerians have plundered his wardrobe. The Sumerian on the right holds
the lord’s royal scepter. He dances around, parading his captured finery,
mocking the lord. He’s saying, “Look at me! I’m a great big Egyptian lord! Bow down before me!” His buddy
comically obliges him. He bows down (notice how his knees are bent) and says,
“Yes, Lord High Almighty! I hear and obey you!” He's cracking up, holding his belly with laughter. It’s an unexpected bit of humor on an otherwise grim
The Sumerians were perhaps a bit premature in their
celebrations. The battle is not yet over. In the very next scene, a Sumerian
bites the dust.
The man on the right is a real Egyptian lord (notice the white legs). He has just killed a Sumerian
soldier. Scholars think the soldier may be holding a pronged weapon, but it's actually a neck stock, the kind used on prisoners of war.
It even has a loop of rope on it.
This is a very important scene. The Egyptian is the captured lord himself, who escaped from his neck stock, seized his guard's weapon, and killed him while the guard's companions were busy plundering the wardrobe. This is the lord's revenge.
It would be reasonable for the viewer to assume that the Egyptian
lord was somehow transferred to the Sumerian base camp after his capture, but I'm willing to bet that the artist did not carelessly leave this crucial detail to the viewer’s imagination.
In true narrative
fashion, to make the story more cohesive, the artist shows the captive lord being escorted to the Sumerian base camp. In other words, the artist moves the captive lord from the top of
the painting to the bottom. In this way, it doesn't seem like the lord just magically
reappears in the story without any explanation on how and why he got there:
The Sumerian in the middle is carrying a spotted garment with
a tail on it. He is one of the looters, probably the one shown below who is holding the garment but not wearing it. The figure on the right is the other
looter (there's something going on with the spotting on both figures). There is plenty of room in the brown
damaged area to hold two more figures − the guard and the captive lord in
a neck stock. I suggest this scene originally showed the four figures seen below: the captive lord, his guard, and the two looters, in transit to the Sumerian base camp at the bottom of the
the heroic escape of the captive lord, the battle is finally beginning to turn in favor of the Egyptians.
Three Sumerians in long white skirts.
There are six boats in the painting, and six Sumerians in
white skirts. I suggest they are the captains of the ships. Three of the
captains were seen capturing the Egyptian lord. The other captains are
here. They sit or kneel on the ground, oddly reposed amid the chaos.
They still have their weapons, but they are strangely passive.
Are they going to lay down their arms? Are they surrendering? Remember, we are
still looking for some clear sign of an Egyptian victory.
Again, where is Lord Hierakon? Shouldn’t he be in the thick of
the action, saving the day?
Meanwhile, the three men just calmly sit there, looking to
the right, staring into the Void.
The Void is the dark, damaged area in the middle of the
painting. This is where we would expect to see Lord Hierakon. It is also
where we expect to see the Sumerian commander, next to his Black Ship. I
suggest this is where the entire narrative came together. Unfortunately, the
ending of the story is lost forever because of damage on the painting.
Then again, it’s not too difficult to imagine how the story
At last, Lord Hierakon arrives on the scene. He is
larger than anyone else on the mural to show his great importance. There's no doubt about who’s the Grand Poohbah in this picture. In front of him is the
Sumerian commander, himself a lord. Hierakon either kills him, or captures him, or accepts his surrender. Lord Hierakon is flanked by his men. Captured Sumerians
bow down before him. Perhaps a pair of lions kneel before the lord, or lie dead at his feet, signifying
that Hierakon is now the new Master of the Animals.
One more thing. I suggest the captive lord is
none other than Hierakon himself. I know I said he wouldn't portray his
capture on his own burial tomb, but he would do it if he had heroically escaped from captivity and turned the tables on his captors. His escape
is the last scene before the surrender ceremony. It is the turning point
of the battle. In the next scene, Lord Hierakon is reunited with his men and he leads them to victory.
If the captive lord is someone else, it means he has taken up a lot of room in this narrative (by being surrounded and captured, then escorted to the base camp, and then making his heroic escape) and he has gotten all the glory before Hierakon even shows up. That's not what this painting is all about. This is Hierakon's burial chamber. The painting shows how he presented himself to the gods for all eternity. He is the hero in this story, not someone else.
This is Lord Hierakon, victorious in combat. He has been there all along.
For 100 years, scholars were unable to piece together the narrative of the events portrayed on the Hierakonpolis mural because they did not know the context of the story.
It all comes down to the Master of the Animals. If he were absent, the mural would be just what it looks like – a picture of Egyptian tribal warfare.
If the Master of Animals was present, but painted a different color than the
red invaders, it would simply be a selection from the "catalog of motifs”, and
it would be meaningless in the context of the picture. However, with the red Sumerian
Master of Animals, and the red invaders who arrive by boat, along with the additional subtext
of the lions, the Hierakonpolis mural can only be about a Sumerian invasion of Egypt. It cannot be about anything else.
On the Gebel el-Arak knife, the Master of Animals is glorified; on the mural he is demonized. Although the Master of Animals became a popular motif in
many other ancient civilizations, it never caught on in Egypt. At first, this is
somewhat surprising, considering the Egyptians' dedication to the control and domestication
of wild animals. The Master of Animals is a god who was tailor-made for the Egyptians,
but he never became part of the Egyptian pantheon, perhaps because he became
a symbol of foreign invasion. So, on second thought, it is not overly surprising that the Master of Animals was none too popular with the Egyptians, not after he sicced his lions on them.
A few Sumerian artifacts (including pictures of boats and the Master of Animals) had reached Egypt through intermediary traders via an overland route. It was the first time that the Egyptians heard about a distant and powerful kingdom called Sumer. Apparently it caused great consternation among the Egyptian nobility. It made them look up from their tribal wars long enough to realize that there’s a big bad scary world out there, which could possibly be a threat to their own kingdoms. For the first time, Egyptians considered the possibility of a seaborne invasion by foreigners.
But did it actually happen? Did the Sumerians really invade Egypt?
I doubt it, for the reasons listed on the page about the Gebel el-Arak knife. Sumer is simply too far away, almost 4,000 miles by sea. If you have read
stories about the Age of Discovery (1500 - 1700 AD), you know of the incredible
hardships involved in long ocean voyages, even in “modern” sailing ships. It’s
doubtful that the Sumerians (or their ships) could survive such a long voyage,
much less arrive with enough men to mount an invasion, much less survive the
return trip. Plus, the Sumerians would have to row all the way there. Although
the Sumerians later invented sailboats, there’s no evidence that they had them
at this time, and the boats were certainly not seagoing vessels that were large enough to carry troops. Besides, there aren't any sailing ships on either the mural or the Gebel el-Arak knife.
Yet the mural of Tomb 100 clearly shows a Sumerian seaborne attack on
One possible scenario can be seen on the map below. If the Sumerians wanted to attack Hierakonpolis
from the western shore of the Red Sea, they would have to beach their boats on the coast, then travel 70 miles inland,
then commandeer some Egyptians boats, and then cross the Nile to attack Hierakonpolis on the opposite side of the river.
Perhaps the Sumerians did not attack Egypt from the Red Sea,
perhaps they somehow commandeered
some ships on the Mediterranean Sea and attacked Egypt on the Nile River. This requires
a much shorter sea voyage, but as can be seen on the map, this scenario is even
more unlikely than the first one.
To attack Hierakonpolis, the Sumerians would have to travel
the entire length of the Nile, past every major city-state in Egypt, paddling
upstream the entire time, while being attacked by the Egyptians on both sides of
It's entirely possible that Lord Hierakon actually did fight a battle, with events similar to the ones illustrated on the painting (including the escape), but he was mistaken if he thought it was a battle against the Sumerians.
I personally would love it the Sumerians were intrepid
enough to mount a seaborne invasion of Egypt at such an early stage in history (not that I have anything against the Egyptians) but I don’t see how it is even remotely
This begs the question: why are Sumerian seaborne invasions clearly depicted on
both the Gebel el-Arak knife and the Hierakonpolis mural?
I believe the importation of some Sumerian artifacts (along with coincidental raids on the Egyptian coastline by nomadic tribesmen that the Egyptians thought were Sumerians), galvanized the Egyptians into thinking about Homeland Defense. I suggest Lord Hierakon and other lords appointed
themselves to be "The Defenders Against Foreign Invasion". They promised to put aside their differences and unite together in common defense if they were ever invaded by foreigners. I believe the perceived
threat of the Sumerians helped to unite Egypt. For the first time in their
history, Egyptian noblemen began to think of Egypt as an entire country,
and not just a collection of warring tribes.
For the Egyptians, their worst fears of a seaborne invasion eventually came true in 1200 BC when Egypt was overrun by the "Sea Peoples" (long after the end of Sumerian civilization). For now, the Egyptian fear of a Sumerian invasion was something of a "Red Scare", literally, but it helped to formulate the idea of a unified Egyptian nation.
There is one more point that needs to be considered:
Twenty years after the tomb at Hierakonpolis was plundered,
a private antiquities dealer offered to sell to the Louvre Museum a flint knife with an
elaborately carved handle. The provenance of the knife wasn't known. It was allegedly from Gebel el-Arak, 60
miles north of Hierakonpolis. There aren't any major archaeological sites in Gebel el-Arak, so the curators made an educated guess and assumed that the knife was probably from nearby Abydos.
So... an unknown provenance. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?