Who was King Menes?

For a long time, Menes was considered as imaginary as the god-kings who preceded him. Learned men called him an eponym, an ugly name which means that the people of Memphis, having forgotten who built their city, invented a builder from the city's name, and declared it the work of king named "Memphes" or "Menes." But in this case, at least, the learned men were wrong, for lately, in that stupendous graveyard along the Nile, the tomb of Menes has been found with many interesting relics, both of him and of his ancestors.

Just recently too, scientists have talked of the possibility of a passage leading inside the sphinx, that most rugged and ancient of all the Egyptian monuments. They believe the sphinx may be a religious memorial erected by Menes' orders. So Menes was as real flesh-and-blood a person as you an I, even if there are some six or seven thousand years between him and us.

Recent exploration among the tombs enables us now to look back even a step beyond Menes. We can see that before his time upper Egypt must have been divided into a number of petty states, city states such as existed in early Babylonia. The ruler of one of these, who is known to us only by his totem or family sign, the scorpion, and whose tribe bore the sign of the hawk, made himself master of four confederated states and with this power attacked the little states lying nearer the mouth of the Nile. Returning home in triumph after a contest which his inscription declares ended in victory, the Scorpion assumed a crown and called himself monarch of upper Egypt. The white crown of the "Scorpion" became thereafter the symbol of upper Egyptian sovereignty.

With Menes the story told by Herodotus unites Egypt, with the vague data of the earliest monuments. Menes dwelt chiefly in lower Egypt, the more civilized portion of his dominion, and built Memphis there to be his capital. But his tomb lies in his older home of upper Egypt, near Abydos. This tomb is not at all like the stone sepulchres of the later kings. Wall after wall of bricks was built around and above his body, and then a great wood fire was set burning over the whole structure, perhaps to harden it. Encased within this unyielding shell the mortal remains of the first Pharaoh reposed untouched by life or death for upwards of six thousand years.

This tomb of Menes, his construction of Memphis as his capital, and other relics all show him to have been a great builder. Even before his time the science of engineering must have been far advanced, for to secure the place that pleased him for his capital he first erected a monster dam, and changed the entire course of the lower Nile. The old channel of the river can still be traced close under the western cliffs of the valley, some miles from where it now flows. Menes reigned, according to the priestly legends, for sixty-two years, and then fell in combat with a hippopotamus. Whether the hippopotamus is to be taken literally we hardly know. One would like to think that, in the extreme age this fine old king had reached, he had more sense than to risk himself in such youthful sports. The hippopotamus was the Egyptian symbol for a foreign foe. Perhaps Menes died defending the empire he had created.

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Read about Who was King Menes? in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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