From 3900 to 3200 B.C., what had once been small villages grew wealthy and powerful along what is now the Nilotic region in Northeast Africa. Two of these villages grew to such power, often due to trade and manufacturing of such items as funerary goods, that they became cities in their own right.
In the north the city of Nekheb established itself, while in the south, Neken grew powerful. Around 3200 BC, rivalry in trade and power turned to war between these two cities. Numerous battles were fought for supremacy of the regions. It would be the forces from the South however who would take the upper hand. Princes and kings from this region managed to consolidate not only their own southern power base but to conquer northern kingdoms, chieftains and territories as well. In time one king would rule over the united southern forces.
Born in the city of Tini West of the Nile to this very king was a young prince named Narmer. Following in his father's footsteps, Narmer set about uniting the southern forces in a final set of battles with the North. Finally subduing his rivals to the North around 3150BC, Narmer proclaimed himself king of both the Upper (southern) and Northern (lower) lands. Sometimes referred to as "King Catfish" for his standard, Narmer's newly unified kingdom would be called numerous names by its natives, most famous among them Tawi and Kmt meaning "the black land" for its rich alluvial soil. Much later, the people of Greece would call it Egypt.
Narmer's most famous battles and victories in this founding endeavor were recorded on what is now known as the "Narmer Palette." As one source put it," The unification of the two lands was the single most important event in Egyptian history. It allowed for a centralization of authority that then undertook massive administrative and building projects. Large-scale irrigation projects were begun as well as large-scale distribution of food and regulation of trade."
But was Narmer the actual unifier? Alongside Narmer, the archaeological record speaks of a semi-mythical kings named Menes and Hor-Aha--who are also credited with unification. Egyptology has not yet reached a consensus on this confusion. One school of thought, following the work of early 20th century Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, holds that Narmer and Menes are the same person--Narmer being the familiar Horus-name and Menes being the titular royal (nebty) name, with Hor-Aha possibly being an heir. Another school however holds that Menes is a separate figure, perhaps one in the same with the mysterious pharaoh Hor-Aha, who inherited a unified Egypt from Narmer. Still another school contends that the unification process took much longer, and that Narmer began it while Menes and Hor-Aha completed it. For this reason, Narmer, Menes and Hor-Aha are sometimes placed in Dynasties 0 to 1 respectively.
If Narmer and Menes are one in the same, he may have been the first builder of the city Men-Nefer: The Good Place, which served as the capital of Egypt for several centuries. An Arab traveler writing as late as the medieval era reported the city "stretching a day's journey in every direction." The Greeks would call Men-Nefer, "Memphis," still a place-name today that recalls the accomplishments of a figure who lived nearly 5,000 years ago.
Narmer's reign as Egypt's first sacred king (a concept which may have originated in the Ta-Seti kingdom of Kash to the south) was not only spent building, but also protecting and expanding the newly formed nation. According to ancient writings, Narmer is in constant battle with pillaging and marauding Libyan tribes in the North from the Maghreb. His heir Hor-Aha would be responsible for the final destruction of the Ta-Seti kingdom of Kash, which was conquered and overrun once unification was consolidated. Narmer's ability to keep Egypt safe from threat, ensure protection and expand its borders, earned him the titles of the "constant;" "the smiter;" "the bull of bulls;" "the terrible;" "the serpent;" and "the hewer." It is said he reigned for over 60 years, one of the longest in Egyptian history.
Narmer's death is rumored to have come about as lively as he lived it. According to ancient accounts following a fierce campaign against Libyan tribes to the North, Narmer was seized and killed by a crocodile or hippopotamus while attempting to cross a river. A similar tale is told of Hor-Aha and Menes. The two creatures being sometimes associated with destructive forces, it is uncertain whether this account is literal or symbolic.
Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt (2004).
Zahi A. Hawass, Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century (2000)
Ivan Van Sertima (ed.) Egypt: Child of Africa (1995)