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Semerkhet is the Horus name of an early Egyptian king who ruled during the first dynasty. This ruler became known through a tragic legend handed down by the ancient Greek historian, Manetho, who reported that a calamity of some sort occurred during Semerkhet's reign. The archaeological records seem to support the view that Semerkhet had a difficult time as king and some early archaeologists even questioned the legitimacy of Semerkhet's succession to the Egyptian throne.

Horus name

The Horus name is the oldest known and used crest of Ancient Egyptian rulers. It belongs to the "Great five names" of an Egyptian pharaoh. However, modern Egyptologists and linguists are starting to prefer the more neutral term: the "serekh name". This is because not every pharaoh placed the falcon, which symbolizes the deity Horus, atop his serekh.

Pharaoh Title of Ancient Egyptian rulers

Pharaoh is the common title of the monarchs of ancient Egypt from the First Dynasty until the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire in 30 BCE, although the actual term "Pharaoh" was not used contemporaneously for a ruler until Merneptah, c. 1200 BCE. In the early dynasty, ancient Egyptian kings used to have up to three titles, the Horus, the Sedge and Bee (nswt-bjtj) name, and the Two Ladies (nbtj) name. The Golden Horus and nomen and prenomen titles were later added.

The First Dynasty of ancient Egypt covers the first series of Egyptian kings to rule over a unified Egypt. It immediately follows the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, possibly by Narmer, and marks the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period, a time at which power was centered at Thinis.


Length of reign

Manetho named Semerkhet Semêmpsés and credited him with a reign of 18 years, [2] whilst the Royal Canon of Turin credited him with an implausibly long reign of 72 years. [3] Egyptologists and historians now consider both statements as exaggerations and credit Semerkhet with a reign of 8½ years. This evaluation is based on the Cairo Stone inscription, where the complete reign of Semerkhet has been recorded. Additionally, they point to the archaeological records, which strengthen the view that Semerkhet had a relatively short reign. [4]

Turin King List ancient Egyptian manuscript

The Turin King List, also known as the Turin Royal Canon, is an ancient Egyptian hieratic papyrus thought to date from the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II, now in the Museo Egizio in Turin. The papyrus is the most extensive list available of kings compiled by the ancient Egyptians, and is the basis for most chronology before the reign of Ramesses II.

Palermo Stone Fragment of a stele known as the Royal Annals of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt

The Palermo Stone is one of seven surviving fragments of a stele known as the Royal Annals of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. The stele contained a list of the kings of Egypt from the First Dynasty through to the early part of the Fifth Dynasty and noted significant events in each year of their reigns. It was probably made during the Fifth Dynasty. The Palermo Stone is held in the Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas in the city of Palermo, Italy, from which it derives its name.

Name sources

Semsu, cartouche name of Semerkhet in the Abydos king list Abydos KL 01-07 n07.jpg
Semsu, cartouche name of Semerkhet in the Abydos king list
Pottery sherd inscribed with Semerkhet's serekh name, originally from his tomb, now in the Petrie Museum, UC 36756 PotterySherdWithNameOfSemerkhet-PetrieMuseum-August21-08.jpg
Pottery sherd inscribed with Semerkhet's serekh name, originally from his tomb, now in the Petrie Museum, UC 36756

Semerkhet is well attested in archaeological records. His name appears in inscriptions on vessels made of schist, alabaster, breccia, and marble. His name is also preserved on ivory tags and earthen jar seals. Objects bearing Semerkhet's name and titles come from Abydos and Sakkara. [4] [5]

Schist Medium grade metamorphic rock with lamellar grain

Schist is a medium-grade metamorphic rock formed from mudstone or shale. Schist has medium to large, flat, sheet-like grains in a preferred orientation. It is defined by having more than 50% platy and elongated minerals, often finely interleaved with quartz and feldspar. These lamellar minerals include micas, chlorite, talc, hornblende, graphite, and others. Quartz often occurs in drawn-out grains to such an extent that a particular form called quartz schist is produced. Schist is often garnetiferous. Schist forms at a higher temperature and has larger grains than phyllite. Geological foliation with medium to large grained flakes in a preferred sheetlike orientation is called schistosity.

Alabaster Lightly colored, translucent, and soft calcium minerals, typically gypsum

Alabaster is a mineral or rock that is soft, often used for carving, and is processed for plaster powder. Archaeologists and the stone processing industry use the word differently from geologists. The former use is in a wider sense that includes varieties of two different minerals: the fine-grained massive type of gypsum and the fine-grained banded type of calcite. Geologists define alabaster only as the gypsum type. Chemically, gypsum is a hydrous sulfate of calcium, while calcite is a carbonate of calcium.

Breccia Rock composed of broken fragments cemented by a matrix

Breccia is a rock composed of broken fragments of minerals or rock cemented together by a fine-grained matrix that can be similar to or different from the composition of the fragments.

Semerkhet's serekh name is commonly translated as "companion of the divine community" or "thoughtful friend". The latter translation is questioned by many scholars, since the hieroglyph khet (Gardiner-sign F32) normally was the symbol for "body" or "divine community". [4] [5] [6]


A serekh was a specific important type of heraldic crest used in ancient Egypt. Like the later cartouche, it contained a royal name.

Hieroglyph Pictographic sign

A hieroglyph was a character of the ancient Egyptian writing system. Logographic scripts that are pictographic in form in a way reminiscent of ancient Egyptian are also sometimes called "hieroglyphs". In Neoplatonism, especially during the Renaissance, a "hieroglyph" was an artistic representation of an esoteric idea, which Neoplatonists believed actual Egyptian hieroglyphs to be. The word hieroglyphics refer to a hieroglyphic script.

Semerkhet's birth name is more problematic. Any artefact showing his birth name curiously lacks any artistic detail of the used hieroglyphic sign: a walking man with waving cloak or skirt, a nemes head dress, and a long, plain stick in his hands. The reading and meaning of this special sign is disputed, since it doesn't appear in this form before association with king Semerkhet. Indeed, the hieroglyph of the cloaked man is extremely rare. It appears only twice in relief inscriptions depicting ceremonial processions of priests and standard bearers. [4] [5] Egyptologists such as Toby Wilkinson, Bernhard Grdseloff, and Jochem Kahl read Iry-Netjer, meaning "divine guardian". During the Old Kingdom period, this word is written with uniliteral signs of a netjer flag (Gardiner-sign R8) and a human eye (Gardiner-sign D4) nearby the ideogram of the man. Some contemporary ivory tags show the Nebty name written with the single eye symbol only. Thus, the scholars also read Semerkhet's throne name as Iry (meaning "guardian") and the Nebty name as Iry-Nebty (meaning "guardian of the Two Ladies"). This reconstruction is strengthened by the observation that Semerkhet was the first king using the Nebty title in its ultimate form. For unknown reason Semerkhet did not use the Nebuy title of his predecessor. It seems that he felt connected with the 'Two Ladies', a title referring to the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet, the patron deities of the Ancient Egyptians who were worshiped by all after the unification of its two parts, Lower Egypt, and Upper Egypt. The Nebty title in turn was thought to function as an addition to the Nisut-Bity title. [5] [6] [7] His prenomen is Nisut-Bity-Nebty-Iry, nsw.t-bty-nb.ty-irymeaning, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, he of the two ladies, and he who belongs to them or He whom the two ladies guard. [1]

Toby Wilkinson English egyptologist

Toby A. H. Wilkinson is an English Egyptologist and academic. He is the Head of the International Strategy Office at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and was previously a research fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge and Durham University. He was awarded the 2011 Hessell-Tiltman Prize.

Old Kingdom of Egypt period of Ancient Egypt in the 3rd millennium BC

In ancient Egyptian history, the Old Kingdom is the period spanning c. 2686–2181 BC. It is also known as the "Age of the Pyramids" or the "Age of the Pyramid Builders", as it encompasses the reigns of the great pyramid builders of the Fourth Dynasty— among them King Sneferu, who perfected the art of pyramid-building, and the kings Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, who constructed the pyramids at Giza. Egypt attained its first sustained peak of civilization during the Old Kingdom—the first of three so-called "Kingdom" periods which mark the high points of civilization in the lower Nile Valley.

Ideogram graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept

An ideogram or ideograph is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, independent of any particular language, and specific words or phrases. Some ideograms are comprehensible only by familiarity with prior convention; others convey their meaning through pictorial resemblance to a physical object, and thus may also be referred to as pictograms.


Scribes and priests of the Ramesside era were also confused, because the archaic ideogram that was used during Semerkhet's lifetime was very similar to the sign of an old man with a walking stick (Gardiner sign A19). This had been read as Semsu or Sem and means "the eldest". It was used as a title identifying someone as the head of the house. Due to this uncertainty, it seems that the compiler of the Abydos king list simply tried to imitate the original figure, whilst the author of the Royal Canon of Turin seems to have been convinced about reading it as the Gardiner-sign A19 and he wrote Semsem with uniliteral signs. The Royal Table of Sakkara omits Semerkhet's throne name. The reason for that is unknown, but all kings from Narmer up to king Den also are missing their throne names. [5] [6] [7]

Ramesses II Egyptian pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt

Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great, was the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt. He is often regarded as the greatest, most celebrated, and most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom. His successors and later Egyptians called him the "Great Ancestor".

In language, an archaism is a word, a sense of a word, or a style of speech or writing that belongs to a historical epoch long beyond living memory, but that has survived in a few practical settings or affairs. Lexical archaisms are single archaic words or expressions used regularly in an affair or freely; literary archaism is the survival of archaic language in a traditional literary text such as a nursery rhyme or the deliberate use of a style characteristic of an earlier age—for example, in his 1960 novel The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth writes in an 18th-century style. Archaic words or expressions may have distinctive emotional connotations—some can be humorous (forsooth), some highly formal, and some solemn.

Abydos King List

The Abydos King List, also known as the Abydos Table, is a list of the names of seventy-six kings of Ancient Egypt, found on a wall of the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, Egypt. It consists of three rows of thirty-eight cartouches in each row. The upper two rows contain names of the kings, while the third row merely repeats Seti I's throne name and nomen.


Nebty-name of Semerkhet from Djoser's pyramid complex at Saqqara NebtySemerkhet.png
Nebty-name of Semerkhet from Djoser's pyramid complex at Saqqara

Virtually nothing is known about Semerkhet's family. His parents are unknown, but it is thought that one of his predecessors, king Den, might have been his father. Possibly, Semerkhet was born to queen Betrest. On the Cairo Stone she is described as his mother, but definite evidence for that view has not yet been found. It would be expected that Semerkhet had sons and daughters, but their names have not been preserved in the historical record. A candidate as a possible member of his family line is his immediate successor, king Qa'a. [9]


Ivory label of Semerkhet
Diagram of Ivory label of King Semerkhet. First Dynasty, about 2900 BC. From the tomb of Semerkhet, Abydos.jpg
Ivory label of Semerkhet, on display in the British Museum. The right section, introduced by the 'year'-sign Renpet (a bald palm stem), reports -from top to bottom- a feast of the Sokar-bark, a visitation to the temple of the ancestor-deity, Wer-Wadyt, and the travelling in a royal boat. The left part of the label shows the throne name Iry-Nebty of Semerkhet with a blessing wish below. On the upper left corner is described the content of the jar, to which the label was once adjusted. Also the name of the high official Henuka is preserved, who was obviously responsible for the delivery of the mentioned jar.

An old theory, supported by Egyptologists and historians such as Jean-Philippe Lauer, Walter Bryan Emery, Wolfgang Helck, and Michael Rice once held that Semerkhet was a usurper and not the rightful heir to the throne. Their assumption was based on the observation that a number of stone vessels with Semerkhet's name on them, originally were inscribed with king Adjib's name. Semerkhet simply erased Adjib's name and replaced it with his own. Furthermore, they point out that no high official and priest associated with Semerkhet was found at Sakkara. All other kings, such as Den and Adjib, are attested in local mastabas. [4] [10] [11]

Today this theory has little support. Egyptologists such as Toby Wilkinson, I. E. S. Edwards, and Winifred Needler deny the 'usurping theory', because Semerkhet's name is mentioned on stone vessel inscriptions along with those of Den, Adjib, and Qa'a. The objects were found in the underground galleries beneath the step pyramid of (third dynasty) king Djoser at Sakkara. The inscriptions show that king Qa'a, immediate successor of Semerkhet and sponsor of the vessels, accepted Semerkhet as a rightful ancestor and heir to the throne. Furthermore, the Egyptologists point out that nearly every king of first dynasty had the habit of taking special vessels (so-called 'anniversary vessels') from their predecessor's tomb and then replacing their predecessor's name with their own. Semerkhet not only confiscated Adjib's vessels, in his tomb several artifacts from the necropolis of queen Meritneith and king Den also were found. The lack of any high official's tomb at Sakkara might be explained by the rather short reign of Semerkhet. It seems that the only known official of Semerkhet, Henu-Ka, had survived his king: His name appears on ivory tags from Semerkhet's and Qaa's tomb. [5] [9]

Seal impressions from Semerkhet's burial site show the new royal domain, Hor wep-khet, (meaning "Horus, the judge of the divine community") and the new private household Hut-Ipty (meaning "house of the harem"), which was headed by Semerkhet's wives. Two ivory tags show the yearly 'Escort of Horus', a feast connected to the regular tax collections. Other tags report the cult celebration for the deity of the ancestors, Wer-Wadyt ("the Great White"). And further tags show the celebration of a first (and only) Sokar feast. [5] [12] [13]

While the Cairo Stone reports the whole of Semerkhet's reign, unfortunately, the surface of the stone slab is badly worn and most of the events are now illegible. The following chart follows the reconstructions by Toby A. H. Wilkinson, John D. Degreef, and Hermann Alexander Schlögl:

Cairo Stone, main fragment:

[7] [13] [14]

Egyptologists and historians pay special attention to the entrance "Destruction of Egypt" in the second window of Semerkhet's year records. The inscription gives no further information about that event, but it has a resemblance to the Manetho's report. The Eusebian version says: "His son, Semémpsês, who reigned for 18 years; in his reign a very great calamity befell Egypt." The Armenian version sounds similar: "Mempsis, 18 years. Under him many portents happened and a great pestilence occurred." None of the documents from after Semerkhet's reign provide any details about this "calamity". [2] [7] [13]


Tomb stela of Semerkhet Semerkhet stele.jpg
Tomb stela of Semerkhet
Calcite dish, from Royal Tomb "U" , Semerkhet, at Abydos, Egypt, First Dynasty, The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London Calcite dish. From Royal Tomb "U" , Semerkhet, at Abydos, Egypt. 1st Dynasty. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London.jpg
Calcite dish, from Royal Tomb "U" , Semerkhet, at Abydos, Egypt, First Dynasty, The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
Map of Semerkhet's tomb in the Umm el-Qa'ab Grab semerchet.svg
Map of Semerkhet's tomb in the Umm el-Qa'ab

Semerkhet's burial site was excavated in 1899 by archaeologist and Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie at Abydos and is known as "Tomb U". While excavating, Petrie found no stairways as he did at the necropolis of Den and Adjib. He found a ramp, four metres wide and leading straight into the main chamber. The ramp starts approximately ten metres east outside the tomb and has a base slope of 12°. Inside the tomb the ramp shows irregular graduations. Petrie was also confused by the small number of clay seals. Only 17 seals were found. For archaeologists and Egyptologists, the complete arrangement of the burial site suggests that the builders were pressed for time. When Petrie freed the ramp from sand, he found that the complete ramp was thickly covered in aromatic oil, which still gave off a scent. Beside the ramp several wooden and hand-made baskets and earthen jars were found. These were dated to the Ramesside era. Scholars now think that Semerkhet's tomb was re-opened and restored when Ramesside priests and kings saw the tomb of king Djer as the ritual burial of Osiris's head. The findings inside the main chamber included precious objects such as inlays and fragments of furniture (especially pedestals), copper-made armatures, and jewelry made of ebony, amethyst, and turquoise. Some vessels originating from the Levant also were found. They once contained Bescha oil, which was of great value to the Egyptians. Outside the tomb, close to the entrance, a damaged tomb stela made of black granite displaying Semerkhet's serekh name was excavated. [5] [11] [16] [17] [18]

The burial chamber measures 29.2 × 20.8 metres and is of simple construction. Petrie found that the king's mastaba once covered the whole of the subsidiary tombs. Now the royal burial formed a unit with the 67 subsidiary tombs. Egyptologists such as Walter Bryan Emery and Toby Wilkinson see this architectural development as proof that the royal family and household were killed willingly when their royal family head had died. Wilkinson goes further and thinks that Semerkhet, as the godlike king, tried to demonstrate his power over the death and life of his servants and family members even in their afterlife. The tradition of burying the family and court of the king when he died was abandoned at the time of king Qaa, one of the last rulers of the first dynasty. The tombs of second dynasty founder, Hotepsekhemwy, onward have no subsidiary tombs. [11] [16] [18]

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Pharaoh of Egypt Succeeded by