From the beginning of the First Dynasty, the Nile valley and Delta, from Elephantine to the Mediterranean coast, was under the control of a single government, presided over by a king from the Thinite royal family. Although the First Dynasty kings chose to be buried in their ancestral royal necropolis at Abydos, for at least part of the year they probably resided at and governed from a new capital city, located strategically at the junction of Upper and Lower Egypt, ‘the balance of the two lands’. The foundation of Memphis as the national administrative centre really represents the culmination of the unification process. The earliest elite tomb at North Saqqara dates to the reign of Aha (c. 2950 BC), but burial activity at Helwan—which served as the capital’s second cemetery—began at least as early as the reign of ‘Ka’ (cf. Saad 1947:111 and 112, figs 11-12). It was ‘Ka’s’ successor and Aha’s predecessor, Narmer (probably the historical Menes), who became associated in later tradition with the foundation of Memphis, and he may have been the first king to establish his residence in the city.
Once the prize of national unity had been won, Egypt’s early kings set about establishing mechanisms of rule that would maintain and bolster that unity, guaranteeing their own privileged position at the same time. The ideology of divine kingship, elements of which had been developed by Upper Egyptian rulers in Predynastic times, was promulgated vigorously through iconography, architecture, ritual and royal activities. The king was presented as the binding force of national unity and as the champion of Egypt and its people against the forces of chaos, embodied in Egypt’s neighbours. Official xenophobia, nationalism and a strong sense of Egyptian identity were deliberately fostered by the early state as part of its propaganda of rule. In essence, the concept of the nation state, so dominant in world politics today, was the invention of Egypt’s early rulers. The means they employed to promote this concept and the character of the state they moulded form the subjects of Parts II and III.