Mesopotamian Influence In the Nile Valley


In these discussions I do not use the term "Mesopotamian" in reference merely to Sumeria, but to the surrounding watersheds of the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, and those lands that had access to the Persian Gulf, including the regions of the Zagros Mountains. Because of archaeological excavations we know far more about Susa, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Elam, than we do of surrounding territories. Therefore, many of the influences coming into predynastic Egypt are identified in those terms by archaeologists. Susa was located at the foot of the Zagros Mountains near the bank of the Karkheh Kur (Choaspes) River in the Khuzistan region of Iran.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

The area that is now Khuzestin was settled about 6000 BC by a people with affinities to the Sumerians, who came from the Zagros Mountains region. Urban centres appeared there nearly contemporaneously with the first cities in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium. Khuzestin came to constitute the heart of the Elamite kingdom, with Susa as its capital. Beginning with the reign of the legendary Enmebaragesi, about 2700 BC, who (according to a cuneiform inscription) “despoiled the weapons of the land of Elam,” Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Kassite, Neo-Babylonian, and Assyrian invasions periodically crossed Khuzestin in response to Elamite involvement in Babylonian politics.

In The Followers of Horus, Studies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 1992, several papers were presented reviewing the early history of the Nile valley. H. S. Smith summarized evidence showing cultural relationships between the Mesopotamian regions and the Upper Nile valley. See The Making of Egypt: A review of the influence of Susa and Sumer on Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia in the 4th millennium BC.

Refer to remarks in previous papers about the origins of the early people of the Nile Valley.

. . . Current preoccupation (with rejection of foreign invaders) have led, in my view, to undue neglect of the nature of the influence of Susa and Sumer upon Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia in the Naqada IId - IIIb period (Kaiser 1957).2 As an admirer of Michael Hoffman and his work at Hierakonpolis, I offer, as one who is neither an Egyptian Prehistorian nor a Sumerologist, this essay reviewing the problem, in his memory, trusting that his heirs will criticize it as keenly as he would have done.

The relevant material from Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia is extremely well-known; it comprises the paintings on the walls of Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis, and the scenes in relief decorating ivory and gold-covered knife-handles, slate palettes, stone maceheads and incense-burners, and a gold mace handle. Good illustrations of most of these are to be found in Asselberghs (1961) (abbreviated ACB) to which I principally refer. The size, finish and decorative character of these artifacts indicates that they were ceremonial, and/or dedicatory objects, not primarily intended for practical use. Williams and Logan (1987) have recently convincingly reconfirmed that the scenes decorating the majority of them belong to a cycle of real themes central to the kingship mythology of Pharaonic Egypt, comprising the royal hunt and domination over animals, victory over enemies and their ritual sacrifice, processions in barks to the palace-facade, and a festival of royalty; this much is clear, whether or not one agrees with their detailed interpretations.

The relevant material from Susiana and Sumer consists almost entirely of scenes preserved on cylinder seals or impressions from them. These are collected in an authoritative work (Amiet 1980) upon which I have relied for the provenance, dating, illustration and discussion of the seals and the designs upon them. A selection of the most relevant seals has been reproduced from Amiet's work (abbreviated AGMA) for the reader's convenience. These small much-used seals were clearly objects of a practical character very different from the Egyptian ceremonial artifacts. However, a significant proportion of the scenes engraved upon them represent divine hero- or ruler-figures engaged in hunting or dominating animals, or great animals attacking lesser beasts, of processions in barks or on foot towards temple facades, or other ritual scenes. Of these hero-figures, Gilgamesh is doubtless the semi-divine prototype; the scenes therefore belong to that same liminal area between divine and human activity to which the Egyptian `royal circle' belongs, and we are therefore, in my view, justified in making comparisons. The seals and seal-impressions utilized from Susa and its Iranian hinterland (see Map 3) belong principally to the pre-Archaic and Archaic Susa phases; those from Sumer principally to the Ubaid, Jemdet Nasr and Predynastic phases. The material is, then, earlier in origin than that from Egypt on the basis of current comparative chronology; where later seals or impressions have been quoted, the purpose is to clarify more fully an early design.

The parallels have nearly all been pointed out previously, not only by Petrie, but by Frankfort (1939), Kantor (1965), Boehmer (1974), Amiet (1980) and many other writers; the existence of the parallels is accepted, but the interpretation of them varies. The purpose of this essay is to argue that the similarities are too strong to be attributable to likeness in cultural situation or to trade; that, being implicit in the structure of the hero/ruler mythology of each region, they-indicate important cultural interpay; and that in this interplay Sumer and especially Susa must be inferred to have priority.

Smith means that the origin of the motifs came out of Mesopotamia, not Egypt, and that the people of the Nile Valley used the conceptual constructs through cross-cultural interchange, or carried them in migrations to the new geographical region.

Smith lists three general areas of comparison:

  1. The Hero/Ruler as Tamer of Animals and Victor over Enemies.
  2. The Temple/Palace Facade and Processions to It.
  3. The Florette Motif in Susa, Sumer, and Egypt.

As stated in a review of the article by Leiden University:

The author assesses the influence of Elam and Sumer on Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia in the Predynastic Period. The evidence from the Susiana and Sumer is almost entirely scenes preserved on cylinder seals or impressions from them. The author argues that the similarities are too strong to be attributable to likeness in cultural situation or to trade; that, being implicit in the structure of the hero-ruler mythology of each region, they indicate important cultural interplay; and that in this interplay Sumer and especially Susa must be inferred to have priority. The author studies the famous motif of the hero/ruler as tamer of animals and victor over enemies, that of the temple/palace facade and processions to it, and the florette motif in Susa, Sumer and Egypt. The author concludes that major constituents of Egyptian kingship mythology on Naqada artifacts are comparable with the motifs of divine-hero-mythology in Sumer and Susa, but underwent adaptation to the Egyptian flora and fauna. These parallels must have been due to a transfer of ideas and symbols, and cannot be due to commercial contacts. The fact that some of the most striking and earliest parallels are with Susa, rather than with Sumer, suggests that the influence did not come to Egypt via Sumer, but through some other intermediary. This may have existed on some southern route between Susa and Egypt, overseas or overland.

The following is an enamel inlay from a wall excavated at Susa. Although from a later period one can see the similarity of beard and head style to that found on the Gebel el-arak knife.

Susa lay in the uplands of the Plain of Susiana on the east of the Tigris about 150 miles to the north of the head of the Persian Gulf. It is the modern Shush. Once a magnificent city it is now an immense mass of ruins three miles in circumference. Here Daniel saw one of his visions; and here also Nehemiah began his public life. Most of the events recorded in the Book of Esther took place here. The inscriptions on the ruins of the palace here record that the palace was founded by Darius and completed by Artaxerxes.

Although the evidence we have available of cultural similarities between Susa and the Nile Valley date to the Naqada II periods about 3500 BC we should remember that we are basing our assessment on artifacts that have survived and not on first beginnings. Also, the archeological memory of Susa dates from far more recent times, as shown in the biblical references. The origins are thousands of years earlier, with an assumption that the cultural modes did not change significantly over those millennia.

Here we find a clue to the cultural evolution of the Nile Valley. The evidence speaks to origins in the Mesopotamian or Iranian regions but the Egyptian descendents proceed to build their own unique cultural expressions, that resulted in Pharaonic Egypt.

We can also include four other areas of influence of Mesopotamia on Predynastic/Archaic Egypt not mentioned above:


Although the motifs find many parallels, the style of the drawings is different between the two regions. This difference permits students of the two societies to distinguish the origins.

Consider the illustration on the left below from the Gebel El Arak knife. (See previous paper.) This style is clearly Mesopotamian and is the reason so much attention was given to a knife that was found in the upper Nile valley. The illustration on the right is from a scene painted on the wall of the famous Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis. (See lower left part of the larger drawing beneath the boat.) One can easily recognize the difference in styles, although the theme is the same, a royal figure subduing or taming powerful animals. The more primitive artwork from Tomb 100 might suggest that the artists were not as sophisticated as the Mesopotamians.

The theme of a hero holding wild animals by their neck can be seen directly from a Mesopotamian cylinder seal.

The seal of Nin-banda. In the upper register, the central figure is a man who grasps two animals around their necks. The animals are attacked from the rear by another animal, whom they turn to face. The lower register shows two crossed lions attacking two animals whose bodies are sharply angled. 53 lapis lazuli seals of EDIII date depict contest friezes; of these 17 are from Ur. A total of 138 lapis lazuli seals are assigned to this date.

We find other similar hero motifs from Mesopotamia. See:


Below is the original gold and lapis lazuli bull's head with an inlaid plaque beneath it depicting mythical animals drinking and performing; beneath it is an enlargement of the plaque.

Below is the famous painting from Tomb 100. This is the first known mural in Egyptian history. Note the many boats, some of different styles, as well as hunting scenes.

Click on link to expand the scene. www.egyptorigins/tomb100.htm

The seal of Ninbanda has animal motifs that are also found on a schist palette from Heirakonpolis. With the title "Two Dogs" it is located in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, #E3924.

I shall show other examples of the Mesopotamian influence in the following papers.