Kom el-Ahmar, classical Hierakonpolis or ancient Nekhen is one of the most important Predynastic and Early Dynastic settlement areas of the Nile valley and the largest Predynastic site still extant in Egypt. It lies on the opposite (west) bank to El-Kab or ancient Nekheb its sister city and predates Nekheb as the capital of the third Nome of ancient Egypt.
Its modern name Kom el-Ahmar means ‘the Red Mound’ and the town enclosure site of Hierakonpolis was indeed covered by a mound of red pot-sherds and sand when first visited by Napoleon’s expedition in 1798. Petrie’s first visit to the site in 1887 sparked off more interest and since that time it has been excavated more or less continuously and has yielded a great deal of exciting finds from early Egyptian history.
1 The Two-Dog Palette from the Main Deposit found in the Hierakonpolis Temple enclosure. (Ashmolean Museum) 2 Statue of Khasekhem, Dynasty II. found in the Hierakonpolis Temple enclosure. (Ashmolean Museum) 3 Narmer macehead, from Hierakonpolis, showing King Narmer wearing the Red Crown. (Ashmolean Museum) 4 Golden head of a falcon, from Hierakonpolis. (Cairo Egyptian Museum)
There are two separate sites at Hierakonpolis today. The first, the remains of the temple mound of the town of Nekhen was excavated by James Quibell and FW Green in the late 19th century. The Temple of Nekhen, dedicated to the falcon-god Nekheny, lies at the southern corner of the town enclosure. It was here where Quibell and Green discovered the golden head of the famous ‘Hierakonpolis falcon’, the oldest known cult object in existence. This in turn led to many other exciting finds, including the ‘Main Deposit’, a cache of objects found in an Old Kingdom part of the temple structure. These objects, which included the ‘Narmer Palette’ although not securely dated, provide evidence of an important centre of worship of the falcon-god from Early Dynastic times. Since then, recent work concentrated on Egypt’s earliest known temple – now no more than post-holes and trenches – has allowed the ancient structure to be graphically reconstructed to show that it was a prototype for later temple architecture.
The other part of the site which stretches a few kilometres out across the western desert, consists of Predynastic remains of settlements, cemeteries and ceremonial areas, which has in recent years yielded unique information about Egypt’s earliest inhabitants. Since the 1970s the real importance of Hierakonpolis has emerged, showing that by 3500 BC, the town was the most important settlement along the Nile. A Predynastic dwelling, the charred remains of a potter’s house, was discovered five thousand years after it had burned down.
Khasekhemwy’s mudbrick enclosure has now been placed on the World’s Most Endangered Monument list. After a survey of ‘The Fort’ in the year 2000 led by Renee Friedman, the first accurate plan has been produced which will be used with other modern archaeological methods using up-to-date technology to produce an accurate three-dimensional plan needed to stabilise the monument and help with future conservation.
Hierakonpolis is too complex to describe in detail, so listed here are the main component parts of the site:
Early Dynastic town enclosure and temple site. Predynastic settlement and cemeteries at the edge of the desert, including the earliest known ‘Painted Tomb’ (tomb 100). The ‘Fort’, a mudbrick funerary enclosure of Khasekhemwy – the oldest free-standing structure in Egypt. Rock-cut tombs of Dynasty VI to XX. Rock-texts in the cliff behind the tombs includes New Kingdom graffiti of Priests of Horus.
How to get there
Because Hierakonpolis is such an important site and continually being excavated it is closed to visitors. However, it is possible to obtain special permission from the SCA (Antiquities Service) in Cairo and to visit the site by appointment.