Pharaoh Djer – History, Reign & Tomb

Pharaoh Djer was one of the early dynastic rulers of a unified ancient Egypt. He is considered either the second or third king of the First Dynasty. Image: King Djer depicted on a cylinder seal impression wearing the Hedjet and Deshret crowns and holding the flail

Pharaoh Djer is largely considered as the third pharaoh of the First Dynasty. He came to the throne after succeeding his father Hor-Aha. It’s possible that Djer ruled over Egypt for over 40 years. And according to future historians like Manetho, the ancient Egypitan king was a scholar of high regard whose writings in anatomy were used by the Greeks.

This article presents the life and reign of Pharaoh Djer. It includes all the important ancient Egyptian artifacts that prove his existence and leadership.

History of Djer: Etymology, Ancestry & Marriage

King Djer was born to Pharaoh Hor-Aha and Khenthap. Hor-Aha is believed to have been the ruler responsible for uniting all of Egypt (i.e. Upper and Lower Egypt) during his reign.

His paternal grandparents were likely the former King Narmer (sometimes known as Menes) and Queen Neithhotep. Quite rare in ancient Egypt, Queen Neithhotep wielded an immense amount of power in the land. Named after the ancient Egyptian goddess Neith, the queen was Egypt’s canon ruler during the younger years of Hor-Aha.

According to the Abydos King List, which is a list that contains the names of about 76 Ancient Egyptian kings, Djer’s name is recorded as “Iti.” Alternatively, the Turin King List has an unclear or damaged name for Djer; however, it begins with “Iteti”.

The Egyptian priest and historian Manetho lists Pharaoh Djer as “Uenéphes” or “Athothes.” In the “Handbuch der ägyptischen Königsnamen”, written by Jürgen von Beckerath, Djer’s name loosely translates as “Horus who succors” or “Defender of Horus.” In ancient Egypt, ruling monarchs usually saw themselves as the physical manifestations of the gods, especially Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky and royalty.

Read More: List of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses

As it was typical with ancient Egyptian monarchs, Djer had quite a number of wives, including Nakneith, Herneith, Seshemetka, Penebui, and Bsu. We know this because most of these women’s tombs were sited close to Djer’s tomb in Abydos. Bsu was identified through a label found in Saqqara.

King Djer fathered a number of children, two of whom we know their names. The children were: a daughter called Merneith and a son called Djet. The latter most likely succeeded Djer to the throne. It’s also likely that Merneith, perhaps being older than Djet, briefly ruled after Djet’s death until Djet was old enough to reign.

Read More: Top 7 Famous Rulers of the Early Dynastic Period of Ancient Egypt

The Reign of Pharaoh Djer

Iti is the name of King Djer in the Abydos King List. Image – Djer’s cartouche name

Before Djer ascended the throne, Egypt was likely still under the reign of his grandmother Neithhotep. According to Manetho, he ruled for 57 years, but the Palermo Stone, regarded as a more accurate source, mentioned that he Djer ruled for “41 complete and partial years.”

Several artifacts provide solid evidence that Djer lived and ruled Egypt during the First Dynasty. These include:

  • The Umm el-Qa’ab Tomb: This large necropolis during the Early Dynastic Period (including the First and Second Dynasties) located in Abydos was said to house the remains of early pharaohs, including Narmer, Hor-Aha, Djer, and the other descendants.

  • The Saqqara Graves: Saqqara was an Egyptian village that served as the burial grounds for many members in the ancient Egyptian royal family. Several seal prints located on graves 2185 and 3471 show that Djer ruled Egypt. Other grave inscriptions also indicate his rulership.

  • Helwan Cemetery: Excavations conducted in this ancient Egyptian cemetery led to the discovery of seals and inscriptions to support claims that Djer was the third pharaoh of the First Dynasty.

  • Artifacts: Djer’s name was found on a jar located in Turah. An ivory tablet found in tomb 612 mentions that the ruler visited the towns of Buto and Sais. Both towns were located around the Nile Delta. Djer’s name was found on a copper adze on a tomb in Abydos.

  • An inscription of his name was found in Wadi Halfa, Sudan.

According to Manetho, a famous historian who lived during the Ptolemaic era (c.305 BC – 30 BC), Djer authored a report on anatomy that remained in existence for quite a long period in the ancient world, perhaps over two thousand years old.

The Bed of Osiris, from the tomb of King Djer, has the name of 13th Dynasty ruler Djedkheperew inscribed on it.

Second or Third Ruler of First Dynasty

It is popularly held that King Djer was the third ruler of the First Dynasty of Egypt. However, if we are to consider argument that pharaohs Narmer and Hor-Aha are one and same king, then King Djer was the second ruler of his dynasty.

Burial Site of Pharaoh Djer

King Djer was buried at the Umm el-Qa’ab Tomb in Abydos much like his father, Hor-Aha and other rulers from the First and Second Dynasties. His tomb, which has been named Tomb O, also contained the bodies of over 300 retainers buried along with him.

More than 90 retainer graves had inscriptions, and out of that number, majority were female servants and the rest males and dwarfs. It was common practice to have servants of royalty sacrificed to serve their masters in the afterlife. This practice was more common during the First Dynasty but eventually died out.

Djer’s tomb, which measures about 12×13 meters, was made up of one big chamber, which was different from the usual practice of having multiple divided chambers. Later excavations also discovered that there was likely a wooden coffin placed towards the back of the tomb. Found in the room was an ivory lid bearing the name of Queen Neithhotep. However, it’s likely the lid must have been from Hor-Aha’s grave given that it was in close proximity to Djer’s.

During the era of the Second Dynasty, Djer’s tomb was almost destroyed by a fire. By the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians held the tomb of Djer in high regard, as it was recognized as the tomb of Osiris, the Egyptian god of agriculture and the afterlife. This recognition coincided during the rise of the Cult of Osiris.

As a result, the Umm el-Qa’ab burial site became an important spot for many ancient Egypt’s religious practices. It’s possible that Thirteenth Dynasty ruler Djedkheperu built an image of Osiris, which was placed on a bier and then placed in Djer’s tomb. Known as the Bed of Osiris, the sculpture which is made of black basalt has the name of Djedkheperu inscribed on it.

Throughout history, several artifacts have been located in and nearby Djer’s tomb. Some of the notable ones are:

  • His stela, which usually serves as a gravestone, was found and is now on display in the Cairo Museum. It’s possible that this stone came from Abydos.

  • Labels showing the name of a palace, as well as the name of Djer’s daughter, Merneith.

  • The name of Queen Neithhotep was discovered on fragments on two vases.

  • The tomb also had four bracelets discovered on the mummified arm of a woman believed to have been a queen.

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