The term nome is actually of Greek origin (nomos) used to refer to the forty two traditional provinces of ancient Egypt. The actual ancient Egyptian term for these governmental divisions was sepat. Today, Egypt refers to its provinces as governates.
Some system of geographic division existed from at least the beginning of the Pharaonic period, though perhaps at first there were far fewer nomes than later on in Egyptian history. In the late 3rd Dynasty, perhaps during the reign of Huni, some scholars believe that a set of seven non-sepulchral step pyramids were erected at certain sites, which perhaps corresponded to proto-capitals of the nomes, located at Zawiyet el-Mayitin, Abydos, Naqada, el-Kula, Edfu, Seila and the island of Elephantine in the Nile River at modern Aswan.
These provincial capitals were also religious and economic centers serving the surrounding countryside, where the vast majority of Egyptians lived in small villages. Many had more than local importance, with the state investing in their development, above all by building temples. Some had strategic importance as fortresses defending a frontier or as staging points for invasions of foreign countries.
Hence, Nomes, together with their ruling nomarch, played an important role in ancient Egypt. Specifically, when the central power was weak and ineffective, the nomarchs often enlarged and embellished their provincial capitals, from which they supervised the maintenance of irrigation canals and dams, the local distribution of the Nile water and the dispensation of justice. When their powers were elevated in this manner, they also challenged, and sometimes overwhelmed the central power base of the king.
It should be clearly pointed out that some nomes shifted over time and that the location of others remains uncertain. The number of provinces in Upper Egypt seems to have been constant from the Old Kingdom onwards, whereas the number and position of the provinces in Lower Egypt varied, growing over time as marshes were converted to cultivated land and as the river branches of the Nile Delta shifted over the centuries.
However, for much of the dynastic period, there appears to have been twenty-two Upper Egyptian nomes and twenty Lower Egyptian nomes. Each nome was generally governed by its own regional ruler known as a nomarch, and each had its own symbol or sign, though those Lower Egypt appear to date later than those of Upper Egypt. Upper Egyptian nomes were also usually represented in the form of a standard, thus leading to provinces being described by such names as the “hare nome” or the “ibis nome”. Lower Egyptian nomes appear to have had no counterpart of these standards.
The reliefs in many temples and shrines include a lower register along which groups of personifications of estates or nomes were record around the temple. At other times, statue groupings and columns might be used to represent the various nomes.
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