The word “nome” is the Greek term (from “nomos” which means “law”) for the forty-two provinces of ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptian term was “sepat”.
Egypt had been divided into provinces since the Pre-dynastic period, but it is thought that there were originally fewer nomes. Some scholars have suggested that a set of seven pyramids were constructed during the reign of Huni (in the Third Dynasty) which represented the main cities of seven Nomes; Hebenu (which became the 16th Nome), Abydos, Naqada, el-Kula (near Hierakonpolis), Edfu, Seila (the Fayoum oasis), and the island of Elephantine (Aswan).
The boundaries of the nomes changed over time and the location of some still remain uncertain. Some nomes appear fairly late on in Egyptian history, such as the nome of Bubastis which is not mentioned until the New Kingdom.
Each nome had its own totem (or symbol), although it seems that those in Lower Egypt are of a later date than those of Upper Egypt. However, only the Upper Egyptian nomes were represented in the form of a standard. Many Egyptian temples included a depiction of the nomes, sometimes personified.
The Capital city of a Nome was also its religious and economic centre, as most Egyptians lived in small villages which were relatively undeveloped. Some also had a strategic importance either in defence of the realm or for the army’s excursions outside Egypt.
The nomes were managed by the nomarch. While the pharaoh often appointed the nomarch, the position could also be hereditary. When central authority was weak the nomarchs often expanded their own power base to take on many of the functions of the pharaoh, and it was more likely that the position would be hereditary. At times they ruled pretty much autonomously and could afford to ignore the weak (or non-existent) central government.
While the provinces of Upper Egypt did not change in number after the Old Kingdom, more nomes were added to Lower (northern) Egypt as the marshes were cultivated land and the branches of the Nile changed course. Under the system that prevailed for most of pharaonic Egypt’s history, the country was divided into 42 nomes. For most of the dynastic period there were 22 nomes in Upper (southern) Egypt and 20 nomes in Lower (northern) Egypt.
The nomes survived until the Roman Period when they minted “Nome coins” which still reflected the individual character and tradition of each nome. However, they were abandoned during the bureaucratic reforms of Diocletian (245-312AD), and Constantine (272-337AD).
Copyright J Hill 2010