Egypt-Mesopotamia relations seem to have developed from the 4th millennium BCE, starting in the Uruk period for Mesopotamia and the Gerzean culture of pre-literate Prehistoric Egypt (circa 3500-3200 BCE). Influences can be seen in the visual arts of Egypt, in imported products, and also in the possible transfer of writing from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and generated "deep-seated" parallels in the early stages of both cultures.
There was generally a high-level of trade between Ancient Egypt and the Near-East throughout the Pre-dynastic period of Egypt, during the Naqada II (3600-3350 BCE) and Naqada III (3350-2950 BCE) phases. These were contemporary with the Late Uruk (3500-3100 BCE) and Jemdet Nasr (3100-2900 BCE) periods in Mesopotamia. The main period of cultural exchange, particularly consisting in the transfer of Mesopotamian imagery and symbols to Egypt, is considered to have lasted about 250 years, during the Naqada II to Dynasty I periods.
Distinctly foreign objects and art forms entered Egypt during this period, indicating contacts with several parts of Asia. The designs that were emulated by Egyptian artists are numerous: the Uruk "priest-king" with his tunique and brimmed hat in the posture of the Master of animals, the serpopards or sepo-felines, winged griffins, snakes around rosettes, boats with high prows, all characteristic of Mesopotamian art of the Late Uruk (Uruk IV, c. 3350–3200 BCE) period. The same "Priest-King" in visible in several Mesopotamian works of art of the end of the Uruk period, such as the Blau Monuments, cylinder seals and statues.
Spouted jars of Mesopotamian design start to appear in Egypt in the Naqada II period. Various Uruk pottery vases and containers have been found in Egypt in Naqada contexts, confirming that Mesopotamian finished goods were imported into Egypt, although the past content of the jars has not been determined yet. Scientifc analysis of ancient wine jars in Abydos has shown there was some high-volume wine trade with the Levant during this period.
Cylinder seals, some coming from Mesopotamia and Elam, and some made locally in Egypt following Mesopotamian designs in a stylized manner, have been discovered in the tombs of Upper Egypt dating to Naqada II and III, particularly in Hierakonpolis. Objects such as the Gebel el-Arak knife handle, which has patently Mesopotamian relief carvings on it, have been found in Egypt, and the silver which appears in this period can only have been obtained from Asia Minor.
In addition, Egyptian objects were created which clearly mimic Mesopotamian forms, although not slavishly. Cylinder seals appear in Egypt, as well as recessed paneling architecture, the Egyptian reliefs on cosmetic palettes are clearly made in the same style as the contemporary Mesopotamian Uruk culture, and the ceremonial mace heads which turn up from the late Gerzean and early Semainean are crafted in the Mesopotamian "pear-shaped" style, instead of the Egyptian native style. The first man/animal composite creatures in Egypt were directly copied from Mesopotamian designs. It is also considered as certain that the Egyptians adopted from Mesopotamia the practice of marking the sealing of jars with engraved cylinder seals for informational purposes.
The route of this trade is difficult to determine, but contact with Canaan does not predate the early dynastic, so it is usually assumed to have been by sea trade. During the time when the Dynastic Race Theory was still popular, it was theorized that Uruk sailors circumnavigated Arabia, but a Mediterranean route, probably by middlemen through Byblos, is more likely, as evidenced by the presence of Byblian objects in Egypt. Glyptic art also seems to have played a key role, through the circulation of decorated cylinder seals across the Levant, a common hinterland of both empire.
The intensity of the exchanges suggest however that the contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia were often direct, rather than merely through middlemen or through trade. Uruk had known colonial outposts of as far as Habuba Kabira, in modern Syria, insuring they presence in the Levant. Numerous Uruk cylinder seals have also been uncovered there. There were suggestions that Uruk may have had an outpost and a form of colonial presence in northern Egypt. The site of Buto in particular was suggested, but it has been rejected as a possible candidate.
The fact that so many Gerzean sites are at the mouths of wadis which lead to the Red Sea may indicate some amount of trade via the Red Sea (though Byblian trade potentially could have crossed the Sinai and then be taken to the Red Sea). Also, it is considered unlikely that something as complicated as recessed panel architecture could have worked its way into Egypt by proxy, and at least a small contingent of migrants is often suspected.
These early contacts probably acted as a sort of catalyst for the development of Egyptian culture, particularly in respect to the inception of writing, and the codification of royal and vernacular imagery.
Archaic Egyptian cylinder Seal, 3100-2900 BCE
While there is clear evidence the Naqada II culture borrowed abundantly from Mesopotamia, the most commonly held view today is that the achievements of the First Dynasty were the result of a long period of indigenous cultural and political development. Such developments are much older than the Naqada II period, the Naqada II period had a large degree of continuity with the Naqada I period, and the changes which did happen during the Naqada periods happened over significant amounts of time.
Although there are many examples of Mesopotamian influence in Egypt in the 4th millennium BCE, the reverse is not true, and there are no traces of Egyptian influence in Mesopotamia at that time. Only very few Egyptian Naqada period object have been found beyond Egypt, and generally in its vicinity, such as a rare Naqada III Egyptian Cosmetic palette in the shape of a fish, of the end of 4th millenium BCE, found in Ashkelon or Gaza.
Main article: History of writing
It is generally thought that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably [were], invented under the influence of the latter", and that it is "probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia". The two writing systems are in fact quite similar in their initial stages, relying heavily on pictographic forms and then evolving a parallel system for the expression of phonetic sounds.
There is however a lack of direct evidence, and "no definitive determination has been made as to the origin of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt". Instead, it is pointed out and held that "the evidence for such direct influence remains flimsy” and that “a very credible argument can also be made for the independent development of writing in Egypt..." Since the 1990s, the discovery of glyphs on clay tags at Abydos, dated to between 3400 and 3200 BCE, may challenge the classical notion according to which the Mesopotamian symbol system predates the Egyptian one, although Egyptian writing does make a sudden apparition at that time, while on the contrary Mesopotamia has an evolutionary history of sign usage in tokens dating back to circa 8000 BCE. Also, the Abydos clay tags are virtually identical with contemporary clay tags from Uruk, Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamian pierced label, with symbol "EN" meaning "Master", the reverse of the plaque has the symbol for Goddess Inanna. Uruk circa 3000 BC. Louvre Museum AO 7702
A recent 2017 study of the mitochondrial DNA composition of Egyptian mummies has shown a high level of affinity with the DNA of the populations of the Near East. The study was made on a mummies of Abusir el-Meleq, near El Fayum, which was inhabited from at least 3250 BCE until about 700 CE. A shared drift and mixture analysis of the DNA of these ancient Egyptian mummies shows that the connection is strongest with ancient populations from the Levant, the Near East and Anatolia, and to a lesser extent modern populations from the Near East and the Levant. In particular the study finds "that ancient Egyptians are most closely related to Neolithic and Bronze Age samples in the Levant, as well as to Neolithic Anatolian and European populations".
The data suggest a high level of genetic intereraction with the Near East since ancient times, probably going back to Prehistoric Egypt: "Our data seem to indicate close admixture and affinity at a much earlier date, which is unsurprising given the long and complex connections between Egypt and the Middle East. These connections date back to Prehistory and occurred at a variety of scales, including overland and maritime commerce, diplomacy, immigration, invasion and deportation"
After this early period of exchange, and the direct introduction of Mesopotamia components in Egyptian culture, Egypt soon started to assert its own style from the Early Dynastic Period (3150-2686 BCE), the Narmer palette being seen as a turning point. The cylinder seals were soon abandoned in favour of scarab seals.
Egypt seems to have provided some artistic feedback to Mesopotamia at the time of the Early Dynastic Period of Mesopotamia (2900-2334 BCE). This is especially the case with royal iconography: the figure of the king smitting his enemies with a mace, and the depiction of dead enemies being eaten by birds of prey appeared in Egypt from the time of the Narmer palette, and were then adopted centuries later by Mesopotamian rulers Eannatum and Sargon of Akkad. This depiction appear to be part of an artistic system to promote "hegemonistic kingship". Another example is the usage of decorated mace heads as a symbol of kingship.
There is also a possibility that the depictions of the Mesopotamian king with a muscular, naked, upper body fighthing his enemies in a quadrangular posture, as seen in the Stele of Naram-Sin or statues of Gudea (all circa 2000 BCE) were derived from Egyptian sculpture, which by that time had already been through its Golden Age during the Old Kingdom.