Memphis, or Men-nefer, was the ancient capital of Inebu-hedj, the first nome of Lower Egypt known as mḥw (“north”). Its ruins are located near the modern town of Mit Rahina (Arabic: ميت رهينة), 20 km (12 mi) south of Giza in Greater Cairo, Egypt.
Memphis thrived as a regional commerce, trade, and religious centre during its golden age. According to legends related in the early third century BC by Manetho, a priest and historian who lived in the Ptolemaic Kingdom during the Hellenistic period of ancient Egypt, the city was founded by King Menes. It was the capital of ancient Egypt (Kemet or Kumat) during the Old Kingdom and remained an important city throughout ancient Egyptian history. It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile Delta and was home to bustling activity. Its principal port, Peru-nefer (not to be confused with Peru-nefer at Avaris), features a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses distributing food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom.
Memphis was believed to be protected by the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah (meaning “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah”), was one of the most prominent structures in the city. The name of this temple, rendered in Greek as Aἴγυπτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by Manetho, is believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt.
The history of Memphis is closely linked to that of the country itself. Its eventual downfall is believed to have been due to the loss of its economic significance in late antiquity, following the rise of coastal Alexandria. Its religious value was diminished after the abandonment of the ancient religion. This followed the Edict of Thessalonica (380 AD), which made Nicene Christianity the sole religion of the Roman empire.
Today, the ruins of the former capital offer fragmented evidence of its past. Along with the pyramid complex at Giza, they have been preserved as a World Heritage Site since 1979. The site is open to the public as an open-air museum.
Memphis has had several names during its history of almost four millennia. Its Ancient Egyptian name was Inebu-hedj ( translated as “the white walls.”
Because of its size, the city also came to be known by various other names of neighbourhoods or districts that enjoyed considerable prominence at one time or another. For example, according to a text from the First Intermediate Period, it was known as Djed-Sut (“everlasting places”), the name of the pyramid of Teti.
The city was referred to as Ankh-Tawy (meaning “Life of the Two Lands”), stressing the city’s strategic position between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. This name dates from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1640 BCE) and is frequently found in ancient Egyptian texts. Some scholars maintain that this name was an area that contained a sacred tree, the western district of the city that lay between the great Temple of Ptah and the necropolis at Saqqara.
At the beginning of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 BC), the city became known as mn-nfr (anglicised as Men-nefer, meaning “enduring and beautiful”), which became “Memfi” (ⲙⲉⲙϥⲓ) in Bohairic Coptic. The name “Memphis” (Μέμφις) is the Greek adaptation of the word that they had given to the pyramid of Pepi I, located west of the city.
The modern town Mit Rahina came from the ancient Egyptian later name for Memphis mjt-rhnt meaning “Road of the Ram-Headed Sphinxes”. It refers to the ancient causeway connecting Memphis and Saqqara, on which the procession of the dead bull travelled for burial in the Serapeum at Saqqara.
While attempting to draw ancient Egyptian history and religious elements into their traditions, the Greek poet Hesiod in his Theogony, explained the name of the city by saying that Memphis was the daughter of the Greek river god Nilus and the wife of Epaphus (the son of Zeus and Io). She founded the city and named it after his wife.
In the Bible, Memphis is called Moph.
The city of Memphis is 20 km (12 mi) south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. The modern cities and towns of Mit Rahina, Dahshur, Abusir, Abu Gorab, and Zawyet el Aryan, south of Cairo, all lie within the administrative borders of historical Memphis (29°50′58.8″N 31°15′15.4″E). The city also marked the boundary between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. (The 22nd nome of Upper Egypt and the 1st nome of Lower Egypt).
Today, the footprint of the ancient city is uninhabited. The closest modern settlement is the town of Mit Rahina. Estimates of historical population size differ widely among sources. According to Tertius Chandler, Memphis had some 30,000 inhabitants. It was the largest settlement worldwide from its foundation until approximately 2250 BC and from 1557 to 1400 BC. K. A. Bard is more cautious. He estimates the city’s population numbered about 6,000 inhabitants during the Old Kingdom.
During the Old Kingdom, Memphis became the capital of Ancient Egypt for more than eight consecutive dynasties. The city reached a peak of prestige under the Sixth Dynasty as a centre for worshipping Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. The Memphis triad, consisting of the creator god Ptah, his consort Sekhmet, and their son Nefertem, formed the main focus of worship in the city. The alabaster sphinx that guards the Temple of Ptah serves as a memorial of the city’s former power and prestige.
Memphis declined after the Eighteenth Dynasty with the rise of Thebes and the New Kingdom. Still, it was revived under the Persians before falling firmly into second place following the founding of Alexandria. Under the Roman Empire, Alexandria remained the most important Egyptian city. Memphis remained the second city of Egypt until the establishment of Fustat (or Fostat) in 641 AD. Afterwards, it was largely abandoned and became a source of stone for the surrounding settlements. It was still an imposing set of ruins in the twelfth century but soon became little more than an expanse of low ruins and scattered stone.
The legend recorded by Manetho was that Menes, the first king to unite the Two Lands, established his capital on the banks of the Nile by diverting the river with dikes. The Greek historian Herodotus, who tells a similar story, relates that during his visit to the city, the Persians, at that point the suzerains of the country, paid particular attention to the condition of these dams so that the town was saved from the annual flooding.
Some scholars suggest that Egypt most likely became unified through mutual need, developing cultural ties and trading partnerships. However, it is undisputed that Memphis was the first capital of united Egypt. It has been theorised that Menes may have been a mythical king, similar to the Romulus of Rome. Some Egyptologists had identified the legendary Menes with the historical Narmer, represented on the Palette of Narmer, conquering the territory of the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt and establishing himself as a king. This palette has been dated to ca. 31st century BC and, thus, would correlate with the legend of Egypt’s unification by Menes.
However, in 2012 an inscription depicting the visit of the predynastic king Iry-Hor to Memphis was discovered in the Sinai. Since Iry-Hor predates Narmer by two generations, the latter cannot have been the city’s founder. Alternatively, in Greek myths, Epaphus(king of Egypt, whose wife was Memphis) is regarded as the founder of Memphis, Egypt.
Little is known about the city of the Old Kingdom. It was the state capital of the mighty kings who reigned from Memphis from the date of the First Dynasty. According to Manetho, during the earliest years of the reign of Menes, the seat of power was farther to the south, at Thinis. The king likely established himself there to better control the new union between the two kingdoms that formerly were rivals. According to Manetho, ancient sources suggest the “white walls” (In-hedj) or “fortress of the white wall” were founded by Menes. The Djoser of the Third Dynasty complex, located in the ancient necropolis at Saqqara, would then be the royal funerary chamber, housing all the elements necessary to royalty: temples, shrines, ceremonial courts, palaces, and barracks.
The golden age began with the Fourth Dynasty, which seems to have furthered the primary role of Memphis as a royal residence where rulers received the double crown, the divine manifestation of the unification of the Two Lands. Coronations and jubilees, such as the Sed festival, were celebrated in the temple of Ptah. The earliest signs of such ceremonies were found in the chambers of Djoser.
During this period, the temple’s clergy of Ptah came into being. We know the names of the high priests of Memphis who seem to have worked in pairs, at least until the reign of Teti. The importance of the temple is attested with payments of food and other goods necessary for the funerary rites of royal and noble dignitaries. This temple also is cited in the annals preserved on the Palermo Stone and beginning from the reign of Menkaura.
The architecture of this period was similar to that seen at the Giza royal necropolis of the Fourth Dynasty, where recent excavations have revealed that the essential focus of the kingdom at that time centred on the construction of the royal tombs. Memphis was then the heir to a long artistic and architectural practice, constantly encouraged by the monuments of preceding reigns. A strong suggestion of this notion is the etymology of the city’s name, which matched that of the pyramid of Pepi I of the Sixth Dynasty.
All these necropoleis were surrounded by camps inhabited by artisans and labourers dedicated exclusively to constructing royal tombs. Spread over several kilometres stretching in all directions, Memphis formed a true megalopolis, with temples connected by sacred temenos and ports connected by roadways and canals. The perimeter of the city thus gradually extended into a vast urban sprawl. Its centre remained around the temple complex of Ptah.
At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, the capital and court of the king had moved to Thebes in the south, leaving Memphis for a time. Although the seat of political power had shifted, Memphis did remain perhaps the most important commercial and artistic centre. It is evidenced by the discovery of handicrafts districts and cemeteries located west of the temple of Ptah.
Also found were relics attesting to the architectural focus of this time. A large granite offering table on behalf of Amenemhat I mentioned the erection by the king of a shrine to the god Ptah, master of Truth. Other blocks registered in the name of Amenemhat II were used as foundations for giant monoliths preceding the pylons of Ramses II. These kings were also known to have ordered mining expeditions, raids, or military campaigns beyond the borders, erecting monuments or statues to consecrate deities, manifested by a panel recording official acts of the royal court.
In the ruins of the Temple of Ptah, a block in the name of Senusret II bears an inscription indicating an architectural commission as a gift to the deities of Memphis. Moreover, many statues found at the site, later restored by the New Kingdom kings, are attributed to kings of the Twelfth Dynasty. Examples include the two stone giants that have been recovered amidst the temple ruins, which were later restored under the name of Rameses II.
Finally, according to the tradition of Herodotus and Diodorus, Amenemhat III built the northern gate of the Temple of Ptah. Remains attributed to this king were found during the excavations conducted by Flinders Petrie, who confirmed the connection. It is also worth noting that, during this time, mastabas of the high priests of Ptah were constructed near the royal pyramids at Saqqara, showing that the royalty and the clergy of Memphis at that time were closely linked. The Thirteenth Dynasty continued this trend, and some kings of this line were buried at Saqqara, attesting that Memphis retained its place at the heart of the monarchy.
With the invasion of the Hyksos and their rise to power, ca. 1650 BC, the city of Memphis came under siege. Following its capture, many monuments and statues of the ancient capital were dismantled, looted, or damaged by the Hyksos kings. They later carried them off to adorn their new capital city at Avaris. Evidence of royal propaganda has been uncovered and attributed to the Theban kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty, who initiated the reconquest of the kingdom half a century later.
The Eighteenth Dynasty thus opened with the victory over the invaders by the Thebans. Although the reigns of Amenhotep II (r. 1427–1401/1397 BC) and Thutmose IV (r. 1401/1397–1391/1388 BC) saw considerable royal focus in Memphis, for the most part, power remained in the south. With the long period of peace that followed, prosperity again took hold of the city, which benefited from her strategic position. Strengthening trade ties with other empires meant that the port of Peru-nefer (literally means “Bon Voyage”) became the gateway to the kingdom for neighbouring regions, including Byblos and the Levant.
In the New Kingdom, Memphis became a centre for the education of royal princes and the sons of the nobility. Born and raised in Memphis, Amenhotep II was made the setem—the high priest over Lower Egypt—during his father’s reign. His son, Thutmose IV, received his famed and recorded dream whilst residing as a young prince in Memphis. During his exploration of the site, Karl Richard Lepsius identified a series of blocks and broken colonnades in the name of Thutmose IV to the east of the Temple of Ptah. They had to belong to a royal building, most likely a ceremonial palace.
The founding of the temple of Astarte (Mesopotamian or Assyrian goddess of fertility and war; Babylonian = Ishtar), which Herodotus syncretically understands, is dedicated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite. It also may be dated to the Eighteenth Dynasty, specifically the reign of Amenhotep III (r. 1388/86–1351/1349 BC). However, the most outstanding work of this king in Memphis was a temple called “Nebmaatra united with Ptah”, which is cited by many sources from his reign, including artefacts listing the works of Huy the High Steward of Memphis. The location of this temple has not been precisely determined, but a number of its brown quartzite blocks were found to have been reused by Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BC) for the construction of the small temple of Ptah. This leads some Egyptologists to suggest that the latter temple had been built over the first site.
According to inscriptions in Memphis, Akhenaten (r. 1353/51–1336/34 BC; formerly Amenhotep IV) founded a temple of Aten in the city. The burial chamber of one of the priests of this cult has been uncovered at Saqqara. His successor Tutankhamun (r. 1332–1323 BC; formerly Tutankhaten), relocated the royal court from Akhenaten’s capital Akhetaten (“Horizon of the Aten”), to Memphis before the end of the second year of his reign. In Memphis, Tutankhamun initiated a period of restoration of the temples and traditions following the era of Atenism, which became regarded as heresy.
The tombs of influential officials from his reign, such as Horemheb and Maya, are situated in Saqqara. However, Horemheb was buried in the Valley of the Kings after reigning as the king (r. 1319–1292 BC). He had been commander of the army under Tutankhamun and Ay. Ay had been Tutankhamun‘s chief minister and succeeded him as king (r. 1323–1319 BC). Maya was overseer of the treasury during Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb. To consolidate his power, he married Tutankhamun’s widow Ankhesenamun, the third of the six daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Her fate is unknown. Similarly, Horemheb consolidated power when he married Nefertiti’s sister Mutnodjemet.
There is evidence that, under Ramesses II, the city developed new importance in the political sphere through its proximity to the new capital, Pi-Ramesses. The king devoted many monuments in Memphis and adorned them with colossal symbols of glory. Merneptah (r. 1213–1203 BC), his successor, constructed a palace and developed the southeast wall of the temple of Ptah. For the early part of the 19th Dynasty, Memphis received the privileges of royal attention, and this dynasty is most evident among the ruins of the city today.
With the Twenty-first and Twenty-second Dynasties, there was a continuation of the religious development initiated by Ramesses. Memphis does not seem to have declined during the Third Intermediate Period, which saw significant changes in the country’s geopolitics. Instead, the kings likely worked to develop the Memphite cult in their new capital of Tanis, to the northeast. In light of some remains found at the site, it is known that a temple of Ptah was based there. Siamun is cited as having built a temple dedicated to Amun, the remains of which were found by Flinders Petrie in the early twentieth century, in the south of the temple of Ptah complex.
According to inscriptions describing his architectural work, Sheshonk I (r. 943–922 BC), founder of the Twenty-second Dynasty, constructed a forecourt and pylon of the temple of Ptah, a monument that he named the “Castle of Millions of Years of Sheshonk, Beloved of Amun”. The funerary cult surrounding this monument, well-known in the New Kingdom, was still functioning several generations after its establishment at the temple, leading some scholars to suggest that it may have contained the royal burial chamber of the king. Sheshonk also ordered building of a new shrine for the god Apis, mainly devoted to funeral ceremonies in which the bull was led to his death before being ritually mummified.
A cemetery for the high priests of Memphis dating precisely from the Twenty-second Dynasty has been found west of the forum. It included a chapel dedicated to Ptah by prince Shoshenq, son of Osorkon II (r. 872–837 BC), whose tomb was found in Saqqara in 1939 by Pierre Montet. The chapel is currently visible in the gardens of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, behind a trio of colossi of Ramesses II, which are also from Memphis.
During the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period, Memphis is often the scene of liberation struggles of the local dynasties against occupying forces, such as the Kushites, Assyrians, and Persians. The triumphant campaign of Piankhi, ruler of the Kushites, saw the establishment of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, whose seat of power was in Napata. Piankhi’s conquest of Egypt was recorded on the Victory Stele at the Temple of Amun in Gebel Barkal. Following the capture of Memphis, he restored the temples and cults neglected during the reign of the Libyans. His successors are known for building chapels in the southwest corner of the temple of Ptah.
Memphis was at the heart of the turmoil the tremendous Assyrian threat produced. Under Taharqa, the city formed the frontier base of the resistance, which soon crumbled as the Kushite king was driven back into Nubia. The Assyrian king Esarhaddon, supported by some native Egyptian princes, captured Memphis in 671 BC. His forces sacked and raided the city, slaughtered villagers, and erected piles of their heads. Esarhaddon returned to his capital Nineveh with rich booty and erected a victory stele showing the son of Taharqa in chains. Almost as soon as the king left, Egypt rebelled against Assyrian rule.
In Assyria, Ashurbanipal succeeded his father and resumed the offensive against Egypt. In a massive invasion in 664 BC, Memphis was again sacked and looted. King Tantamani was pursued into Nubia and defeated, ending the Kushite reign over Egypt. Power then returned to the Saite kings, who, fearful of an invasion from the Babylonians, reconstructed and even fortified structures in the city, as is attested by the palace built by Apries at Kom Tuman.
Egypt and Memphis were taken for Persia by king Cambyses in 525 BC after the Battle of Pelusium. Under the Persians, structures in the city were preserved and strengthened, and Memphis was made the administrative headquarters of the newly conquered satrapy. A Persian garrison was permanently installed within the town, probably in the great north wall, near the oppressive palace of Apries. The excavations by Flinders Petrie revealed that this sector included armouries. For almost a century and a half, the city remained the capital of the Persian satrapy of Egypt (“Mudraya”/”Musraya”), officially becoming one of the epicentres of commerce in the vast territory conquered by the Achaemenid monarchy.
The stelae dedicated to Apis in the Serapeum at Saqqara, commissioned by the reigning monarch, represent a key element in understanding the events of this period. As in the Late Period, the catacombs in which the remains of the sacred bulls were buried gradually grew in size and later took on a monumental appearance that confirms the growth of the cult’s hypostases throughout the country, particularly in Memphis and its necropolis. Thus, a monument dedicated by Cambyses II seems to refute the testimony of Herodotus, who lends the conquerors a criminal attitude of disrespect against the sacred traditions.
The nationalist awakening came with the rise to power, however briefly, of Amyrtaeus in 404 BC, who ended the Persian occupation. He was defeated and executed at Memphis in October 399 BC by Nepherites I, the founder of the Twenty-ninth Dynasty. The execution was recorded in an Aramaic papyrus document (Papyrus Brooklyn 13). Nepherites moved the capital to Mendes in the eastern delta, and Memphis lost its status in the political sphere. It retained its religious, commercial, and strategic importance and was instrumental in resisting Persian attempts to reconquer Egypt.
Under Nectanebo I, a major rebuilding program was initiated for temples nationwide. In Memphis, a powerful new wall was rebuilt for the Temple of Ptah, and developments were made to temples and chapels inside the complex. Nectanebo II, meanwhile, while continuing the work of his predecessor, began building large sanctuaries, especially in the necropolis of Saqqara, adorning them with towers, statues, and paved roads lined with rows of sphinxes. Nectanebo II retreated south to Memphis, where the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes III laid siege, forcing the king to flee to Upper Egypt and eventually to Nubia. Despite his efforts to prevent the recovery of the country by the Persians, he succumbed to an invasion in 340 BC.
A brief liberation of the city under the rebel-king Khababash (338 to 335 BC) is displayed by an Apis bull sarcophagus bearing his name, discovered at Saqqara dating from his second year. The armies of Darius III eventually regained control of the city.
Memphis under the Late Period saw recurring invasions followed by successive liberations. Several times besieged, it was the scene of several of the bloodiest battles in the country’s history. Despite the support of their Greek allies in undermining the hegemony of the Achaemenids, the nation nevertheless fell into the hands of the conquerors, and Memphis was never again to become the nation’s capital. In 332 BC came the Greeks, who took control of the country from the Persians, and Egypt would never see a new native ruler ascend the throne until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
In 332 BC, Alexander the Great was crowned king in the Temple of Ptah, ushering in the Hellenistic period. The city retained a significant status, especially religious, following the takeover by one of his generals, Ptolemy I. On the death of Alexander in Babylon (323 BCE), Ptolemy took great pains to acquire his body and bring it to Memphis. Claiming that the king had officially expressed a desire to be buried in Egypt, he then carried the body of Alexander to the heart of the temple of Ptah and had him embalmed by the priests.
By custom, kings in Macedon asserted their right to the throne by burying their predecessors. Ptolemy II later transferred the sarcophagus to Alexandria, where a royal tomb was constructed for burial. The exact location of the tomb has been lost since then. According to Aelian, the seer Aristander foretold that the land where Alexander was laid to rest “would be happy and unvanquishable forever”.
Ptolemy I first introduced the cult of Serapis in Egypt, establishing his cult in Saqqara. From this period date, many developments of the Saqqara Serapeum, including the building of the Chamber of Poets, the dromos adorning the temple, and many elements of Greek-inspired architecture. The cult’s reputation extended beyond the country’s borders but was later eclipsed by the tremendous Alexandrian Serapeum, built in Ptolemy’s honour by his successors. Thus began the Ptolemaic dynasty, which started the city’s gradual decline.
The Decrees of Memphis were issued in 216, and 196 BC by Ptolemy IV and Ptolemy V. Delegates from the principal clergies of the kingdom gathered in the synod, under the patronage of the High Priest of Ptah and in the presence of the king, to establish the religious policy of the country for years to come, also dictating fees and taxes, creating new foundations, and paying tribute to the Ptolemaic rulers.
These decrees were engraved on stelae in three scripts to be read and understood by all: Demotic, hieroglyphics, and Greek. The most famous of these stelae is the Rosetta Stone, which allowed the deciphering of ancient Egyptian script in the nineteenth century. Other stelae, funerary this time, were discovered on the site that has forwarded knowledge of the genealogy of the higher clergy of Memphis, a dynasty of high priests of Ptah. The lineage retained strong ties with the royal family in Alexandria to the extent that marriages occurred between certain high priests and Ptolemaic princesses, strengthening the commitment between the two families.
Decline and abandonment
With the arrival of the Romans, Memphis, like Thebes, lost its place permanently in favour of Alexandria, which opened the empire. The rise of the cult of Serapis, a syncretic deity most suited to the mentality of the new rulers of Egypt, and the emergence of Christianity taking root deep into the country spelt the complete ruin of the ancient cults of Memphis.
The city gradually dwindled during the Byzantine and Coptic periods and finally disappeared. It then became a quarry from which its stones were used to build new settlements nearby, including Fustat, the new capital founded by the Arabs who took possession in the seventh century AD. The foundations of Fustat and later Cairo, built farther north, were laid with stones of dismantled temples and ancient necropoleis of Memphis. In the thirteenth century, the Arab chronicler Abd-ul-Latif, upon visiting the site, described and gave testimony to the grandeur of the ruins.
The ruins of Memphis hold a half-day journey in every direction. Enormous as are the extent and antiquity of this city, despite the frequent change of governments whose yoke it has borne and the great pains more than one nation has been at to destroy it, to sweep its last trace from the face of the earth, to carry away the stones and materials of which it was constructed, to mutilate the statues which adorned it; in spite, finally, of all that more than four thousand years have done in addition to man, these ruins still offer to the eye of the beholder a mass of marvels which bewilder the senses and which the most skilful pens must fail to describe. The more deeply we contemplate this city, the more our admiration rises, and every new glance at the ruins is a new source of delight.
The first surveys and excavations of the nineteenth century, and the extensive work of Flinders Petrie, have shown a little of the former glory of the ancient capital. Although the remains today are nothing compared to what was witnessed by the Arab historian, his testimony has inspired the work of many archaeologists. Memphis and its necropolis, including funerary rock tombs, mastabas, temples, and pyramids, were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979.