“The city of Memphis was the royal residence and capital of Egypt during the Early Dynastic period and the Old Kingdom, and remained thereafter one of the most populous and renowned places of Egypt. However Memphis was the name given later in the life of the capital. It began as inbw-hdj, or "white walls," perhaps reflecting the appearance of its fortified residence”
Memphis sat at the confluence of the important trade routes across the Eastern and Western deserts and commanded the Delta. It lies in narrow stretch of the Nile Valley on the west bank of the river. One cannot help but wonder how it would have survived the ages if it had been built higher, where wind and sand would encroach rather than changing riverbeds or rising water tables.
Memphis was the name given later in the life of the capital. It began as inbw-hdj, or "white walls," perhaps reflecting the appearance of its fortified residence, which was actually a portion of its area, probably situated somewhere near the modern town of Abusir, in the valley to the east of the northernmost section of the Saqqara necropolis. At another time, the settlement was even called Hwt-k3-pth after one of its temple precincts, from whence came the Greek Aigyptos and the Anglicized Egypt. Perhaps the most apt name for Memphis was Ankh-tawy, "That which binds the two lands."
But the name by which this city is known today came from the name of the pyramid of Pepi I at Saqqara, that is to say, Mennefer. Menfe in Coptic and hellenized as Memphis, this name came to describe the entire city. The city was described in some detail by Herodotus, Strabo and Diodorus Siculus.
The necropolises or cemeteries around Memphis cover the edge of the desert on the west bank of the Nile, together with pyramids at Helwan. Dahshur, Saqqara, Abusir, Zawyet el-‘Aryan, Giza, and Abu Rawash.
So far, only small portions of the city have been revealed at Mit Rahina and at Saqqara east of the pyramid of Teti. Sir Flinders Petrie believed that the city was about 8 miles long and four miles wide, and that a considerable part of that area consisted of villages and their gardens.
From the beginning, the religious center of Memphis with its temple to Ptah was in the area of modern Mit Rahina. Ptah became the chief Memphite god at the beginning of the Dynastic period of not earlier. The earliest temple to Ptah, which would date back to the Early Dynastic period, is almost certainly still hidden under a mound called Kom el-Fakhry, further west of the Ramessid enclosure.
The later temple, of which little actually remains except for its western gate, enclosed 275,000 square miles, rivaling perhaps that of the final enclosure of Karnak at Thebes.
Only the temple’s west section has been excavated. It consists of a massive pylon and a columned hypostyle hall. It was built to commemorate one of the early sed-festivals of Ramese II.
Foundation deposits discovered west of the Ptah enclosure indicate the existence of an earlier temple built by Thutmose IV. Another enclosure north of the Ptah precinct contains remains of the palace of king Apries.
There are few tombs at Mit Rahina. The most important date to the First Intermediate Period or early Middle Kingdom and to the 22nd Dynasty.
The pyramid field of Dahshur forms the southernmost extension of the Memphite necropolis. The Pyramid built by Sneferu and variously called Bent, Rhomboidal, or False, is the most conspicuous landmark of Dahshur. The pyramids of Maidum and Dahshur highlight the transition from step pyramid to true pyramid. The valley temple is situated some distance northeast of the pyramid and provides a series of reliefs, some showing processions of female figures denoting the king’s estates in both Upper and Lower Egypt.
Later in his reign, Sneferu had the so-called Red Pyramid (from the color of its reddish limestone) erected to the north.
Three of the remaining pyramids at Dahshur belong to kings of the 12th Dynasty. Amenemhet II built the White Pyramid, Amenemhet III built the so-called Black Pyramid, and Senwosret III has a third pyramid. Other pyramids including that of King Awibre Hor of the 13th Dynasty, from whence comes the Ka Statue of the king that now sits in the Cairo Museum, have also been found at Dahshur..
In addition to these royal tombs, there are two groups of nonroyal tombs dating from the Old Kingdom. The mastabas of princesses Iti, Khnemt, Itiwert, and Sitmerhut, all daughters of Amenemhet II, and Ment and Sentsenebtisi, daughters of Senwosret III, and queens. Tomb chapels dating to the New Kingdom have also been found here.
Within Saqqara lie tombs and burials that span the ages of Egyptian’s ancient history. From the first mastaba tomb that was dated to the reign of King Aha, or Menes, legendary founder of Memphis, through to the Graeco-Roman period, Saqqara has divulged much, and yet still holds many secrets.
Mastabas of high officials and members of the royal family dating to the first dynasty run along the eastern edge of the plateau almost continuously.
The area known as the Gisr el-Mudir, which sadly seems to have not gotten beyond its initial stages, may represent a royal tomb complex of one of Djoser’s predecessors back to the second dynasty.
At least 14 royal pyramids, beginning with that of Djoser, are known from Saqqara. The largest conglomeration of non-royal tombs of the Old Kingdom occupies the area north of Djoser’s Step Pyramid.
Tombs of the New Kingdom period are found in two parts of Saqqara. In a wadi southeast of Teti’s pyramid, there are honeycombs of rock-cut tombs dating from the mid-18th Dynasty to the Ramesside period. The most spectacular belongs to the vizier Aperia, late in the reign of Amenhotep III.
From the reign of Amenhotep III onwards, tombs of the mummified Apis bulls, which probably occurred about once every 14 years, are known from the Serapeum at Saqqara. It was probably Nectanebo I who set up the line of sphinxes that lined the way from Memphis to the Serapeum. The Apis cult was closely connected with that of the god Ptah, deity of Memphis.
The tomb pyramid of King Djedefre of the 4th Dynasty was found at Abu Rawash, the northernmost burial in the Memphite necropolis. Objects inscribed with the names of 1st Dynasty kings Aha and Den have also been found here.
The original capital at White Wall itself was probably replaced as building was done further south, east of Teti’s pyramid. This section was called Djed-isut, derived from the name of Teti’s pyramid itself and its corresponding town. This would perhaps explain the choice of South, rather than North, Saqqara, as the site for the pyramids of Djedkara and Pepi I. Since Pepi’s pyramid and town were called Mennefer, this new palace settlement, and in fact the entire city was physically linked as well with the settlements around the temple of the god Ptah further east from then on
The long line of kings from Aha, or Menes, in the First Dynasty, who had ruled the country from Memphis, ended after the 8th Dynasty. Now power was held by a succession of rulers who came from Herakleopolis Magna, near the entrance to the Faiyum. Their control never got as far as southern Upper Egypt.
The Turin Canon may represent this break by giving a grand total of the rulers from Aha to the last king of the 8th Dynasty, and the Abydos King-list in Seti I’s temple gives no royal names for the period we call the First Intermediate Period, until the beginning of what is termed the Middle Kingdom and King Nebheptra Mentuhotep II from Thebes.
Merikare, after whom an Instruction is named and who was either the last or next-to-last king of this Herakleopolitan dynasty, was buried at Saqqara. No other pyramids or tombs of any of these kings have yet been identified at Saqqara.
Early in the 12th Dynasty Amenemhet I moved his residence to Itjtawy or el-Lisht, possibly in an attempt to return to the Memphis area. The site of Memphis itself by that time was unsuitable for establishing a new large settlement.
Memphis served as administrative capital with Thebes and Itjtawy during at least part of the New Kingdom, during the Late Period, with Alexandria during the Ptolemaic period, and remained important politically and religiously until Emperor Theodosius I, 379-95 ACE, decreed that Christianity should be the religion of the Roman Empire. In 641 ACE the Muslim conqueror Amr ibn el-As founded a new capital of Egypt on the east bank of the Nile south of modern Cairo.
In his work, "An Account of Egypt," in the 13th Century A.C.E. the Islamic traveler and scholar Abd-Al Latif wrote this about the ruins of Memphis: "Enormous as are the extent and antiquity of this city, in spite of 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 mutilate the statues which adorned it….these ruins still offer to the eye of the beholder a mass of marvels which bewilder the senses and which the most skillful pens must fail to describe."
Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Malek
The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt ed. By Ian Shaw
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
Memphis: the City of the White Wall by Marion T. Dimick
To summarize, the Name we use today derives from the Pyramid of Pepy I at Saqqara, which is Mennufer (the good place), or Coptic Menfe. Memphis is the Greek translation. But the City was originally Ineb-Hedj, meaning "The White Wall". Some sources indicate that other versions of the name may have even translated to our modern name for the country, Egypt. During the Middle Kingdom, it was Ankh-Tawy, or "That Which Binds the Two Lands". In fact, its location lies approximately between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the importance of the area is demonstrated by its persistent tendency to be the Capital of Egypt, as Cairo just to the North is today.
Memphis, founded around 3,100 BC, is the legendary city of Menes, the King who united Upper and Lower Egypt. Early on, Memphis was more likely a fortress from which Menes controlled the land and water routes between Upper Egypt and the Delta. Having probably originated in Upper Egypt, from Memphis he could control the conquered people of Lower Egypt. However, by the Third Dynasty, the building at Saqqara suggests that Memphis had become a sizable city.
Tradition tells us that Menes founded the city by creating dikes to protect the area from Nile floods. Afterwards, this great city of the Old Kingdom became the administrative and religious center of Egypt. In fact, so dominating is the city during this era that we refer to it as the Memphite period. It became a cosmopolitan community and was probably one of the largest and most important cities in the ancient world. When Herodotus visited the city in the 5th century BC, a period when Persians ruled Egypt, he found many Greeks, Jews, Phoenicians and Libyans amoung the population
Frankly, our concept of Memphis today is very artificial. The city must have been huge, judging from the size of its necropolises which extend for some 19 miles along the west bank of the Nile. These include Dahshure, Saqqara, Abusir, Zawyet el-Aryan, Giza and Abu Rawash, who's names derive not from their origins, but from modern nearby communities. Very few people can imagine the age of this city, as no European cities have yet to attain the span of Memphis' existence, and it is completely outside the comprehension of people in the Americas. Rome may eventually outlast Memphis, but as with any city that remains active for thousands of years, the city center, and various areas of the city shifted over the years, so today, what we think of as Memphis is rather artificial. Some scholars believe that the city may have shifted first north, and then back south though its three millennium history.
But there is little left of the City today, at least that can be seen. Originally, the city had many fine temples, palaces and gardens. But today, other than the scattered ruins, most of the city is gone, or lies beneath cultivated fields, Nile silt and local villages. What we do know of Memphis comes to us from its necropolises, mentioned above, text and papyrus from other parts of Egypt and Herodotus, who visited the city.
For example, we have a number of papyruses from the time of the mysterious Akhenaten concerning Memphis on such mundane matters as bread baking. And we know that the royal decree rejecting the Cult of Akhenaten issued by Tutankhamun after the earlier king's death originated in Memphis, indicating the cities importance, even over Thebes, in the New Kingdom.
What happened to the city to cause its complete demise is somewhat unclear. In later Dynasties Thebes became the capital of Egypt, but we know that Memphis retained much of its religious significance and continued to prosper during this period. Actually, Thebes was never exactly the administrative center of Egypt which Memphis was, its significance being more religious. In fact, by the 18th Dynasty, the Egyptian Kings had apparently moved back into the Palaces of Memphis. But when the Greeks arrived, and moved the Egyptian capital to Alexandria, Memphis suffered, and with the entrance of Christianity and the decline of Egyptian religion, Memphis became a mere shadow of the former great city. But the actual demise of Memphis probably occurred with the invasion of the Muslim conquerors in 641 when they established their new capital not at Memphis, but a short distance north of the city at Fustat, which is now a part of Cairo called Old Cairo, or Coptic Cairo.
Still, in the 12th Century AD, one traveler wrote, "the ruins still offer, to those who contemplate them, a collection of such marvelous beauty that the intelligence is confounded, and the most eloquent man would be unable to describe them adequately". But during the Mameluke period of Egypt, the dikes which held back the Nile floods fell into disrepair, after which Memphis was apparently and slowly covered in silt.
The fraction we can see of Memphis today is located principally around the small village of Mit Rahina. We believe that Ptah was the principle pagan god worshipped in Memphis, who was identified with Hephaistos and Vulcan. The remains of the god's temple bordering the village of Mit Rahina was at one time probably one of the grandest temples in Egypt. Today, only a fraction of the temple remains, which was originally excavated by the famous Egyptologist, W.M. Flinders Petrie between 1908and 1913. Ramses II is well represented here, with a colossus of himself near the Alabaster Sphinx along the southern enclosure wall.
Other remains include an enclosure with a ruined palace of Apries to the north of the Temple of Ptah.
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