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The City of Memphis During Ancient Egypt

The City of Memphis During Ancient Egypt

Legend has it that King Menes (c. 3150 BCE) founded Memphis in c. 3100 B.C. Other surviving records credit Hor-Aha Menes’ successor with Memphis’ construction. There is a Myth that Hor-Aha so admired Memphis that he diverted the Nile river bed to create a broad plain for building work.

The pharaohs of Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) and Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) made Memphis their capital and ruled from the city. Memphis was part of the kingdom of Lower Egypt. Over time, it evolved into a powerful religious centre. While the citizens of Memphis worshipped a multitude of gods, the divine Triad of Memphis comprised the god Ptah, Sekhmet his wife and their son Nefertem.

Located at the entrance to the Valley of the Nile River Valley close to the Giza plateau, Memphis’ original name was Hiku-Ptah or Hut-Ka-Ptah or “Mansion of the Soul of Ptah” provided the Greek name for Egypt. When translated into Greek, Hut-Ka-Ptah became “Aegyptos” or “Egypt.” That the Greeks named the country in honour of one city reflects the fame, wealth and influence Memphis exerted.

Later it was known as Inbu-Hedj or “White Walls” after its white-painted mud-brick walls. By the Old Kingdom period (c. 2613-2181 BCE) it had become Men-nefer “the enduring and beautiful,” which the Greeks translated as “Memphis.”

Facts About Memphis

  • Memphis was one of ancient Egypt’s oldest and most influential cities
  • Memphis was founded in c. 3100 B.C. by King Menes (c. 3150 BCE), who unified Egypt
  • Egypt’s Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-2613 BCE) and Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) kings used Memphis as Egypt’s capital
  • Its original name was Hut-Ka-Ptah or Hiku-Ptah. Later it was called Inbu-Hedj or “White Walls”
  • “Memphis” is the Greek version the Egyptian word Men-nefer or “the enduring and beautiful”
  • The rise in pre-eminence Alexandria as a trading hub and the spread of Christianity contributed to the abandonment and deterioration of Memphis.

Old Kingdom Capital

Memphis remained the Old Kingdom’s capital. Pharaoh Sneferu (c. 2613-2589 BCE) ruled from Memphis as he began building his signature pyramids. Khufu (c. 2589-2566 BCE), Sneferu’s successor built Giza’s Great Pyramid. His successors, Khafre (c. 2558-2532 BCE) and Menkaure (c. 2532-2503 BCE) constructed pyramids of their own.

Memphis was the centre of power at this time and housed bureaucracy needed to organize and coordinate the resources and huge labour force needed to construct the pyramid complexes.

Memphis continued expanding during the Old Kingdom and the Temple of Ptah established itself as a leading centre of religious influence with monuments built in the god’s honour throughout the city.

Egypt’s 6th Dynasty kings saw their power steadily eroded as resource constraints bit and the cult of Ra together with the district nomarchs grew wealthier and more influential. Memphis’ once a considerable authority declined, particularly when drought resulted in a famine the Memphis administration could not alleviate during Pepi II’s (c. 2278-2184 BCE) reign, triggering the collapse of the Old Kingdom.

Rivalry With Thebes

Memphis served as Egypt’s capital in Egypt’s turbulent First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2040 BCE). Surviving records indicate Memphis was the capital during the 7th and 8th Dynasties. The pharaoh’s capital was the only point of continuity with earlier Egyptian kings.

The local district governors or nomarchs ruled their districts directly with no central oversight. In either the late 8th Dynasty or early 9th Dynasty, the capital moved to Herakleopolis.

When Intef I (c. 2125 BCE) came to power Thebes was reduced to the status of a regional city. Intef I disputed the power of the Herakleopolis kings. His heirs retained his strategy, until Mentuhotep II (c. 2061-2010 BCE), successfully usurped the kings at Herakleopolitan, unifying Egypt under Thebes.

Memphis continued as an important cultural and religious centre during the Middle Kingdom. Even during the Middle Kingdom’s decline during the 13th Dynasty, the pharaohs continued building monuments and temples in Memphis. While Ptah had been eclipsed by the cult of Amun, Ptah remained Memphis’ patron god.

Memphis During Egypt’s New Kingdom

Egypt’s Middle Kingdom transitioned into another divisive era known as its Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782-1570 BCE). During this time the Hyksos people ensconced in Avaris ruled Lower Egypt. They raided Memphis extensively inflicting significant damage on the city.

Ahmose I (c. 1570-1544 BCE) drove the Hyksos from Egypt and founded the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BCE). Memphis once more assumed its traditional role as a commercial, cultural and religious centre, establishing itself as Egypt’s second city after Thebes, the capital.

Enduring Religious Significance

Memphis continued to enjoy significant prestige even after the New Kingdom declined and The Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE) emerged. In c. 671 BCE, the Assyrian kingdom invaded Egypt, sacking Memphis and taking prominent community members to Nineveh their capital.

Memphis’ religious status saw it rebuilt following the invasion by the Assyrians. Memphis emerged as a resistance centre opposing the Assyrian occupation earning it further devastation by Ashurbanipal in his invasion of c. 666 BCE.

Memphis’ status as a religious centre saw it revived under the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BCE) Saite pharaohs. Egypt’s gods particularly Ptah maintained its attraction for cult adherents and additional monuments and shrines were constructed.

Persia’s Cambyses II seized Egypt in c. 525 BCE and captured Memphis, which became the capital of Persian Egypt’s satrapy. In c. 331 BCE, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and conquered Egypt. Alexander crowned himself pharaoh at Memphis, associating himself with the great pharaohs of the past.

The Greek Ptolemaic Dynasty (c. 323-30 BCE) maintained Memphis’ prestige. Ptolemy I (c. 323-283 BCE) entombed Alexander’s body in Memphis.

The Decline Of Memphis

When the Ptolemaic Dynasty abruptly concluded with the death of Queen Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE) and the annexation of Egypt by Rome as a province, Memphis was largely forgotten. Alexandria with its great learning centres supported by a prosperous port soon emerged as the base of Rome’s Egyptian administration.

As Christianity expanded during the 4th century CE, ever fewer believers in Egypt’s ancient pagan rites visited Memphis’ majestic temples and old shrines. Memphis’ decline continued and once Christianity had become the commanding religion across the Roman Empire by the 5th century CE, Memphis lay largely abandoned.

Following the Arab Invasion in the 7th century CE, Memphis was a ruin, its once colossal buildings pillaged for stone for the foundations of new buildings.

Reflecting On The Past

In 1979 Memphis was added by UNESCO to their World Heritage List as a place of cultural significance. Even after it relinquished its role as Egypt’s capital, Memphis remained an important commercial, cultural and religious centre. Little wonder Alexander the Great had himself crowned Pharaoh of all Egypt there.

Header image courtesy: Franck Monnier (Bakha) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons