Memphis was the first capital city of United ancient Egypt. It was located 20 km south of modern Cairo, near the apex of the Delta. It was established in 3200 BC. By the first king of the unified Egypt, Menes or Narmer. Memphis was recurrently the administrative center of the politically unified state of Egypt in Pharaonic times.
Memphis was one of the most significant and emblematic cities of ancient Egypt. Its origins and history, making Memphis a legendary city, not only to the ancient Egyptians themselves but also beyond, making a lasting impression on the collective imaginations of the ancient and medieval world.
Memphis is not only commanded the river approaches from the valley to the delta and the Mediterranean but also formed the hub of numerous cross-desert routes from the Saharan oases to the Red Sea. The surviving remains of Memphis, around the modern village of Mit Rahina, are found with a six square kilometers area.
The history of Memphis is long and complex. The history of this capital of Egypt extends from the first king to the last Roman emperor. Menes founded Memphis, and the Roman governor John Makaukas signed the capitulation to the Arabs in its palace. But the origins of ancient Egypt’s capital are still unknown. From the beginning to the end, Memphis was the great center of civilization, government, and trade.
Traditionally, Memphis was considered a single location, situated east of the Saqqara necropolis, where the remains from the later periods exist today. Earlier scholars suggest that Memphis was at the Pyramids of Giza, while others believe that Memphis included the area from Giza to Mit Rahina. Typically, the boundaries of Memphis are from Abu Rowash in the north to Dahshur in the south.
Memphis can refer to one of several places. There are several different uses of the name, each having different, yet specific geographical references. The name Memphis can refer to either the nome, the royal necropolis, the capital city, the city center, or the pyramid town of Pepi I.
Memphis can also refer to the capital city, today is Mit Rahina. The “capital of Memphis” is also referred to as the Ptah Temple of Mit Rahina as the city center, the heart of the social, religious, and commercial area.
The actual name “Memphis” is a Greek-derived word, from the Hieroglyphic “Mn-nfr” after the pyramid town of the 6th Dynasty King Pepi I. Mn-nfr means “firmly established and well”.
There are Early Dynastic jar labels from Abydos that refer to the place of Memphis as “inbw-hdj” or the “White Wall”. It is believed that this is the earliest ancient Egyptian name of the area later known as the capital of Memphis.
Memphis by Classical Historians:
The primary historical accounts about the origins of the Egyptian capital are the Greek writer Herodotus and the Egyptian priest, Manetho. Both original accounts date from the Ptolemaic period, with Herodotus writing in 450 BC and Manetho 302-245 BC.
The only words that Herodotus writes about the founding of Memphis are as follows:
“The priests told me that it was Menes, the first king of Egypt, who raised the dam which protects Memphis from the floods. On the land which had been drained by the diversion of the river, King Menes built the city which is now called Memphis- it lies in the narrow part of Egypt.”
Manetho was from the Lower Egyptian nome of Sebennytos and was a priest of On (Greek Heliopolis) under Ptolemy I and II in the 3rd century BC. Manetho’s original text, “The History of Egypt”, was either lost or destroyed. Manetho’s work was later recorded by Julius Africanus, a Libyan historian, and Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in AD 340. It is possible that these later authors may have corrupted, misinterpreted, and/or misunderstood Manetho’s original work.
According to Africanus: The first king was Menes, from This, who reigned for 62 years. “He was carried off by a hippopotamus and perished”. His son built a palace in Memphis.
According to Eusebius: The first king of the First Dynasty was Menes from This, who ruled for 60 years. “He made a foreign expedition and won renown, but was carried off by a hippopotamus”. His son, Athothis built a palace at Memphis.
Neither Herodotus nor Manetho declared Memphis to be the capital. They both agreed that the first king of Egypt, Menes established a city that was later called Memphis.
Memphis by Early Geographers:
Two of the earliest geographers, Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily, knew the significant relevance of Memphis. These authors made maps of Egypt, featuring three of Egypt’s primary ancient cities Alexandria, Memphis, and Thebes.
Strabo mentioned that Memphis is about three Schoeni (33.36 km) from the Delta. While Diodorus described the city as it existed during his lifetime (59 BC). Diodoros mainly copied from Herodotos, and only yields a few further points. He mentioned that the city is 150 stadia which is about 28 km. He is in agreement with the other classical writers regarding Menes and located Memphis at the Delta head.
Both of these early geographers have described and recorded the ruin field of Mit Rahina as “Memphis”.
Memphis by Historical Writers:
Accounts from early travelers describe Memphis as a great sprawling metropolis and placed it in more than one location. Early travelers consistently associated Memphis, the capital city of Egypt, with pyramids.
The first group to associate the Mit Rahina ruin field with Memphis, the ancient capital city, was Napoleon’s expedition in 1798. The collective result of this work was published in the “Description de l’Egypte” which became the definitive “truth” about Memphis. However, other contemporary explorers were not as convinced that Memphis was just six square kilometers of Mit Rahina. Two archaeologists, James Burton and Edward William Lane, both worked during the mid-1800s, imagined “that Memphis stretched the whole way up the valley from Giza Pyramids to the Saqqara Pyramids”. Additionally, Lane suggested that Memphis had suburbs that reached as far north as Giza and beyond Mit Rahina.
Re-location of Memphis:
One possible reason that Mit Rahina was typically considered the location for ancient Memphis is because it has the greatest density of pharaonic remains. The majority of these finds are large-scale, monumental architecture which dates from the Middle Kingdom onwards and was in use concurrent with several re-use phases of Saqqara as a sacred burial ground. The earlier Old Kingdom sites of “grand Memphis” such as Abu Rowash, Giza, and Abu Sir, were not subject to this sort of re-occupation. With the collapse of the Old Kingdom, the surviving pyramid towns fell into disuse and eventual abandonment, with the exception of Mn-nfr, the pyramid town of Pepi I.
In contrast, Mit Rahina was subjected to several phases of construction and re-occupation that continued until Roman times. This process added to the already growing density of burials and temple structures in the immediate area while neglecting the remainder of the Memphis region. Thus, it becomes easier to understand how the apparent association between Memphis and Mit Rahina came into being, rather than evaluating the entire region as a whole.
Memphis ancient Settlements:
Recent settlement work done in this region further supports the proposal that Memphis was significantly larger than previously believed. Typically, the majority of available information about Memphis has been obtained from the Memphite necropolis and not from the ruin field. The most incongruent “fact” regarding Memphis is the scant archaeological materials to support over 1000 years of continued occupation (3100-2100 BC). If Memphis was indeed the Old Kingdom capital city, then it follows that some archaeology should have survived.
Very few archaeological materials have survived in the ruin field of Mit Rahina. Of that which has been recovered, the majority has lost its original provenance. In the flood plain areas surrounding Mit Rahina, the lack remains unsurprising considering the mud-brick and mostly organic nature of the building materials of domestic structures and the rate of sediment accumulation from the annual inundation. Most of these materials were lost because of changing the course of the Nile.
Scholars suggest the Old Kingdom ground level is four meters below the area west of Mit Rahina. Another reason for the lack of archaeological materials is the shift in the river course. the Nile has been moving gradually eastwards during the past two millennia. Memphis seems always to have been a riverine site, but it now lies 3 km from the Nile. The eastward movement of the Nile probably continued throughout the Pharaonic period, no doubt with periodic short-term reversals, and therefore both river and settlement may originally have been quite close to the western desert edge. Collected sediment samples have determined that the position of the Nile during the Old Kingdom was several kilometers west of its present location; close to the desert edge.
Other scholars believe that the absence of settlement remains of the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom may be a result of erosion and sediment accumulation. It is possible that the progression of the river may have erased a significant portion of this early settlement.
Another reason, is the Sebekh-diggers, who have been using ancient mud-bricks as fertilizers on their fields for centuries. There’s also a possibility that any Early Dynastic material southwest of Mit Rahina was contaminated or destroyed by subsequent occupation during later periods.
Despite these obstacles, some fragmentary settlement evidence has survived. Other settlement areas have been recovered as a result of urban expansion. Thus far, Early Dynastic material has been found at AbuSir and four Old Kingdom settlements located at Abu Rowash, Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur. The site has yielded the greatest amount of structural information in Giza, in an area southwest of the Sphinx. This industrial site was located on the desert plateau and not on the valley floor, which has largely contributed to the preservation and recovery of the architecture. Each of these settlements is located in the boundaries of the Memphite region and were occupied during different phases of the Old Kingdom.
Memphis Residential areas:
An Old Kingdom settlement was found four kilometers north of Abu Rowash and six kilometers southwest of the modern village of Asuim. The settlement evidence comes from collapsed mud-brick walls with ashy layers containing ceramics. This settlement is believed to be isolated to the Old Kingdom with an absence of any earlier or later period materials.
The largest and most comprehensive Old Kingdom site found to date is Giza. Results imply that Giza was more than just a mortuary complex. A possible three square kilometer Old Kingdom settlement site has been postulated upon the evidence of a broad scatter of residential debris.
A large limestone wall located to the southeast (Heit El-Ghorab) or the (Wall of the Crow), physically separates the royal mortuary complex from the sedentary living quarters of a socially segregated settlement. This area extends for two square kilometers and includes a workers’ camp, the artisans’ village, their cemeteries, and an industrial area.
It is possible that a large settlement was present during the Early Dynastic period parallel to Saqqara – AbuSir escarpment. It was located closer to the elite tombs at North Saqqara.
The material recovered from Saqqara has come from the west of the modern ruin field in a long, thin band parallel to the desert escarpment. The most extensive early remains are from Kom El-Fakhry, (considered the oldest known part of the ancient city) immediately south of Mit Rahina and directly east of the pyramids of Pepi I, Merenre, and Djedkare. The cemetery of Kom El-Fakhry was discovered by accident during the construction of Badrashin – Saqqara road in 1951 and was excavated three years later. The adjacent settlement, generally dated to the Middle Kingdom, while a large granary silos and industrial area to the northeast dated to the New Kingdom.
Scholars suggest that an Old Kingdom settlement lies under the Middle and New Kingdom structures. A 6th Dynasty settlement is under the First Intermediate Period cemetery at Kom El-Fakhry because the ground level is three meters higher than the Ramesside ground level a little to the east. The Ramesside Temple may be built on culturally sterile deposits.
Materials from the Valley Temple of Sneferu’s Red Pyramid in Dahshur were found. Limestone chips, mud-brick architecture, and deposits were recovered, thus confirming the location of the pyramid town. So these pieces of evidence confirm that large settlements existed around the city of Memphis or within the Memphite region.