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Memphis

A Roman mosaic of Ptolemaic Memphis

Memphis (Arabic: ممفس‎; Egyptian Arabic: ممفيس; Greek: Μέμφις) was the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch, the first nome of Lower Egypt. Its ruins are located near the town of Helwan, south of Cairo. According to legend related by Manetho, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes around 3000 BC. Capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history. It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity. Its principal port, Peru-nefer, harboured a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional centre for commerce, trade, and religion.

Memphis was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hout-ka-Ptah (meaning "Castle of the ka of Ptah"), was one of the most prominent structures in the city. The name of this temple, rendered in Greek as Aί γυ πτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by the historian Manetho, is believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt.

Foundation and Early Dynastic Period

Ruins of Ptah temple

Ruins of the Temple of Ptah

According to a commonly accepted tradition, Memphis was founded about 2925 B.C by Menes, who supposedly united the two prehistoric kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The original name of the city was the White Walls, and the term may have referred originally to the king’s palace, which would have been built of whitewashed brick. The modern name of Memphis is a Greek version of the Egyptian Men-nefer, the name of the nearby pyramid of the 6th-dynasty (c. 2325–c. 2150 bce) king Pepi I. Another geographic term for Memphis, Hut-ka-Ptah (“mansion of the ka of Ptah”), rendered Aigyptos in Greek, was later applied to the country as a whole.

Ptah, the local god of Memphis, was a patron of craftsmen and artisans and, in some contexts, a creator god as well. The great temple of Ptah was one of the city’s most prominent structures. According to an Egyptian document known as the “Memphite Theology,” Ptah created humans through the power of his heart and speech; the concept, having been shaped in the heart of the creator, was brought into existence through the divine utterance itself. In its freedom from the conventional physical analogies of the creative act and in its degree of abstraction, this text is virtually unique in Egypt, and it testifies to the philosophical sophistication of the priests of Memphis.

The prominence of Memphis during the earliest periods is indicated by the extensive cemeteries of the Early Dynastic Period (c. 2925–c. 2575 bce) and Old Kingdom (c. 2575–c. 2130 bce) that cluster along the desert bluffs to the west. Large elaborately niched tombs of the 1st and 2nd dynasties (c. 2925–c. 2650 bce) found at Ṣaqqārah, once argued to be royal monuments, were later accepted as private tombs of powerful courtiers.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom Memphis reached preeminence by the 3rd dynasty. The 3rd-century-B.C. historian Manetho calls the 3rd and 4th dynasties (c. 2650–c. 2465 bce) Memphite, and the huge royal pyramid tombs of this period, in the necropolises of Memphis, confirm this. Djoser, the second king of the 3rd dynasty, was the builder of the Step Pyramid of Ṣaqqārah, the earliest royal foundation at Memphis and the first important stone building in Egypt. Imhotep, the king’s architect and adviser, is credited with this architectural feat; his reputation as a wise man and physician led in later times to his deification and his identification with the Greek god Asclepius.

Middle Kingdom

Memphite influence continued during the Middle Kingdom (1938–c. 1630 bce), when Egypt was once more reunited, with the official residence of the 12th Dynasty (1938–c. 1756) at nearby Itj-tawy (near modern Al-Lisht), near the entrance to Al Fayyum. Several 12th-dynasty monarchs erected pyramids at Dahshur, the southernmost of the Memphite pyramid fields, but the majority of Middle Kingdom monuments were located nearer to Al Lisht. Yet the predominant artistic and administrative influences during this period seem to be Memphite, and virtually every 12th-dynasty ruler added to the great temple of Ptah.

New Kingdom

Memphis Egypt

New Kingdom statues in Memphis

The 18th dynasty thus opened with the victory over the invaders by the Thebans. Although the reigns of Amenhotep II  and Thutmose IV  saw considerable royal focus in Memphis, power remained for the most part 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. Amenhotep II, born and raised in Memphis, was made the setem—the high priest over Lower Egypt—during the reign of his father. 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 (1810-1884; Prussian Egyptologist and linguist)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 which Herodotus mistakes as being dedicated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite. may also be dated to the 18th dynasty, specifically the reign of Amenhotep III.

Decline

With the arrival of the Romans, Memphis, like Thebes, lost its place permanently in favour of Alexandria, which opened onto 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, spelled the complete ruin of the ancient cults of Memphis.

Gradually, the city dropped out of existence during the Byzantine and Coptic periods. The city then became a quarry to build new settlements nearby, including a new capital founded by the Arabs who took possession in the 7th century. The foundations of Fustat and later Cairo, both built further north, were laid with stones of dismantled temples and ancient necropoleis of Memphis.

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