Located in the north of the country and founded by Narmer, the first pharaoh of Egypt, Memphis was during its three thousand years of history an important political and religious center, seat of the great temple of the god Ptah and place of coronation of the pharaohs.
During the New Kingdom, around 1200 BC, a woman who had just arrived in Memphis wrote a letter to a friend from Thebes to tell her about her impressions of the city:
“I have arrived in Memphis and found it in splendid condition. […] The old Memphis no longer exists, it has become rejuvenated, by changing its appearance it has become the lady of the north of Egypt “.
This document is proof of the prestige that the city continued to have among the Egyptians, located about thirty kilometers south of Cairo.
Surrounded by a white wall, with a royal palace and an important temple, Memphis was the political capital of Egypt from the unification of the country until the First Intermediate Period (3100- 2040 BC).
Later other cities would assume the status of political capital, but Memphis never lost its importance as an administrative, economic and religious center. However, today there is hardly any trace of that splendid city.
Over time its palaces, houses, streets, workshops and ports have been buried under the modern Egyptian town of Mit Rahina, and today there are few remains recovered that allow a glimpse of the splendor that the great capital of Pharaonic Egypt had.
The choice of the location was not accidental: Memphis stood at the apex of the Delta, in the “middle of the Two Lands”, balancing the south and north of the country, Upper and Lower Egypt, something that gave the city a strong symbolic value, in addition to constituting a perfect strategic position.
Its Egyptian name was Inebu-hedj, “the White Wall,” because of the sacred and ritual wall that surrounded it, and perhaps also because of the look of a fortified residence it reflected.
It was not until the end of the Old Kingdom when the city began to be known also with the famous and definitive name of Men-nefer, “Stable and Beautiful”, where Memphis comes from.
When Narmer completed the construction of his new capital, he was crowned at Memphis as pharaoh of unified Egypt. Since then, and throughout more than three thousand years, all the pharaohs were crowned there.
The city must always be prepared for this important ceremony that received the name of «Union of the Two Lands; Circuit of the White Walls ». The final act of the coronation took place on the last of the five days of solemnities celebrated in Memphis.
In this event, the new enthroned king was invested with the insignia of pharaonic power – the double crown, the crook and flail – and then had to make some kind of sacrifice for the god of the city, Ptah.
The splendor of Memphis
The scarcity of archaeological remains does not allow, for the moment, to determine what was the appearance of the city of Memphis.
Nor can an exact calculation of its population density be made, nor can it be known the characteristics of its neighborhoods or the organization of its productive and handicraft activities.
This is due, in part, to the fact that the basic material used for the constructions – also the most economical, practical and affordable – was adobe.
Despite this, what is certain is that the city’s plan was complex, since Memphis, due to its status as capital, had to be a large and densely populated city.
Inside the walls was the royal palace, which was polychrome in bright colors and adorned with porticoes and columns, gardens full of flowers, fruit trees and artificial ponds. Not far away were the administrative buildings.
The houses of the popular neighborhoods, probably of more than one story, were lined along narrow and irregular streets.
Other neighborhoods of the city would have been the headquarters of the temples, authentic dwellings of the gods, which used to be built with stone blocks. Inside these sacred spaces were the houses of the priests, archives, libraries, warehouses and workshops.
The kings of Egypt built a new necropolis near the capital. In fact, the greatness and importance that Memphis reached throughout the entire dynastic history of Egypt is reflected in the numerous royal necropolises that extend for more than thirty kilometers in the desert.
These cemeteries used by the pharaohs of Dynasties III to VI include those of Abu-Roash, Zawyet el-Aryan, Abusir and Dashur.
The Saqqara necropolis is home to the famous stepped pyramid of Djoser, from Dynasty III, and further north is the Giza complex, where the imposing pyramids of the pharaohs of Fourth Dynasty stand, gigantic constructions that soar into the sky.
What’s more, These Memphis necropolises house a great variety of tombs of nobles and high officials : from mastabas and cave tombs of the Old Kingdom richly decorated with exquisite scenes of daily life, hunting and fishing, and of local fauna and flora, passing through the tombs of high officials of the New Kingdom and later times, to underground catacombs destined to house hundreds of animal mummies such as hawks, cats, dogs, ibis …
Ptah, the god of the city
The main god and protector of the city was Ptah. This divinity is represented as a standing man, who wears a plain shroud and a tight artisan bonnet on his head.
He wears a false beard, has a blue complexion and holds in his hands a scepter where the djed pillar, the was scepter and the ankh were combined, symbols of stability, power and life. He also wears a wide, heavy collar with an imposing counterweight hanging down his back.
His wife, the powerful Sekhmet, is the violent and uncompromising lioness-headed goddess who is touched with the sun disk; wrathful and fierce, she was almost on the point of destroying and extinguishing humanity by punishing the rebellion of humans against her father Ra, the sun god.
The son of Ptah and Sekhmet is Nefertum, the personification of the lotus flower and its fragrance.
The priests of Memphis considered that Ptah was a cosmogonic god, demiurge and creator, who listened to the prayers and requests of his faithful.
In recognition of this, some of the stelae that were dedicated to him appear decorated with large carved ears, to make it easier for the god to listen.
In Memphis was also the largest temple of Ptah in the country. This sanctuary became one of the most frequented, populous and renowned temples in Egypt, and, we could say, in the entire world.
This Memphite complex was known as Hut-ka-Ptah , “The abode of the ka of Ptah.” This is precisely where the Greek word Aigyptos, Egypt, comes from, a term that ended up designating the entire Nile country.
The myth of the creation of the world by the god Ptah is preserved in a text engraved on a stone slab from the time of King Shabaka, of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt. Although it is a late copy, the Stone of Shabaka collects a text of very ancient origin.
From the First Intermediate Period (2173-2040 BC) Memphis lost its status as the political capital of Egypt, but it continued to be the capital of the nome, or province, number 1 of Lower Egypt and never ceased to be an administrative center of the Pharaonic State.
Its symbolic importance for Egyptian royalty and its sacred character made the city maintain its splendor throughout its history.
Memphis: The second golden age
Written sources and archaeological finds reveal that Memphis continued to be one of the largest and most important socio-political nuclei in the country, and the pharaohs, although they no longer lived there, kept their palaces and administrative buildings to host the court for long periods, from so its relevance and magnificence endured.
Inhabited by an active and highly cosmopolitan society, Memphis experienced, especially from the New Kingdom (1552-1069 BC), significant economic growth thanks to the creation of a port that allowed incessant commercial activity.
Over time, the urban structure of the city underwent numerous changes and incalculable enlargements and destructions, and it was also the object of some restoration and improvement, especially during the 19th dynasty, under the reign of the great pharaoh Ramses II.
This monarch returned to make Memphis the capital of the country for a brief period of time, before finally transferring his court to the new city of Pi-Ramses, in the Delta.
In any case, the city of the White Wall maintained all its aura of prestige until the founding of Alexandria, in the year 331 BC. From then on it gradually fell into oblivion until it was finally abandoned from the 7th century AD.