Memphis (Egypt)

Memphis Egypt

Five thousand years ago, the richest capital of a great state – Ancient Egypt – was located here. The mystical symbolism of this place is that a huge necropolis – the city cemetery, well preserved for its venerable age, has remained from it. Under the scalding desert sun scattered glowing tombstones, under which the former glory of the dead city is buried.

The capital of ancient Egypt

Memphis was the most important place for the ancient Egyptians to worship the god Ptah. One of the names of Memphis is Hut-ka-Ptah, or “temple of Ptah.” To add more mysticism and mystery to the cult of Ptah, the Memphis temple of Ptah was located outside the walls of the city. Also common in the city was the cult of the sacred bull Khep, who was associated with Ptah and had his own temple in Memphis.

Memphis, or rather, what is left of it, is located on the western bank of the Nile River, in the place where five thousand years ago there was the border of Upper and Lower Egypt, where the Nile Delta began and there was a blooming Fayum oasis.


Recent archaeological excavations have confirmed the truthfulness of the ancient legend, according to which Memphis was founded by the first king of united Egypt Menes (Mina) about XXXII century BC. The original name of Memphis – Inbu-hedzh, or “white walls” – came from the name of the fortress near which the city grew.

Memphis was named after the pyramid of Pharaoh Pepi (Piopi) II Neferkar, who ruled approximately in 2279-2219 B.C. In fact, the name of the city is the ancient Greek spelling of the ancient Egyptian funerary concept Men-nefer-Pepi, which meant “good shelter” or “strong and beautiful Pepi”.

Memphis was at once the political, artisanal, religious, and agricultural center of all Egypt. Pharaohs ruled Egypt from here until the conquest of the country by ancient Rome. It was the center of ancient defense industry: in Memphis the best battle chariots of the Ancient World were made. Here was the center of the cult of the god Ptah and the sacred bull Apis and were erected the main Egyptian temples and monuments in their honor.

The lands around Memphis were unusually fertile due to the silt accumulated after the floods of the Nile. Local residents were engaged mainly in peasant labor, growing crops, cotton, figs, grapes, olives, knocking precious rose oil and breeding sheep, which grazed here several hundred thousand heads. All this was enough to feed the palace staff, a whole army of priests, servants, slaves, not counting the numerous embassies from neighboring countries, eager to fall at the feet of Pharaoh, and numerous pilgrims eager to secure the patronage of the god Ptah.

Memphis was the capital of Egypt during the Ancient Kingdom (XXVIII-XXIII centuries BC), under the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (the second half of the XIV-XII centuries BC) and the most recent pharaohs (404-343 BC). At this time the history of Memphis – the capital of the pharaohs – ends and a new one begins, as the seat of the viceroys of Egypt: first Persian (525-404, 343-332 B.C.), then Greek-Macedonian (ca. 332-322 B.C.).

Then begins the era of decline of Memphis, and the main role in this was played by the emergence of another major city – Alexandria. The new rulers needed a capital on the sea to conduct trade throughout the Mediterranean. In fact, Memphis, which was located in the desert, lost its former importance. The general picture of decline was completed by the beginning of the Arab conquest of Egypt and the construction of a new capital – Cairo: for several centuries the Arabs took stone for city buildings from the magnificent palaces, temples, parks and fountains of Memphis.

Memphis is an ancient Egyptian city on the border of Upper and Lower Egypt, on the left bank of the Nile. The ruins of the city are located near the modern city of Bedrahein (El-Badrashein) and the village of Mit-Rahina, southwest of Cairo. The most famous ruins are the Temple of Ptah, built under Pharaoh Ramses II, and the Memphis necropolis west of the city, which includes the archaeological zones of Abu Roash, Giza, Zawiet el-Arian, Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur, stretching for about 35 kilometers.

For centuries, the city was completely covered with silt deposited by the waters of the Nile. Almost no whole buildings have survived here, but excavations are constantly being carried out. It is not an easy job: there is a high level of underground water and a thick layer of alluvial sediment from the Nile, and the ruins were under private houses and palm groves.

Memphis was remembered only in the XIX century, on the wave of European interest in Egyptology, after the campaign of Napoleon and the research of the British, taking out of Egypt to Britain everything that could be loaded on ships.

It was then that the remains of the temple of the god Ptah were discovered, followed by the Serapeum, the burial place of the bulls of Apis, the earthly incarnations of the god Ptah. Consequently, the most studied part of the city belongs to the New Kingdom, when Memphis was the northern capital of Egypt.

If the main temple survived in the form of a few fragments, the time still spared the statues of Pharaoh Ramses II, which were installed in front of the temple. These are two colossal 13-meter statues: granite statue is installed on the square in front of the station “Ramses” in Cairo, limestone lies on the ground in a palm grove under a concrete canopy in Memphis.

Of the alley of sphinxes that leads to the temple of Ptah, only the sphinx of Pharaoh Amenophis II of the New Kingdom era survives. Plundered and destroyed necropolises of Memphis – with pyramids and tombs of kings and nobles – today put in order, but there is not much left of them. Thus, from the imposing walls of the “white city” – Inbu-hedj – a small limestone fragment of the pyramid complex of Pharaoh Djoser (2690-2670 BC) in Saqqara has survived to our days.

The city had a very peculiar structure: it stretched for many kilometers, but it was mainly residential neighborhoods, which were overgrown with palaces of pharaohs, and these neighborhoods were not communicated with each other in any way. Later – under the Arabs – this system of urban settlement led to the emergence of numerous suburbs, each of which was populated by residents of a certain origin: from one region, one profession, etc.

Arab conquerors tried not to leave any trace of Christianity in Memphis (at one time Memphis was the center of Near Eastern Monophysitism), and on its territory there are no buildings of that period, except for the monastery of Apa Jeremiah in Saqqara.

Archaeological excavations at the site of Memphis are probably the longest scientific work in the history of mankind: they have been going on for the last two hundred years. But this period has not been long enough: only one twentieth of the Memphis site has been explored to date.


Nowadays, the neighbors of Memphis are several towns, and the most famous of them is El-Badrashain. Like their ancestors thousands of years ago, locals raise sheep, grow fruit, and make cheese and butter. But the income from tourism is growing, and the population is switching over to servicing tourists, from making new-made items – supposedly ancient Egyptian statuettes – to working as guides. The last type of income is difficult to call reliable: the temple of Ptah is often inaccessible due to the sudden rise of groundwater, flooding the entire territory of the ancient capital.

In 1979, the necropolises of Memphis – Saqqara, Abusir, Dahshur and Giza – were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

General Information

  • Location: North-East Africa, Nile River.
  • Administrative entity: Cairo Governorate, Arab Republic of Egypt.
  • Nearest city: El-Badrashein – 63,836 inhabitants (2006).
  • Language: Arabic.
  • Ethnicity: Arabs.
  • Religion: Islam.
  • Currency unit: Egyptian pound.
  • Dimensions of the necropolis: length from north to south – about 7000 m, from east to west – from 500 to 1500 m.
  • Remoteness: 24 km south of Cairo.

Climate and weather

  • Arid (desert).
  • Average temperature in January: -13°C.
  • Average temperature in July: +27°C.
  • Average annual precipitation: about 20 mm.
  • Relative humidity: 25%.


  • Minerals: sand, clay, limestone, basalt, alabaster.
  • Agriculture: plant growing (cereals, fruits), cattle breeding (sheep).
  • Services: tourist, trade, transportation.


  • Memphis complex of buildings

    • pyramid of Djoser (2690-2670 BC)
    • Tombs of the First Transitional Period (2170-2025 BC) and the time of the XXII dynasty
    • necropolis (archaeological zones of Abu Roash, Giza, Zawiet-el-Arian, Abusir, Saqqara and Dakhshur)
    • complex of pyramids of Pharaoh Pepi (Piopi) II (the main pyramid Menkh-ankh, or “turn of life”, and seven satellite pyramids)
    • Temple of the god Ptah (third millennium BC)
    • Serapeum, the statue of Pharaoh Ramses II (late 14th – mid-13th centuries BC)
    • Sphinx of Pharaoh Amenophis II (about 1353/1351 BC)
    • palace of Pharaoh Merneptah
    • small temple of Ptah
    • Roman faience workshops
    • palace of Pharaoh Apries
    • Temple of the goddess Hathor

Fun Facts

  • Carved from an alabaster monolith, the sphinx of Pharaoh Amenophis II is 4 meters high, 8 meters long and weighs at least 80 tons.
  • The surviving architectural monuments of this time include, first of all, the temple of Ptah, the patron god of this city, who was honored here together with his wife Sekhmet and son Nefertum, built under Ramses II.
  • The strategic location of the city, which controlled both the Nile Delta and the surrounding areas along the river valley, gave rise to another name for the city: Mehattawi, or “the scales of both lands”.
  • If legends are to be believed, Pharaoh Pepi (Piopi) II succeeded to the throne at the age of six and, according to legend, lived to be a hundred years old.
  • The complex of pyramids of Pharaoh Pepi (Piopi) II in Saqqara consists of the main pyramid Menkh-ankh (“Turn of Life”) and seven satellite pyramids: four – ritual and three – for Pepi’s wives Neith, Idut and Ujepten. The pharaoh had a fourth wife – Pepi Imtes (as punishment for treason she was left without a pyramid) and a fifth – Ankhesenpepi (for some mysterious reason for her the pharaoh for some reason ordered to build only a mastaba – a truncated pyramid).
  • Obeying the cult of the sacred bull Apis, the priests regularly chose one of the most beautiful and impressive living bulls as the earthly incarnation of the god Ptah. Apis was taken to Memphis, and the festivities lasted for eight days. Then the bull was brought to the temple of Ptah, where he remained all his life: he was served by girls, and sacrifices before him were made by the high priests or even the Pharaoh himself. Any movement of the divine bull (tail swishing, head turning, etc.) was perceived as an omen and the will of the god Ptah. When Apis died, the whole Egypt plunged into mourning. However, if the bull lived to 28 years – the age at which the god Ptah “died”, the priests drowned it in the Nile. Beginning in the 7th century BC, the dead Apis were embalmed and buried in sarcophagi in the Serapeum cemetery. Excavations in Memphis found burials of nine bulls and huge stone tables for making mummies of sacred bulls.
  • In 639, the Arab commander Omar Amr ibn al-As, at the head of an 8,000-strong force, surrounded Memphis and besieged it for seven months. The besieged were almost lucky when the besiegers themselves nearly perished in a flood on the Nile, but the waters receded and Memphis was taken.
  • Of all the finds at Memphis, the most famous is the enigmatic “Bird of Saqqara,” a sycamore bird figurine found in 1898 during the excavation of one of the burials at Saqqara, dating to the 3rd or 2nd century BC. “Bird from Saqqara” became widely known after 1972, when Cairo amateur Egyptologist Khalil Messiha said that it is a model of an ancient flying machine-planner.
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