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Memphis: The Ancient Capital of Egypt

For us, it was 5000 years ago. For history, it was the blink of an eye. And for a man named Menes, it was his kingdom. In 3100 BC, at the beginning of the Old Kingdom, the city of Memphis dominated the Egyptian region.

Map
King Menes is said to have founded the city shortly after the unification of the Upper and Lower regions of Egypt. You might think that Upper meant "north" and Lower meant "south", but in fact they are the opposite. Upper means "Upper Nile". Instead of having a directional sensibility based on the magnetic poles, the Egyptians used gravity. The Nile flows "down" from the south into Lower Egypt to the north. Confusing, huh?

Little is known of Menes. As with most rulers, he and his descendants claimed divine ancestry. We do know that they developed a complex social system, patronized the arts and constructed temples and many public buildings.

Some of the monuments built at Memphis were the Temple of Ptah, the palace of Apries, and two huge statues of Rhamses II. The Monument at Sakkara, near Memphis was a favorite burial place for the pharaohs.

Memphis is actually the Greek word for one of the many names the Ancient Egyptians used to denote the city. The Egyptian version of the name "Memphis", Mn-nfr, "the beautiful monument" was used originally for the pyramid of Pepi I, but from the 18th Dynasty on, this name was extended to cover the entire region or city where this pyramid was built. It is not known why the name of a monument of relatively minor importance, such as Pepi I's pyramid as compared to the pyramid of Kheops in Giza, became the name of the entire city. The original name given to this city and used together with the name Mn-nfr, was Inb-hd "the White Wall(s)", a reference to the white walls surrounding it.

The end of the Old Kingdom by no means meant the end of Memphis as one of the most important cities in Egypt. Quite to the contrary! Memphis remained the political and administrative center of Lower- and Middle-Egypt. This importance was recognized even by the Theban kings of the 18th Dynasty. Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II often held residence at Memphis and to be accepted as a king of Egypt, one needed to be crowned at Memphis.

The 18th Dynasty saw a return of the Royal line to the city of Memphis. During the reign of Rhamses II, and his son Merenptah, a giant red sphinx was built at Memphis. It was to represent the power of the Egyptian king, and protect his people against the enemies of Egypt. This sphinx, the third largest known in the world, weighs about twelve tons. It was quarried at Aswan and transported by river to the Ptah Temple at Memphis, 600 miles away.

After the turmoil of the Amarna-revolution at the end of the 18th Dynasty, Tutankhamun took up residence, not at Thebes, which was the capital of his predecessors (except Akhenaten), but at Memphis.

The necropolis of Sakkara, near Memphis, was a favorite burial place for pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. A line of pyramids begins near the necropolis, extending for 20 mi (32 km) to Al Jizah (Giza). Memphis remained important during the long dominance by Thebes and became the seat of the Persian satraps (525 B.C.). Second only to Alexandria under the Ptolemies and under Rome, it finally declined with the founding of nearby Fustat by the Arabs, and its ruins were largely removed for buildings in the new city and, later, in Cairo.

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Abeja - Introducing Egypt's Living Dead
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