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Memphis City

Exploring the Ancient Capital: The City of Memphis, Egypt

Memphis City was Egypt’s first capital during the time of the Pharaohs; it was the ancient city of Memphis near the Giza plateau, south of the delta of the Nile River.

The town was built around 3100 BC and stopped being used around 641 BC after Luxor and Alexandria were made.

The main god of the capital was Ptah, who was thought to be the god who made everything and gave life to the gods. Ptah could also hear his people when they prayed, so he is often shown with big ears.

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Where is the city of Memphis located?

The ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis, is located in the center of an alluvial plain and stands on the western side of the River Nile. Thanks to its privileged position, its development was also possible, thus becoming the first capital of Ancient Egypt, allowing it to dominate the very entrance of the river delta, controlling the merchant routes, and, therefore, both Lower and Upper Egypt.

For this reason, it became the religious capital of the Kingdom, and the administrative one considered the sacred seat of the gods. For this reason, the coronation of the pharaohs also took place here.

It is also easy to reach from the current Egyptian capital Cairo and the Giza Necropolis, which is 25 km away. When visiting Memphis, an excursion to the necropolis of Saqqara is also a must, just 3 km from where Memphis is located.

Who built the city of Memphis?

From what we know about history, the legendary Pharaoh Narmer united Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, leading to Memphis’s creation.

Why was Memphis built?

Memphis City

Because it was where the Nile Delta met the valley, it was in a good spot for the economy and trade because it had a port.

Traces show that this city’s port had workshops, shipyards, and warehouses that sent goods to the Old Kingdom.

People say Memphis was one of the most important ancient cities because it had many palaces, gardens, and temples.

Herodotus, a Greek historian and traveler, wrote about Memphis in the 5th century BC. This was a long time after it had been at its best.

Even after Thebes became the capital of the New Kingdom, Memphis was Egypt’s second city. It grew until the first Muslim invasions in the 7th century AD, the last time people lived there.

Why Visit Memphis in Egypt?

Visiting Memphis City in Egypt is an essential stop on your journey to the land of the Pharaohs. Understanding this country’s rich history and discovering its roots is indispensable.

Memphis was, before Thebes, now Luxor, the capital of the Ancient Kingdom. Not only an important place for administration but also Egyptian worship.

In this city, a veritable open-air museum, it is still possible to observe funerary monuments, rock tombs, and temple ruins. Furthermore, its position allows us to reach it after visiting Cairo and Giza and quickly visiting the necropolis of Saqqara and its step pyramid.

Name and meaning of Memphis Egypt

Manetón, a historian from the 3rd century BC, says that Egypt’s first king, Menes, built the city after Egypt became one country.

At this time, the city was called Hiku-Ptah or Hut-Ka-Ptah, which means “Mansion of the Soul of Ptah.”

During the Predynastic Period, Ptah may have been an early god of fertility. Still, at the start of the Early Dynastic Period, he was named “Lord of Truth” and “Creator of the World.”

He was the god who watched over the area around Memphis and became the city’s patron god when the town was named after him.

Inscriptions say that Menes’s son-in-law Hor-Aha built Memphis. He is said to have visited the site, not the city, and liked it so much that he changed the path of the Nile River to make a broad plain for building.

Several inscriptions have linked Hor-Aha to Menes, but “Menes” seems to have been a title, not a personal name. It means “He who endures” and may have been passed down from the first king.

Narmer, who united Egypt and was known as Menes, was likely the first to build the city. The story of Hor-visit Aha and how he changed the course of the river may be a retelling of an earlier story about Menes (Narmer), which became the center of many miracle stories.

Egypt got its Greek name from the ancient name of the city Hut-Ka-Ptah. The Egyptians called their land Kemet, which means “black land,” because the soil in the Nile Valley was so rich and dark.

The Greeks translated Hut-Ka-Ptah as “Aegyptus,” which became “Egypt.” The fact that the Greeks named the country after the city shows how powerful and well-known it was back then.

About Memphis City Egypt

Menes, the first pharaoh of Egypt, built the city around 3100 BC. Its ruins are on the west bank of the Nile, 19 km south of Cairo, and Ptah was the god of the area.

Memphis was the most important city in Egypt for a long time. It was the economic center of the Kingdom and the undisputed capital from Dynasty I to Dynasty VIII. It came back to life during the reigns of Ramses II and Merenptah.

Even when Thebes, Pi-Ramsés, Tanis, or Sais was the capital, the most crucial place in the country was still called the Balance of the Two Lands.

It is thought that until 2250 BC, Memphis was the most populated city in the world. At its peak, there may have been more than 500,000 people living there.

During the eleventh Egyptian dynasty, which started around 2040 BC, Thebes took over as the capital from Memphis. It was the capital of Ancient Egypt, with a few short breaks, for about 1500 years. In 661 BC, Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, and Ashurbanipal sacked the city, which led to its fall.

When Alexandria was built in 331 BC, Memphis’s rule ended.

The Ptolemies and later the Roman emperors thought Alexandria was Egypt’s necessary capital. The rest of the country, including the 3,000-year-old city of Memphis, fell into poverty and forgetfulness.

It stopped being used in 641, and its ruins became a place nearby towns could get building materials. Much of what was left of it was used to build Cairo, the new capital of Egypt.

The temple’s ruins of Ptah have been dug up, and statues like those of Ramses II have been found and put on display in different museums.

Memphis City, the History of the Ancient Capital of Egypt

Memphis City

Memphis was the ancient capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, and its rule lasted for eight pharaonic dynasties, reaching the peak of prestige during the sixth.

It became the main religious center of the cult of Ptah, the creator and patron deity of art. Here, the Memphis triad was venerated, comprised of Ptah, his wife Sekhmet, and their son Nefermet.

Following the rise of Thebes, now Luxor, during the 17th dynasty, Memphis lost its power, re-emerged under Persian rule, and fell again to the Roman Empire after the foundation of Alexandria.

Old Kingdom

The history of Memphis in Egypt during the Old Kingdom is, even today, very confusing. It was the country’s capital starting from the first Pharaonic dynasty, and various sources suggest that its founder was the pharaoh Menes, to whom the city owes its name. Thanks to its privileged position on the Nile Delta, this city was a strategic domain point to control Upper and Lower Egypt.

The remains found inside the pyramid of Djoser in the necropolis of Saqqara make us understand that the III dynasty used it as the principal burial place. The real heyday of the city began during the 4th dynasty, becoming the place of residence of the pharaohs and a symbol of the union between the two lands.

Here, the royal coronations and the main religious festivals, such as those in honor of Sed, are celebrated in the temple of Ptah.

This structure also represented one of the main places of ancient worship. Memphis was not limited only to the city center and its cemetery. Still, it widened the boundaries by creating a megalopolis with canals, roads, and temples connected, of which only the central complex remains today.

Middle and New Kingdom

During the Middle Kingdom, the capital was moved to Thebes, further south, thus leaving Memphis, which remained an important center of commerce and art.

There are many finds from this period, especially near the temple of Ptah. The most important dating back to this historical period is the sphinx and the colossi of Ramses II.

Even the mastabas near the necropolis of Saqqara most likely date back to these years. Furthermore, even during the XIII dynasty, the main cemetery of the sovereigns remained. During 1650 BCMemphis was besieged by the Hyksos, and many temples and structures were destroyed and looted.

During the 18th dynasty, however, power was returned to Memphis, even though the royal center was still in Thebes. Thanks to the peace, Memphis strengthened its commercial capacity.

During the New Kingdom, it was an important center for training the nobility and high priests, as well as the place of coronation of the pharaohs.

Pharaoh Tutankhamun also supported the restoration of traditions and temples in Memphis, as did Ramses II. During the 19th dynasty, Memphis in Egypt found the attention of royalty again, as evidenced by many artifacts found here.

Late and Ptolemaic period at Memphis in Egypt.

The third or late period saw Memphis fighting for dominance against the Assyrians, Persians, and Kushites. The Piankhi took Memphis in Egypt during the 25th dynasty, who restored cults and temples and built new chapels near the temple of Ptah. Furthermore, during the Assyrian siege, the city withstood attacks but was still conquered in 671 BC, Following a bloody massacre.

In 525 BC, however, its dominion passed to the Persians, who improved the city’s structures, strengthening them. With the accession of Amyrtaeus in 404 BC., the Persians were driven out of Memphis in Egypt, and Amyrtaeus was then beheaded by Nepherites I in 199 BC.

However, thanks to Nactanebo I, Memphis was rebuilt, continuing the work then with Nactanebo II, building new temples and sanctuaries.

The city, however, fell again under Persian rule and other recurring invasions, always followed by as many liberations, becoming the scene of numerous battles.

Only with the Egyptian revolution of 1952 was there again a ruler of the native country. Alexander the Great, in 332 BC, was crowned inside the temple of Ptah, starting the Hellenistic age.

He was embalmed here at the behest of Ptolemy I, to be then moved to Alexandria, losing traces of his body to this day.

Decline and Rediscovery of Memphis in Egypt

With the onset of the Roman period, Memphis lost its power, which passed to Alexandria, thus starting a new empire dominated by the Serapis cult. Even the spread of Christianity caused the ancient cults to be abandoned.

The city was left and slowly forgotten during the Coptic and Byzantine periods, and it was then used as a stone quarry to build nearby settlements in the 7th century AD. For example, many structures in the present capital, Cairo, were built using stones taken from the temples of Memphis.

The rediscovery of Memphis was possible thanks to the work of many Arab historians and Egyptologists, who made it possible to start the first excavations during the 19th century.

Flinders Petrie was among the principal figures who worked within the Memphis site, unearthing the remaining wonders of Egypt’s ancient capital. Today it is a fundamental stop for all travelers who visit Cairo and Egypt, thus delving into the country’s history in the best possible way.

Features and significance of Memphis, ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs lived in Memphis, the capital at the start of the Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom. Many kings built palaces there. Some of the most important temples in the country were in the city.

Memphis has always been one of Egypt’s most populated and well-known cities. Because of this, it is home to people from all over the world. Its port and local shops were essential to Egypt’s trade with other countries.

The length of Memphis’s cemeteries, which is more than 30 km and runs along the edge of the desert and the west bank of the Nile, shows how big and important the city was.

What to see in Memphis in Egypt

So, after seeing where it is and its history, let’s find out where the ancient capital of Egypt was. In the area where Memphis was built, there is now a town called Mit Rahina.

As a result of different excavations, an open-air museum and a covered room have been set up to protect a giant sphinx, several vast statues of Ramses II, and other archaeological remains.

The Sphinx of Memphis

Memphis City

Among the things to see in Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt, you cannot miss its symbol: the Sphinx of Memphis. Its construction was probably during the XVIII dynasty, between 1700 and 1400 BC.

Its meaning is still shrouded in mystery today, as there are no inscriptions on it to understand which pharaoh it is dedicated to, nor any information about it. Most likely, historians have deduced that she could be devoted to the pharaoh Amenhotep II or Hatshepsut by analyzing her facial features.

It represented the giant alabaster sculpture of ancient Egypt and was discovered thanks to a mission from the British School in 1912. But it was only in 1913 that excavations began, thus freeing it from the sands of the desert.

Over 8 m long and 4 m high, it is smaller than the Great Sphinx in the Giza Necropolis. With its weight of 90 tons, including the platform still sunk in the sand today, it is one of the enormous sculptures of this material that has remained intact.

Also, a unique feature of it is its side streaks. Today we can observe the Sphinx of Memphis at the Mit Rahina museum, near the colossi of Ramses II.

Mit Rahina

The village of Mit Rahina represents the most modern part of the settlement of the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis, north of the archaeological site.

Inside is also one of the largest open-air museums in the country: the Mit Rahina Open Museum. The rock giants represent the pharaoh Ramses II, the necessary tablets with hieroglyphs, richly decorated columns, and the Sphinx of Memphis.

Furthermore, it is possible to orient yourself inside it thanks to a tour, understanding the meaning of each exhibit on display thanks to the infographics present.

This museum represents one of the main points of the city of Menfi, as it collects the best-preserved remains of the site. Among these, we can observe the large stone beds used for mummifying the API, the sacred bulls, before placing them in the Serapeum in the necropolis of Saqqara—a genuinely unmissable place among the things to see in Memphis in Egypt.

Colossus of Rameses II

Memphis City

Among the main wonders we can see in the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis, we find the Colossus of Ramses II. This colossal statue made of limestone is about 10 m high, although today, it no longer has a leg and the original pedestal.

It is located inside the open-air museum of Mit Rahina, a village known as the ancient Gardens of Memphis. This colossus has survived the destruction of the city, the erosion of the elements, and time, remaining in its original place for over 3000 years. We were discovered in 1820 by the Egyptologist and Italian explorer Giovanni Battista Caviglia, buried near the temple of Ptah near its south gate. Most probably, this colossus was initially present in pairs to protect the entrance to the temple.

Caviglia tried to donate the colossus to Leopold II of Tuscany, who refused due to the difficulties in transporting the statue. Then, Mehmet Ali, the pasha of the time, proposed sending it as a gift to the British Museum, which declined the proposal for the same reasons. For this reason, today, we can observe the great colossus in Memphis as it should be until it is moved to the New Egyptian Museum in Giza.

Hut-ka-Ptah temple

Among the things to see in Memphis in Egypt, do not miss the ruins of the temple of Hut-ka-Ptah, dedicated to the cult of Ptah. In ancient times this structure represented one of the most important temples of Memphis and the Kingdom.

It was located within a large stone fence in the center of the ancient capital. It represented the central place of worship in Ancient Egypt, together with the temple of Amun in Thebes, today Luxor, and the temples of Ra in Heliopolis.

We owe most of the information that has come down to us about this temple to Herodotus and his writings, who visited the place during the Persian invasion and after the end of the New Kingdom. We know little about its original structure except what emerged from the excavations.

There was a large walled complex, which had many entrance doors. The remains are now exhibited in the open-air museum of Mit Rahina, near the colossus, which probably stood in pairs at its main entrance. Furthermore, other shrines were inside it, dedicated to Ptah’s wife, Sekhmet, and their son Nefertem. Numerous artifacts unearthed at its excavation site are held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and others worldwide.

Djoser’s Pyramid and the Saqqara Necropolis

An itinerary in Memphis, Egypt, is incomplete without a visit to the necropolis of Saqqara and the Pyramid of Djoser. This was the burial place of the city and cemetery of the third Pharaonic dynasty.

Thanks to the finds and structures inside, its historical importance is incredible, and it creates an open-air museum on the archaeological site.

Its name derives from that of Sokar, an ancient deity of the cult. Here, one can find the famous step pyramid and other burials of nobles from the 1st to the 2nd dynasty, retracing part of the country’s history from 3100 to 2686 BC.

Thanks to the recent restoration in 2020, the collapse of the pyramid of Djoser was avoided, thus also allowing its reopening to the public. However, unlike the pyramids at Giza, you are not allowed to visit its entrance, thus preserving it as best as possible. Furthermore, its funerary complex is accompanied by shrines, houses, courtyards, and a temple.

Memphis Egypt Facts:

  • Memphis is thought to have been the cultural and political center of the world for more than 3,000 years.
  • Memphis was first called “Ineb-hedge,” which means “White Walls.” The name “Memphis” comes from “Men Never Before” (Solid and Beautiful).
  • Memphis used to have many royal pyramids, private tombs, and a cemetery for sacred animals. However, the city has changed significantly due to stone-hunting builders, annual Nile floods, and greedy fishermen. I was.
  • After Luxor and Alexandria were built, the city was empty around 641 BC.
  • Memphis is a beautiful open-air museum built around a vast, now-collapsed statue of Ramesses II made of limestone.
  • The highlights of the Memphis Museum include a stone sphinx from the New Kingdom, two statues of Ramesses II found in Nubian temples, and the vast limestone tables on which Apis bulls were mummified before being put in the Serapeum.

Memphis, Egypt, is a World Heritage

In 1979, UNESCO named the ancient city of Memphis in Egypt, along with its tombs and pyramid fields in Giza, Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur, a World Heritage Site. Memphis and its necropolis, the area of pyramids from Giza to Dahshur, are also known as the Pyramids of Giza.

Watching the open-air museum of the ancient city of Memphis and, of course, the Great Sphinx and Ramses II statues with your own eyes is a beautiful way to touch the masterpieces of the Pharaonic civilization.

About the author

Egypt Planners Team is a highly experienced travel agency specializing in memorable trips to Egypt. The team comprises expert travel planners and tour guides with a deep knowledge of Egypt's history, culture, and top tourist destinations.