Memphis – The Shifting City

The toponym ‘Memphis’ is a relatively recent one, used by Classical authors and deriving from the name of the pyramid complex of Pepi I at nearby Saqqara – Men-Nefer. In the dynastic period, Memphis was primarily referred to as Inbu-Hedj, ‘White Walls’. The name of the central temple complex belonging to the god Ptah, Hwt-Ka-Ptah, was also used for the city as a whole and, when transliterated as Aigyptos by the Greeks, for the entire country.

Memphis was an important city for the whole dynastic period and well into the Ptolemaic Period – over 3,000 years – making it the longest-lasting major metropolis in the history of the world. Naturally, over such a long period, its fortunes rose and fell – in some periods, such as the Old Kingdom, it was effectively the only real city in Egypt and had a dominant role as the hub of economic and administrative life of the whole country. At other times (for instance, the Second Intermediate Period) it was marginalized. But, as far as we can tell, it was always occupied; if its fortunes dipped they always revived, and it was probably always the largest population centre in Egypt, even when Thebes, Pr-Ramesses and Amarna were at their height.

However, there are two very significant problems in understanding the nature of Memphis over this long period. The first is in knowing where Memphis was at any given time. Apart from the late 18th Dynasty and the Ramesside Period, it is very difficult to give with any degree of certainty Memphis’s location. This is because it moved, or rather parts of Memphis were abandoned and new areas created, to take account of the eastwards movement of the Nile during the dynastic period. The second problem, which is connected to the first, is that, for any given period of history, our knowledge of the extent and nature of contemporary Memphis ranges from the partial at best to unknown at worst. Unfortunately, for most of its history, Memphis is unknown.

The Founding of the City

The unification of Egypt and the foundation of Memphis seem to be almost contemporary events. More specifically, one seems to have been the natural consequence of the other, since a newly unified Egypt – especially if it included significant portions of the Nile Delta – would require an administrative centre that was more conveniently situated than the established Upper Egyptian power-bases of the victorious southerners at places like Hierakonpolis.

Diodorus Siculus notes that ‘Uchoreus founded Memphis, the most famous city of Egypt. He chose the most favourable spot in the whole land….’ His identification of the city’s founder may be erroneous, but his recognition of the outstanding strategic location of Memphis (which acquired the epithet ‘Balance of the Land’) as a natural national capital is not. Herodotus states that ‘priests informed me that it was Min, the first king of Egypt, who built the dam which created Memphis’, while Manetho refers to ‘Athothis, son of Menes’ building a palace at Memphis. The relationship between unification and urbanization is a complex one, but the establishment of Memphis as the capital of a newly unified Egypt seems to have effectively brought to an end the urban multiplicity of important regional centres in Upper Egypt (such as Hierakonpolis and Nagada), and, we assume, Lower Egypt.

Although the specific location of Memphis as a royal centre may indeed have been a virgin site, the general area had already been recognized as offering a good number of natural advantages in terms of both agricultural potential and trading/mineral exploitation links into the eastern desert and beyond. On the east bank of the Nile the sites of Maadi at the mouth of the Wadi Digla (which may have been a major eastern trade route to Sinai, the Levant and beyond) and Helwan/Omari at the mouth of the Wadi Hof were already significant centres in the Late Predynastic Period. Indeed the enormous Early Dynastic cemetery at Helwan suggests that there may well have been an ‘east bank’ Memphis at this time.

Drill corings taken in the floodplain below North Saqqara/Abusir by a team led by British archaeologist David Jeffreys have revealed concentrations of Early Dynastic material close to the foot of the escarpment. It is likely that the Memphis of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties was located here, although its nature and extent are, as yet, unclear. During this time, it appears that Memphis functioned as the administrative and economic hub of the Egyptian state. Evidence for this comes from the titles of the high state officials who were buried in massive mastaba tombs on the desert edge at North Saqqara, although for kings of the Early Dynastic Period, burial in the ancestral necropolis at Abydos remained the traditional norm. Manetho refers to dynasties from the 3rd onwards as being ‘of Memphis’, reflecting the shift of royal cemetery to Memphis during the Old Kingdom proper (3rd–6th Dynasties). Remarkably, the only significant physical evidence for the existence of Memphis as the dominant metropolis of the Old Kingdom and administrative/economic hub for the entire state, is in the form of the royal cemeteries of the Old Kingdom, running along the edge of the desert to the west of Memphis from Abu Roash in the north to Dahshur in the south. Exactly which part of the Nile floodplain overlooked by these pyramids was the specific location of Old Kingdom Memphis is a problem yet to be solved.

A speculative plan of the major Memphite temples of the New Kingdom, produced by Ken Kitchen. It is based mainly on written sources, which provide important evidence for the location and relationship of buildings at Memphis.

The Archaeology of Memphis

The visible archaeological remains of Memphis today occupy an area roughly 4 km (c. 2½ miles) from north to south and 1.5 km (c. 1 mile) east to west. Most of these remains consist of fragments of elevated town-mound in and around a group of modern villages, especially Badrashein, Mit Rahina and Azziziya. The site consists of a series of mounds, identified by the descriptor kom. Although these appear as individual mounds, they were probably less distinct in the not-too-distant past, with the areas between and around them artificially ‘enhanced’ since the 19th century by human activities such as the digging out of sebbakh, brick-earth and saltpetre.

Individual Mounds in the Memphite Ruin-Field

The most prominent of the mounds in the ruin-field of Memphis, and the most significant archaeological remains they have produced, are as follows:

Kom el-Qal’a 19th Dynasty and later, including a palace and temple of Merenptah, a temple to Ptah and Sekhmet built by Ramesses II and a granite colossus of Ramesses II, which was moved to Cairo in 1956.

Kom el-Rabi’a monuments of the New Kingdom and later, including the ‘oratory’ of Seti I, small temples to Ptah and to Hathor of the Southern Sycamore built by Ramesses II, a limestone colossus of Ramesses II and tombs of the 21st and 22nd Dynasties.

Kom el-Fakhry a cemetery of the First Intermediate Period/early Middle Kingdom.

Mit Rahina rising 13 m (43 ft) above the surrounding fields, this mound is largely covered by the modern village of Mit Rahina, which means that no extensive excavation has been possible here, although fragments dated as early as the Middle Kingdom (a lintel inscribed by Amenemhat III) have been recovered; it is more than likely that parts of pre-New Kingdom stone monuments were reused in different parts of the city.

The ‘Birka the name is the Arabic for ‘lake’, a designation that reflects the appearance of this large sunken depression, which is the location of the temple enclosure of the great New Kingdom Ptah Temple.

Kom Tuman rising 20 metres (66 feet) above the surrounding plain, this is the highest part of the site, consisting of the foundations of a (probably fortified) palatial building of the Late Period, which, because of the fragments of colossal inscribed column fragments found there, has been termed ‘The Palace of Apries’.

The colossal statues of Ramesses II, some of which are still to be found at Memphis, are one of the the most obvious indicators of royal patronage of the temple of Ptah during the Ramesside Period. Sonia Halliday Photographs.

Recent fieldwork at Memphis includes the work of David Jeffreys for the Egypt Exploration Society, including this excavation of silos and buildings of the late Middle Kingdom/Second Intermediate Period. David Jeffreys/Egypt Exploration Society.

Memphis in the Middle Kingdom

On the west side of the Kom el-Rabi’a mound are the remains of a settlement site that was in almost continuous occupation from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period, apart from the Second Intermediate Period. David Jeffreys, who has led attempts to detect and understand early Memphis, believes that this evidence suggests that the now-invisible pre-New Kingdom city of Memphis is to be found to the west of the current ruin-field, underneath the fields of the raised flood plain. This is supported by the presence of the Middle Kingdom burials at Kom el-Fakhry, which is also on the western side of the main ruin-field. It is also likely that the New Kingdom building projects at Kom el-Qal’a and at the Birka were founded on virgin ground, reclaimed from the eastwards movement of the Nile.

Perunefer – the ‘Bon Voyage’

From the reign of Thutmose III onwards, the name ‘Perunefer’ (which means ‘a good going’, or ‘Bon Voyage’) appears, referring to a major naval base whose main role seems to have been the servicing of the Egyptian fleet (instrumental in the conquest of Egypt’s New Kingdom empire in the Levant). Although it is not universally agreed, many scholars believe that Perunefer was the port of Memphis during the 18th Dynasty, not least because much of the evidence for Perunefer comes from the titles of its officials and workers found in tombs in the Saqqara necropolis.

As well as an important military base, Memphis was an important international trading centre during the New Kingdom, with ships from the Eastern Mediterranean able to access this inland city by travelling along the major Pelusiac branch of the Nile. It is clear that New Kingdom Memphis, with its influx of foreign goods, foreign religious cults and foreigners themselves, was an outstandingly cosmopolitan metropolis, what today we might call a ‘world city’.

The name Perunefer disappears from our records at the end of the 18th Dynasty. This may be because the harbour became unusable owing to silting and movements of the Nile; it is probably no coincidence that the early 19th Dynasty saw the development of new building works on virgin land created by the eastward shift of the river. However, this is difficult to prove as, archaeologically, Perunefer remains undiscovered.

Although it is now in very poor condition, the surviving column capitals of this building at Kom el-Rabi’a identify it as a small temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Rutherford Picture Library.

Memphis in the Ramesside Period I: The Ptah Enclosure

Today the most substantial visible remains of the city of Memphis are parts of buildings connected with the great New Kingdom sacred enclosure containing the temple of the god Ptah. Remarkably, the main temple itself, which must have rivalled Karnak at its height, is now lost under a forest of date-palms. However, the lower courses of a western extension to the temple – a columned hall with massive pylon gateway – which was probably built to celebrate one of the jubilees of Ramesses II – are still visible. The temple complex of Ptah was an important structure, indeed even more so than in most New Kingdom metropolitan centres, the high walls of the sacred precincts at Memphis seem to have been a real nucleus of the city. This gave rise to the development of a form of crenellated shrine that represented the outer walls of the Ptah Enclosure, sometimes decorated with ears to represent the fact that Ptah was receptive to the prayers of his worshippers.

Examples of this type of minor monument include variants that contained statues of the god Ptah (sometimes with his consort Sekhmet) or stone water-tanks. These objects were intended to symbolize the city of Memphis as home of Ptah, the Hwt-Ka-Ptah, in microcosm. Most remarkably it is used in the ‘oratory’ shrine of Seti I – perhaps built to celebrate the initiation of the major building works of the 19th Dynasty – which contained a statue of Ptah and two female deities, both of whom are shown nursing Seti I as an infant. The two goddesses are Mennefer and Tjesmet – one a personification of Memphis and the other a personification of the temple wall – while in front of the chapel was a cult-model of the Memphite tower, the ṯsmt (tjesmet) itself.

Plan of New Kingdom Memphis, showing the extent of the Ptah temple enclosure and the modern names for different parts of the ancient remains.

Memphis in the Ramesside Period II: The South District

Although it is difficult today to imagine Memphis as a ‘real’ city with areas of housing and industry around its monumental core, there is one intriguing set of documents that paint a picture of early Ramesside Memphis as having a somewhat similar character to Amarna, with its suburbs, large villas and adjacent modest houses. These texts are a series of administrative documents, written on papyrus, of unknown provenance. They date to the first three years of the reign of Seti I and document a census made of large timbers in a variety of locations in the ‘South District’ of Memphis (the Egyptian word translated as ‘District’ is iwyt), and also the later requisitioning of timber for state purposes. The location of the ‘South District’ is not known with any precision, but it is likely to be somewhere in the area to the south of Kom el-Rabi’a/Kom Qal’a.

The documents refer to a dozen officials who have the title wartu, which we might translate as ‘District Officer’ – individuals who were responsible for at least some official functions in the South District. The nature of the timber census and requisitioning suggests that the District Officers were government officials with responsibility for the administration of this part of Memphis. One of the District Officers, Meryre (who is referred to as an ex-Chief Porter) is responsible for a royal granary in his district. The South District was divided into a series of smaller units, each of which was the responsibility of a named District Officer, but these sub-districts were not given independent topographical designations, but simply named after their District Officer, so any given sub-district would be called ‘The South District of the District Officer X’.

The Ramesside ‘Small Ptah Temple’, close to both the Hathor temple and the ‘oratory’ shrine of Seti I, demonstrates one of the most potent threats to stone buildings (especially of porous limestone): a high level of groundwater. Steven Snape.

The majority of the timber noted in the papyri consists of large parts of boats – masts, ribs, support-beams and planks, made of coniferous wood, averaging 4 to 5m (13 to 16 ft) in length, although one of the masts is over 17 m (56 ft) in height. It is not explained why so many houses in the South District of Memphis have bits of ships lying around in their back yards. The documents only concern themselves with locations within the South District that received deliveries of timber – 70 houses, 6 chapels and a group of royal institutions – so they only deal with a small sample of every building and institution in the South District, but they do provide some insights into the nature of this non-monumental part of Memphis.

It is difficult to use these documents to get a sense of the range of residents in the South District. As the only individuals mentioned are ones who have the status or wealth to be in possession of large and expensive pieces of timber, we would not expect to see a representative cross-section of the community mentioned in the papyri. The highest-ranking individual mentioned is the ‘City-Governor and Vizier, Nebamun’ (who lives in an ‘abode’ rather than a ‘house’) and the lowest perhaps the ‘Citizeness Huy’ – though this latter mention is nonetheless notable as a reminder that, in New Kingdom Egypt, women could be in possession of both real estate and movable items of economic value.

The basis on which these people lived in these houses is unknown (was it private property or did it go with their job, especially likely for military officers?). However, it is striking how many of the individuals mentioned are military officers (standard-bearers, chariot-officers) alongside a variety of middle-ranking officials (e.g. chief builders, bureaucrats of royal estates, royal granary officials, gardeners, stablemasters, royal heralds, dock agents). Individual bits of detail provide us with a sense of a vibrant and complex district, which incorporated the presence of foreign cults (the district of the District Officer Ramose contained ‘The Chapel of Qasarti in Qasarti Street’, the word for ‘street’ being ḫ3r, pronounced khar) and the intriguing possibility of private ownership of riverside storage and trading facilities (one of the most interesting areas mentioned is the ‘Wharf of the Charioteer Herynefer’).

One of the best-documented districts is that overseen by Anhurmose, which contained a chapel for Amun-Re and one for Ptah, as well as houses occupied by:

– the Army-Scribe, Piay

– the Merchant Huti, son of Qatna (who is in the house of the deceased Fortress-Scribe, Mery)

– the Merchant of the Estate of Menmaatre, Menty

– the Troop-Commander of the Army, Re

– the Attendant(?), Toemhab

– the Troop-Commander of the Army, Waa

– the Chief Craftsman of the Estate of Menpehtyre, Hat

– the Chief of the Medjay, Amenwahsu

– the Troop-Commander of Kush, Khay

– the Transport-Ship Crewman of the Estate of Seti I, Aia, son of Inena

– the Standard-Bearer of the Ship ‘Khaemope’, Paser

– the Priest of the Temple of Maat, Merymaat

– the Deputy of the Settlement, Ramose.

An analysis of this data has been carried out by British Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen; he has produced a (speculative) reconstruction map showing the divisions of the South District.

Memphis in the Graeco-Roman Period

Even after the foundation of Alexandria and its rapid rise to prominence as the dominant city of Egypt in the Graeco-Roman Period, Memphis retained some of its importance. Part of this was due to its continuing importance as an economic and population centre, but also as a city that embodied traditional notions of Egyptian culture – for instance, Ptolemaic kings were crowned there. It appears that enough of the Graeco-Roman city of Memphis city remained occupied, or at least visible, in order for it to be described by Classical authors including Herodotus, Strabo and Diodorus Siculus.

However, the importance of Memphis as a national administrative centre during the Ptolemaic Period lessened under the Romans. More decisive in its decline was the foundation of the garrison-town of Fustat on the east bank of the Nile after the Muslim invasion. The northern expansion of this town to create the city of al-Qahira (Cairo) brought into being one of the great cultural and political centres of the Middle Ages. It is still the capital city today, but its development has been disastrous for Memphis, which was soon abandoned and lost beneath the series of villages that grew upon its ruins.

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