Memphis is the Greek name for the administrative capital of ancient Egypt, which has its historical roots dating back as far as the Early Dynastic Period. The origin of the city’s foundation is credited to the ‘mythical’ first king, Menes, who is said to have united Upper and Lower Egypt for the first time around 3100 BC. Traditionally Menes was thought to have enclosed his city within white mudbrick walls which gave it the ancient name of ‘Inbw-hedj’, meaning ‘White Walls’ or ‘White Fortress’ and it probably once stood on the banks of the Nile before the river bed gradually shifted eastwards. The capital’s name Memphis is thought to derive from the Egyptian ‘Mennefer’, the ancient name of the pyramid complex of Pepy I (Dynasty VI) which is situated close by at South Saqqara.
There is nothing to see of the earliest monuments, now buried beneath an area which has long been cultivated. Archaeologists suggest that the ancient city now lies beneath the deep deposits of Nile silt to the west of the river, although investigations by the Egypt Exploration Society have recently attempted to locate its position in an area of higher ground. Today the site centres around the modern village of Mit Rahina on the west bank of the Nile, 24km south of Cairo and is reduced to a small museum and an enclosure where statues are exhibited. Most of the existing remains date to the New Kingdom.
The most impressive statue lies on its back in the modern museum building. This colossal limestone statue of Rameses II is a twin to the statue which for decades was erected in the centre of Midan Rameses in Cairo, but has now been moved to Giza. The museum piece is only a fragment, but even without its lower legs it measures nearly thirteen metres and once stood with its companion outside the Temple of Ptah at Memphis. The museum grounds display other statues of Rameses II, including one of red granite which once lay behind the museum but has now been erected at the eastern end of the garden. The other major monument in the enclosure is a massive limestone (or ‘alabaster’) sphinx dating to the New Kingdom.
To the west of the museum enclosure the visitor can also see several embalming tables from the ‘House of the Apis Bulls’. These animals were sacred to the god Ptah and after living out a pampered life, were ritually mummified and placed to rest with great ceremony in the Serapeum at Saqqara. The calcite embalming tables are over five metres long and the embalming house dates to Shoshenq I of Dynasty XXII, though probably replacing an earlier structure.
The enclosure of the temple dedicated to Ptah, covers a huge area and is now mostly engulfed by cultivation. Ptah was the principal god of the Memphite region and with his consort Sekhmet and son Nefertem, formed the Memphite Triad. Much of the Temple of Ptah dates to the reign of Rameses II and was once one of the largest temples in Egypt. Today all that can be seen are the remains of a hypostyle hall near where the western pylon would have stood in an area which is often very wet due to the rising water table. This is the only part of the temple to have been properly excavated. To the east at Kom Rabia there is a small Temple of Hathor, also built by Rameses II, but only the tops of the Hathor-headed columns and a few blocks with reliefs can now be seen as the site has been re-buried since excavation. A small temple of Seti I can also be seen to the south-west. There is evidence to support the existence of a modest Aten Temple at Kom el-Qala which would date to the reign of Akhenaten.
A short distance to the east of the enclosure in an area called Kom el-Qala is the site of a palace and small Temple of Ptah built by Merenptah, the son of Rameses II, although virtually nothing remains in situ. Some of the existing remains of the palace of Merenptah have been reconstructed as a model in the museum of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA). When Petrie excavated the Kom el-Qala area he also discovered the remains of an industrial site of the Roman Period and evidence of faience production. Many blocks of Amenhotep III were re-used in the small Temple of Ptah and have recently been recorded by archaeologists from Chicago House in Luxor.
In the northern part of the enclosure of Ptah, near the village of Tell el-Aziz, a large area encompasses a Late Period site where a mudbrick palace platform of King Apries of Dynasty XXVI can be seen, built on higher ground. This is also the site of a Roman encampment.
The city of Memphis was of great importance throughout pharaonic history. For much of the time it was the capital of the ‘Two Lands’, but even when Thebes grew to be the royal and religious capital during the New Kingdom, Memphis probably retained its status as administrative capital of the country. The city lost its importance during the Ptolemaic Period, when Alexandria was the preferred royal residence.
A geophysical survey has recently been undertaken by David Jefferies and Ian Mathieson in the area to the north of Memphis.
How to get there
The village of Mit Rahina is situated about 24km from Cairo. Take the road south from Giza to the village of el-Badrashein and turn off to the west. The trip can be easily combined with a visit to Saqqara which is only around 3km south of Mit Rahina. The site is open from 9.00am to 5.00pm and tickets cost EGP 35.