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Djoser Stepped Pyramid of Saqqara
The famed stepped Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, the Memphis necropolis.

Memphis was the ancient capital of the first nome of Lower Egypt, and of the Old Kingdom of Egypt from its foundation until around 2200 BC and later for shorter periods during the New Kingdom. It was an administrative centre throughout ancient history.

Its ancient Egyptian name was Ineb Hedj ("The White Walls"). The name "Memphis" (Μέμφις) is the Greek deformation of the Egyptian name of the pyramid of Pepi I (6th dynasty), which was Men-nefer, and became Menfe in Coptic. The modern cities and towns of Mit Rahina, Dahshur, Saqqara, Abusir, Abu Gorab, and Zawyet el'Aryan, south of Cairo, all lie within the administrative borders of historical Memphis (29°50′58.8″N, 31°15′15.4″E).

Memphis was also known in Ancient Egypt as Ankh Tawy ("That which binds the Two Lands") because of the strategic position of the city between Upper and Lower Egypt.

The ruins of Memphis are 20 km (12 miles) south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile.

Hieroglyphs in Memphis with a statue of Ramses II in the background

In the Bible, Memphis is called Moph or Noph.


The ruins of Memphis are 20 km (12 miles) south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. The modern cities and towns of Mit Rahina, Dahshur, Saqqara, Abusir, Abu Gorab, and Zawyet el'Aryan, south of Cairo, all lie within the administrative borders of historical Memphis (29°50′58.8″N 31°15′15.4″E / 29.849667°N 31.254278°E / 29.849667; 31.254278). The city was also the place that marked the boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt. (The 22nd nome of Upper Egypt and 1st nome of Lower Egypt).


Rameses II flanked by Ptah and Sekhmet.


According to Herodotus, the city was founded around 3100 BC by Menes, who united the two kingdoms of Egypt. It has been theorized that King Menes was possibly a mythical king, similar to Romulus and Remus, the mythical first rulers of Rome. Most likely Egypt became unified through mutual need, developing cultural ties over time and trading partnerships though it is still understood that the first capital of Ancient Egypt was the lower Egyptian city of Memphis. The story most likely just got passed on to Herodotus. However. Egyptologists have also identified the legendary 'Menes' with the historical King Narmer, who is represented in the Palette of Narmer conquering the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt and establishing himself as pharaoh. This Palette has been dated to ca. 31st century BC, and would thus correlate with the story of Egypt's unification by Menes.


Estimates of population size differ widely. According to T. Chandler, Memphis had some 30,000 inhabitants and was by far the largest settlement worldwide from the time of its foundation until around 2250 BC and from 1557 to 1400 BC. K. A. Bard is more cautious and estimates the city's population to have amounted to about 6,000 inhabitants during the Old Kingdom.


Memphis became the capital of Ancient Egypt for many consecutive dynasties during the Old Kingdom. Memphis reached a peak of prestige under the 6th Dynasty as a centre of the cult of Ptah, the Egyptian god of creation and artworks. The approximately 80-ton alabaster sphinx that guards the Temple of Ptah serves as a memorial of the city's former power and prestige. It declined briefly after the 18th Dynasty with the rise of Thebes and the New Kingdom, and was revived under the Persian satraps before falling firmly into second place following the foundation of Alexandria. Under the Roman Empire, Alexandria remained the most important city. Memphis remained the second city of Egypt until the establishment of Fustat (or Fostat) in 641. It was then largely abandoned and became a source of stone for the surrounding settlements. It was still an imposing set of ruins in the 12th century but soon became little more than an expanse of low ruins and scattered stone.


During the time of the New Kingdom, and especially under the reign of the rulers of the Nineteenth dynasty, Memphis flourished in power and size, rivalling Thebes both politically and architecturally. An indicator of this development can be found in a chapel of Seti I dedicated to the worship of Ptah. After over a century of excavations on the site, archaeologists have gradually been able to confirm the layout and expansion of the ancient city.

Great Temple of Ptah

Artist's depiction of the western forecourt of the Great Temple of Ptah at Memphis.

The Hout-ka-Ptah (meaning "Castle of the ka of Ptah"), dedicated to the worship of the creator god Ptah, was the largest and most important temple in ancient Memphis. It was one of the most prominent structures in the city, occupying a large precinct within the city's centre. Enriched by centuries of veneration, the temple was one of the three foremost places of worship in Ancient Egpyt, the others being the great temples of Horus in Heliopolis, and of Amun in Thebes.

Much of what is known about the ancient temple today comes from the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the site at the time of the first Persian invasion, long after the fall of the New Kingdom. Herodotus claimed that the temple had been founded by Menes himself, and that the core building of the complex was restricted to priests and kings. His account, however, gives no physical description of the complex. Archaeological work undertaken in the last century has gradually unearthed the temple's ruins, revealing a huge walled compound accessible by several monumental gates located along the southern, western and eastern walls.

The remains of the great temple and its premises are displayed as an open-air museum near the great colossus of Ramesses II, which originally marked the southern axis of the temple. Also in this sector is a large sphinx monolith, discovered in the 19th century. It dates from the Eighteenth dynasty, most likely having been carved during the reign of either Amenhotep II or Thutmose IV. It is one of the finest examples of this kind statuary still present on its original site.

The outdoor museum houses numerous other statues, colossi, sphinxes, and architectural elements. However, the majority of the finds have been sold to major museums around the world. For the most part, these can be found on display in the Cairo Museum.

The specific appearance of the temple is unclear at present, and only that of the main access to the perimeter are known. Recent developments include the discovery of giant statues which adorned the gates or towers. Those that have been found date from the reign of Ramsses II. This pharaoh also built at least three shrines within the temple compound, where worship is associated with those deities to whom they were dedicated.

Temple of Ptah of Ramesses II

Flickr - - Cairo sculptures, Egypt. (1)
The colossus of Rameses II in the open-air museum.

This small temple, adjoining the southwest corner of the larger Temple of Ptah, was dedicated to the deified Ramesses II, along with the three state gods: Horus, Ptah and Amun. It is known in full as the Temple of Ptah of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, God, Ruler of Heliopolis.

Its ruins were discovered in 1942 by archaeologist Ahmed Badawy, and were excavated in 1955 by Rudolf Anthes. The excavations uncovered a religious building complete with a tower, a courtyard for ritual offerings, a portico with columns followed by a pillared hall and a tripartite sanctuary, all enclosed in walls built of mud bricks. Its most recent exterior has been dated from the New Kingdom era.

The temple opened to the east towards a path paved with other religious buildings. The archaeological explorations that took place here reveal that the southern part of the city indeed contain a large number of religious buildings with a particular devotion to the god Ptah, the principal god of Memphis.

Temple of Ptah and Sekhmet of Ramesses II

Located further east, and near to the great colossus of Ramesses, this small temple is attributed to the Nineteenth dynasty, and seems to have been dedicated to Ptah and his divine consort Sekhmet, as well as deified Ramesses II. Its ruins are not as well preserved as others nearby, as its limestone foundations appear to have been quarried after the abandonment of the city in late antiquity.

Column depicting Merenptah making an offering to Ptah.

Two giant statues (see below), dating from the Middle Kingdom, originally adorned the building's facade, which opened to the west. They were moved inside the Museum of Memphis, and depicted the pharaoh standing in the attitude of the march, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, Hedjet.

Temple of Ptah of Merneptah

In the southeast of the Great Temple complex, the pharaoh Merneptah, of the Nineteenth dynasty, founded a new shrine in honour of the chief god of the city, Ptah. This temple was discovered in the early 20th century by William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who identified a depiction of the Greek god Proteus cited by Herodotus.

The site was excavated during the First World War by Clarence Stanley Fisher. Excavations began in the anterior part, which is formed by a large courtyard of about 15 sq metres, opening on the south by a large door with reliefs supplying the names of the pharaoh and the epithets of Ptah. Only this part of the temple has been unearthed; the remainder of the chamber has yet to be explored a little further north. During the excavations, archaeologists unearthed the first traces of an edifice built of mud brick, which quickly proved to be a large ceremonial palace built alongside the temple proper. Some of the key elements of the stone temple were donated by Egypt to the museum at the University of Pennsylvania, which financed the expedition, while the other remained at the Museum in Cairo.

The temple remained in use throughout the rest of the New Kingdom, as evidenced by enrollment surges during the reigns of later pharaohs. Thereafter, however, it was gradually abandoned and converted for other uses by civilians. Gradually buried by the activity of the city, the stratigraphic study of the site shows that by the Late Period it is already in ruins and is soon covered by new buildings.

Temple d'Hathor pano
The ruins of the temple of Hathor of Memphis.

Temple of Hathor

This small temple of Hathor was unearthed south of the great wall of the Hout-Ka-Ptah by Abdullah al-Sayed Mahmud in the 1970s and also dates from the time of Ramesses II. Dedicated to the goddess Hathor, Lady of the Sycamore, it presents an architecture similar to the small temple-shrines known especially to Karnak. From its proportions, it does not seem to be major shrine of the goddess, but is currently the only building dedicated to her discovered in the city's ruins.

It is believed that this shrine was primarily used for processional purposes during major religious festivals. A larger temple dedicated to Hathor, indeed one of the foremost shrines of the goddess in the country, is thought to have existed elsewhere in the city, but to date has not been discovered. A depression, similar to that found near the great temple of Ptah, could indicate its location. Archaeologists believe that it could house the remains of an enclosure and a large monument, a theory attested by ancient sources.

Other temples

Described by Herodotus, the temple of Astarte was located in the area reserved to the Phoenicians during the time when the Greek author visited the city. The temple of the goddess Neith was said to have been located to the north of the temple of Ptah. Neither have been revealed to date.

Memphis is believed to have housed a number of other temples dedicated to gods who accompanied Ptah. Some of these sanctuaries are attested by ancient hieroglyphs, but have not yet been found among the ruins of the city. Surveys and excavations are still continuing at nearby Mit Rahina, and will likely add to the knowledge of the planning of the ancient religious city.

Additionally, a temple dedicated to Mithras, dated from the Roman period, has been uncovered in the grounds north of Memphis.

Temple of Sekhmet

A temple dedicated to the goddess Sekhmet, consort of Ptah, has not yet been found but is currently certified by Egyptian sources.

It may be located within the precinct of the Hout-ka-Ptah, as would seem to suggest several discoveries made among the ruins of the complex in the late 19th century, including a block of stone evoking the "great door" with the epithet of the goddess, and a column bearing an inscription on behalf of Ramesses II declaring him "beloved of Sekhmet". It has also been demonstrated through the Great Harris Papyrus, which states that a statue of the goddess was made alongside those of Ptah and their son, the god Nefertem, during the reign of Ramesses III, and that it was commissioned for the gods of Memphis at the heart of the great temple.

Temple of Apis

A statue of the sacred bull, Apis, found at the Serapeum of Saqqara.

The Temple of Apis in Memphis was the main temple dedicated to the worship of the bull Apis, considered to be a living manifestation of Ptah. It is detailed in the works of classical historians such as Herodotus, Diodorus, and Strabo, but its location has yet to be discovered amidst the ruins of the ancient capital.

According to Herodotus, who described the temple's courtyard as a peristyle of columns with giant statues, it was built during the reign of Psammetichus I.

The Greek historian Strabo visited the site with the conquering Roman troops, following the victory against Cleopatra at Actium. He details that the temple consisted of two chambers, one for the bull and the other for his mother, and all was built near the temple of Ptah. At the temple, Apis was used as an oracle, his movements being interpreted as prophecies. His breath was believed to cure disease, and his presence to bless those around with virility. He was given a window in the temple through which he could be seen, and on certain holidays was led through the streets of the city, bedecked with jewellery and flowers.

In 1941, the archaeologist Ahmed Badawy discovered the first remains in Memphis which depicted the god Apis. The site, located within the grounds of the great temple of Ptah, was revealed to be a mortuary chamber designed exclusively for the embalming of the sacred bull. A stele found at Saqqara shows that Nectanebo II had ordered the restoration of this building, and elements dated from the Thirtieth dynasty have been unearthed in the northern part of the chamber, confirming the time of reconstruction in this part of the temple. It is likely that the mortuary was part of the larger temple of Apis cited by ancient sources. This sacred part of the temple would be the only part that has survived, and would confirm the words of Strabo and Diodorus, both of whom stated that the temple was located near the temple of Ptah.

The majority of known Apis statues come from the burial chambers known as Serapeum, located to the northwest at Saqqara. The most ancient burials found at this site date back to the reign of Amenhotep III.

Siamun’s royal cartouche on a lintel
Ankhefenmut kneels before the royal cartouche of Siamun, on a lintel from the Temple of Amun in Memphis.

Temple of Amun

During the Twenty-first dynasty, a shrine of the great god Amun was built by Siamun to the south of the temple of Ptah. This temple (or temples) was most likely dedicated to the Theban Triad, consisting of Amun, his consort Mut, and their son Khonsu. It was the Upper Egyptian counterpart of the Memphis Triad (Ptah, Sekhmet, and Nefertem).

Temple of Aten

A temple dedicated to Aten in Memphis is attested by hieroglyphs found within the tombs of Memphite dignitaries of the end of the Eighteenth dynasty, uncovered at Saqqara. Among them, that of Tutankhamun, who began his career under the reign of Akhenaten as a "steward of the temple of Aten in Memphis".

Since the early excavations at Memphis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, artefacts have been uncovered in different parts of the city that indicate the presence of a building dedicated to the worship of the sun disc. The location of such a building is lost, and various hypotheses have been made on this subject based on the place of discovery of the remains of the Amarna period features.

Statues of Ramesses II

Ramses II colossal statue top in Memphis 2010 rotated
The statue chamber.

The ruins of ancient Memphis have yielded a large number of sculptures representing the pharaoh Ramesses II.

Within the museum in Memphis is a giant statue of the pharaoh carved of monumental limestone, about 10 metres in length. It was discovered in 1820 near the southern gate of the temple of Ptah by Italian archaeologist Giovanni Caviglia. Because the bottom of the sculpture has been broken off, it is currently displayed lying on its back. Some of the colours are still partially preserved, but the beauty of this statue lies in its flawless detail of the complex and subtle forms of human anatomy.

Caviglia offered the statue to Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, through the mediation of Ippolito Rosellini. Rosellini advised the sovereign of the terrible expenses involved with transportation, and considered as necessary the cutting of the colossus into pieces. The British viceroy Muhammad Ali offered for it to be donated to the British Museum, but the museum declined the offer because of the difficult task of shipping the huge statue to London. It therefore remained in the archaeological area of Memphis in the museum built to protect it.

The colossus was one of a pair that historically adorned the entrance to the Temple of Ptah and Sekhmet. The other, found in the same year also by Caviglia, was restored in the 1950s to its full standing height of 11 metres. It was first displayed in the Bab Al-Hadid square in Cairo, which was subsequently renamed Ramses Square. Deemed an unsuitable location, it was moved in 2006 to a temporary location in Giza, where it is currently undergoing restoration. It is due to be exhibited at the entrance of the Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to open in 2010. A replica of the statues stands in the suburb of Heliopolis, in Cairo.

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