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MEMPHIS mĕm’ fĭs (Heb. מֹ֣ף, [only Hos 9:6], נֹ֑ף; Gr. Μέμφις), was a city of Egypt, on the left (W) bank of the Nile, some 13 m. S of Cairo, in an area including the modern village of Mit Rahineh.

Name. The city was first called inb-ḥḏ, “the White Wall,” but later was known as Mennefer, after the pyramid of Pepi I of the 6th dynasty. This name was later corrupted to the form Memphis, by which the city is now commonly known. Memphis was also called Ḫi-k-up-tah (from ha[t]-k3-ptaḥ, “the house of the spirit of Ptah”), from which later the name Αἴγυπτος, G131, “Egypt,” developed.

General history. According to legend, Memphis was the first capital of united Egypt, being built by the traditional unifier and first king, Menes. It remained the capital until the end of the Old Kingdom (c. 2200 b.c.). After it lost the seat of government it was still a city of importance, particularly in religion, and kings of later times built temples and other structures. In 670 b.c. the city was captured by the Assyrians. During the Pers. period it was a cosmopolitan city and was visited by the Gr. historian, Herodotus. Little of its late history is known; after the Moslem conquest the ruins of Memphis were used for the construction of Fostat, which later became Cairo.

Archeological history. Excavations were conducted here in 1909-1913 by Flinders Petrie around the acropolis and the temple of Ptah. Later (1915-1919, 1921-1922), C. S. Fisher excavated the palace of Merneptah. These earlier excavations also revealed part of a temple of Ramses II (1301-1234 b.c.), a chapel of Seti I (1313-1301 b.c.), some tombs dated c. 800 b.c., and remains of the embalming house of the Apis bulls, with inscrs. of Necho, Apries (Biblical Hophra), and Sheshonk (Biblical Shishak). Further work by the Pennsylvania University Museum and the Egyp. Dept. of Antiquities in 1954-1956 was carried out in the area of the enclosure wall of Ptah.

Religious importance. The supreme god of Memphis was Ptah, a creator-god, patron of arts and crafts, depicted usually in the form of a man wearing the straight beard, having a smooth (hairless?) head, and holding the w3s-scepter, the symbol of dominion. A late stela, dating from the time of Shabaka, c. 700 b.c., preserves an early text of Memphite theology, which affirms that Ptah created everything, essentially by the simple processes of thought and speech. At Memphis the divine triad consisted of Ptah, his wife, the lionessheaded Sekhmet, and their son, Nefertem. The Apis bull, also worshiped here, is shown with the solar disc and uraeus serpent between its horns. It was regarded as an incarnation of Ptah and Osiris (the latter also combined with Apis to make Serapis).

Other Memphite remains. To the W of the city site is a vast cemetery at Sakkarah, with royal tombs, or cenotaphs, of rulers of the first two dynasties. From the third dynasty there is the world’s “first monumental architecture in stone,” the step-pyramid of King Djoser. The fourth dynasty royal inhabitants of Memphis created at Giza the most impressive group of tomb structures known, the Giza pyramids; around these clustered the lesser tombs of royal retainers and officials. The fifth dynasty kings built their sun temples and pyramids at Abusir, between Sakkarah and Giza. At Sakkarah, dynasties five and six provided excellent examples of scenes of daily life executed in painted relief on the walls of rooms of funerary complexes of officials such as Ptahhotep, Ti, Mereruka, and Kagemni. Here were the royal pyramids of those dynasties, such as that of Pepi I, mentioned above as the source of the name of Memphis. The pyramids of dynasties five and six are esp. significant because of the religious spells, the Pyramid Texts, inscribed upon their walls. Also of importance at Sakkarah is the Serapeum, the burial place of the Apis bulls, whose monuments range in date from dynasty eighteen to the end of the Ptolemaic period.


J. Capart and M. Werbrouck, Memphis a l’ombre des pyramides (1930); A. Badawi, Memphis als zweite Landeshauptstadt im neuen Reich (1948); M. Dimick, Memphis, the City of the White Wall (1956); R. Anthes, Mit Rahineh 1955 (1959); Anthes, Mit Rahineh 1956 (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Name:

The ancient capital of Egypt, 12 miles South of the modern Cairo. This Greek and Roman form of the name was derived from the Coptic form Menfi (now Arabic Menf), the abbreviation of the Egyptian name Men-nofer, "the good haven." This name was applied to the pyramid of Pepy I, in the cemetery above the city; some have thought the city name to have been derived from the pyramid, but this is unlikely, as the city must have had a regular name before that. It may perhaps mean "the excellence of Mena," its founder. It appears still more shortened in Ho (9:6) as Moph (moph), and in Isa (19:13), Jer (2:16), and Eze (30:13) as Noph (noph).

2. Political Position:

The classical statements show that the city in Roman times was about 8 miles long and 4 miles wide, and the indications of the site agree with this. It was the sole capital of Position Egypt from the Ist to the XVIIth Dynasty; it shared supremacy with Thebes during the XVIIIth to XXVth Dynasties, and with Sais to the XXXth Dynasty. Alexandria then gradually obscured it, but the governor of Egypt signed the final capitulation to the Arabs in the old capital. While other cities assumed a political equality, yet commercially Memphis probably remained supreme until the Ptolemies.

3. The Founders and the City:

The oldest center of settlement was probably the shrine of the sacred bull, Apis or Hapy, which was in the South of the city. This worship was doubtless prehistoric, so that when the first king of all Egypt, Mena, founded his capital, there was already a nucleus. His great work was taking in land to the North, and founding the temple of the dynastic god Ptah, which was extended until its enclosure included as much as the great temple of Amon at Thebes, about 3 furlongs long and 2 furlongs wide. To the North of this was the sacred lake; beyond that, the palace and camp. Gradually the fashionable quarters moved northward in Egypt, in search of fresher air; the rulers had moved 10 miles North to Babylon by Roman times, then to Fostat, then Cairo, and lastly now to Abbasiyeh and Kubkeh, altogether a shift of 18 miles in 8,000 years.

4. Archaeological Results:

After the shrine of Apis the next oldest center is that of Ptah, founded by Mena. This was recently cleared in yearly sections by the British School, finding principally sculptures of the XVIIIth and XIXth Dynasties. The account of the north gate given by Herodotus, that it was built by Amenemhat III, has been verified by finding his name on the lintel. An immense sphinx of alabaster 26 ft. long has also been found. To the East of this was the temple of the foreign quarter, the temple of King Proteus in Greek accounts, where foreign pottery and terra cotta heads have been found. Other temples that are known to have existed in Memphis are those of Hathor, Neit, Amen, Imhotep, Isis, Osiris-Sokar, Khnumu, Bastel, Tahuti, Anubis and Sebek.

A large building of King Siamen (XXIst Dynasty) has been found South of the Ptah temple. To the North of the great temple lay the fortress, and in it the palace mound of the XXVIth Dynasty covered two acres. It has been completely cleared, but the lower part is still to be examined. The north end of it was at least 90 ft. high, of brickwork, filled up to half the height by a flooring raised on cellular brickwork. The great court was about 110 ft. square, and its roof was supported by 16 columns 45 ft. high.

The principal sights of Memphis now are the great colossus of Rameses II, the lesser colossus of the same, and the immense alabaster sphinx. The cemetery of the city is the most important in Egypt; it lies 2 miles to the West on the desert, and is known as Saqqareh, from So-kar, the god of the dead.


W. M. Flinders Petrie