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MEMPHIS (Μέμφις, Herod.2.99,114,136, 154; Plb. 5.61; Diod. 1.50, seq.; Steph. B. sub voce: Eth. Μεμφίτης), the NOPH of the Old Testament (Isaiah, 19.13; Jerem. 2.16, 44.1), was the first capital of the entire kingdom of Aegypt, after the Deltaic monarchy at Heliopolis was united to the Thebaid capital at This or Abydos. It stood on the western bank of the Nile, 15 miles S. of Cercasorus, in lat. 30° 6′ N.

The foundation of Memphis belongs to the very earliest age of Aegyptian history. It is ascribed (1) to Menes, the first mortal king; (2) to Uchoreus, a monarch of a later dynasty; and (3) to Apis or Epaphus. (Hyg. Fab. 149.) But the two latter may be dismissed as resting on very doubtful authority. (Diod.1.51.) The only certainty is that Memphis was of remote antiquity, as indeed is implied in the ascription of its origin to Menes, and that it was the first capital of the united kingdom of Upper and Lower Aegypt. The motives which induced its founder to select such a site for his capital are obvious. Not far removed from the bifurcation of the Nile at Cercasorus, it commanded the S. entrance to the Delta, while it was nearer to the Thebaid than any of the Deltaic provincial cities of importance, Heliopolis, Bubastis, and Sais. It is also clear why he placed it on the western bank of the Nile. His kingdom had little to apprehend from the tribes of the Libyan desert; whereas the eastern frontier of Aegypt was always exposed to attack from Arabia, Assyria, and Persia, nor indeed was it beyond the reach of the Scythians. (Herod, 1.105.) It was important, therefore, to make the Nile a barrier of the city; and this was effected by placing Memphis W. of it. Before, however, Menes could lay the foundations of his capital, an artificial area was to be provided for them. The Nile, at that remote period, seems to have had a double bifurcation; one at the head of the Delta, the other above the site of Memphis, and parallel with the Arsinoite Nome. Of the branches of its southern fork, the western and the wider of the two ran at the foot of the Libyan hills; the eastern and lower was the present main stream. Between them the plain, though resting on a limestone basis, was covered with marshes, caused by their periodical overflow. This plain Menes chose for the area of Memphis. He began by constructing an embankment about 100 stadia S. of its site, that diverted the main body of the water into the eastern arm; and the marshes he drained off into two principal lakes, one to N., the other to W. of Memphis, which thus, on every side but S., was defended by water.

The area of Memphis, according to Diodorus (1.50), occupied a circuit of 150 stadia, or at least 15 miles. This space, doubtless, included much open ground, laid out in gardens, as well as the courts required for the barracks of the garrison, in the quarter denominated “the White Castle,” and which was successively occupied, under the Pharaohs, by the native militia; in the reign of Psammetichus (B.C. 658--614), by Phoenician and Greek mercenaries; by the Persians, after the invasion of Cambyses (B.C. 524); and finally by the Macedonian and Roman troops. For although Memphis was not always a royal residence, it retained always two features of a metropolis: (1) it was the seat of the central garrison, at least until Alexandreia was founded ; and (2) its necropolis--the pyramids--was the tomb of the kings of every native dynasty.

The mound which curbed the inundations of the Nile was so essential to the very existence of Memphis, that even the Persians, who ravaged or neglected all other great works of the country, annually repaired it. (Hdt. 2.99.) The climate was of remarkable salubrity; the soil extremely productive; and the prospect from its walls attracted the notice of the Greeks and Romans, who seldom cared much for the picturesque. Diodorus (1.96) mentions its bright green meadows, intersected by canals, paven with the lotus-flower. Pliny (13.10, 16.21) speaks of trees of such girth that three men with extended arms could not span them. Martial (6.80) says that the “navita Memphiticus” brought roses in winter to Rome (comp. Lucan, Pharsal. 4.135); and Athenaeus (1.20. p. 11) celebrates its teeming soil and its wine. (Comp. J. AJ 2.14.4; Horace, Od. 3.26. 10.) And these natural advantages were seconded by its [p. 2.325]position in the “narrows” of Aegypt, at a point where the Arabian and Libyan hills converge for the last time as they approach the Delta, and whence Memphis commanded the whole inland trade, whether ascending or descending the Nile. On the coins of Hadrian the wealth and fertility of Memphis are expressed by a figure of the Nile on their reverse, holding in his left hand a cornucopia. (Mionnet, Suppl. ix. No. 42.)

The position of Memphis, again, as regarded the civilisation which Aegypt imparted or received, was most favourable. A capital in the Thebaid would have been too remote for communication with the East or Greece: a capital in the Delta would have been too remote from the Upper Kingdom, which would then have pertained rather to Aethiopia than to Aegypt; while the Delta itself, unsupported by the Thebaid, must in all probability have become an Assyrian province.. But the intermediate situation of Memphis connected it both with the southern portions of the Nile valley, as far as its keys at Philae and Elephantina, and also through the isthmus of Suez and the coast, with the most civilised races of Asia and Europe. After the foundation of Alexandreia, indeed, Memphis sunk into a provincial city. But the Saracen invaders in the seventh century confirmed the wisdom of Menes's choice, for they built both Old and New Cairo in the neighbourhood of Memphis, only changing the site from the western to the eastern bank of the river, because their natural alliances, unlike those of the Pharaohs, were with the Arabians and the Syrian Khalifates.

The history of Memphis is in some measure that of Aegypt also. The great works of Menes were probably accomplished by successive monarchs, if not indeed by several dynasties. In the 1st. period of the monarchy we find that the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th dynasties consisted of Memphite kings. Athotis, who is styled a son of Menes, is said to have built the palace, and thus stamped the new city as a royal residence. In the reign of Kaiechos, in the 2nd dynasty, the worship of Apis was established at Memphis, which was equivalent to rendering it a cathedral city. In the 7th dynasty we have a record of seventy Memphite kings, each reigning for one day: this probably denotes an interregnum, and perhaps a foregone revolution; for, as Herodotus remarks (2.147), the Aegyptians could not exist without a monarchy. After the 8th dynasty no series of Memphite kings occurs; and the royal families pass to Heracleopolis, in the first place; next, after the expulsion of the Shepherds, to Thebes; afterwards to the Deltaic cities of Tanis, Bubastis, and Sais.

The shepherd kings, though they formed their great camp at Abaris, retained Memphis as the seat of civil government (Manetho, ap. Joseph. cont. Apion, 1.14); and although, after they withdrew into Syria, Thebes became the capital, yet we have a proof that the 18th dynasty--the house of Rameses--held their northern metropolis in high esteem. For Sesostris, or Rameses III. (Herod. ii, 108), on his return from his Asiatic wars, set up in front of the temple of Ptah at Memphis a colossal statue of himself 45 feet high; and this is probably the colossal figure still lying among the mounds of ruin at Mitranieh. Under the 25th dynasty, while the Aethiopians occupied Aegypt, Memphis was again the seat of a native government,--apparently the result of a revolution, which set Sethos, a priest, upon the throne. A victory obtained by this monarch over the Assyrians was commemorated by a statue in the temple of Ptah--Sethos holding in his hand a mouse, the symbol of destruction. (Horapol. Hieroglyph. 1.50; comp. Aelian, H. Anim. 6.41; Strab. xiii. p.604; Hdt. 2.141.) Under Psammetichus (B.C. 670) the Phoenician soldiers, who had aided him in gaining the crown, were established by him in “the Tyrian camp,” --at least this seems to be the meaning of Herodotus (2.112),--but were removed by his successor Amasis into the capital itself, and into that quarter of it called the “White Castle.”

Of all the Aegyptian cities, Memphis suffered the most severely from the cruelty and fanaticism of the Persians. Its populace, excited by the defeat of the Aegyptian army at Pelusium, put to. death the Persian herald who summoned the Memphians to surrender. The vengeance of the conqueror is related by. Herodotus. Memphis became the head-quarters of a Persian garrison; and Cambyses, on his return from his unfortunate expedition against Aethiopia, was more than ever incensed against the vanquished. Psammenitus, the last of the Pharaohs, was compelled to put himself to death (Hdt. 3.15); Cambyses slew the god Apis with his own hand, and massacred his priests; he profaned the Temple of Ptah and burned the images of the Cabeiri (id. ib. 32). Under Darius Aegypt was mildly governed, and his moderation was shown by his acquiescence in the high-priest's refusal to permit the erection of a statue to him at Memphis. (Hdt. 2.110; Diod. 1.58.) The next important notice of this city is in the reign of Artaxerxes I. Inaros, son of Psammetichus, had revolted from Persia, and called in the aid of the Athenians. (Diod. 11.71.) The Persians were defeated at Papremis in the Delta (ib. 74; comp. Mannert, Geogr. x. p. 591), fled to Memphis, and were besieged in the “White Castle.” (Thuc. 1.108-109.) The siege lasted for more than a year (Diod. 2.75), and was at length raised (Ctesias, 100.33), and the authority of the king of Persia restored. Under Nectanebus I., the first monarch of the Sebennytic dynasty, Memphis expelled its Persian garrison, nor did it return to its allegiance, until Nectanebus II., the last representative of thirty dynasties, was driven into Aethiopia. (Athenaeus, iv. p. 150.) From this period Memphis loses its metropolitan importance, tend sinks to the level of the chief provincial city of Aegypt.

If, as Diodorus remarks (1.51), Thebes surpassed Memphis in the grandeur of its temples, the latter city was more remarkable for the number of its deities and sacred buildings, and for its secular and commercial edifices. It might, indeed, as regards its shrines, be not improperly termed the Pantheon of the land of Misraim. The following were its principal religious structures, and they seem to include nearly all the capital objects of Aegyptian worship except the goat and the crocodile:--

    1. The temple of Isis, was commenced at a very early period, but only completed by Amasis, B.C. 564. It is described! as spacious and beautiful (Hdt. 2.176; Heliodor. Aethiop. 7.2, 8, 11), but inferior to the Iseium at Busiris (Hdt. 2.59, 61).
  • 2. The temple of Proteus, founded probably by, Phoenicians, who had a commercial establishment at Memphis. It was of so early date as to be ascribed to the era of the Trojan War. (Plutarch, de Gen. Socrat. 100.7.)
  • 3. The temple of Apis, completed in the reign of [p. 2.326]Psammetichus (Hdt. 2.153; Aelian, Ael. NA 11.10; Clemens Alexand. Paedag. 3.2; Strab. xvii. p.807), stood opposite the southern portal of the great temple of Ptah or Hephaestos, and was celebrated for its colonnades, through which the processions of Apis were conducted. Here was also an oracle of Apis, in connection with one of Osiris and Isis (Plin. Nat. 8.46; Paus. 7.22.) This temple was the cathedral of Aegypt, and not only established there a numerous, opulent, and learned college of priests, but also attracted thither innumerable worshippers, who combined commercial with religious purposes.
    4. The temple of Serapis, in the western quarter of Memphis. This Serapis was of earlier date than the Alexandrian deity of similar name. To the Memphian Serapeium was attached a Nilo-meter, for gauging and recording the periodical overflows of the river. It was removed by Constantine as a relic of paganism, but replaced by his successor Julian. (Socrat. Hist. Eccles. 1.18; Sozomen, 5.2 ; comp. Diod. 1.50, 57; Senec. Quaest. Nat. 4.2 ; Plin. Nat. 8.46.)
  • 5. A temple of Phre, or the Sun, mentioned only in the Rosetta inscription (Letronne, Recueil des Inscr. Grecques et Lat. de l'Egypte; Brugsch, Inscript. Rosettan.
  • 6. The temple of the Cabeiri, (Hdt. 3.37) into which none but the high-priest might lawfully enter. The statues of the pigmy gods were burned by Cambyses, and the temple mutilated,
    7. The temple of Ptah or Hephaestos, the elemental principle of fire, worshipped under the form of a Pygmy. This was the most ancient shrine in Memphis, being coeval with its foundation. (Diod. 1.45; Hdt. 2.99, 3.37; Strab. 17.807 ; Amm. Marc. 17.4.) It was enlarged and beautified by several successive monarchs, apparently through a spirit of rivalry with the great buildings at Thebes. (1.) Moeris erected the great northern court (Hdt. 2.101 ; Diod. 1.51). (2.) Rameses the Great raised in this court six colossal figures of stone,--portrait-statues of himself, his queen, and their four sons. (Hdt. 2.108-110; Strab. xvii. p.807.) (3.) Rhampsinitus built the western court, and erected two colossal figures of summer and winter. (Hdt. 2.121; Diod. 1.62 ; Wilkinson, M. and C. i. p. 121.) (4.) Asÿchis added the eastern court. (Hdt. 2.136.) It was, in the opinion of Herodotus, by far the noblest and most beautiful of the four quadrangles. (5.) Psammetichus, the Saite king, added the south court, in commemoration of his victory over the Dodecarchy (Polyaen. Stratag. 7.3; Hdt. 2.163; Diod. 1.67); and Amasis (Hdt. 2.176) erected or restored to its basis the colossal statue of Ptah, in front of the southern portico. Prom the priests of the Memphian temples, the Greeks derived their knowledge of Aegyptian annals, and the rudiments also of their philosophical systems. It was at Memphis that Herodotus made his longest sojourn, and gained most of his information respecting Lower Aegypt. Democritus also resided five years at Memphis, and won the favour of the priests by his addiction to astrological and hieroglyphical studies. (Diog. Laert. Democrit. 9.34.) Memphis reckoned among its illustrious visitors, in early times, the legislator Solon, the historian Hecataeus, the philosophers Thales and Cleobulus of Lindus; and in a later age, Strabo the geographer, and Diodorus the Sicilian.

The village of Mitra-nieh, half concealed in a grove of palm-trees, about 10 miles S. of Gizeh, marks the site of the ancient Memphis. The successive conquerors of the land, indeed, have used its ruins as a stone-quarry, so that its exact situation has been a subject of dispute. Major Rennell (Geography of Herodotus, vol. ii. p. 121, seq.), however, brings incontestable evidence of the correspondence of Mitranieh with Memphis. Its remains extend over many hundred acres of ground, which are covered with blocks of granite, broken obelisks, columns and colossal statues. The principal mound corresponds probably with the area of the great temple of Ptah.

There are several accounts of the appearance of Memphis at different eras. Strabo saw the Hephaesteium entire, although much of the city was then in ruins. In the twelfth century A.D. it was visited by the Arabian traveller Ab-dallatif, who was deeply impressed with the spectacle of grandeur and desolation. “Its ruins offer,” he says, “to the spectator a union of things which confound him, and which the most eloquent man in the world would in vain attempt to describe.” He seems to have seen at least one of the colossal statues of the group of Rameses in the northern court of the Hephaesteium. Among innumerable “idols,” as he terms them, he “measured one which, without its pedestal, was more than 30 cubits long. This statue was formed of a single piece of red granite, and was covered with a red varnish.” (Ab-dallatif, De Sacy's Translation, 4to. p. 184.) Sir William Hamilton (Aegyptiaca, 4to. p. 303) visited the spot, and says, that “high mounds enclose a square of 1800 yards from N. to S., and 400 from E. to W. The entrance in the centre of each side is still visible. The two principal entrances faced the desert and the river” (that is W. and E.). He entered by the latter, and found immediately “thirty or forty large blocks of very fine red granite, lying on the ground, evidently forming parts of some colossal statues, the chief ornaments of the temple.”

The district in which these remains are found is still termed Memf by the Coptic population, and thus helps to confirm the identity of the village of Mitranieh with the ancient capital of Aegypt.


hide References (37 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (37):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.71
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.136
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.153
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.176
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.101
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.108
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.110
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.112
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.121
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.141
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.163
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.59
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.61
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.99
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.15
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.37
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 2.14.4
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 7.22
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.109
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.108
    • Homer, Odyssey, 3.26
    • Polybius, Histories, 5.61
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 13.10
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 8.46
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 16.21
    • Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum, 17.4
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 1.20
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 6.80
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.45
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.50
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.51
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.57
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.58
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.62
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.67
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 1.96
    • Aelian, De Natura Animalium, 11.10
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