Memphis was the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch, the first nome of Lower Egypt. Its ruins are located near the town of Mit Rahina, south of Cairo.
According to legend related by Manetho, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes around 3000 BC. Capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history. It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity. Its principal port, Peru-nefer, harboured a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional centre for commerce, trade, and religion.
Memphis was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen. Its great temple, Hut-ka-Ptah (meaning “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah”), was one of the most prominent structures in the city. The name of this temple, rendered in Greek as Aί γυ πτoς (Ai-gy-ptos) by the historian Manetho, is believed to be the etymological origin of the modern English name Egypt.
The history of Memphis is closely linked to that of the country itself. Its eventual downfall is believed to be due to the loss of its economic significance in late antiquity, following the rise of coastal Alexandria. Its religious significance also diminished after the abandonment of the ancient religion following the Edict of Thessalonica.
The ruins of the former capital today offer fragmented evidence of its past. They have been preserved, along with the pyramid complex at Giza, as a World Heritage Site since 1979. The site is open to the public as an open-air museum.
The city of Memphis is 20 km (12 mi) south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. The modern cities and towns of Mit Rahina, Dahshur, Abusir, Abu Gorab, and Zawyet el’Aryan, south of Cairo, all lie within the administrative borders of historical Memphis. 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)
The site of the city is today uninhabited. The closest settlement is the town of Mit Rahina. Estimates of historical population size differ widely between sources. 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 BCE and from 1557 to 1400 BCE. 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 over eight consecutive dynasties during the Old Kingdom. The city reached a peak of prestige under the 6th dynasty as a centre for the worship of Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. The alabaster sphinx that guards the Temple of Ptah serves as a memorial of the city’s former power and prestige. The Memphis triad, consisting of the creator god Ptah, his consort Sekhmet, and their son Nefertem, formed the main focus of worship in the city.
Memphis declined briefly after the 18th dynasty with the rise of Thebes and the New Kingdom, and was revived under the Persians 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 CE. 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 a little more than an expanse of low ruins and scattered stone
The site of Memphis has been famous since ancient times, and is cited in many ancient sources, including both Egyptian and foreign. Diplomatic records found on different sites have detailed the correspondence between the city and the various contemporary empires in the Mediterranean, Near East, and Africa. These include for example the Amarna letters, which detail trade conducted between Memphis and the sovereigns of Babylon and the various city-states of Lebanon. The proclamations of the later Assyrian kings cite Memphis among its list of conquests.
During the time of the New Kingdom, and especially under the reign of the rulers of the 19th 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: