Egypt: Memphis of the White Walls

Memphis of the White Walls

By Marie Parsons

The city of Memphis was the royal residence and capital of Egypt during the Early Dynastic period and the Old Kingdom, and remained thereafter one of the most populous and renowned places of Egypt. Its temples, especially one to Ptah, were among the most important in the land.

Memphis sat at the confluence of the important trade routes across the Eastern and Western deserts and commanded the Delta. It lies in narrow stretch of the Nile Valley on the west bank of the river. One cannot help but wonder how it would have survived the ages if it had been built higher, where wind and sand would encroach rather than changing riverbeds or rising water tables.

Memphis was the name given later in the life of the capital. It began as inbw-hdj, or "white walls," perhaps reflecting the appearance of its fortified residence, which was actually a portion of its area, probably situated somewhere near the modern town of Abusir, in the valley to the east of the northernmost section of the Saqqara necropolis. At another time, the settlement was even called Hwt-k3-pth after one of its temple precincts, from whence came the Greek Aigyptos and the Anglicized Egypt. Perhaps the most apt name for Memphis was Ankh-tawy, "That which binds the two lands."

But the name by which this city is known today came from the name of the pyramid of Pepi I at Saqqara, that is to say, Mennefer. Menfe in Coptic and hellenized as Memphis, this name came to describe the entire city. The city was described in some detail by Herodotus, Strabo and Diodorus Siculus.

The necropolises or cemeteries around Memphis cover the edge of the desert on the west bank of the Nile, together with pyramids at Helwan. Dahshur, Saqqara, Abusir, Zawyet el-Aryan, Giza, and Abu Rawash.

So far, only small portions of the city have been revealed at Mit Rahina and at Saqqara east of the pyramid of Teti. Sir Flinders Petrie believed that the city was about 8 miles long and four miles wide, and that a considerable part of that area consisted of villages and their gardens.

From the beginning, the religious center of Memphis with its temple to Ptah was in the area of modern Mit Rahina. Ptah became the chief Memphite god at the beginning of the Dynastic period of not earlier. The earliest temple to Ptah, which would date back to the Early Dynastic period, is almost certainly still hidden under a mound called Kom el-Fakhry, further west of the Ramessid enclosure.

The later temple, of which little actually remains except for its western gate, enclosed 275,000 square miles, rivaling perhaps that of the final enclosure of Karnak at Thebes.

Mit Rahina:

Only the temples west section has been excavated. It consists of a massive pylon and a columned hypostyle hall. It was built to commemorate one of the early sed-festivals of Ramese II.

Foundation deposits discovered west of the Ptah enclosure indicate the existence of an earlier temple built by Thutmose IV. Another enclosure north of the Ptah precinct contains remains of the palace of king Apries.

There are few tombs at Mit Rahina. The most important date to the First Intermediate Period or early Middle Kingdom and to the 22nd Dynasty.


The pyramid field of Dahshur forms the southernmost extension of the Memphite necropolis. The Pyramid built by Sneferu and variously called Bent, Rhomboidal, or False, is the most conspicuous landmark of Dahshur. The pyramids of Maidum and Dahshur highlight the transition from step pyramid to true pyramid. The valley temple is situated some distance northeast of the pyramid and provides a series of reliefs, some showing processions of female figures denoting the kings estates in both Upper and Lower Egypt.

Later in his reign, Sneferu had the so-called Red Pyramid (from the color of its reddish limestone) erected to the north.

Three of the remaining pyramids at Dahshur belong to kings of the 12th Dynasty. Amenemhet II built the White Pyramid, Amenemhet III built the so-called Black Pyramid, and Senwosret III has a third pyramid. Other pyramids including that of King Awibre Hor of the 13th Dynasty, from whence comes the Ka Statue of the king that now sits in the Cairo Museum, have also been found at Dahshur..

In addition to these royal tombs, there are two groups of nonroyal tombs dating from the Old Kingdom. The mastabas of princesses Iti, Khnemt, Itiwert, and Sitmerhut, all daughters of Amenemhet II, and Ment and Sentsenebtisi, daughters of Senwosret III, and queens. Tomb chapels dating to the New Kingdom have also been found here.


Within Saqqara lie tombs and burials that span the ages of Egyptians ancient history. From the first mastaba tomb that was dated to the reign of King Aha, or Menes, legendary founder of Memphis, through to the Graeco-Roman period, Saqqara has divulged much, and yet still holds many secrets.

Mastabas of high officials and members of the royal family dating to the first dynasty run along the eastern edge of the plateau almost continuously.

The area known as the Gisr el-Mudir, which sadly seems to have not gotten beyond its initial stages, may represent a royal tomb complex of one of Djosers predecessors back to the second dynasty.

At least 14 royal pyramids, beginning with that of Djoser, are known from Saqqara. The largest conglomeration of non-royal tombs of the Old Kingdom occupies the area north of Djosers Step Pyramid.

Tombs of the New Kingdom period are found in two parts of Saqqara. In a wadi southeast of Tetis pyramid, there are honeycombs of rock-cut tombs dating from the mid-18th Dynasty to the Ramesside period. The most spectacular belongs to the vizier Aperia, late in the reign of Amenhotep III.

From the reign of Amenhotep III onwards, tombs of the mummified Apis bulls, which probably occurred about once every 14 years, are known from the Serapeum at Saqqara. It was probably Nectanebo I who set up the line of sphinxes that lined the way from Memphis to the Serapeum. The Apis cult was closely connected with that of the god Ptah, deity of Memphis.

The tomb pyramid of King Djedefre of the 4th Dynasty was found at Abu Rawash, the northernmost burial in the Memphite necropolis. Objects inscribed with the names of 1st Dynasty kings Aha and Den have also been found here.

The original capital at White Wall itself was probably replaced as building was done further south, east of Tetis pyramid. This section was called Djed-isut, derived from the name of Tetis pyramid itself and its corresponding town. This would perhaps explain the choice of South, rather than North, Saqqara, as the site for the pyramids of Djedkara and Pepi I. Since Pepis pyramid and town were called Mennefer, this new palace settlement, and in fact the entire city was physically linked as well with the settlements around the temple of the god Ptah further east from then on

The long line of kings from Aha, or Menes, in the First Dynasty, who had ruled the country from Memphis, ended after the 8th Dynasty. Now power was held by a succession of rulers who came from Herakleopolis Magna, near the entrance to the Faiyum. Their control never got as far as southern Upper Egypt.

The Turin Canon may represent this break by giving a grand total of the rulers from Aha to the last king of the 8th Dynasty, and the Abydos King-list in Seti Is temple gives no royal names for the period we call the First Intermediate Period, until the beginning of what is termed the Middle Kingdom and King Nebheptra Mentuhotep II from Thebes.

Merikare, after whom an Instruction is named and who was either the last or next-to-last king of this Herakleopolitan dynasty, was buried at Saqqara. No other pyramids or tombs of any of these kings have yet been identified at Saqqara.

Early in the 12th Dynasty Amenemhet I moved his residence to Itjtawy or el-Lisht, possibly in an attempt to return to the Memphis area. The site of Memphis itself by that time was unsuitable for establishing a new large settlement.

Memphis served as administrative capital with Thebes and Itjtawy during at least part of the New Kingdom, during the Late Period, with Alexandria during the Ptolemaic period, and remained important politically and religiously until Emperor Theodosius I, 379-95 ACE, decreed that Christianity should be the religion of the Roman Empire. In 641 ACE the Muslim conqueror Amr ibn el-As founded a new capital of Egypt on the east bank of the Nile south of modern Cairo.

In his work, "An Account of Egypt," in the 13th Century A.C.E. the Islamic traveler and scholar Abd-Al Latif wrote this about the ruins of Memphis: "Enormous as are the extent and antiquity of this city, in spite of the frequent change of governments whose yoke it has borne, and the great pains more than one nation has been at to destroy it,to mutilate the statues which adorned it.these ruins still offer to the eye of the beholder a mass of marvels which bewilder the senses and which the most skillful pens must fail to describe."

Last Updated:
April 28th, 2011


Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Malek

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt ed. By Ian Shaw

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

Memphis: the City of the White Wall by Marion T. Dimick