Memphis was once the royal city of Egypt. According to legend it was founded by Pharaoh Menes around 3000 BC and was the capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, remaining an important city throughout history. During the 6th dynasty it was a centre for the worship of Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. There is an alabaster Sphinx guarding the Temple of Ptah that is a memorial of the city’s former power and prestige.
RECLINING STATUE OF RAMSES
At first the city was known as Men-nefer, meaning “enduring and beautiful”. It later became Menfe, in Coptic. The name “Memphis” is the Greek adaption of this name, originally the name of the pyramid of Pepi I located west of the city. The ruins of this formerly grand city only offer fragmented evidence of its past which have preserved, along with the pyramids of Giza, as a World Heritage Site, since 1979. It is open to the public, an open-air museum, with just a few statues and a sphinx along with pillars, funerary stelae set in a garden-like atmosphere.
I was particularly interested in visiting this ancient city, because it was where Alexander the Great came after he had successfully driven the Persian out of Egypt. Part of the mystique of Alexander is his connection to Nectanebo II, a shaman pharaoh of Memphis who had fled to Macedon to plead with Alexander’s father Philip II to help drive the Persian out of his country. Rumours abounded for most of Alexander’s life that he was Nectanabo’s son because during the Pharaoh’s stay in Macedon, Alexander’s mother, Olympias, then a young bride of Philip, may have had an affair with the pharaoh. She was reputedly told by him that she would be visited by the golden snake of Ammon and give birth to a miraculous son. After Philip was assassinated and Alexander became king, he led his army south down the coast of Asia Minor, across Gaza and successfully vanquished the Persians, driving them out of Egypt. He was honored by the Egyptians and crowned pharaoh in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis, ushering in the Hellenistic period. . From then on he wore the Horns of Ammon on his helmet. After his famous visit to the oasis shrine of Siwah where he would consult the oracle about his birthright, he learned information that he wouldn’t even indulge to his best friend but said he’d wait til he got back home to discuss it with his mother.
ALEXANDER WEARING THE HORNS OF AMMON
Alexander wanted to establish a city in Egypt. Memphis was too far inland, south of the delta, so he chose the site by the sea that is now Alexandria. When Alexander died in 323 BC, his illegitimate half-brother Ptolemy came to Egypt to establish the city of Alexandria. For a time he kept Alexander’s body at Memphis but it was later moved to the new city. Memphis retained a significant status especially religious through this period.This began the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt.
Ptolemy established the cult of Serapis in Egypt at Saqqara.The lineage of the high priests of Ptah retained strong ties with the royal family in Alexandria. Marriages occurred between certain high priests and Ptolemaic princesses which strengthened the commitment between the two families.
Memphis thrived until the arrival of the Romans when it lost it’s importance in favour of Alexandria.