Africa is known as the Dark Continent; but the description is both inaccurate and unjust. There is certainly little darkness about Egypt, and it is with Egypt that we begin, with four memorable cities. First and oldest is Memphis, dating from c. 3000 BC, capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next is Thebes in Upper Egypt, representing the Middle and New Kingdoms. Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile about halfway between the two, was built in the 14th century BC by Akhenaten, one of the most fascinating of the Egyptian pharaohs, as his new capital and as a place of worship for Aten, the sun’s disc. Set deep in the desert, it proved quite unsuitable for city life; and the court soon returned to Memphis after Akhenaten’s death.
Our fourth city belongs to classical antiquity. Founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, it became the capital of Hellenistic, Roman and then Byzantine Egypt until the Arab conquest in AD 641, when a new capital, Fustat, was built on the site of the modern Cairo. Alexandria’s lighthouse – the Pharos – was one of the Seven Wonders of the World; its celebrated library was, in the days of antiquity, the largest in existence anywhere.
Moving westwards along the coast, we come to two more of our cities, Carthage and Leptis Magna. Carthage, originally a Phoenician foundation and now a suburb of modern Tunis, was – until its destruction in 146 BC – Rome’s greatest enemy; Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in 216 BC came near to putting an end to the Roman Republic once and for all, thus changing the whole subsequent history of Europe. Leptis possesses Roman ruins as spectacular as can be seen anywhere – at present with virtually no tourists.
For our last two cities we must travel into the interior of the great continent, first south, then east. Meroë, about 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Khartoum, was the capital of the kingdom of Kush and is nowadays marked by some 200 pyramids; Aksum in Ethiopia, with its stelae, obelisks and ruined castles, is another UNESCO site and is more remarkable still.
Detail of a painted relief block from a temple dedicated by Akhenaten at Karnak, Thebes, that was later dismantled and the blocks recycled in other structures. The figures are depicted in the style typical of Amarna art.
© Kenneth Garrett.
Then, when this first king Menes had made what he thus cut off to be dry land, he first founded in it that city which is now called Memphis.
HERODOTUS, 5TH CENTURY BC
Memphis is a city unusually overshadowed by its cemeteries. The Great Pyramid at Giza, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, and the catacombs of the Sacred Animal Necropolis and the Serapeum are all better preserved and better known than the streets, houses, temples, palaces and markets of the city of Memphis. Yet this was the capital and governmental heartbeat of Egypt for the best part of three and a half millennia, from the beginning of the pharaonic period (c. 3000 BC) until the Arab conquest (AD 641), only to be eventually replaced by Cairo itself. Like many other ancient Egyptian towns and cities, it has neither survived so well as the cemeteries, nor received the same level of attention from archaeologists. The site of Memphis as a whole now covers almost 4 sq. km (1.5 sq. miles), but the residential sections are mostly either destroyed or buried beneath such modern villages as Mit Rahina and el-Badrashein.
The colossal statue of Ramesses II (c. 1279–1210 BC) at Mit Rahina was originally just one of many such figures standing along the processional route centring on the extensive New Kingdom temple of Ptah, which would have dominated the skyline of Memphis.
The city’s location at the apex of the Nile Delta made it well suited for the control of both this and the river valley, so that it was sometimes also known as the ‘balance of the two lands’. The earliest recorded name for the city is Ineb-hedj, meaning ‘white walls’ or ‘white fortress’, probably referring to the dazzling appearance of the fortified palace of one of the earliest kings. It has been suggested that this original town may have been situated near the modern village of Abusir and that the settlement gradually shifted southwards.
The remains of Memphis have suffered from their proximity to the suburbs of medieval and modern Cairo, but archaeologists from the early 1800s to the present day have gradually pieced together parts of the network of temples, palaces and private houses, including a large temple complex dedicated to the local god Ptah. The city’s gradual expansion seems to have been influenced primarily by the locations of the series of royal pyramids built in the Saqqara necropolis, which stretched along its western side. As construction began on each new pyramid, so the geographical focus of the town slowly shifted. By the late Old Kingdom, Ineb-hedj seems to have been eclipsed in importance by a set of suburbs further to the south, centring on Djed-isut, the town and palace associated with the pyramid of the 6th dynasty King Teti. But it was Men-nefer (‘established and beautiful’), the part of the city associated with the pyramid of Pepi I (2321–2287 BC), that provided the basis for the name Memphis, by which the whole city was known for the rest of its history.
Pillars in the West Hall of the once great temple of Ptah at Memphis. The majority of the surviving remains of the temple date to the New Kingdom.
© John Ross/Robert Harding Picture Library/agefotostock.com.
Later accounts claimed that the city was named after its supposed founder, the semi-mythical 1st dynasty ruler Menes. According to the Egyptian historian Manetho (c. 305–285 BC), Menes was responsible for the unification of the ‘Two Lands’ and was thus the founder of the Egyptian state. Many scholars believe that the legendary Menes is the same person as the better-documented King Narmer, but we know virtually nothing of his reign. The Greek writer Herodotus credits him with draining the plain of Memphis as well as founding the city. It has recently been suggested that his name may mean ‘the Memphite’, thus commemorating both the founding of Memphis as the capital city and also the unification of Egypt. To the ancient Egyptians he was the first human ruler, in contrast to his predecessors on the throne who were regarded as demi-gods.
From at least the New Kingdom onwards, a vast temple dedicated to the god Ptah lay at the centre of Memphis. Little of this has survived, particularly when we compare it with the temple of Amun at Karnak, in the heart of Thebes, which it must once have rivalled. Ptah formed a divine triad with his consort, the lioness goddess Sekhmet, and the lotus god Nefertem. Ptah was usually portrayed as a mummified man, with his hands protruding from his linen wrappings and his head shaven and covered by a tight-fitting skull cap. One of Ptah’s Memphite shrines was called Hwt-ka-Ptah, which was possibly corrupted by the Greeks to become Aiguptos, and hence the origin of the modern name Egypt.
Part of the New Kingdom temple is built out of Old Kingdom pyramid casing blocks, perhaps brought from Saqqara; other reused elements, including a lintel of the Middle Kingdom ruler Amenemhat III (1855–1808 BC), have been found there, indicating that older monuments are yet to be discovered at Memphis. In modern times a fallen colossus of the great New Kingdom ruler Ramesses II and an ‘alabaster’ sphinx are the features of the site most commonly visited, since the site of the temple itself is often flooded. Remains of a palace of King Merenptah (1213–1203 BC), successor to Ramesses II, along with a smaller Ptah temple, are found in the Kom Qala area of the site. Throughout the pharaonic period the houses and temples gradually spread southwards and eastwards as the course of the Nile retreated to the east towards its modern location. The remains of large parts of early Memphis must therefore lie beneath thick deposits of Nile alluvium, and much is below the water table.
An embalming house for the Apis bull, the living manifestation of the god Ptah, was built at Memphis by Sheshonq I (945–924 BC) of the 22nd dynasty, probably replacing an earlier structure, and traces of this, including enormous travertine embalming tables, are still visible. At the death of each Apis bull there was national mourning, and its corpse was embalmed and carried in procession along the sacred way for burial in a huge granite sarcophagus in a set of underground catacombs known as the Serapeum.
North of the precinct of Ptah is an enclosure of the Late Period, best known for the 26th dynasty palace of King Apries (589–570 BC). All that survives of Apries’ once-impressive palace is a massive mud-brick platform surmounted by the limestone bases of columns. The fourth ruler of the 26th dynasty, Apries is known in the Bible as Hophra. His reign was dominated by military campaigns, primarily defending Egypt’s northeastern frontier against Cyprus, Palestine and Phoenicia. It was shortly after a defeat by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon that he was deposed by his own former general, Amasis, who replaced him as king. Apries fled the country and probably died in battle in 567 BC when he attempted to regain his throne by force with the help of a Babylonian army (Herodotus suggests that he was captured and later strangled). From his palace, Apries would have had a clear view of the Saqqara necropolis, which was a source of inspiration for an artistic revival during the 26th dynasty.
In Ptolemaic times the once great city of Memphis dwindled in importance, losing out to the new sea-port at Alexandria. After the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD, the founding of the nearby town of Fustat (out of which Cairo grew) dealt the final blow. Its ancient remains were still clearly visible in the 12th century AD, but over the centuries the stone blocks of its temples and palaces have been quarried and reused, while the mud bricks from many of its houses have been spread over the surrounding fields as fertilizer.