The New Capital at Memphis


When the two halves of Egypt were united, a new capital was established at Memphis in the North.  Memphis lies twelve miles south of modern Cairo and occupies the same geographical niche as being the spot where the Nile braches out from its single channel into its huge delta.   According to Herodotus, the new city was established by Menes, the first Pharaoh who may or may not be the same as Narmer, who built a dam to divert the river to make the new site habitable.

But why was the new capital established here, in the North (Lower Kingdom)? If, as the Narmer palette suggests, the unification was an act of aggression, the conquest of the North by the South, why was the capital placed in the North? Was it an act of aggression, setting the new capital in conquered territory, rather like William the Conqueror placing the Tower of London in conquered territory to overawe it?  Or was it on the other hand a magnanimous gesture by some Augustus-like ruler who wanted to cement the new found unity by establishing the capital in the north?  Whichever it was, it appears to have been very successful, for although the kings of the First Dynasty continued to be buried at Abydos, the Pyramids, Egypt’s greatest success, were built in the North,  near Memphis.

Little is known of Memphis itself in the Old kingdom: the main remains today are of a temple of Ptah with a gigantic temple of Rameses II which is preserved on site. Research is in progress to try to find the remains of early Memphis, but it appears that they may have been buried deep in the silt: it is on the high ground to the west of the Nile that the best-known remains the pyramids were established      `

In the North a rather different form of burial had evolved known as the Mastaba, an Arabic word meaning a low bench.  Whereas the burials in the south were always burials in pits sunk into the ground, in the north the pits were covered by a long narrow rectangular mound, often with stepped sides.  They still exist by the thousand for the nobles and middle classes were buried in mastabas to the end of the Egyptian period.

Following the foundation of Memphis, a row of very grand mastabas was erected at Saqqara on the high ground overlooking Memphis, which were excavated by W. B. Emery between 1935 and 1956.  They were marked by a distinctive form of outside wall which formed a zigzag with pillars projecting forward and niches in between them.  It is often thought that this was an imitation of an Egyptian town or palace.  Emery thought that these must have been the burial places of the pharaohs of the First Dynasty as they often have the hieroglyphic tablets in them that formed the sealing of the royal possessions, and that therefore the Abydos must be cenotaphs.  However, opinion has largely gone against him and it is assumed that it is the mastabas that are cenotaphs – after all it is the burials at Abydos that are surrounded by the burials of the retainers and that would scarcely happen unless the actual pharaohs were buried with their retainers.

But when, at the end of the second dynasty, Egypt was once again united it is to the north to a new site on the high ground to the west of the Nile, that the new site was established.