Walking in Memphis

Part 1: Unification
If we talk about Memphis, the oldest capital on earth and the oldest one to be built with stone, we  also need to talk about unification between Upper and Lower Egypt. It’s important to realize that before the year 3200 BC. Egypt consisted of two kingdoms. Upper Egypt, in the south, started from where Memphis is now and went all the way to Sudan in the south. It’s confusing that the southern part of Egypt is known as Upper Egypt. This is because it has a higher elevation. That’s why the Nile River flows from south to north. The second kingdom of Egypt was Lower Egypt, which is from where Memphis is now to the north covering the Nile delta and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.


In Upper Egypt prior to unification, the capital was Nekheb, nowadays the small town of El Kab. It’s 20km north of Edfu in the province of Aswan about 680km south of Cairo. Nekhbet the vulture was the goddess protector of the kingdom of Upper Egypt, and the capital’s title is derived from her name. Upper Egypt had a king who wore a specific crown that was the white gold crown (Ancient Egyptian Hedjet) that looks something like a cone.

In Upper Egypt they had a sacred plant: the lotus. It was the sacred plant of Upper Egypt because it was a symbol of resurrection. Egyptians learnt many things from their environment and surroundings. They noticed that the lotus flowers are underwater at night but when the sun rises, bringing life and energy back, the lotus flowers rise above the water’s surface and open their petals until the sun sets. Then the lotus flowers close their petals and go under the water’s surface till the next day. The cycle of sunrise and sunset influenced many things in ancient Egypt. On the west bank of the Nile River where the sun sets, darkness begins, and afterlife starts, you will see everything that has to do with death (tombs, cemeteries, pyramids, mortuary temples, etc.). You will never see any of these constructions on the east bank, because this side was allocated only for things to do with life and the hustle bustle of the cities, markets, cult temples, etc.


So what does this have to do with Memphis? Why is it situated on the west bank of the Nile and not on the east bank? The reason is because over time the Nile current has shifted resulting in parts of Memphis now being on the west instead of the east bank.


Now let’s discuss Lower Egypt. Its capital was Per Wadjet later called Buto. On this location today, stands the small town of Tell Al Fara’een (the hill of the pharaohs) near the city of Sesouk in Kafr el-Sheikh Governorate in the Nile Delta, about 95km east of Alexandria. In Lower Egypt too, the king had to wear a special crown, the red gold crown (ancient Egyptian Deshret) looks something like a throne with a coil sticking out of it. The goddess protector of Lower Egypt was the Cobra (Wadjet) Ureas placed on the forehead of the king to face onlookers as a protection for the king. The sacred plant for Lower Egypt was the papyrus out of which the Ancient Egyptians made the paper.


That was Egypt before the unification in 3200 BC. Two kingdoms with two different capitals, crowns, kings, sacred plants, as well as two different goddesses. There were always skirmishes along the borders of the two kingdoms. The people were eager to be united, but the rebels and the ruling authorities in the north had other ideas.


So when a man from the south with the name Narmer or Mena defeated the rebels in the north, and for the first time united Upper and Lower Egypt, the people on both sides welcomed the unity because Mena was such a great leader that he could win the hearts and the minds of all of the Egyptians. The million dollar question is ‘how did he do it?’ That brings us to Memphis again.


He simply honored and respected all Egyptians, and building Memphis was one of his four major policy changes. To make everyone happy he moved the two capitals and built a new one for the now United Kingdom of Egypt, in the middle of what used to be Upper and Lower Egypt. He called the new capital Mn nfr the everlasting and the beautiful pyramid/city corrupted later by the Greeks who took over Egypt in 332 BC who had their tongues tied and could not pronounce the ancient words the way they should, to be called Memphis, but please don’t mix this with the touristy Memphis in Tennessee. Memphis was the oldest capital on earth and the oldest construction built entirely with stone. No wonder one of Memphis’ many names is Inbu-Hedj, ‘the white walls’ in reference to the white lime stone used to build the capital. Other names for Memphis were Hut Ka Petah the mansion of the spirit of Petah. When the Greeks corrupted this name they called it Aegyptos.


The three other major policies Mena introduced to please the people were firstly combining the two crowns together in the Pschent, the double crown, a combination of the red and the white crown placing the the red on top of the white, secondly honoring both goddesses and placing the vulture and the cobra as equal together, and lastly he honored both sacred plants equally the lotus and the papyrus.

Ibrahim Morgan is an Egyptologist/Tour Guide, and regular contributor to the Maadi Messenger based in Cairo. Email Ibrahim at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or contact via Facebook at www.facebook.com/ibrahimmorgantourguide.
All images © Ibrahim Morgan.

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