Monday, August 13, 2012

Early Egyptian Capitals: Memphis and Thebes

Memphis. Tradition tells us that Menes was the first ruler of a united northern and southern Egypt. His rule began around the year 3000 BC. Herodotus (ca 484-425 BC), the great Greek historian, says it was Menes who first ordered the construction of the city of Memphis. He chose an excellent location for it: the southern tip of the Nile Delta. The ruins of Memphis now lie 12 miles (20 km) south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile.

Perhaps as few as 6,000 people, or as many as 30,000, lived in Memphis between 3000 and 2000 BC. If the higher estimate is accurate, then Memphis was the most populated city in the world at that time. That’s still very small by today’s standards.

Thebes. Thebes is the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian city located on the Nile about 315 miles (507 km) south of Memphis. It is now part of the city of Luxor.

Thebes first served as the political capital of Egypt between 2130 and 1990 BC. Even though Memphis lost the presence of the ruler of Egypt and his bureaucrats during this time, it likely remained the center of economic and cultural vitality in Egypt.

Memphis. Around 1990, with another change in ruling families, Memphis again became the capital until 1650.

Avaris. The Hyksos, a group of foreigners from Southwest Asia, took control of the Egyptian government and ruled the country from about 1650-1550 BC. They ruled from the city of Avaris located in the northeast corner of the Nile delta. After capturing Memphis, Hyksos leaders had their army carry away much of the city’s wealth to Avaris.

Thebes again became the political capital of Egypt in about 1550 and remained so until just after 1300. At that time Ahmose 1st, first ruler of both the 18th dynasty and the New Kingdom of Egypt, led an Egyptian army to victory over the Hyksos of northern Egypt. Ahmose and his descendents then ruled all of Egypt from their capital in southern Egypt.

Pi-Rameses. The 18th dynasty ended around 1292. Rameses 1st, founder of the 19th dynasty, moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes even farther north than Memphis to a new city named Pi-Rameses. He located it at the site of the old Hyksos capital of Avaris.

Memphis. Even so, Rameses 2nd and Egyptian rulers after him continued to spend money on temples, palaces, and statues in Memphis.

In 671 and again in 664, the ruler of Assyria led destructive conquests of Egypt. During both invasions his army looted Memphis.

Not all foreign rulers were so bad. When the Persians took control of Memphis in 525, they made it a provincial capital and beautified it. With that came renewed economic vitality. That lasted until Memphis lost its position as a political capital for the last time in 399.

Alexander of Macedon was crowned pharaoh in 332 in the Temple of Ptah in Memphis because the city continued to serve as the religious center of Egypt. Ptolemy 1st, who became ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s death, had Alexander’s body brought from Babylon, where he died, to Memphis. There it was embalmed by priests at the temple of Ptah. Ptolemy 2nd had Alexander’s body placed in a special tomb in Alexandria.

Ptolemy 5th (ruled 204-181) met with religious leaders in Memphis in 196 to discuss rules for religion as well as taxes. His decisions were carved in two different languages, using three different kinds of letters, on what is now called the Rosetta Stone.

The permanent decline of Memphis began with the loss of both political and economic vitality following the construction of Alexandria. Finally, the city lost even its religious vitality with the Edict of Thessalonica. This edict was issued by Theodosius, the Roman emperor, in 380. It declared Nicene Christianity to be the sole true religion for all people living in the empire. With that, devotion to the gods of ancient Egypt, and even the ability to read ancient hieroglyphs, gradually disappeared.

With the founding of the city of Fustat in 641 as the home of the new Muslim rulers, Memphis gradually died. Rather than remaining a living city, it became a dead source of cut stone for use in other cities like Fustat and, after 969, Cairo.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.