Why the name: Memphis?

Memphis_Ramses II_1
Statue of Ramses II in Memphis (Wikipedia)

Ever wondered where the name Memphis came from? No, I am not talking about Memphis the capital of Blues in Tennessee (USA), but rather, about Memphis, Egypt, the reason why Memphis Tennessee got its name.

Well, Memphis in Egypt, was the ancient capital of Aneb-Hetch, the first nome of Lower Egypt. Its ruins are located near the town of Mit Rahina, 20 km (12 mi) south of Giza. It is 20 km (12 mi) south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. The modern cities and towns of Mit Rahina, Dahshur, Abusir, Abu Gorab, and Zawyet el’Aryan, south of Cairo, all lie within the administrative borders of historical Memphis. The city was also the place that marked the boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt (the 22nd nome of Upper Egypt and 1st nome of Lower Egypt).

Memphis and its Necropoles
Memphis and its necropolises


Memphis has had several names throughout its history which spans almost four millennia. Its Ancient Egyptian name was Inbu-Hedj (translated as “the white walls“). Because of its size, the city also came to be known by various other names that were actually the names of neighborhoods or districts that enjoyed considerable prominence at one time or another. For example, according to a text of the First Intermediate Period, it was known as Djed-Sut (“everlasting places“), which is the name of the pyramid of Teti.

Memphis_Men neferThe city was also at one point referred to as Ankh-Tawy (meaning “Life of the Two Lands“), stressing the strategic position of the city between Upper and Lower Egypt. This name appears to date from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1640 BCE), and is frequently found in ancient Egyptian texts.

At the beginning of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 BCE), the city became known as Men-nefer (meaning “enduring and beautiful“), which became Menfe in Coptic. The name “Memphis” is the Greek adaptation of this name, which was originally the name of the pyramid of Pepi I, located west of the city.

Memphis_Hout ka Ptah

The Egyptian historian Manetho referred to Memphis as Hut-ka-Ptah (meaning “Enclosure of the ka of Ptah“). In the Bible, Memphis is called Moph or Noph. 

Memphis_Great temple of Ptah
Depiction of the western forecourt to the Great Temple of Ptah in Memphis (Wikipedia)

According to legend related by Manetho, an Egyptian priest and historian from the 3rd century BC, the city of Memphis was founded by the pharaoh Menes. It was the capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, and remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history. It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity. Its principal port, Peru-nefer, harbored a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional center for commerce, trade, and religion. Its eventual downfall is believed to be due to the loss of its economic significance in late antiquity, following the rise of coastal Alexandria. Its religious significance also diminished after the abandonment of the ancient religion following the Edict of Thessalonica.

Memphis_Alexandre visitant le temple de Memphis 1898
Alexander visiting the Temple of Apis in Memphis, ca 1898 (Wikipedia)

The ruins of the former capital today offer fragmented evidence of its glorious past. They have been preserved, along with the pyramid complex at Giza, as a World Heritage Site since 1979. The site is open to the public as an open-air museum.

Memphis became the capital of Ancient Egypt for over eight consecutive dynasties during the Old Kingdom. The city reached a peak of prestige under the 6th dynasty as a center for the worship of Ptah, the god of creation and artworks.

Memphis declined briefly after the 18th dynasty with the rise of Thebes and the New Kingdom, and was revived under the Persians before falling firmly into second place following the foundation of Alexandria. Under the Roman Empire, Alexandria remained the most important Egyptian city. Memphis remained the second city of Egypt until the establishment of Fustat in 641 CE. It was then largely abandoned and became a source of stone for the surrounding settlements. It was still an imposing set of ruins in the 12th century but soon became a little more than an expanse of low ruins and scattered stone.

So whenever you think of going to Memphis, Tennessee, or about the birthplace of Blues, remember Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt, the heart of great pharaohs, and the “enduring, and beautiful” place which has now become an important part of world history and stored greatness throughout centuries. No wonder one of its names was “everlasting places”; it has actually been an everlasting place!

3 thoughts on “Why the name: Memphis?

  1. Hotep, Dr. Y! I wondered how the original Memphis got it’s name. It didn’t sound like something in the Khemetic language, so I thought the evolution and translation was interesting. I have been to Memphis, TN for a family reunion a long time ago, but not the city in Egypt.


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