Memphis Graveyard

07/07/2014 10:30

Memphis, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world on the Nile shores, built in the western bank, which corresponds to the world of the dead, an outstanding necropolis. Its famous pyramids are the only of antiquity wonders still standing.

The Greeks adapted the name of a mausoleum, that of Men Nefer Pepi, as the name of the whole city, Memphis, and a temple dedicated to Ptah, Hut-ka-Ptah, ended up applying to the entire country, converted in Aiguptos, later Aegyptus for Rome. It is believed that Menes or Narmer was also known as the first legendary monarch who united the two kingdoms, the Lower and Upper Egypt, founded the city in the place where the valley meets the Nile delta and ruled from there. The city was known for the large and dazzling white wall that protected and gave it its name: Inebou Hedjou later simplified to Ineb Hedj, the strength of the white wall. And within stood the Great Temple of Ptah, where Alexander the Great was crowned king and Herodotus described after visiting.

Capital of the Old Kingdom, Memphis was a city that at some point came to gather half a million inhabitants. Phoenicians, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Libyans and Nubians had their own neighbourhoods in an entirely cosmopolitan city. Even during the periods when it was no longer the capital of both kingdoms, overshadowed by Thebes, Heliopolis, Tanis and Sais, was still a remarkable city. Its decline did not come until the Ptolemaic dynasty shifted their interests to the coast and the capital to Alexandria. Desert sand and reuse of its stones as a quarry to build the new city of Arab Cairo obliterated the old great Egyptian capital, but not at all its necropolis on the opposite bank, including Gizeh and the three famous pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, although the oldest is further south, in the necropolis of Saqqara.

Five centuries BC Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus visited the city and received from their priests the relationship of the kings who had ruled the country. Herodotus transcribed such knowledge in the Second and Third Book of his Geography and in the second, Euterpe, of the Nine Books of History. Diodorus of Sicily, a century before Christ, added details to the descriptions of Herodotus that even extend Strabo in the first century. Two Arab historians and geographers, Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi and Ahmad al Maqrizi, also would write, in the Middle Ages, about Memphis. The first stated that the "to left behind the ruins of Memphis would take a half-day walk whatever way was the direction taken." His writings in Arabic were translated first into Latin and finally, in 1800, to French headlined as Abdollatiphi historiæ Ægypti compendium.

When Napoleon and his troops stopped to see the Sphinx and the Pyramids accompanied by the Commission des Sciences et des Arts de l'Armée d' Orient began an outstanding job of cataloguing and description of many antiquities found in the country, from the Delta Nile to the Nubian lands. The result was the encyclopaedic Description de l'Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l'expédition de l'Armée française and took thirty-seven volumes in its second edition. No lacked detailed sheets that provide valuable information on the state they found the tombs of the Pharaohs and a map of the region, the first to accurately locate the site of Memphis.

As Memphis was one of the largest cities of the time, their dimensions were reflected in its necropolis. They lie parallel along thirty miles beside the river, between Abu Roash, to the north and Al Lahun to the south. In between are those of Gizeh, Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur. In this strip of land rose nearly one hundred pyramids.

The largest and best known is that of Gizeh, on the plateau which is currently in the outskirts of Cairo as the modern city has grown. There are the fourth dynasty pharaohs’ three great pyramids. The Great Pyramid of Cheops was completed around 2570 BC. Two million three hundred thousand blocks of stone, from an average of two and a half tons of weight are the enormous mass which originally reached the 480 feet high. With the loss of the outer limestone coating and erosion has shrunk by nearly a thirty. On both sides, east and west, there are two cemeteries and in the eastern side were found the pits where the solar boats were stored, which were supposed must to carry the pharaoh to the realm of the dead. One hundred and forty feet long, was reconstructed and displayed in purpose-built museum next to the pyramid.

The one of Chephren, was originally smaller but currently with Cheops erosion has become the highest, it is also the only one that preserves the limestone casing top. On its eastern side the pyramid has continuity in a funerary complex with a temple and a processional causeway that leads to the Great Sphinx, the colossal statue representing a lion body with the face supposedly belonging to  King Chephren. Front side view looks like as the sphinx was attached to the pyramid and next to it there are a couple of temples dated from different eras. Sphinx Arabic name is Abu al Hol, the Father of Terror. In Greek mythology the sphinx is a destructive demon that represents a woman's face and winged lion body. Alexander the Great contemporaries must found the resemblance.

The third pyramid is Mycerinus or Menkaure's. Just takes one tenth of the volume of the Great Pyramid, but is flanked by three smaller pyramids, named the Queens. The north face was pierced in the twelfth century by order of the Mamluk Sultan Osman Bey in an unsuccessful attempt to find the entrance to the tomb. Outside another road leads to the homonymous temple and to Queen Khentkaus tomb. And within walking distance to Nazret al Samaam neighbourhood.

Ten miles southwards is the most ancient necropolis of Memphis, Saqqara, where the first burials were made in First Dynasty period. It is believed that here might be buried King Narmer. The most notable work is the pyramid suggesting an overlap of six mastabas. Also known as Djoser Deyeseru, the most sacred, set in a large walled courtyard with access via a forty columns pillared hall, shaped palm and papyrus. Its design is attributed to the first architect in history whose name has transcended. He is Imhotep, who built it for the second pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, Djoser, who ruled between 2665 and 2645 BC. An inscription found at the base of a statue in Saqqarah lists architect positions: Treasurer of the King of Lower Egypt, First after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary Lord, High Priest of Heliopolis, Imhotep the Builder, sculptor, potter. The necropolis of Saqqara was used for three thousand five hundred years.

In the Ptolemaic age was built the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to Serapis, a  god mixed combination of Osiris and Apis, closer to Greeks and Egyptians. Catacombs houses sarcophagi containing mummified bulls. Apis was believed to be an incarnation of Ptah, god of Memphis .

Today, upon once were the ruins of Memphis, people live on the outskirts of the town called Mit Rahina. The most apparent of the ancient metropolis is located on a small museum where its most featured piece is a large statue of Ramses II that lacks legs and shows off lying. There are more ruins around, remnants of the Great Temple, most of which have ended up being part of the numerous deposits of Cairo Museum. Opposite is a large unpaved square, with some gardens where some more relics have concentrated: a sphinx, steles and various architectural elements that seem to adorn the barren garden where dogs are striving to find a shadow.

© J.L.Nicolas


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