The Name we use today derives from the Pyramid of Pepy I at Saqqara, which is Mennufer (the good place), or Coptic Menfe. Memphis is the Greek translation. But the City was originally Ineb-Hedj, meaning "The White Wall". Some sources indicate that other versions of the name may have even translated to our modern name for the country, Egypt. During the Middle Kingdom, it was Ankh-Tawy, or "That Which Binds the Two Lands". In fact, its location lies approximately between Upper and Lower Egypt, and the importance of the area is demonstrated by its persistent tendency to be the Capital of Egypt, as Cairo just to the North is today.
Memphis, founded around 3,100 BC, is the legendary city of Menes, the King who united Upper and Lower Egypt. Early on, Memphis was more likely a fortress from which Menes controlled the land and water routes between Upper Egypt and the Delta. Having probably originated in Upper Egypt, from Memphis he could control the conquered people of Lower Egypt. However, by the Third Dynasty, the building at Saqqara suggests that Memphis had become a sizable city.
Tradition tells us that Menes founded the city by creating dikes to protect the area from Nile floods. Afterwards, this great city of the Old Kingdom became the administrative and religious center of Egypt. In fact, so dominating is the city during this era that we refer to it as the Memphite period. It became a cosmopolitan community and was probably one of the largest and most important cities in the ancient world. When Herodotus visited the city in the 5th century BC, a period when Persians ruled Egypt, he found many Greeks, Jews, Phoenicians and Libyans among the population.
Frankly, our concept of Memphis today is very artificial. The city must have been huge, judging from the size of its necropolises, which extend for some 19 miles along the west bank of the Nile. These include Dahshure, Saqqara, Abusir, Zawyet el-Aryan, Giza and Abu Rawash, whose names derive not from their origins, but from modern nearby communities. Very few people can imagine the age of this city, as no European cities have yet to attain the span of Memphis' existence, and it is completely outside the comprehension of people in the Americas. Rome may eventually outlast Memphis, but as with any city that remains active for thousands of years, the city center, and various areas of the city shifted over the years, so today, what we think of, as Memphis is rather artificial. Some scholars believe that the city may have shifted first north, and then back south though its three-millennium history.
But there is little left of the City today, at least that can be seen. Originally, the city had many fine temples, palaces and gardens. But today, other than the scattered ruins, most of the city is gone, or lies beneath cultivated fields, Nile silt and local villages. What we do know of Memphis comes to us from its necropolises, mentioned above, text and papyrus from other parts of Egypt and Herodotus, who visited the city.
For example, we have a number of papyruses from the time of the mysterious Akhenaten concerning Memphis on such mundane matters as bread baking. And we know that the royal decree rejecting the Cult of Akhenaten issued by Tutankhamun after the earlier king's death originated in Memphis, indicating the cities importance, even over Thebes, in the New Kingdom.
What happened to the city to cause its complete demise is somewhat unclear. In later Dynasties Thebes became the capital of Egypt, but we know that Memphis retained much of its religious significance and continued to prosper during this period. Actually, Thebes was never exactly the administrative center of Egypt, which Memphis was, its significance being more religious. In fact, by the 18th Dynasty, the Egyptian Kings had apparently moved back into the Palaces of Memphis. But when the Greeks arrived, and moved the Egyptian capital to Alexandria, Memphis suffered, and with the entrance of Christianity and the decline of Egyptian religion, Memphis became a mere shadow of the former great city. But the actual demise of Memphis probably occurred with the invasion of the Muslim conquerors in 641 when they established their new capital not at Memphis, but a short distance north of the city at Fustat, which is now a part of Cairo called Old Cairo, or Coptic Cairo.
Still, in the 12th Century AD, one traveler wrote, "the ruins still offer, to those who contemplate them, a collection of such marvelous beauty that the intelligence is confounded, and the most eloquent man would be unable to describe them adequately". But during the Mameluke period of Egypt, the dikes, which held back the Nile floods, fell into disrepair, after which Memphis was apparently and slowly covered in silt.
The fraction we can see of Memphis today is located principally around the small village of Mit Rahina. We believe that Ptah was the principle pagan god worshipped in Memphis, who was identified with Hephaistos and Vulcan. The remains of the god's temple bordering the village of Mit Rahina was at one time probably one of the grandest temples in Egypt. Today, only a fraction of the temple remains, which was originally excavated by the famous Egyptologist, W.M. Flinders Petrie between 1908and 1913. Ramses II is well represented here, with a colossus of himself near the Alabaster Sphinx along the southern enclosure wall.
Other remains include an enclosure with a ruined palace of Apries to the north of the Temple of Ptah.