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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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Mem´phis, a very ancient city, the capital of Lower Egypt, standing at the apex of the Delta, ruins of which are still found not far from its successor and modern representative, Cairo. Its Egyptian name, in the hieroglyphics, is Menofri; in Coptic, Memfi, Manfi, Membe, Panoufi or Mefi, being probably corrupted from Man-nofri, 'the abode,' or, as Plutarch terms it, 'the haven of good men.' It was called also Pthah-ei, the abode of Pthah. In Hebrew the city bears the name of Moph (), or Noph (). These several names are obviously variations of one, of which Meph seems to contain the essential sounds. Whether we may hence derive support to the statement that the place was founded by Menes, the first human king of Egypt, or whether we have here a very early instance of the custom which prevailed so extensively among the Greeks and Romans, of inventing founders for cities, having names correspondent with the names of the places they were said to have built, it is impossible, with the materials we possess, to determine with any fair approach to certainty. Menes, however, is universally reputed to have founded not only Memphis but Thebes; the addition of the latter may seem to invalidate his claim to the former, making us suspect that here, too, we have a case of that custom of referring to someone distinguished name great events which happened, in truth, at different and far distant eras. If, as is probable, Thebes as well as Memphis was, at any early period, the seat of a distinct dynasty, the cradle and the throne of a line of independent sovereigns, they could scarcely have had one founder.

Memphis is said to have been founded by Menes, who, according to tradition, having diverted the course of the Nile, which had washed the foot of the sandy mountains of the Libyan chain, obliged it to run in the center of the valley, and built the city Memphis in the bed of the ancient channel. This change was effected by constructing a dyke about, a hundred stadia above the site of the projected city, whose lofty mounds and strong embankments turned the water to the East and confined the river to its new bed. The dyke was carefully kept in repair by succeeding kings, and even as late as the Persian invasion, a guard was always maintained there to overlook the necessary repairs; for, as Herodotus asserts, if the river were to break through the dyke, the whole of Memphis would be in danger of being overwhelmed with water, especially at the period of the inundation. Subsequently, however, when the increased deposit of the alluvial soil had raised the circumjacent plains, the precautions became unnecessary; and though the spot where the diversion of the Nile was made may still be traced, owing to the great bend it takes about fourteen miles above ancient Memphis, the lofty mounds once raised there are no longer visible. The site of Memphis was first accurately fixed by Pococke, at the village of Metrahenny. According to the reports of the French, the heaps which mark the site of the ancient buildings have three leagues of circumference; but this is less than its extent in early times, since Diodorus gives it 150 stadia, or six leagues and a quarter. Memphis declined after the foundation of Alexandria, and its materials were carried off to build Cairo.

The kingdom of which Memphis was the capital was most probably the Egypt of the patriarchs, in which Abraham, Jacob, and the Israelites resided. Psammetichus, in becoming sole monarch of all Egypt raised Memphis to the dignity of the one metropolis of the entire land, after which Memphis grew in the degree in which Thebes declined. It became distinguished for a multitude of splendid edifices, among which may be mentioned a large and magnificent temple to Vulcan, who was called by the Egyptians Phthah, the demiurgos, or creative power. Under the dominion of the Persians, as well as of the Ptolemies, Memphis retained its pre-eminence as the capital, though even in the time of the former it began to part with its splendor; and when the latter bestowed their favor on Alexandria, it suffered a material change for the worse, from which the place never recovered. In the days of Strabo many of its fine buildings lay in ruins, though the city was still large and populous. The final blow was given to the prosperity of Memphis in the time of Abdollatif, by the erection of the Arabian city of Cairo.

That the arts were carried to a great degree of excellence at Memphis is proved by the most abundant evidence. Its manufactures of glass were famed for the superior quality of their workmanship, with which Rome continued to be supplied long after Egypt became a province of the empire. The environs of Memphis presented cultivated groves of the acacia tree, of whose wood were made the planks and masts of boats, the handles of offensive weapons of war, and various articles of furniture. Memphis was also distinguished as being the place where Apis was kept, and where his worship received special honor.





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Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Memphis'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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