As the birthplace of civilization, various ancient cities flourished over the course of 3,000 years in Egypt, mostly along the banks of the Nile. This is because the Nile was a major source of fresh water and left behind fertile farmlands which fed the inhabitants of these cities.
Ancient Egyptian cities were divided into lower and upper regions, with cities around the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile Delta falling under the lower region, and those in the north, including Memphis and Thebes which are first on our list, falling under the upper region.
Read on to find out which ancient Egyptian cities served as capital cities during Egypt's colorful past, their approximate locations when compared to modern day Egyptian geography, and what made them unique.
- 1. Memphis City (Giza and Cair)
- 2. Thebes City (Luxor)
- 3. Amarna City (Minya)
- 4. Avaris City (Tell el-Dabʿa)
1. Memphis City
- Nearest city in modern day Egypt: Giza and Cairo
In 2000 BC, Memphis was the largest city in the world. Although there are varying estimates of its population, this is believed to be between 30,000 and 60,000 people. It was also the first-ever capital of Egypt, between 2950 and 2180 BC, marking the divide between Upper and Lower Egypt with its location.
According to legend, the city was founded by King Menes, and it was believed to be under the protection of the god Ptah. It served as the capital for more than eight consecutive dynasties.
Ruins of the former capital include the pyramid complex at Giza, the statue of Ramesses II and the Sphinx of Giza.
After the rise of Thebes, Memphis still served as the second-biggest city in Egypt, but after the rise of Alexandria, Memphis was completely abandoned and eventually faded completely.
Recommended tour: 1-Day Egypt Pyramids and Museums Tour
2. Thebes City
- Nearest city in modern day Egypt: Luxor
Known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, Thebes was a city located along the Nile within the current city of Luxor. The city has been inhabited since 3200 BC, when it was first a small trading post.
It was the capital of Egypt from approximately 1570 to 1069 BC, and its location close to the Nubian and Eastern Deserts meant it was a valuable resource hub as well as on a popular and growing trade route.
You can get a feel for some of Thebes' former glory in the vast private and royal cemeteries and funerary complexes in the Valley of the Kings as well as the Valley of the Queens, and the Temple Complex of Karnak in modern day Luxor.
Suggested read: How to Plan Your First Trip to Egypt — 7 Easy Steps
Recommended tour: 10-Day Egypt Family Tour
3. Amarna City
- Nearest city in modern day Egypt: Minya
Amarna was the capital city of Egypt in the eighteenth dynasty, for only ten years between 1346 BC and 1336 BC.
The city was built as the new capital for the Pharaoh Akhenaten, dedicated to his new religion, the worship of Aten (the sun disc). This pharaoh is known for trying to convert Egypt's religion into a monotheist system instead of the polytheist system that was believed in before him and after his death. He was never very successful in this.
After his death, his well-known son King Tutankhamun left the city and returned to Thebes where he was actually born, but there are still some beautiful tomb inscriptions found in the ruins of Amarna City.
Suggested read: Egypt Holidays 2023 (What Dates to Avoid)
4. Avaris City
- Nearest city in modern day Egypt: Tell el-Dabʿa
Located closer towards Asia in the east of the Nile Delta meant that Avaris City was a city that had lots of immigrants from Palestine, as evidenced in many artefacts of Syro-Palestinian origin having been uncovered.
It was also occupied for a while, having been captured by the Hyksos in the 18th Century BC, a small group of West Asian individuals who ruled Northern Egypt. It served as their capital between 1664 and 1569 BC.
Interestingly, ruins from the city were uncovered by Austrian archaeologists using radar imagery in 2010, where they were able to find underground outlines of the city in the Nile Delta.
Recommended tour: 8-Day Egypt Essence with Nile Cruise Tour
5. Pi-Ramesses City
- Nearest city in modern day Egypt: Qantir
Pi-Ramesses, meaning the House of Ramesses, was the ancient Egyptian capital city built by 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Ramesses II (who served between 1279 and 1213 BC). It acted as the summer palace and was located near the old site of Avaris on the eastern-most branch of the Nile at the time.
The capital was moved here by Ramesses II because of its military positioning, which explains why many storehouses and military facilities were located there.
Recommended tour: 11-Day Off-the-Beaten-Track Egypt Tour
6. Thonis City
- Nearest city in modern day Egypt: Alexandria
The city of Thonis (known in ancient Greek as Heracleion) served as Egypt's capital in the first dynasty (before Memphis became capital), which explains why the tombs of pharaohs of the first three dynasties were found there. It also served as Egypt's largest Mediterranean port before Alexandria was founded.
The city is located very close to modern day Alexandria, but completely submerged as a result of several earthquakes and tidal waves, which lead to the collapse of a 110-square-kilometer (42 square miles) portion of the Nile.
Thonis City made the news in 2021 when archaeologists discovered remnants of 2,400-year-old wicker baskets filled with fruit at the bottom of the sea alongside other treasures that indicated there had been a funeral set-up.
Recommended tour: 10-Day Egypt Tour with Red Sea and Nile Cruise
7. Alexandria City
- Nearest city in modern day Egypt: Alexandria
While not as ancient as the others on this list, Alexandria also boasts an impressive history, having served as Egypt's capital between 332 BC and 641 AD.
It was built by Alexander the Great as the new center for Africa, the Middle East, and beyond, and was most famous for being home to the Library of Alexandria which held 100,000–400,000 scrolls of parchment containing texts about literature, medicine, science and many other subject matters. Unfortunately, the library was burned down in 48 AD by Julius Caesar during his civil war. The estimates of the amount of parchment that burned are so varied because it is unsure how much was actually destroyed. Caesar went on to report it as an accident rather than arson.
The city was also home to the lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos of Alexandria, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was one of the tallest man-made structures in the world for centuries, but was severely damaged by three successive earthquakes between 956 and 1323 AD. after which it became an abandoned ruin. Remains can be found on the seafloor today, and there are talks of an underwater museum.
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