The distinctive geography of ancient Egypt with a narrow strip of lush fertile land surrounded by desert saw its cities built close to the Nile River. This ensured a ready supply of water, access to hunting grounds in the Niles marshes and a transport network of boats. Cities and towns were divided into “Upper” and “Lower” regions.
Ancient Egypt was divided into two kingdoms. Lower Egypt comprised those cities and towns closest to the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile Delta while Upper Egypt consisted of the southern cities.
Facts About Ancient Egyptian Cities And Regions
- While most of ancient Egypt’s population lived in small villages and settlements it developed a series of larger cities often built around trading hubs and religious centres
- Egypt’s cities were located near the Nile River to ensure adequate water and food supplies and access to transport by boat
- Ancient Egypt was divided into two kingdoms, Lower Egypt near the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean Sea and Upper Egypt closer to first Nile cataracts
- There were 42 nomes or provinces in ancient Egypt, twenty-two in Upper Egypt and twenty in Lower Egypt
- Over its 3,000 year history, ancient Egypt had at least six capital cities, Alexandria, Thebes, Memphis, Sais, Avaris and Thinis
- Thebes was one of ancient Egypt’s most important cities and the centre of the cult of Amun
- Ramses II carved his colossal tomb and that dedicated to his Queen Nefertari in the cliff face above Aswan as a show of his wealth and power to deter Nubian invaders
- Alexandria founded in 331 B.C by Alexander the Great became Egypt’s capital under the Ptolemaic Dynasty until Egypt was annexed by Rome as a province
Over its history spanning 3,000 years, Egypt moved the site of its capital several times.
Founded in 331 B.C by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was the ancient world’s intellectual centre of gravity. Thanks to its situation on the Mediterranean coast, it was one of the wealthiest and busiest trading centres in ancient Egypt. However, devastating earthquakes have inundated much of the ancient city. Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s tomb is believed to be located somewhere near Alexandria, though it yet to be discovered.
Perhaps ancient Egypt’s most influential city, Thebes in Upper Egypt was Egypt’s capital during its Middle and New Kingdom Dynasties. The divine Triad of Thebes comprised Amun, Mut and Khonsu her son. Thebes plays host to two remarkable temple complexes, Luxor and Karnak. Opposite Thebes on the Nile’s west bank is the Valley of the Kings a vast desert necropolis and the location of the fabulous King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The pharaohs of Egypt’s First Dynasty constructed Memphis, the Old Kingdom’s capital city. Over time, it evolved into a powerful religious centre. While the citizens of Memphis worshipped a multitude of gods, the divine Triad of Memphis comprised the god Ptah, Sekhmet his wife and their son Nefertem. Memphis was part of the kingdom of Lower Egypt. After Alexandria became the Ptolemaic Dynasty’s capital, Memphis gradually faded in importance and eventually fell into ruin.
Set in Lower Egypt, the Hyskos invaders of the 15th Dynasty made Avaris Egypt’s capital. The Hyksos were initially traders who initially settled in the area before seizing control of large areas of Egypt. Now modern-day Tel El-Daba, Archaeologists have unearthed a vaulted mud-brick tomb belonging to a warrior. He was buried with his weapons including a beautifully preserved copper sword, the first of its type discovered in Egypt.
Called Zau in ancient Egyptian times, Sais is set in the western region of the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt. During the 24th Dynasty, Sais was the capital of Egypt during the 12 years Tefnakhte I and Bakenranef occupied the throne.
Set in Upper Egypt, Thinis was Egypt’s capital prior to the capital being moved to Memphis. Egypt’s first Pharaohs were buried in Thinis. Thinis was the centre of Anhur the war god’s cult. After the Third Dynasty, Thinis dwindled in influence.
While the majority of ancient Egyptians were farmers living in small settlements, there were numerous major cities, particularly those built around temple complexes close to the Nile River.
This Upper Egypt city was believed to be Osiris’ burial site. Abydos became the centre of the god’s cult. Abydos houses the Temple of Seti I and Queen Tetisheri “The Mother of the New Kingdom’s” mortuary complex. Abydos was favoured as the burial site place for Egypt’s Old Kingdom pharaohs. Seti I’s temple contained the renowned List of Kings, which lists Egypt’s kings in sequence as they were elevated to the throne.
Aswan in Upper Egypt is the position of the Nile River’s first cataract as it flows down on its long journey out into the Mediterranean. Ramses II carved his colossal tomb and that of Queen Nefertari together with the Temple of Philae in the cliffs above Aswan. These temples were relocated in the 1960s to avoid them being inundated by the waters of the Aswan High Dam.
Founded around c. 4,000 BC, Crocodile City is an ancient city and one of the world’s earliest continuously inhabited cities. Today, “Crocodile City” in Lower Egypt has evolved into the modern city of Faiyum. Once Crocodile City formed the centre of the Sobek cult of the crocodile god. This crocodile-headed deity represented fertility, power and military might. Sobek also featured prominently in Egypt’s creation myths.
Dendera in Upper Egypt houses the Dendera Temple Complex. Its Temple of Hathor is one of Upper Egypt’s most completely preserved temples. As Hathor’s cult city, the Temple of Hathor was a regular pilgrimage site. As well as being the focal point for Hathor’s festivals, Dendera had a hospital on site. Together with conventional medical therapies of the day, its doctors offered magical treatments and inspired hopes of miraculous cures amongst its patients.
The temple of Edfu in Upper Egypt also referred to as the “Temple of Horus” and is remarkably well preserved. Its inscriptions provided phenomenal insights into ancient Egypt’s religious and political thoughts. A colossal Horus statue in his falcon form dominates the temple site.
Elephantine Island located in the midst of the Nile River between the Nubian territories and Egypt, was a significant centre of cult practices in the worship of Khnum, Satet and Anuket their daughter. Hapi, the ancient Egyptian god associated with the annual Nile River floods was also worshipped on Elephantine Island. Part of Aswan, Elephantine Island marked the boundary between the ancient Egyptian Empire and Nubian territory thanks to its location to the north of the Nile’s first cataract.
Today, Giza is world famous for its pyramids as well as the enigmatic Great Sphinx. Giza formed a necropolis city for royal members of Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Its Great Pyramid of Khufu towering 152 Metres (500 feet) into the sky is the last surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the World. Giza’s other pyramids are the Pyramid of Khafre and Menkaure.
In ancient Egypt’s Pre-Dynastic period, Heliopolis or the “City of the Sun” in Lower Egypt was Egypt’s most preeminent religious centre as well as its biggest city. Ancient Egyptians believed it was their sun god Atum’s birthplace. The divine Ennead of Heliopolis comprised Isis, Atum, Nut, Geb, Osiris, Set, Shu, Nephthy and Tefnut. Today, the sole surviving moment dating back to the ancient period is an obelisk from the Temple of Re-Atum.
Hermonthis is in Upper Egypt emerged as a busy influential city during ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. Once, Hermonthis was once the centre of the cult worshipping the god Menthu associated with bulls, war and strength. Today Hermonthis is the modern city of Armant.
The ancient Egyptians called this city Khmun. It was a leading religious centre for the worship of Thoth in his manifestation as the Egyptian creator god. Hermopolis was also known in ancient times for the Hermopolitan Ogdoad consisting of the eight gods credited with creating the world. The Ogdoad comprised four paired male and female gods, Kek and Keket, Amun and Amaunet, Nun and Naunet and Huh and Hehet.
Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt was one of ancient Egypt’s oldest and for a period, also one of its wealthiest and most influential cities. The “City of the Hawk,” worshipped the god Horus. One of history’s earliest surviving political documents the Palette of Narmer was excavated in Hierakonpolis. This siltstone artefact has carvings commemorating Upper Egypt’s King Narmer’s decisive triumph over Lower Egypt, which marked the unification of the Egyptian crowns.
Sitting in Upper Egypt, north of Aswan, Kom Ombo is the site of the Kom Ombo Temple, a dual temple constructed with mirror wings. One side of the temple complex is dedicated to Horus. The opposing wing is dedicated to Sobek. This design is unique amongst ancient Egyptian temples. Each part of the temple complex has an entrance and chapels. First known as Nubt or the City of Gold to the ancient Egyptians, this name possibly referred either to Egypt’s famed gold mines or to the gold trade with Nubia.
Leontopolis was a Nile Delta city in Lower Egypt, which served as a provincial centre. It won its name “City of Lions,” through its worship of gods and goddesses manifesting as cats and particularly lions. The city was also a cult centre serving lion gods connected to Ra. Archaeologists discovered the remnants of a massive structure on the site comprising earthworks with sloped walls and a vertical inner face. This is believed to form a defensive fortification constructed during the reign of the Hyksos invaders.
Site of the 1799 discovery by Napoleon’s troops of the famed Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone proved to be the key to deciphering the baffling system of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Dating back to 800 AD, Rosetta was a leading trading city thanks to its prime location straddling the Nile and Mediterranean. Once a bustling, cosmopolitan coastal city, Rosetta enjoyed a near monopoly on rice grown in the Nile Delta. However, with the emergence of Alexandria, its trade declined and it faded into obscurity.
Saqqara was the ancient necropolis of Memphis in Lower Egypt. Saqqara’s signature structure is Djoser’s Step Pyramid. In all, nearly 20 ancient Egyptian pharaohs constructed their pyramids at Saqqara.
Known also as “Khasouou” and “Khasout” Xois was Egypt’s capital, prior to the pharaoh relocating his seat to Thebes. Xois’ wealth and influence produced 76 Egyptian pharaohs. The city was also famous for its high-quality wines and production of luxury goods.
Ancient Egypt Nomes Or Provinces
For much of Egypt’s dynastic period, there were twenty-two nomes in Upper Egyptian and twenty nomes in Lower Egypt. A nomarch or a regional ruler governed each nome. Egyptologists believe these geographic-based administrative zones were established as early as the beginning of the Pharaonic period.
The word nome comes from the Greek nomos. The ancient Egyptian word to describe its forty-two traditional provinces was sepat. Ancient Egypt’s provincial capitals also acted as economic and religious hubs serving the surrounding settlements. At this time, the majority of Egyptians resided in small villages. Some provincial capitals were strategically important either as staging points for military incursions into neighbouring countries or as fortresses defending Egypt’s frontier.
Politically, nomes, and their ruling nomarch played a key role in ancient Egypt’s economic and administrative system. When the power and influence of the central administration waned, the nomarchs often expanded the reach of their provincial capitals. It was the nomes, which oversaw the maintenance of dams and the network of irrigation canals crucial for agricultural production. It was also the nomes that dispensed justice. At times, the nomes challenged and occasionally surpassed the Pharaoh’s central government.
Reflecting On The Past
Originally a nation of farmers and scattered settlements, ancient Egypt spawned major cities built on wealth, trade and religion, scattered the length of the Nile River. In times of weak central governments, the nomes or provincial capitals could rival the Pharaoh for influence.