Read anything about Ancient Egypt and you’ll soon come across an obvious etymological curiosity; most places are known by their Greek, Roman, Arabic or even English names, rather than their Ancient Egyptian names. This reflects the enormous breadth of time many of these settlements have been occupied, but it doesn’t help if you’re reading a piece of ancient Egyptian literature.
Where’s this Iunu they keep talking about? It doesn’t sound much like Heliopolis, does it?
I wanted to find out what the ancient Egyptians called their towns and cities, and create my own map as a reference guide. The Ancient Egyptian names are given first, with the most common modern name given in brackets.
So, what did they call Egypt?
During the Old Kingdom, Egypt was referred to as Kemet, which means “the Black land” and they called themselves Remtju ni Kemet, meaning the “People of the Black Land”. The term refers to the rich soil found in the Nile Valley and Delta which demarcated the inhabitable land. This was contrasted with Deshret, or the “Red Land”, which described the deserts of Egypt.
Later, Egyptians referred to their country as Hwt-ka-Ptah, which means “House of the Ka of Ptah”, referring to one of Egypt’s earliest gods, Ptah. This was also the name of the administrative centre and capital of Egypt, Menefer (Memphis).
The Egyptians themselves divided Egypt into Ta Shemau, meaning “the Land of Reeds” (Upper Egypt) and Ta Mehu, meaning “the Land of Papyrus” (Lower Egypt). The division between the two was retained after the unification of the kingdom in the Pre-dynastic Period, and the pharaoh was often known as the “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”.
This concept of duality is a constantly recurring feature of the Egyptian civilisation and was echoed in the pairing of different gods and goddesses to represent Upper and Lower Egypt, notably the Two Ladies, Nekhbet and Wadjet. Even the symbols of authority reinforced the idea; Lower Egypt was represented by the symbol of a red crown, also called Deshret, whilst Upper Egypt was with the white crown, known as Hedjet or “White one”. When combined they formed the Sekhemti or Pschent, the double crown of Egypt.
Lower Egypt’s Major Sites
Lower Egypt was known as Ta Mehu, meaning “the Land of the Papyrus”. The area extends from Egypt’s coast on the Mediterranean Sea to the southern suburbs of modern-day Cairo, encompassing the fertile Delta of the Nile. Its capital was at Menefer (Memphis), whose patron goddess was the cobra goddess Wadjet. As an area, it was less geographically and culturally isolated from the surrounding ancient world than Upper Egypt to the south.
Busiri (Abusir) – Located just north of Saqqara it served as one of the main elite cemeteries for the capital city of Menefer (Memphis) during the Old Kingdom’s 5th Dynasty. The necropolis contained 14 pyramids as well as solar temples, and was thought to have been chosen as a site because nearby Giza and Saqqara had become full.
Dahshur – A royal necropolis located in the desert on the west bank of the Nile close to the capital Menefer (Memphis). It contains five of the original 11 pyramids which chart the transition from step-sided pyramids to smooth-sided pyramids, including the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid of King Sneferu and the Black Pyramid of King Amenemhat III.
Djanet (Tanis) – A city on the now-silted Tanitic branch of the Nile Delta, which developed in the 19th dynasty and, Tanis became the seat of power of the pharaohs of the 21st-22nd Dynasty after Pi-Ramesses’ abandonment. The major site was the Great Temple of Amun-Ra, with minor temples dedicated to Mut and Khonsu whom, along with Amun-Ra, formed the Theban Triad.
Djedu (Busiris) – An ancient town and nome in the Delta on the western bank of the Damietta Branch of the Nile near Zau (Sais). It was regarded as one of the birthplaces of Osiris and the festival of Isis held there was one of the most popular and well attended in the Egyptian calendar.
Hut-waret (Avaris) – Known as “House of the Region”, Hut-waret was a major administrative capital of the Hyksos and other traders and capital of Egyp. The Hyksos occupied it from the 13th Dynasty to the Second Intermediate Period until its capture by king Ahmose I in the 18th Dynasty.
Iunu (Heliopolis) – One of Egypt’s oldest cities, Iunu, meaning “The Pillars”, was a major religious centre occupied since the Predynastic Period. It was the principal cult centre of Ra and Atum, giving it its Greek name ‘City of the Sun’. The temple of Ra was a depository for royal records, and Herodotus states that the priests of Heliopolis were the best informed in matters of history of all the Egyptians.
Khem (Letopolis) – The city was a centre of worship of the deity Khenty-khem, a form of the god Horus. The site and its deity are mentioned from as far back as the Old Kingdom but the only known monuments remaining date to the reigns of pharaohs from the Late Period.
Menefer (Memphis) – Menefer, meaning “enduring and beautiful”, was the capital of ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom and occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile Delta between upper and lower Egypt. It thrived as a regional centre for commerce, trade, and religion and was the centre for the worship of Ptah, the god of creation and artworks, along with the Memphis triad, consisting Ptah, his consort Sekhmet, and their son Nefertem.
Per-Bast (Bubastis) – Its name means “House of Bast” and it was notable as a centre of worship for the feline goddess Bastet, and the principal depository in Egypt of mummies of cats. It became a royal residence after Shoshenq I, the first ruler and founder of the 22nd Dynasty, became pharaoh and reached its height during the 23rd dynasty.
Per-Wadjet (Buto) – Originally two cities of Pe and Dep, Per-Wadjet or “House of Wadjet”, was known for its temple dedicated to Wadjet, the patron deity of Lower Egypt often represented as a cobra. Her oracle was in her nearby temple and an annual festival was held there in the goddess honour.
Piemro (Naucratis) – It was the first and, for much of its early history, the only permanent Greek colony in Egypt and there was a symbiotic interchange of Greek and Egyptian art and culture through its port and trade links. The exact date of its foundation is unknown, but accounts from of Strabo and Athenaeus suggest the reign of Psammetichus I.
Khito (Rosetta) – Named from the hieratic meaning “the populace”, Khito was a minor settlement that was inhabited since the early dynasty period located on the mouth of the Polpetin branch of the Nile.
Rhacotis (Alexandria) – Located west of the now-silted Canopic branch of the Nile, Rhacotis meaning “construction site” was a port within the Nile Delta that was reliably accessible to large ships, and supply enough water to support a city via canals. It became the Egyptian quarter of Alexandria as the city grew following the arrival of Alexander the Great.
Saqqara – The necropolis for the ancient Egyptian capital, Menefer (Memphis), it features the pyramids of seventeen Egyptian kings from the 1st Dynasty as well as several mastaba tombs and funerary monuments of high officials. It includes the oldest complete stone building complex known in history, the Step Pyramid of Djoser.
Sena (Pelusium) – An important city in the eastern extremes of the Nile Delta, Sena stood as a border-fortress, a place of great strength, on the frontier, protecting Egypt as regards to Syria and the sea. It was directly exposed to attack by any invaders and was often besieged and the decisive battle which transferred the throne of the Pharaohs to Cambyses II, king of the Persians took place here.
Tamiat (Damietta) – A coastal port whose name means “the ability”, possibly because it had the ability to combine the saltwater of the Mediterranean Sea and the freshwater of the Nile in one place. Originally closer to the sea than it is at present, the town declined with the development of Alexandria.
Tipersis (Giza) – Close to the capital of Menefer, the Giza Plateau contains a huge complex of royal mortuary and sacred structures, including the Great Sphinx, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and several other large pyramids and temples. It was used from the Pre-dynastic until the Late period, though the major sites were constructed during the 4th Dynasty.
Wadi Natrun – A valley located below sea level and the Nile containing several alkaline lakes, natron-rich salt deposits, salt marshes and freshwater marshes. The alkali lakes of the Natron Valley provided the Egyptians with the sodium bicarbonate used in mummification and faience making. The Egyptians fought the Libyans for control of the area, overcoming them and annexing the eastern side of the desert.
Zau (Sais) – A town in the Western Nile Delta on the Canopic branch of the Nile, it became the seat of power during the 24th Dynasty and the Saite 26th Dynasty during the Late Period. The city’s patron goddess was Neith, whose cult is attested as early as the 1st Dynasty and it was said to contain the grave of Osiris.
Sinai & Beyond
The Sinai Peninsula is situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Red Sea to the south and acts as a land bridge between Asia and Africa. From the time of the First Dynasty or before, the Egyptians mined turquoise in Sinai on a seasonal basis, giving the area its name Ta Mefkat, meaning “the Land of Turquoise”. A north-south reed-lined waterway is shown on ancient maps called Ta Denit, “the Dividing Waters”. Due to its proximity to the Levant has historically been the centre of conflict between Egypt and various states of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.
Azzati (Gaza) – This city served as Egypt’s administrative capital in Canaan, and was the residence of the Egyptian governor of the region. A caravan point of strategic importance from the earliest times, it was constantly involved in the wars between Egypt and Syria and the Mesopotamian powers. Gaza was in Egyptian hands for 350 years, until it was settled by the Philistines.
Gebel Athak (Timna) – The largest and old copper mining site in modern-day Yemen, mining activity by the Egyptians and Midianites at Timna reached its peak during the 19th and 20th Dynasties. Ramses II, during the campaign against the country of Edom, is said to have pacified the region and organised the lasting presence of Egyptians.
Khetiu Mefkat (Wadi Maghareh) – Site containing pharaonic monuments, turquoise and copper mines used extensively throughout Egypt’s history. They called the as Khetiu Mefkat, meaning “the Terraces of Turquoise”.
Robihwa (Rafah) – The city has for significant periods been a part of the Egyptian Empire and formed an border between Egypt and the Lavant. It was also a major location on the battle route towards Egyptian settlements in Anatolia and Levant.
Rusalim (Jerusalem) – Jerusalem became a vassal to Egypt after the Egyptian New Kingdom under Ahmose I and Thutmose I had reunited Egypt and expanded into the Levant. They called the city Canaanite city Rusalim, probably meaning “City of Shalem” after a Canaanite god of dusk. The Battle of Djahy between Ramesses III and the Sea Peoples marked the beginning of the decline in power of the Egyptians in the region.
Serabit el-Khadim – A locality where turquoise was mined extensively featuring mining camps and a long-lived Temple of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess who was favoured as a protector in desert regions and known as the “Lady of Turquoise”.
Tjaru (El Qantara) – A frontier town in the inhospitable desert region, the fortress at Tjaru was the main fortress protecting the Way of Horus and was said to be a place of banishment for criminals.
The Way of Horus – Egypt’s eastern frontier, this route connected Egypt with Canaan starting at Tjaru and ending at Rafah. At least 11 strategically placed fortresses lined the route, guarding a northern access point to Egypt, with temples dedicated to Horus.