Back to Main Page

<< Back           destinations in egypt : cairo : roman cairo : babylon

Cairo: History
Roman Cairo

Memphis to Babylon

The city called Cairo (from the Arabic al-Qahira, 'the Victorious') was not founded until the Fatimid period (969-1171AD). However, this strategic site at the apex of the Nile Delta was settled from the earliest stages of Egypt's history. During the Old Kingdom the capital city of Memphis flourished to the south of modern Cairo; as late as the fifth century BC the Greek historian Herodotus described Memphis as a 'prosperous city and cosmopolitan center, even if it had lost its capital status to Thebes, and later to the Delta towns of Pre-Ramses and Tanis.

After the foundation of Alexandria in 332 BC, Memphis went into economic decline, and its religious status was lost after the Emperor Theodosius (379-95 AD) promoted Christianity to the state religion of the entire Roman world. A town still existed in the vicinity of modern Cairo at the time of the Arab conquest in 641 AD, but its size and position are debatable.

The site of Memphis is now deeply covered by silt

laid down during the annual Nile flood and has been exposed only in a couple of places. A program of boreholes has established that the center of the town moved northwards over a period of time. By the Roman period, the name had been corrupted to 'Manf' or 'Menf', and may have been associated with a town further to the north, based around the fortress of Babylon (later called Qasr al-Shama, or 'Castle of the Beacon' by the Arabs). The date and circumstances of this shift are not clear but may have been as early as the sixth century BC; much of the area is now underneath modern housing.

Clearly, the Roman city around Babylon (called Misr by Arab writers, a name still applied to both Cairo and, confusingly, the whole of Egypt to the present day) was large and important, but its exact position cannot be established with certainty. Much of the town may have lain to the south of the fortress; finds of Ptolemaic masonry from this area during recent building works make this more likely. However, the city limits may have included areas on the west bank of the Nile.

Little of the Roman town remains for the modern tourist to see. The ruins of Memphis are described by medieval writers, who do not distinguish between the ancient and Roman phases of the town.
(Alison Gascoigne)



Cairo Main Page Cairo Photo Gallery Leisure Nightlife Shopping Misir Al Qadima Hanging Church Roman Fort Coptic Museum Babylon Islamic Cairo Maps Virtual Tour