Updated: Nov 1, 2020
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.