The Ptolemaic High Priests of Ptah in Memphis


The priestly family that became the High Priests of Ptah under the Ptolemies was already important in the Memphite temple hierarchy at the start of the Ptolemaic period. For all we know they may even be descended from the Memphite High Priests of an earlier period, although proof is lacking. Whatever their earlier status, they were transformed during the Ptolemaic era into the heads of the religious establishment in Egypt, controlling vast resources, and second only to the king. In essence, for much of the later part of the Ptolemaic era the High Priest of Ptah in Memphis was the head of the native Egyptian community.

This rise to prominence began under Ptolemy II. He engaged on a major series of religious reforms, most notably by introducing the dynastic cult, originally instituted as the cults of his deified sisters Philotera and Arsinoe II. These cults were not limited to the Greeks, but were also introduced to the Egyptians. The Egyptian head of the cult of Arsinoe II, Nesisti-Pedubast, appears to have revived the ancient title of Chief of Artificers (High Priest of Memphis) in the latter part of the reign. Although the cult of Arsinoe itself was transferred after three generations to a related line, the High Priests of Letopolis, the creation of the Memphite pontificate began a process of aggrandisement that eventually culminated in the pontificate of Psherenptah III. This High Priest was head of all the priesthoods in Egypt, and at the age of 14 personally crowned Ptolemy XII as king.

The last member of the main line, Imhotep-Pedubast, died in mysterious circumstances on the day of the fall of Alexandria to the forces of Octavian. His maternal uncle and cousin, Psherenamun I and Psherenamun II, attempted to maintain the pontificate under the Romans. The attempt was apparently unsuccessful and the last clear trace of the office is seen in 23 BC, only seven years after the Roman conquest of Egypt. Certain hierophantic positions that persisted until the rise of Christianity in the third century AD may be traceable to the Memphite pontificate. However, although the possibility cannot be excluded, there is no evidence that they continued to be held by the same family.

15 Aug 2010: Updated to link via framed pages and to incorporate comments on the HPM entries in G. Gorre's prosopographical survey
8 Aug 2012: Updated to note that the evidence for the theory that Berenice wife of Psherenptah II was a daughter of Ptolemy VIII has been more reasonably interpreted in a way that no longer supports the claim

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