Ancient Heliopolis Today

Egypt Feature Story

Ancient Heliopolis Today

by Jimmy Dunn

Ancient Heliopolis was one of the most sacred sites of pharaonic Egypt, but today it is mostly gone, though as many might think, not entirely gone. Strabo, even when he went there with the prefect of Egypt, Aelius Gallius shortly after Egypt became subject to Roman rule, wrote that Today the town is completely deserted. Over the centuries that followed, the old city was built over and exploited for building material. Yet, in a vast no mans land surrounded by buildings just south of Tell Hisn, one can still visit the site of the main sanctuary of this ancient district that remained an important part of Egyptian religion.

Here, a single obelisk in an enclosure just by the suburb of Matariya (northwest of the Cairo International Airport) marks the ruins of Heliopolis north of the modern suburb known also known as Heliopolis. Ancient Heliopolis would have comprised the lower middle-class quarters of Ain Shams, Matariya and Tel al-Hisn.

In the ancient city, the great sun god was worshipped in his various forms, as Kephri, the rising sun, the hawk-headed Horakhty, a conflation of the midday sun with Horus of the Horizon". And Atum, the primordial god and creator who, in the guise of a bent old man, was supposed to represent the setting sun. Of course, there were other sanctuaries here, dedicated to most of the principal divinities of the Egyptian pantheon, and still others dedicated to more minor gods such as Sepa, the centipede god responsible for bringing the floods. It is interesting to note just how much time has destroyed at this site over the centuries. We know, for example, the dimensions of some of the mud-brick walls on its perimeter, and we also know the number of obelisks erected by the pharaohs at different periods. At their most extensive, the walls ended up as a huge trapezium about 1,200 meters west to east, and 1,000 meters north to south. Though these were sufficiently well preserved at the time of Bonapartes French Expedition to make a reasonably accurate record, practically nothing is left today. Yet, even a century later, in 1898, the walls were still ten to twelve meters high at some points. We also know, thanks to the chance discovery of the funerary stela of Djedatumiufankh not far from the site, that in Year 42 of the reign of the king Amasis, that he was charged to supervise the foundation of the wall of Khnemibre (Amasis), which he built in brick around the great castle, of a thickness of thirty cubits. Hence, the wall would have been some 15.6 meters thick.

Now we can make a comparison to the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak. There, the outer wall measures 480 meters by 550 meters and is not even twelve meters thick. Thus, if the temple of Re had escaped the damage inflicted by man and the passage of time, it would have certainly been the grandest temple in Egypt today, dwarfing that of Karnak. It is not so surprising to learn then that Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, at one time possessed more monuments than Thebes.

But Heliopolis was almost entirely destroyed. In the Middle Ages, there remained a sole pair of obelisks at Heliopolis, often called the two Pharaohs needles, but the only one left today had to be raised by two meters in 1950 to get it out of reach of ground water. Originally, it stood about 20.4 meters high. Notable, it is the oldest of all the standing obelisks in Egypt. The inscription, repeated on the four faces of the pink granite shaft, indicated that it was erected by Senusret I, second pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty, on the occasion of his jubilee in about 1930 BC. The respective directions of the hieroglyphic signs in the four royal titles allow us to conclude that it was placed to the south of the east-west axis of the time, in front of the southern pier of the pylon. From various sources, we can conclude that its match, the obelisk that stood on the north side of the processional route leading to the sanctuary, was not taken down until about the mid 12th century, probably for the metal that still capped its pyramidion.

All the other obelisk have disappeared from the site, either transported to new locations or taken down and broken up on the spot. Nearly half of the thirteen obelisks now in Rome, and it is said that there were once forty-eight, came from Heliopolis. Hence, one might say that there is more of Heliopolis these days in Europe than in Egypt. One of these was the Flaminian obelisk, first erected by Augustus on the spina of the Circus Maximus, before being transported to the center of the Piazza del Popolo in 1589 during the reign of Sixtus V. On it, the inscription recorded by Seti I on one of its faces reveals that he filled Heliopolis with obelisks. Until recently, the only proof of this was the obelisk in Rome, but his claim was somewhat substantiated by the discovery during underwater excavations at Alexandria, at the foot of Fort Qaytbay, of two obelisk bases and four fragmentary obelisks on which his name is inscribed.

We also know that the Ptolemies plundered the monuments at Heliopolis extensively, either using them as a quarry for ready made blocks they needed for their many building projects such as the famous Pharos Lighthouse, or reusing various elements such as obelisks. For example, we are told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History that Ptolemy II Philadelphus erected in the Arsinoelion as a loving present to her who was both his wife and sister Arsinoe an uninscribed obelisk of eighty cubits which had been carved many decades earlier at the request of King Nakhtoreb (one of the two rulers we know call Nectanebo). The same thing happened in the Roman period with the famous Cleopatras Needles. They were first erected at Heliopolis by Tuthmosis III, but were later transported by Augustus to stand outside the entrance to the Caesareum, before being moved again in the late 19th century, one to the banks of the Thames in London in 1877, and the other to Central Park in New York in 1879.

And so, the area that surrounds the wasteland where the temple once stood contains few significant relics of ancient Heliopolis, though that is not quite the case. While no spectacular ruins remain, numerous archaeological digs have been carried out, in particular by the Archaeological Faculty of the University of Cairo. These, together with a fair number of chance discoveries, have enabled us to located specific monuments underneath the buildings and streets of the modern city. Most of these, however, are tombs. For example, the priests of Re were buried in simple tombs that were essentially long rectangular vaults, and their necropolis has been found near the southeastern corner of the outer walls of the temple enclosure.

At the foot of Senusrets monument is a small open-air museum. Here, we find a small quartzite obelisk that would appear to be of even greater antiquity, given that it bears the name of Teti, the first pharaoh of Egypts 6th Dynasty (about 2300 BC). Also on display here is the base of a large obelisk in situ, along with a few granite blocks that presumably belonged to it, though this one is much later, dating to the 18th Dynasty and probably to the reign of Tuthmosis II. It is superimposed with inscriptions of Ramesses II. Other objects in the small museum are inscribed with names such as Amenhotep II, Tuthmosis IV, Amenhotep III, and there are older monuments as well, including the ruins of a 3rd Dynasty shrine of King Djoser. In fact, inscribed and decorated blocks from buildings and more or less complete statues from eery conceivable era have been found all over the area.

Further away to the north is a spot called Arab al-Tawil, the location of the burial places of the Mnevis bulls. Each sacred animal inherited its position on the death of its predecessor, and was regarded during its lifetime as the "herald of Re", and thus a manifestation of the sun god. However, the two tombs of the Mnevis bulls that have been excavated, one dating to the reign of Ramesses I and the other to that of Ramesses II, do not form part of an impressive complex such as the Serapeeum, where the herald of Ptah", the Apis bulls were buried.

To the south and east of the temple site, between the suburb of Matariya and those of Ayn Shams East and Ayn Sharms West, a whole series of tombs dating from the Saite period have been exposed, more often than not by accident. For example, in 1988, while the foundations were being dug for a new apartment building, an empty, but very well preserved vault was discovered more than six meters below ground level, of Panehesy, divine father of Heliopolis and treasurer of Psammetichus II. To protect it from ground water, this tomb has now been relocated to a dry area well above ground level at the open-air museum.

Finally, inside the western section of the perimeter wall that runs alongside the canal Tawfiqiya, more systematic excavations have revealed the ruins of what appear to be workshops, dwellings, a Ramesside pylon, a monumental gateway built by Ramesses III. A large temple complex with monuments dating back to the New Kingdom has been partially unearthed. Among the most fascinating architectural elements still visible, according to Dr. Hawass, are the temples of Ramesses II and Ramesses IV A chapel built by the latter's son Nebmaatre, who held the title of Greatest Seer, is particularly interesting. Equally visible, near the temple remains, are rectangular mud-brick foundations, circular granaries and a granite column of King Meneptah depicting the king making offerings to various gods as well as figures of bound and humiliated enemies commemorating a victory over Libyans. "This column is a very significant historical document," Hawass explains. "It points to the vast extent of temple buildings that must lie beneath this quiet village of Arab Al-Hisn."

The ruins of Heliopolis are not, and will never again be as grand as sites such as Karnak, but it is likely that this ancient city will yield up more of its past over the coming years as more work is performed. With new technologies, perhaps one day, archaeologists might even stumble upon an ancient cache of statues such as were found at Karnak and Luxor Temples (indeed, those currently found in the open-air museum came from a small cache) and doubtless, more and more of this ancient city will see the light of day.

However, the site is being developed more and more into a tourist site. The open-air museum is being paved with blocks of stone, and a route will be laid out for tourists, starting at a colossus head of Ramesses II and ending at the obelisk. It will also take in the nearby "Tree of the Virgin", where legend has it that the Virgin Mary rested while in Egypt. According to Dr. Hawass, "Each statue will be set up on a base with placards giving the full details," and according to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, "Every effort is being made to develop this open-air museum - it's going to be a pleasure to see."

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