The Area of Ancient Heliopolis Today
by Jimmy Dunn
The ancient site of Heliopolis lies in the northeastern extreme of greater Cairo in a district known as Mataria, or Matariya. For years, it was mostly so isolated that tourist rarely visited the site. Of course, all that was really there for them to see was a red granite Obelisk belonging to Senusret I (though the oldest in Egypt which originally stood with its twin before the Temple of Amun), some tombs in the area and for the Christian explorers, the nearby Tree of the Holy Virgin. Today, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) is more fully developing the site and indeed, it may someday become a much more important tourist destination.
Not until the present chairman of the SCA, Zahi Hawass, did this site receive much attention. During Pharaonic times, ancient On, known later to the Greeks as Heliopolis, was the center of the sun cult, a religious center and perhaps one of the three most important cities of ancient Egypt. Heliopolis was home to Re, the sun god, as well as Atum, and was considered to be the mound of creation from which the world arose. Here was a huge sun temple that may have actually dwarfed the great Temple of Amun in the Karnak complex at Luxor (ancient Thebes).
Map of the area about ancient Heliopolis (On)
For example we know from records the dimensions of the enclosure walls of the primary temple at Heliopolis. They generally took the shape of a trapezium of about 1,200 meters west to east, and 1,000 meters north to south.
Though only fragments remain, they were easily discernable at the time of the French Expedition, and even in 1898, portions of these walls stood ten to twelve meters high. We also know, thanks to the funerary stela of a certain Djedatumiufankh found not far from the site, that the thickness of the walls was exceptional for a Saite site. In this largely autobiographical text, he tells us that they were some 15.6 meters thick. Now consider that the outer walls of the Temple of Amun at Karnak only measure 480 by 550 meters, and are not even twelve meters thick.
But unfortunately the temple was lost to us long ago, and the urban sprawl of Cairo later engulfed almost everything else that may have been left. In fact, the city was probably burned down by the Persian conqueror Cambyses, and according to the Greek historian Strabo, was in ruins by 24 BC.
It was not until the 1950s that the Antiquity Department commissioned a German first to raise the obelisk at this site. Later, in the mid-1970s, further efforts were made to improve the location around the obelisk and the nearby Tree of the Virgin, yet, even then tourists could not easily visit the site until a new bridge was built over the railway station separating Cairo from Matariya.
Still the site received little attention until, when in 1993 while digging a foundation and drainage system for a new house near the granite obelisk, a cache of limestone statues, granite sarcophagi and stela were found. Their size and decorations suggested that they were either royal or belonging to very high ranking officials from the 26th Dynasty Saite Period, contemporary to the nearby tomb of Baneshi, the Saite ruler of Lower Egypt (595-589 BC). At that time, these artifacts were cleaned and arranged in a small open air museum about the obelisk.
In 2001, another discovery was made when, a request for an archaeological inspection was made before building another house. This investigation resulted in the discovery of the tomb of Waja-Hur, a well known 26th Dynasty builder and architect. This was a fairly elaborate tomb consisting of two long corridors leading to three burial chambers. The tomb was devoid of all funerary equipment except for 29 shawabtis figures bearing the name of the tomb owner. However, the tomb was decorated with mortuary texts and colored reliefs, but because it was some 10 meters below ground level, it was partially inundated. However, since then, efforts have been made to protect the tomb from ground water and to restore its walls. In fact, the whole of the tomb was reconstructed in a dry area well above ground water level, and around it, a new open air museum was developed.
Site of the Open Museum under construction
Here, a route leads tourists, beginning at the colossus and leading to Baneshi's tomb and the collection of granite sarcophagi, on to the tomb of Waja-Hur, and then out of the museum where tourists will be directed towards the Tree of the Virgin, a sycamore that is said to have been planted in 1672 from the shoot of an older tree. According to Coptic Christian tradition, the Holy Family on their journey through Egypt rested beneath this tree after crossing the desert, and it remains a place of pilgrimage. Visitors will finally end up at the now famous obelisk.
The museum area includes miscellaneous offering tables, statues and fragments of an obelisk belonging to Tuthmosis II superimposed with inscriptions of Ramesses II, as well as objects bearing the names of Amenhotep II, Tuthmosis IV and Amenhotep III. Here may be found the carved red quartzite naos of Tuthmosis II from the Gebel Ahmar quarry. Other objects include, at the foot of the Senusret obelisk, the top section of a small quartzite obelisk that appears to bear the name of Teti, the fist pharaoh of Egypt's 6th Dynasty. Here too is the base of a large obelisk in situ, along with a few granite blocks that presumably belonged to it, dating from the 18th Dynasty. In the southeast corner of the park museum is a small museum with other smaller artifacts.
Nearly half of the obelisks carried off to Rome came from Heliopolis, and it is said that the home of the emperors and popes once boasted as many as forty-eight obelisk. Ancient Heliopolis must have been a wondrous place, set in a location that was at once fortunate for its glory, and unfortunate for its preservation.
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Last Updated: June 13th, 2011