Heliopolis (ancient)

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The Al-Masalla obelisk, the largest surviving monument from Heliopolis

Heliopolis (/ˌhlˈɒpɵlɨs/;[1][2] Ancient Greek: Ἡλιούπολις, "City of the Sun" or "City of Helios"; Egyptian: ỉwnw; Arabic: عين شمسʿĒn Šams, "Eye of the Sun") was one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt, the capital of the 13th Lower Egyptian nome. It is now found at the north-east edge of Cairo.

Heliopolis has been occupied since the Predynastic Period,[3] with extensive building campaigns during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Today it is mostly destroyed; its temples and other buildings were used for the construction of medieval Cairo. Most information about the ancient city comes from textual sources.

The only surviving remnant of Heliopolis is the Temple of Re-Atum obelisk located in Al-Masalla of the Al-Matariyyah district. It was erected by Senusret I of the Twelfth dynasty, and still stands in its original position.[4] The 68 ft (20.73 m) high red granite obelisk weighs 120 tons (240,000 lbs).


Beneath a maze of busy narrow streets of north-east Cairo, about fifteen to twenty metres down, lie vast hidden remains of ancient Heliopolis. The modern inhabitants are mostly middle and lower-class Egyptians.

The site of ancient Heliopolis lies predominantly in the northern Cairo suburb of Al-Matariyyah,[3] and also covers the districts of Ain Shams and Tel Al-Hisn east of the Nile.[5] It also straddles the Cairo Metro line 1.5 km (1 mile) west of the edge of the 20th century modern Heliopolis,[3] a suburb in the district Maṣr el-Gedīda (Arabic: مصر الجديدة‎  "New Egypt").

The site of Heliopolis has now been brought for the most part under cultivation and suburbanization, but some ancient city walls of crude brick can be seen in the fields, a few granite blocks bearing the name of Ramesses II remain, and the position of the great Temple of Re-Atum is marked by the Al-Masalla obelisk. Archaeologists made recent tomb discoveries underneath.[6]


in hieroglyphs

The name Heliopolis is of ancient Greek origin, Ἡλιούπολις, meaning city of the sun as it was the principal seat of worship of the sun god Ra and the closely related deity Atum. Originally, this ancient city was known by the Egyptians as Iunu, from the transliteration ỉwnw,[7] probably pronounced *Āwanu, and means "(Place of) Pillars". In biblical Hebrew Heliopolis was referred to as, Ôn (אן) or Āwen (און), Ancient Greek: Ὂν.


Map of ancient Lower Egypt showing Heliopolis

Egyptian Heliopolis[edit]

The Egyptian god Atum, was the chief deity of the city Iunu (Heliopolis), who was worshipped in the primary temple, known as Per-Aat (*Par-ʻĀʼat, written pr-ꜥꜣt, 'Great House') and Per-Atum (*Par-ʼAtāma, written pr-ỉtmw 'Temple [lit. 'House'] of Atum"'; Hebrew: פתם Pithom). Iunu was also the original source of the worship of the Ennead pantheon. Although in later times, as Horus gained in prominence, worship focused on the syncretic solar deity Ra-harakhty (literally Ra, [who is] Horus of the Two Horizons).

The main cult of Ra—(or Re) was in Heliopolis, however the High Priests of Ra are not as well documented as the high priests of other deities. The Al-Masalla area of the Al-Matariyyah district contains the underground tombs of High Priests of Ra of the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2345 BCE—2181 BCE), which were found in the southeast corner of the great Temple of Ra—Atum archaeological site.[8]

During the Amarna Period, Pharaoh Akhenaten introduced monotheistic worship of Aton, the deified solar disc. As part of his construction projects, he built in Heliopolis a temple named Wetjes Aton (wṯs ỉtn "Elevating the Sun-disc"). Blocks from this temple were later used to build the city walls of medieval Cairo and can be seen in some of the city gates. The cult of the Mnevis bull, an embodiment of the god Ra, had its centre here, and possessed a formal burial ground north of the city.

Egyptian mythology, and later GrecoRoman mythology, said that the phoenix (Bennu), after rising from the ashes of its predecessor, would bring the ashes to the altar of the sun god in Heliopolis.

Greco-Roman Heliopolis[edit]

Heliopolis was well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, being noted by most major geographers of the period, including Ptolemy, Herodotus and others, down to the Byzantine geographer Stephanus of Byzantium.[9]

Greek era[edit]

Alexander the Great, on his march from Pelusium to Memphis, halted at this city (Arrian, iii. 1); and, according to Macrobius (Saturn. i. 23), Baalbek, or the Syrian Heliopolis, was a priest-colony from its Egyptian namesake.

The temple of Ra was said to have been, to a special degree, 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. Heliopolis flourished as a seat of learning during the Greek period; the schools of philosophy and astronomy are claimed to have been frequented by Orpheus, Homer,[10] Pythagoras, Plato, Solon, and other Greek philosophers. From Ichonuphys, who was lecturing there in 308 BC, and who numbered Eudoxus among his pupils, the Greek mathematician learned the true length of the year and month, upon which he formed his octaeterid, or period of eight years or ninety-nine months. Ptolemy II had Manethon, the chief priest of Heliopolis, collect his history of the ancient kings of Egypt from its archives. The later Ptolemies probably took little interest in their "father" Ra, and Alexandria had eclipsed the learning of Heliopolis; thus with the withdrawal of royal favour Heliopolis quickly dwindled, and the students of native lore deserted it for other temples supported by a wealthy population of pious citizens. By the 1st century BC, in fact, Strabo found the temples deserted, and the town itself almost uninhabited, although priests were still present.

Roman era[edit]

In Roman times Heliopolis belonged to the Augustamnica province. Its population probably contained a considerable Arabic element. (Plin. vi. 34.) In Roman times obelisks were taken from its temples to adorn the northern cities of the Delta, and even across the Mediterranean to Rome, including the famed Cleopatra's Needle that now resides on the Thames embankment, London (this obelisk was part of a pair, the other being located in Central Park, New York). Finally the growth of Fustat and Cairo, only 6 miles (9.7 km) to the southwest, caused the ruins to be ransacked for building materials. The site was known to the Arabs as ʻAyn Šams ("the well of the sun"), more recently as ʻArab al-Ḥiṣn.

Biblical Heliopolis[edit]

Heliopolis was the capital of the Province of Goshen, country that comprised much of the northern Egyptian territory of the Nile Delta. This was one of three main store-city locations that grain was kept during the winter months and during the seven year famine discussed in the Joseph narrative of the Book of Genesis. The city gained recognition as place of bread.

In the time of the major prophets, Isaiah made a reference to the City of the Sun as one of the five cities of Egypt that would come to speak Hebrew. However he made a wordplay on "city of the sun" (’ir hašemeš) by writing ’ir haheres which literally means "city of destruction".[11] These play of words were a prophetic description later reinforced by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel.[12] The Hebrew name, Beth-shemesh, where Beth means "house" and shemesh means "Sun" was also used to describe Heliopolis by Jeremiah. He prophesied this city's fate specifically when he declared that the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, would shatter the obelisks of Heliopolis and burn the temple of the sun in fire.[13] Jeremiah’s contemporary Ezekiel, reinforced this message by saying that the "young men of Aven (or Beth-Aven) would fall by the sword". Like Isaiah, Ezekiel also made a word play on the original Hebrew name of Heliopolis that was used in the time of Joseph, the city of On. The Hebrew word aven means "folly" or "iniquity", so that his reference implied "temple of folly" or "temple of iniquity".[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of Heliopolis". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 15 November 2013. 
  2. ^ "Define Heliopolis". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 15 November 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c Dobrowolska & Dobrowolski. Heliopolis: Rebirth of the City of the Sun. (ISBN 9774160088, ISBN 978-977-416-008-0), 2006, p.15
  4. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition.
  5. ^ "Al-Ahram Weekly | Features | City of the sun". Weekly.ahram.org.eg. 2005-06-01. Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  6. ^ Descubrimientos - Egipto - Junio / Diciembre 2004; "Pharonic tomb uncovered in Cairo, suburbs of Matariya"; August 26, 2004. accessed 2011-01-28
  7. ^ Hieroglyphs can be found in (Collier and Manley p. 29)
  8. ^ Planetware: Priests of Ra tombs, Heliopolis—Al-Matariyyah . accessed 01.28.2011
  9. ^ Ptolemy, iv. 5. § 54; Herodotus, ii. 3, 7, 59; Strabo, xvii. p. 805; Diodorus, i. 84, v. 57; Arrian, Exp. Alex. iii. 1; Aelian, H. A. vi. 58, xii. 7; Plutarch, Solon. 26, Is. et Osir. 33; Diogenes Laertius, xviii. 8. § 6; Josephus, Ant. Jud. xiii. 3, C. Apion. i. 26; Cicero, De Natura Deorum iii. 21; Pliny the Elder, v. 9. § 11; Tacitus, Ann. vi. 28; Pomponius Mela, iii. 8. Byzantine geographer Stephanus of Byzantium, s. v. Ἡλίουπόλις.
  10. ^ The Historical Library of Diodorus Siculus, Book I, ch VI.
  11. ^ Freedman, Myers, & Beck. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, (ISBN 0802824005, ISBN 978-0-8028-2400-4), “City of the Sun”, p. 261
  12. ^ Isaiah 19:18 NLT
  13. ^ Jeremiah 43:13 NASB; Compare NIV
  14. ^ Ezekiel 30:17 NIV

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 30°07′46.3″N 31°17′20″E / 30.129528°N 31.28889°E / 30.129528; 31.28889