When it comes to ancient Egyptian worship, Heliopolis is one of the most significant archaeological sites throughout Egypt. The site is located on the north-eastern periphery of present-day Cairo, where large parts of the ancient stratigraphy are overbuilt by modern urban structures.
In ancient times, however, the temple of Heliopolis served as the centre for the worship of the sun for more than 2500 years. Therefore, the Greeks gave the site the name Heliopolis: City of the Sun. The site originally bore the ancient Egyptian name Iwnw, which was later transformed into On in the Old Testament.
Although Heliopolis was never destined to be the political capital of Egypt, it was doubtlessly considered a cultural and religious capital. The fact that the sacred temenos of Thebes could be described as the ”Upper-Egyptian Heliopolis” clearly shows Heliopolis’ exposed status within Egypt’s cult topography.
According to one version of Egyptian mythology, the creation of the world – along with its entirety of divine and secular features – took place in the temenos of Heliopolis. Initially appearing in the shape of a primal mound, the world was believed to have emerged out of the raging waters of a chaotic ocean, the so-called Nun. Hence, the rise of the worldly mound symbolizes the victory of Maat, the cosmic order, over disorder.
It furthermore marks the mythological origins of the Egyptian state formation. Thus, Heliopolis was strongly connected with several mythological beliefs. The pyramid texts inform us about a tribunal held by the local gods at the gates of the Heliopolitan temenos to decide juridical conflicts between divinities, such as between Horus and Seth.
The temple of Heliopolis was primarily dedicated to the sun god Ra, who was believed to inhabit the temenos area and for whom a large priesthood performed an elaborate and highly sacred cult on a daily basis. Above all, there is evidence that points to the existence of many smaller sanctuaries for Amun, Horus, Hathor and Mut. Since mythological narratives refer to Heliopolis as the birthplace of the gods, the site was considered a gateway for Egyptian religion.
Consequently, the temenos received incomparable attention not only through distinct public veneration, but through royal donations from the pharaohs themselves. Egypt’s ruling pharaohs seemed to be keenly aware of their official duty to extend the temples’ architecture. As a result, Heliopolis was provided with the biggest temenos of the entire country.
However, already in Ptolemaic and Roman times some of the major endowments of the pharaos, the obelisks, formerly installed in front of the temple buildings, were dismantled and transported to Alexandria and later on to Rome and many other capitals of the world. After their arrival in these cities they were re-installed to adorn public places, such as the Circus Maximus and later the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. Only one obelisk of Senusret I. remained at its original setting in Heliopolis, nowadays surrounded by an Open Air Museum.
Today, the main temenos area is overbuilt by the modern district Matariya. But there was more to Heliopolis than just the temple: a spacious necropolis of ‘elite‘ burials from several periods is located eastwards underlying the modern district of Ain Shams, whereas the district of Arab el-Tawil overlies a necropolis for the sacred Mnevis-bull. Structures of the ancient temple administration were located to the north of the temenos, underneath the district of Arab el-Hisn.
After Heliopolis had been repeatedly sketched and geologically surveyed, E. Schiaparelli was the first archaeologist to excavate small parts of the temenos area in 1903-1904, followed by W.M. Flinders Petrie in 1912. The temple administration area as well as the bull necropolis have been archaeologically examined by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities since 1902 and later on investigated by the Cairo University. From 1916-1936 field work was carried out in the area of the ‘elite’ necropolis, mainly concentrating on tombs dating to the Old Kingdom and the Late Period.
Due to the rapid urban development, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities started rescueexcavations at Heliopolis during the 1950’s in order to protect the ancient remains. In 2012, the Heliopolis Project, our Egyptian-German joint venture project under the direction of Dr. Aiman Ashmawy (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities) and PD Dr. Dietrich Raue (University of Leipzig), started to excavate various areas of the site. As this is an ongoing project, our research is constantly increasing the general knowledge and information about Heliopolis. By regularly checking this website you can always keep yourself up-to-date.