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Egypt's Eternal City

Once the most sacred site on the Nile, Heliopolis was all but forgotten until archaeologists returned to save it from disappearing forever

March/April 2019

Heliopolis Egypt Surroundings AerialAs geographical guides, creation myths can be unhelpfully vague. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have long searched in vain for the location of the Garden of Eden. For the ancient Egyptians, things were a bit easier. The world, they believed, began on a low hill just outside modern-day Cairo. There the sun rose for the first time and made order out of a roiling sea of elemental chaos. There the Egyptian creator, Atum, and sun god, Ra, first appeared, and there they held court for millennia. And there the Egyptians built their most enduring sacred site, a city known today by its Greek name, Heliopolis, or City of the Sun. At the center of the city, contemporaneous sources and recent archaeological excavations show, was the Temple of the Sun.


Egyptians worshipped at Heliopolis over the course of countless lifetimes and thousands of years. The earliest known temples there date back nearly 4,600 years, to the first days of Egypt’s pyramids. Inscriptions reveal that generations of pharaohs bolstered their claim to have descended from Atum and Ra by building grand shrines there. At its peak around 1200 B.C., the holy site was marked with dozens of colossal obelisks.


Heliopolis was known far and wide in antiquity. Called On in Hebrew, the city is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament. It also served as a reference point for other Egyptian sacred sites. Although Thebes, Egypt’s capital during the Middle and New Kingdoms (ca. 2030–1070 B.C.), is now far better known, ancient Egyptian sources referred to it as the “Heliopolis of the South,” and its temples were modeled on those at Heliopolis. Even in its final centuries, Heliopolis was a popular destination supposedly visited by the Greek philosopher Plato, according to an account written four centuries later by the geographer and historian Strabo. Strabo also includes a first-person account of his own visit to the site’s nearly deserted ruins in his book Geographica.


Both physically and theologically, Heliopolis was at the heart of Egyptian religion. It was both city and temple, every corner of it holy, but also filled with everyday activity. “You can compare it to the very center of Vatican City,” says archaeologist and University of Leipzig Egyptian Museum curator Dietrich Raue. “Everyone inside the city was somehow connected to the sun cult or temple.”


Yet today, Heliopolis is virtually unknown. After almost two and a half millennia of continuous worship there, the importance of its temples declined. By the second century B.C., the city was abandoned, for reasons archaeologists are still trying to discern. It was subsequently plundered and stripped of anything that could be burned or reused. Beginning in the late Roman period, nearly all of its limestone architecture was carted away to build Cairo, leaving little to see above the surface. Over time, most of the city’s obelisks were removed, carried off first to decorate Alexandria, and then to Rome, Paris, London, and even New York (see “The Obelisks of Heliopolis,” page 30). Only one still stands at the center of the site, a 68-foot-tall red granite monument erected by Senwosret I around 1950 B.C. that juts out of the ground in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Matariya like a hieroglyph-inscribed spike. By the 1800s, Heliopolis had all but vanished under the silt that builds up during the Nile’s annual floods. It was buried under farm fields on the outskirts of Cairo. What was left of Heliopolis is now covered by between six and 20 feet of soil and debris. “It’s extraordinary that one of the most famous cities of the ancient world is now a ghost of a name,” says Stephen Quirke, head of the Petrie Museum at the University of London. “It’s a black hole in our knowledge of ancient Egypt. Heliopolis is the great site.”

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The Obelisks of Heliopolis