One of the three major cities of ancient Egypt, after Thebes and Memphis, Heliopolis, “city of the sun” in Greek, was situated in the area of Tell Hisn on the northwestern outskirts of modern Cairo. The ancient Egyptian name was Iunu, or iwnw, meaning pillar. Today it is largely covered by the suburbs of Cairo at el-Matariya and Tell Hisn. It is not situated on the bank of the Nile, but lay inland, to the west of the river, and was connected thereto by an ancient canal.
Heliopolis, or On in Coptic, was the capital of the 13th Lower Egyptian nome. By the time of the Old Kingdom, the city was a center of astronomy as reflected in the title of its high priest, wr-m3w, “Chief of Observers” or “Greatest of Seers. This title was held by Imhotep during the 3rd Dynasty reign of King Djoser Netjerikhet, and dates earlier to the reign of Khasekhemwy in the 2nd Dynasty. Iunu/Helioopolis also had a reputation for learning and theological speculation, which it retained into Graeco-Roman times. Much of that learning centered on the role of the sun in creation, and maintenance of the world and in the persons of the gods Atum and Re-Horakhty, whose temples must have graced the city.
One of the earliest, richest, and most influential of theological traditions, centered in Iunu, was summarized in the concept of the Ennead, the group of nine gods that embodied the creative source and chief forces of the universe (though this number was not always nine; at some times it was as few as five, and other times as many as twenty or more; and often, the traditional Ennead includes a tenth god, Horus the Elder). By the beginning of the Old Kingdom that system had been formulated into a coherent philosophy, and it dominated Egyptian thought for the next three thousand years. Creation was viewed as an evolutionary process. However, it was recorded in typical Egyptian metaphors of birth rather than in abstract scientific or philosophical terminology.
The Egyptians were aware that there had been a time when nothing was in existence, no sky, no earth, no humanity; the gods had not yet been born, nor had death yet existed (ref Pyramid Text Utterance 571, sect 1466). A source of creation was necessary in this nothingness. To the Egyptians, creation was an act of generation. Since they had an annual act of generation close to them in the Inundation of the Nile, they thought of the ultimate source of all created being as being the “primeval waters.” Out of those waters, the god Atum arose.
Pyramid Text Utterance 600 records this theology:
Atum-Kheprer, you have come to be high on the hill, you have arisen on the Benben stone in the mansion of the Benu-bird in Heliopolis, you spat out Shu, you expectorated Tefnut, and you put your two arms around them as the arms of a ka-symbol, so that your ka might be in them. …O great Ennead which is in Heliopolis—Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys—children of Atum, extend his heart to his child, the king, in your name of Nine Bows.
The benu-bird, or heron, figured prominently in paintings and reliefs throughout Dynastic history, as seen in the example of a bird in the solar barque from the tomb of Irynefer, Thebes, or in the example of the bird perched on a capstone from the Papyrus of Nakht, 18-19th Dynasty. Although Iunu/Heliopolis was such a significant part of Egyptian life throughout the Dynastic period and into the Roman period, nothing today remains of what must have been this important city and its cult center of the sun-god Re. The form and size of the site’s religious structures and even the main temple of the sun god are thus unknown, but it is possible that the solar temples of the 5th dynasty, of which we have evidence at Abu Ghurob and Abusir, were modeled at least to some extent on the Heliopolitan sun temple, with its central feature of the obelisk.
Little is known about the city itself. The remains of mud-brick walls in the area of Tell Hisn suggest a vast enclosure estimated at 3,600 by 1,558 feet, and recent excavations have found signs of what may be a number of separate temples or parts of one great temple of New Kingdom date. Its principal feature was a temple devoted to Atum and Re-Horakhty, the precise location and shape of which is uncertain. Today the only standing monument is a large red granite obelisk, dedicated by Senusret I but dating back only to the 12th dynasty. Earlier structures include the Third dynasty fragmentary shrine of Djoser, of which only fragments now survive. Two of these fragments bear the name of Netjerikhet, and another shows the king seated with the ladies of his family gathered at his feet. Other fragments indicate that the scenes may be connected with the celebration of a Sed-festival and/or with the Ennead worshipped there. Each of the nine traditional gods was probably shown, as in the fragment that depicts the god Geb shown in human form, and the god Shu was attested to have been included in a shrine therein.
Other structures also included part of a 6th dynasty obelisk of Teti. Several Old Kingdom tombs of high priests dated to the 6th Dynasty have been found southeast of Senwosret’s obelisk, near the southeast corner of the enclosure. A stela of Tuthmosis III from the 18th Dynasty commemorates a wall that encloses the solar temple. Excavations have revealed some Ramesside construction – several temples and a cemetery for the Mnevis bulls discovered northeast of the obelisk and dated to the Ramesside period. The bulls were worshipped as manifestations of the sun-god. Though the sun-temple itself has never been located, the sun-temples built in the 5th Dynasty were probably modeled upon it. Only two of the six sun-temples that were built have been found to date. One such temple was built by Niuserre at Abu Ghurob. It was erected on an artificial mound faced on all four sides with an enclosing wall of limestone. A long causeway topped by a covered corridor led up to the terrace from a large pavilion on the eastern edge of the desert. At its upper end, a gateway opened on to a paved court, 330 feet long and 250 feet broad.
The most recognizable feature is a rectangular podium, with sides sloping inwards and open to the sun, built of limestone on a platform of granite. It was probably intended to represent the primordial mound of sand at the Heliopolis temple. Atop the podium stood a squat obelisk, the sacred symbol of the sun-god, which was also built of limestone blocks. The obelisk was probably topped by a representation of the bnbn-stone, a cone-shaped sacred capstone representing the primordial mound which had arisen above the primeval waters at the moment of creation. There have been examples of such capstones found, one belonging to the pyramid of Amenemhet I. It was coated in electrum, in order to catch and gleam with the rays of the sun itself out in the open-air court.
To the east of the obelisk lay a huge alabaster altar, built of one large circular block surrounded by four blocks, one on each side, each of these in the shape of the hieroglyph, hetep, meaning “offering”. Near the entrance to the base of the obelisk was a small chapel, with two basins on both sides of its door and two granite stelae. The walls of the chamber were decorated with reliefs showing foundation-ceremonial and feasts in the temple. Donation lists from the time of Ramesses III indicate that the temple at Heliopolis were second only to those of Amun at Thebes. After the Ramesside era, the fortunes of Heliopolis began to decline. The city was largely destroyed during the Persian invasion of 525 BCE and 343 BCE, although enough of its structures and reputation remained to attract tourists in Graeco/Roman times. When Strabo visited the site in the late first century BCE, he found it partly abandoned, and by the first century ACE, most of the statuary and obelisks had been removed to Alexandria and Rome. The remaining structures then served as a quarry for the building of medieval Cairo.