one of the three major cities of ancient Egypt, along with Memphis and Thebes, located north-east of present-day Cairo (30°05′N, 31°20′E). Today the site is largely covered by the suburban Cairo settlements of el-Matariya and Tell Hisn. Unlike most ancient Egyptian sites, Heliopolis was situated not on the Nile River but inland, to the west of the river, to which it was connected by an ancient canal.
The ancient Egyptian name of the city was Iunu (ἰwnw; “pillar”), preserved also in Akkadian cuneiform, a-na, and in Biblical Hebrew, on (Gn. 41.45). The Greek name Heliopolis (“city of the sun”) occurs in classical sources from Herodotus (c.450 BCE) onward, reflecting the city's association with solar theology.
Most of what is known about Heliopolis comes from textual sources rather than from archaeology. By the time of the Old Kingdom, the city was established as a center of astronomy, as reflected in the title of its high priest, “Chief of Observers.” The city also had a reputation for learning and theological speculation, which it retained into Greco-Roman times; much of that was centered on the role of the sun in the creation and maintenance of the world and in the persons of the gods Atum and Re-Horakhty. Heliopolitan theology was summarized in the concept of the Ennead, the group of nine gods that embodied the creative source and chief forces of the universe. By the beginning of the Old Kingdom, that system had already been formulated into a coherent philosophy, and it continued to dominate Egyptian thought for the next three thousand years. [See RE AND REHORAKHTY.]
Despite the intellectual prominence of Heliopolis, little is known about the city itself. 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, twelfth dynasty obelisk, dedicated by Senwosret I. Earlier structures include the third dynasty fragmentary shrine of King Djoser, part of a sixth dynasty obelisk of King Tety, and several Old Kingdom tombs of high priests. A stela of Thutmose III, from the eighteenth dynasty, commemorates a wall that encloses the solar temple. Excavations have revealed some Ramessid construction—several temples and a cemetery for the Mnevis bulls (considered incarnations of the sun god). [See BULL GODS.]
Twentieth dynasty donation lists from the time of Ramesses III indicate that the temples at Heliopolis were second only to those of Amun at Thebes. After the Ramessid era, however, the fortunes of Heliopolis began to decline. Later building activity is known primarily from a few twenty-sixth dynasty Saite tombs and some circumvallations. The city was largely destroyed during the Persian invasions of 525 BCE and 343 BCE, although enough of its structures and reputation remained to attract tourists in Greco-Roman times, such as Herodotus. When Strabo visited the site in the late first century BCE, he found it partly abandoned. By the first century CE, most of its statuary and obelisks had been moved to Alexandria and Rome; its remaining structures then served as a quarry for the building of medieval Cairo. Today, apart from the standing obelisk of Senwosret I, the ancient site is commemorated only in the name “Heliopolis,” which is still used to designate what has become the northeastern suburb of Cairo.
See also MYTHS, article on CREATION MYTHS.
- Kákosy, Láslo. “Heliopolis.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 2: 1111–1113. Wiesbaden, 1977. A recent summary, intended as a basic reference for Egyptologists.
- Kees, Hermann. Ancient Egypt, a Cultural Topography. Chicago, 1961. The most accessible summary of the history, archaeology, and significance of the site.
- Petrie, William Matthew Flinders. Heliopolis, Kafr Ammar and Shurafa. Publications of the Egyptian Research Account and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, vol. 24. London, 1915. Report of the only archaeological excavation of the site so far published in detail.
- Porter, Bertha, and Rosalind L. B. Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings, vol. 4: Lower and Middle Egypt. Oxford, 1934. A list of all monuments from the site known at the time of publication, with summary bibliography.
James P. Allen