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Heliopolis (Greek Ἡλίου πόλις) was one of the most ancient cities of Egypt, and capital of the 13th Lower Egyptian nome . Confusingly, its name also refers (in European languages) to an unrelated suburb of Cairo, properly known as مصر الجديدة, Miṣr al-ǧidīdah (literally "New Egypt"). The ancient city stood five miles east of the Nile north of the apex of the Delta at عين شمس ˁAyn Šams (also known as عرب الحصن ˁArab al-Ḥiṣn), near the Cairene suburb of al-Maṭariyyah; the modern city of Heliopolis is some distance away. In ancient times it was the principal seat of sun-worship, thus its name which means "Sun-town" in Greek. The city's Egyptian name (shown in hieroglyphs, right, transliterated ỉwnw), is often transcribed as Iunu, meaning "(place of) pillars". The Egyptian form of the name was often written in Greek as Ὂν On, and in biblical Hebrew as אן ˀÔn and און ˀĀwen.

Ancient Heliopolis

Heliopolis has been occupied since the Preydynastic Period, with extensive building campaigns during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Today, unfortunately it is now mostly destroyed, its temples and other buildings being used for the construction of mediaeval Cairo; most information about it comes from textual sources.

The principle deity of the city was the solar deity Ra-harakhty (lit. Ra-Horus-of-the-Two-Horizons). However, the god Atum, who represented the setting sun, was quite prominently worshipped at the site. During the Amarna Period, king Akhenaten built a temple to the Aten, the deified solar disk, named w?s-?tn "Elevating the Sun-disk", at Heliopolis; blocks from this temple were later use to build the city walls of mediaeval Cairo and can be seen in some of the city gates. The cult of the Mnevis bull, an embodiment of the god Ra, was worshipped here, and possessed a formal burial ground north of the city.

The temple of Ra are said to have been 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. The schools of philosophy and astronomy are claimed to have been frequented by Plato, Solon, Pythagoras, and other Greek philosophers. Strabo (1st century BC), however, found them deserted, and the town itself almost uninhabited, although priests were still there. The 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.

In Roman times obelisks were taken from its temples to adorn the northern cities of the Delta, and even across the Mediterranean to Rome. Finally the growth of Fustat and Cairo, only 6 miles to the southwest, caused the ruins to be ransacked for building materials. The site was known to the Arabs as ˁAyn Šams ("the well of the sun"), more recently as ˁArab al-Ḥiṣn. It has now been brought for the most part under cultivation, but the ancient city walls of crude brick are to be seen in the fields on all sides, and the position of the great temple is marked by an obelisk still standing (the earliest known, being one of a pair set up by Senusret I , the second king of the Twelfth Dynasty) and a few granite blocks bearing the name of Ramesses II.

Modern times

The city of Miṣr al-ǧidīdah, modern Heliopolis, was established by the Heliopolis Oasis Company, headed by the Belgian industrialist Édouard Louis Joseph, baron Empain, beginning in 1905. The company bought a large strech of desert some distance to the northwest of Cairo at a low price from the colonial government. It then built a commuter train line connecting it to Cairo and provided the area with roads, water, and vegetation. The city was originally filled mostly with foreigners and native Egyptian Christians; over time, it became home to much of Cairo's educated middle class. As Cairo has grown the once large distance between Heliopolis and Cairo has vanished and it is now well inside the city. Because of the large growth in population the original gardens that filled the city have mostly been built over.


  • Allen, James Paul. 2001. "Heliopolis". In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald Bruce Redford. Vol. 2 of 3 vols. Oxford, New York, and Cairo: Oxford University Press and The American University in Cairo Press. 88–89
  • Redford, Donald Bruce. 1992. "Heliopolis". In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman. Vol. 3 of 6 vols. New York: Doubleday. 122–123

Last updated: 10-20-2005 05:34:13
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