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Heliopolis: Egypt’s radiance

Heliopolis was ancient Egypt’s most magnificent temple. Today, nothing remains, its stones dispersed over various buildings of medieval Cairo. Equally, its true importance lies scattered in various ancient accounts, from Diodorus Siculus, Plato, and many others.

Philip Coppens

It is said that those who fly too close to the sun, get burned. In the case of the priests of Heliopolis, it is reported that of all temples of ancient Egypt, theirs was the most magnificent; that their temple had a floor that was so perfect, that one could see the night’s sky reflected upon it.
Alas, of its temple, nothing survives. Though it was the home of the mythical phoenix, Heliopolis, once destroyed, never rose from its ashes to be reborn again. The greatest temple of all has totally disappeared – its stones used for the construction of medieval Cairo. But even in Ptolemaic times, the Greeks used Heliopolis as a quarry to use its stones for the construction of the Pharos lighthouse in the harbour of Alexandria. In Roman times, its obelisks were taken away to adorn Alexandria, and were sailed across the Mediterranean to Rome, including the famed Cleopatra’s Needles that now resides on the Thames embankment, London and Central Park, New York. Nearly half of the thirteen obelisks now in Rome came from Heliopolis, meaning that there is more of Heliopolis in Rome, than in Heliopolis itself.

But when “Cleopatra’s Needle” was erected in Heliopolis on the orders of Thutmose III around 1450 BC, it was already late in the life of the town. As with so many temples of ancient Egypt, when Heliopolis was born will remain forever shrouded in the mists of time, but we know it existed from the very first Dynasties, with likely origins in Predynastic Egypt.
Heliopolis, however, was the name the Greeks gave it, and is its most modern name. The city’s Egyptian name was Iunu, “place of pillars”, which in biblical Hebrew was corrupted as On. The site – roughly near Cairo Airport – is now known to the Arabs as Ain Shams, “the well of the sun”. The ancient city walls of crude brick are still to be seen in the fields, giving us an idea of the city’s dimensions and shape: a trapezium of about 1200 meters west to east, and 1000 meters north to south. The funerary stela of Djedatumiufankh states that the thickness of the walls was 15.6 meters. In comparison, the outer walls of the Temple of Amun at Karnak measure 480 by 550 meters, and are less than twelve meters thick.
Though only fragments of Heliopolis’ city walls remain, they were easily discernable at the time of the French Expedition, and even in 1898, portions of these walls stood ten to twelve meters high. Today, of the temple complex itself, only a sole obelisk remains (one of a pair set up by Senusret I, the second king of the 12th Dynasty), as well as a few granite blocks bearing the name of Ramesses II. Preservation work on the obelisk occurred in the 1950s, when the Antiquity Department gave some attention to Heliopolis. Efforts in the 1970s were done to improve accessibility, but only under Zahi Hawass has Heliopolis been tackled with the respect it is due. Alas, most of the discoveries that have been made date from the Saite period – very late in the history of the temple.

Archaeologists have only been able to locate two of the five known temples that existed. The sun temple itself has never been located. With little to no archaeology, Heliopolis is therefore more part of history than Egyptology, and is hence often an underrepresented and underappreciated site. Only in more recent years has some accommodation been made for tourism, but progress is slow.
Hence, to properly understand its importance, we need to turn to the pages of history, and the accounts of those visitors who visited it when it was still alive. One ancient visitor was Diodorus Siculus, who, in 60 BC, wrote that Heliopolis was built by Actis, one of the sons of Helios and Rhode, who named the city after his father. It was also reported that while all Greek cities were destroyed during the flood, the Egyptian cities, including Heliopolis, survived. We probably need to take this legend with a grain of desert sand, for it is known that though the sun was important in Heliopolis, the chief deity of Heliopolis was the creator god Atum, who soon became known as Atum-Ra – revealing indeed a link with the solar cult, which was, however, secondary. In origin, Atum was the self-begotten creator god, who created the universe through masturbation – seeing he was, after all, totally alone in the universe.
Atum created the so-called Ennead, the group of nine gods that embodied the creative source and chief forces of the universe. Though the Ennead is quite well-know within the alternative field (if only through such books as The Stargate Conspiracy), it is less-known within the world at large. Still, the Ennead, the Nine Principles through which the Pharaoh ruled and ordered the forces of the universe, dominated Egyptian thought from the Old Kingdom onwards, for no less than three thousand years. It is therefore the longest living theology that ever existed.
Atum was worshipped in the site’s primary temple, which was known by the names Per-Aat, “Great House” and Per-Atum, “the House of Atum”. Another temple in Heliopolis was the “Mansion of the Benben”, also known as the “Mansion of the Phoenix”, which is believed to have been a sacred precinct in which in the middle of an open courtyard, stood a stone pillar, on top of which sat the “benben stone”. It was seen as the solidified seed of Atum, the Stone of Creation, a magical stone, and some have concluded that it was of meteoric origin, “shining” in the sky, but when fallen on earth, black. Alas, the stone itself has at one point in time – no-one is quite sure when precisely – disappeared and is hence impossible to study. It was on this stone that the phoenix – the Greek rendition of the Egypt benu bird – was said to return periodically, whereby he was reborn from his ashes – heralding a new era. Ancient accounts differ as to the number of years that passed between his visits, some dates apparently linked with a calendar linked to the precession of the equinoxes, others with the stellar calendar, dominated by Sirius.

In charge of the religious life of the community was the Heliopolitan priesthood, which is known to have been very influential. This is in evidence in the case of the architect of Zoser’s step pyramid, Imhotep, a High Priest of Heliopolis, who project managed the construction of the first pyramid ever. Egyptologists are in general agreement that the Pyramid Age came about with and through the rise in power of the Heliopolitan priesthood. Some even note that the shape of the benben stone might have been similar to the shape of the pyramid, though there is no general consensus on this issue. There is consensus that the pyramidion – the capstone of the pyramid – did symbolise the benben stone.
However, the connection between the pyramids and Heliopolis is easily demonstrable, as Mark Lehner pointed out that the pyramids of the 5th Dynasty, at Abusir, were aligned to Heliopolis. Dr. Gerhard Haeny of the Swiss Institute of Archaeology in Cairo has added that the pyramids of Giza align to the obelisk of Heliopolis, which replaced the Temple of the Phoenix, where the benben stone had previously been kept. Furthermore, Giza and Heliopolis were connected by the “Sacred Roads of the Gods”. It links Giza directly with Heliopolis, and it is a very important connection.

Zoser's pyramid

So, the Heliopolitan creation myth focused on the self-begotten Creator God Atum, who created the world from the primeval island through the act of masturbation. Where is Atum’s primeval hill? Though the Greek geographer Strabo stated that Heliopolis was situated on top of a noteworthy mound, it seems likely that the primordial hill of their mythology was not located in Heliopolis itself, but at Giza. The strong link between both sites is not only noted by Haeny, it was also picked up by Robert Bauval in “The Orion Mystery”, quoting Robin J. Cook: “The Giza group probably represents a symbolic expression of the Heliopolitan myth.” Noted Egyptologist I.E.S. Edwards has remarked that the Sphinx was said to guard the “Splendid Place of the Beginning of All Time”, which is of course the primeval hill – the Mound of Creation.
As the primeval hill was a place of descent for the Creator God, was the myth of Atum descending to Earth related to the Giza plateau? There is an account of how Khufu mentions that an old sycamore tree that grew near the Sphinx was damaged “when the Lord of Heaven descended upon the Place of Hor-em-Akhet”, the latter translated as “the place of the Falcon God (Horus) of the Horizon”, identified with the Sphinx. This tree was linked to Atum and in Heliopolis there was a chapel to “Atum of the sycamore tree”. The cult of the sycamore tree was – as usual – worked into Christianity: it became the Tree of the Virgin, which is a sycamore that is said to have been planted in 1672 from the shoot of an older tree. According to Coptic Christian tradition, the Holy Family on their journey through Egypt rested beneath this tree after crossing the desert, and today, it remains a place of pilgrimage.
This suggests that Giza and Heliopolis were two aspects of the cult of the Creator God Atum and that the “sacred precinct” of Heliopolis did not stop at the temple walls, but extended to the Giza plateau – if not further afield. I.E.S. Edward also believed that the primeval hill was the Giza plateau. He thus stepped in the footsteps of Diodorus Siculus, who wrote that during the construction of the Great Pyramid “a cut was made from the Nile, so that the water turned the site into an island”. Though archaeologists have often focused on the engineering and practical aspects of diverting the Nile, within a religious framework, the plateau was thus turned into an island, to forcefully portray the creation myth of the primeval hill that rose from the Waters of Chaos, an event that must have been most profound at the time of the Flooding of the Nile.


Imhotep was not the only “ace priest” of Heliopolis. According to some scholars, the biblical Moses was a high priest there too. Another important priest was Manetho, who in the 3rd century BC, was tasked with codifying the Egyptian religion in such manner that it would be comprehensible to the Greeks that had just conquered Egypt.
It makes it clear that of all the priesthoods that were attached to the various temples along the river Nile, those of Heliopolis were regarded as primus inter pares. And historical accounts confirm this conclusion. In 449-440 BC, when Herodotus visited and met the priests, he praised them for their wisdom. Plutarch wrote that the “priests of the Sun at Heliopolis never carry wine into their temples, for they regard it as indecent for those who are devoted to the service of any god to indulge in the drinking of wine whilst they are under the immediate inspection of their Lord and King. The priests of the other deities are not so scrupulous in this respect, for they use it, though sparingly.” But in 25 BC, when Strabo visited Egypt, he wrote: “At Heliopolis we saw large buildings in which the priests lived. For it is said that anciently this was the principal residence of the priests, who studied philosophy and astronomy. But there are no longer either such a body or such pursuits.”
Though little was left, as late as the 4th century AD, another Heliopolitan priest, Ammonius Saccas, taught two Greek philosophers, Plotinus and Origen, who would develop what is now known as Neoplatonism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Greek philosopher Plato himself stated that he studied at Heliopolis. It appears that by the 4th century, most priests of Heliopolis had actually moved to Alexandria, the new capital.

From Ammonius, we learn that Egyptian priests wrote nothing down and passed everything on orally. He also had his students vow absolute secrecy. Alas – at least in the eyes of Ammonius – both Plotinus and Origen broke this vow and their doctrine, which was more than likely close to the “true Heliopolitan doctrine”, was passed down to us.
Ammonius fled Alexandria when its “pagan” temples were attacked by Christian mobs, who also set fire to the Library of Alexandria. Unlike the phoenix, that did not arise from its ashes either. But the Christian attack was but the final attack in a long series, begun when the Persians under Cambyses razed Heliopolis in 525 BC, both to destroy the power of the priests and to take a strategic position for entering into the south of the land.

Ammonius was a favourite scholar of the 19th century founder of theosophy, Helena P. Blavatsky. She wrote how Ammonius and his followers had labelled themselves the “Philalethians”, lovers of the truth, and how Ammonius had declared that all moral and practical wisdom was contained in the books of Thoth of Hermes Trismegistus.
And it is with Thoth that we stumble upon another key aspect of the Heliopolitan priesthood: their role in the Pyramid Texts. These texts adorned the walls of several pyramids and are largely identical, repetitive sequences of magical utterances, to be spoken by the Pharaoh during his voyage in the Duat, the Egyptian Afterlife, on his way to Heaven – where he will meet, and become one with, the gods, and the creator deity Atum specifically. Most recently, it was Robert Bauval who popularised the notion that this voyage was also depicted in the sky and it is widely known that the Heliopolitan priesthood was famous for its astronomy (as well as mathematics) – some give them credit as the primary body that was able to calculate – predict – the heliacal rising of Sirius, meaning they would have been largely in charge of the religious and civil calendars: they controlled time, or rather, were in charge of “keeping time”. That the temple was a centre of astronomical knowledge was also reflected in the title of its high priest, “Chief of Observers” or “Greatest of Seers”, a titled carried by Imhotep.

All writing in Egypt was dedicated to Thoth, the scribe of the gods, and the inventor of hieroglyphs, the sacred language. Interestingly, Egyptologist Maspero has stated that King Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, was apparently looking for the origins of the Pyramid Texts, which according to the Westcar Papyrus, were kept inside a flinty chest in a chamber called the Investigation Hall, which was somewhere in Heliopolis. Maspero wrote that “the likeness between what was copied in the various Pyramid Texts suggests that some of their information were directly derived from old written sources”… which were held in Heliopolis.
In the Westcar Papyrus, Khufu consults a “magician” – no doubt a high priest of Heliopolis – Djedi, asking “What of the report that you know the number of the ipwt of the wnt of Thoth?” Djedi replies: “I know not the number thereof, but I know the place where it is… in a box of flint in a room called ‘Revision’ in Heliopolis.” Maspero’s interpretation is just one of several; others have included “keys”, or “the secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth”. The important aspect is, however, that the builder of the Great Pyramid was searching for information and that this information was held in Heliopolis.
We know that Khufu afterwards went into the Per Ankh, the “House of Life”, but also a library, in search of information regarding the number of the chambers of Thoth. And though the priests were forbidden to commit things to writing, it is clear that some priests at some time had been allowed to write down their knowledge. And it is likely that it was this library that would later be transferred and/or copied, to become the famous Library of Alexandria.

The books of the library went up in flames; over the previous centuries, the priests, knowledge and monuments had been transferred, dispersed – largely in efforts to preserve. Heliopolis might have survived the Deluge, but its element of destruction was obviously fire – so closely linked with the sun. Just like the night will extinguish the last rays of the sun, so the City of the Sun entered into the shadows of history. A new dawn might be on the horizon, but it might merely be a false hope. Perhaps it never will; perhaps Heliopolis just shone too brilliantly, and its spark can never be reignited.

This article is based upon a much different article that appeared in Frontier Magazine 6.3 (May-June 2000)