Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2005
Issue No. 744
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

City of the sun

Astrology centre or suburbia? Nevine El-Aref visits another Heliopolis

photos: Mohamed Wassim Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: restoration at Panehsy's tomb; Sarcophagi of Matariya; one of the sculptures; Matariya obelisk; miscellaneos ruins of the Sun Temple; a granite column; a colossal red granite statute of Ramses II photos: Mohamed Wassim

The word Heliopolis brings to mind a chic suburb built in 1905 by Baron Empain. What the name originally refers to is in fact an area 10km away; today it covers the lower middle- class quarters of Ain Shams, Matariya and Tel Al-Hisn. A city of antiquity, it was more or less completely obliterated in modern times. Connected to the Nile by a canal, Heliopolis (the Ancient Egyptian Iunu and Biblical On) was always a place of eminence. As early as pre-dynastic times it was considered a holy site -- a fact to which the discovery, in the 1950s, of a large cemetery containing 145 human and 14 goat and dog mummies testified. Simple graves set into round or oval pits of various sizes and depths -- a few of them were lined with reed or wood -- they contained only the most basic items. Subsequent studies by the archaeologist credited with the discovery, Fernand Debono, and the Desert Institute point to the performance of ritual activities in these burial chambers, with hearths suggesting funerary meals.

Through ancient times, together with Memphis and Thebes, Iunu was one of three vital cities; it had status as the city of sun worship, an astronomical centre and a literary hub -- intellectuals studied there, so did Greek philosophers. "Here," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly, "Egyptian priest- philosophers wrestled with the questions of creation, forging an elaborate myth whose prime players were the nine gods of the Ennead." Iunu-based scholars became "greatest seer" (for which read "chief astronomer") and their fame spread throughout the Mediterranean world. According to ancient religious texts, Iunu was also associated with to the mythology of kingship.

"The prototypical solar symbol," Hawass pointed out, "the pyramid-shaped benben, was housed in one of Iunu's temples." Myths about King Khufu seeking esoteric information hidden in Heliopolis to help him build the Great Pyramid developed during the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC). The wife of an Iunu priest was said to have given birth to the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty, all of whom were the sons of the Heliopolitan sun god, Re. It was after the Ramesside that Heliopolis fell into disregard, though the Saities of the 26th Dynasty built tombs there. The city was largely destroyed during the Persian invasion of 343 BC (and that of 525 BC), but its abiding reputation was to attract Graeco-Roman visitors like historians Herodotus and Strabo, who in the first century BC found it in ruins, with most of its statuaries and obelisks relocated in Alexandria and Rome. In Coptic times, On re- emerged as the Biblical home of Joseph's wife, who was the daughter of a priest there. But in the Middle Ages it was little more than a quarry, with its once glorious edifices providing much of the stone.

Despite its intellectual prominence, little is known about ancient Heliopolis. According to SCA inspector Tareq El- Awadi, its principal feature was a temple devoted to the sun gods Atum and Re-Horakhty, whose exact location is not known for certain. Today all that remains are the 20.4-metre- high granite obelisk erected by the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Senusert I, along with a modest collection of miscellaneous offering tables and statues, as well as the ruins of an obelisk belonging to Thutmosis II and superimposed with inscriptions of Ramses II, and objects bearing such glorious names as Amenhotep II, Thutmosis IV and Amenhotep III. Older monuments include the ruins of a Third Dynasty shrine of king Djoser, part of a Sixth Dynasty obelisk of king Teti, several Old Kingdom tombs of high priests and a stelae of Thutmosis III. Excavations have also revealed Ramesside constructions -- temples, a cemetery for the Mnevis bulls, which were sacred to Re -- and a 12th Dynasty donation list from the time of Ramses III indicating that the temples at Heliopolis were second only to those of Amun at Thebes.

The situation was partially remedied in 1950, when the Antiquities Department commissioned a German firm to raise the obelisk on a base; efforts were undertaken to clear and develop the site, and lawns were planted all around. Later, in the mid-1970s, the area around the obelisk and the nearby Tree of the Virgin (in the shade of which the Holy Family are said to have rested on their way to Egypt and hence a place of pilgrimage credited by many Christians with miraculous powers) were further improved. Both would remain largely inaccessible to tourists until the completion of a new bridge crossing the railway station separating Cairo from Matariya, however. Subsequent excavation in Arab Al-Hisn, part of ancient Heliopolis, has since uncovered a glimpse of a large temple complex with monuments dating back to the New Kingdom. Among the most fascinating architectural elements still visible -- in Hawass's view -- are the temples of Ramses II and Ramses IV; a chapel built by the latter's son Nebmaatre, who held the title of Greatest Seer, he says, is particularly interesting. Equally visible, near the temple remains, are rectangular mud-brick foundations and circular granaries are, not to mention a granite column of King Meneptah depicting the king making offerings to various gods as well as figures of bound and humiliated enemies commemorating a victory over Libyans. "This column is a very significant historical document," Hawass explains. "It points to the vast extent of temple buildings that must lie beneath this quiet village of Arab Al-Hisn."

In 1983, a new law placed Heliopolis under SCA supervision, which now oversees (and has the right to reject) any construction proposals. Where monuments are found and can be harmlessly removed, Hawass explained, the area is cleared of archaeological objects and handed over to its owner. But where irremovable monuments are found, the land is declared an archaeological protectorate and the SCA compensates the owner with either a fair price or another piece of land. "this law facilitated some wonderful discoveries in the last few decades," Hawass recounts, beaming. "In 1993, while foundations and drainage were being installed near the granite obelisk, a cache of limestone statues, granite sarcophagi and stelae was found. These come from the 26th Dynasty Saite Period, and the style of decoration -- combined with the breathtaking size -- suggest they were royal or belonged to high- ranking officials..." Once cleaned and restored, the monuments were placed on temporary exhibition next to the obelisk.

Two years later, another tomb of the 26th Dynasty-- the resting place of a man called Panehsy, which means the Nubian -- was accidentally discovered 2km east of the obelisk in the course of the demolition of a villa owned by the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate, which (to replace it with residence for its members) had filed a request for archaeological inspection. The mud brick chapel had disappeared; only the burial chamber remained intact -- a vaulted limestone room whose ceiling paintings feature the sky goddess Nut, while beautiful vignettes and spells from the Book of the Dead decorate its walls. The SCA paid the Lawyers Syndicate LE8 million, Hawass recounts, and because it was located 60m below ground level Panehsy's tomb was partly inundated: limestone blocks had titled and cracked, and the resulting saline water damaged the reliefs. Still, digging unearthed Late Period limestone sarcophagi as well as gold and faience amulets. In 2001, likewise, the tomb of Waja-Hur, a well-known architect, was found. An impressive structure, it consists of two long corridors leading to three burial chambers -- the first belonging to the deceased, the other two, which have yet to be excavated, in all likelihood to members of his family. Although devoid of funerary equipment, the tomb contained 19 ushabti figures bearing his name. The discovery seemed to seal the fate of the area.

For with ancient Heliopolis now easily accessible via the Matariya Bridge, the idea of developing it into a tourist site quickly resurfaced. Regarded as an urgent matter -- speed will help curb further damage to the monuments, through, among other aspects of urban expansion, the leakage of drainage as well as subterranean water -- the project was commenced in rush mode, to follow in the footsteps of the Panehsy tomb rescue operation. "To protect Panehsy's tomb from further damage, Abdel- Hamid Qutb, the Giza governorate's Engineering Department director, explained, "an insulating substance was inserted in the space separating the ground from the lower strata of the blocks, and the reliefs were cleansed of encrusted salt and restored." The tomb has now been dismantled and relocated to a dry area well above ground water level -- now developed into an open-air museum in the heart of the concrete jungle, where royal granite sarcophagi found near Panehsy's tomb are already on display -- and a concrete base installed. Highlights will include a four metre-high quartzite colossus of Ramses II, found broken in the backyard of the Arab Contractors Hospital in Nasr City. This masterpiece, thus far neglected, had been subject to mistreatment by construction workers in the area -- so much so that it was obscured by rubbish and there remained unnoticed for more than 14 years.

The museum is being paved with blocks of stone. A route will be laid out for tourists: starting at the colossus, it leads to Panehsy's tomb and the granite sarcophagi, onto the tomb of Waja-Hur, and then finally out of the museum to the Tree of the Virgin. The journey ends at the famous obelisk, where miscellaneous offering tables, statues and parts of the Thutmosis II obelisk is currently being prepared for show; the only negative consequence is the removal of the greenery, which requires irrigation that could damage the monuments. "Each statue will be set up on a base with placards giving the full details," Hawass announced. "Excavations will continue in this area, and we are confident that more monuments will be unearthed. When they are, they will be properly treated and restored before being placed in the new museum area." Workers and restorers were milling around even as we spoke, brushing, cleaning and positioning objects for display -- as if in answer to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni's promise: "Every effort is being made to develop this open-air museum -- it's going to be a pleasure to see."

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