Rescuing Ancient Egypt’s temple of the sun
Heliopolis had the largest boundary of any Ancient Egyptian temple, but little of this extraordinary religious complex remains visible today. As the modern Cairo suburbs advanced ever deeper into the former home of the sun god Ra, a project was set up to record the archaeology of Heliopolis before it was too late. Aiman Ashmawy and Dietrich Raue explained to Matthew Symonds what drew kings and commoners alike to seek divine blessings in one of Ancient Egypt’s great marvels.
In the beginning, so the Ancient Egyptians believed, there was nothing. That nothing took the form of a dark, chaotic, primordial ocean, filled with a substance somewhere between water and plasma. Creation began with the first sunrise, when the light struck this seething mass of waves and a sandbank rose above them. It was from this eruption of land that the world was created and the gods were born. It was also this patch of ground that the Ancient Egyptians believed lay within the boundary or temenos of the temple they called Iwnw. Today, the remarkable complex the Ancient Egyptians founded on the site where this mythological origin story played out is better known by its ancient Greek name: Heliopolis.
For more than 2,500 years, Heliopolis was dedicated to the worship of the sun god Ra, who was believed to reside within the temple’s sacred temenos. Smaller chapels also served other deities, such as Horus and Hathor, while the ancient religious writings now known as the ‘pyramid texts’ state that the gods returned to their birthplace to resolve disputes. On such occasions, a divine tribunal would gather at Heliopolis to deliver rulings in cases where one god had trespassed on another’s interests. Unsurprisingly, ambitious mortals also sought to win the favour of the gods at Heliopolis, and a succession of pharaohs made their mark on the complex.
Ironically, the reason why so little of Heliopolis’s former grandeur survives today is exactly the same as the motive that originally determined the temple’s special status: its location. The Egyptians believed that the modest sand mound from which all matter sprang lay on the southern tip of the eastern Nile delta, about 30km from Memphis and 9km from old Cairo. This handed Heliopolis a strategic position in the military as well as the mythological sphere, as it occupied the last line of defence before the capital could be taken. A succession of battles have raged beyond the temple temenos: the Assyrians and Kushites clashed there in the 7th century BC, the Arabs defeated the Byzantines in AD 640, and the French fought the Mamelukes in 1800. Meanwhile, in the 11th century masonry from Heliopolis was used to bolster the defences of old Cairo. The site’s convenient location ensured that such stone-robbing also has a long pedigree, up until the Roman era, and obelisks raised at Heliopolis can now be seen in cities such as Rome, London, and New York.
Even after millennia of despoiling, important archaeological traces survived at Heliopolis. Both the temple complex and an associated cemetery were excavated at various points during the 20th century, with the celebrated Egyptologist Flinders Petrie digging there in 1912. More recently, the site’s proximity to Cairo has once again exerted a decisive influence on its development. The sacred place at the heart of Ancient Egyptian mythology is being gradually consumed by the sprawling suburbs of the modern city. In 2012, a new joint Egyptian-German initiative, the Heliopolis Project, commenced rescue excavations to ensure that the vestiges of Heliopolis are not obliterated without record. Since then, the project has dug at numerous sites in Matariya, which is the modern name for the area of suburbs around Heliopolis. This article will focus on the results from one area, known as ‘Suq el-Khamis’.
‘It started in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution,’ says Dietrich Raue, co-director of the project. ‘Back then, the situation in Matariya was very difficult. There were problems with encroachment on Heliopolis, and during that time a lot of open areas were swallowed up by illicit building activity. As a result of this situation, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities contacted me about being involved in a collaboration, because they knew that I wrote my PhD on Heliopolis. We started the next spring in the “Suq el-Khamis” area, which lay near the western gate into the main temple complex and was the site of a smaller New Kingdom temple that had been extensively destroyed. There was scattered debris in the form of fragments of basalt and granite with small inscriptions, but nothing really spectacular. Excavation revealed objects such as bread moulds and beer jars that dated all the way back to the Old Kingdom. Then, just when we thought we had finished at the site in 2017, we found the fragments of a colossal statue of a pharaoh!’
Although very little of the archaeology at the ‘Suq el-Khamis’ site remained in situ, the team found the bases of three huge statues still in place. Two of these formed an obvious pair and featured three layers of large but irregular limestone blocks. One of the pedestals supported the crumbled remnants of a seated red granite statue, while both contained fragments of architecture that had once stood elsewhere. Some of the reused stones were probably sourced from a temple relief dating to the Ramesside period (1292-1069 BC). The pottery also points to a date in the late 2nd millennium BC, suggesting the two bases belong to restoration work on a temple facade of Ramesses II, perhaps following an earthquake. The third statue base is very different. It had been inserted into the space between the other two bases and boasted an inner sandstone frame and an outer set of regularly shaped limestone blocks. None of this fabric was reused, and the stones seem to have been almost equal in size. Despite these pointers that the base belonged to a different phase, its date remained a mystery until one of the conservation issues associated with the site unexpectedly provided an answer.