Heliopolis: A City of Two Tales

The ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis can be discerned today only by its scattered and buried remains on the northeastern outskirts of Cairo. Its cultural and intellectual influence has been significant; yet from the biblical perspective, the city also claims a connection to a story that has been little told—a story that affects us all.

The city of Heliopolis, suggest archaeological excavations and ancient writings, was once one of the major cities of Egypt, with a history spanning from the Old Kingdom to the Hellenistic period—that is, from the third millennium BCE to shortly before the time of Christ.

The storied city was known by several names. In most translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, it is called On. The better-known Greek name is more colorful: Heliopolis, meaning “city of the sun”; the city was in fact the cult center for the worship of the sun gods Atum and Ra.

Priests worshiped Atum as the creator who, according to various myths, had risen here from a state of nonbeing to a state of being; such myths served to enhance the reputation of Heliopolis as a place of origins. Egyptians viewed the other god, Ra, as the primary sun god and at times even considered the physical sun to be the eye of Ra. So closely linked were the ideas of these sun gods that they were sometimes merged together as Ra-Atum or Atum-Ra.

The pharaohs adorned the temple of Ra at Heliopolis with many obelisks—tapering columns with a square base, rising to a pyramidal point. They were designed to catch the first rays of dawn and represented what Egyptians referred to as “the creation mound.” This mythical mound is itself linked to the sun and also ties to the city’s Egyptian name, Iunu, which means “pillar.” Thus Heliopolis was known as the “city of the pillar.”

As the purported site of the advent of “being” and the beginning of all existence, it is not surprising that Heliopolis gained notoriety as a community of priests who studied philosophy and astronomy, becoming the main center in Egypt for ancient learning and theology prior to Alexandria’s rise.

The ancient city Heliopolis, where the Priests of Ra constructed their temple, was the most renowned center of learning in the ancient world.”

David R. Fideler, Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism

But that was thousands of years ago. What possible significance could this ancient, buried city have for us today? As we will see, there is more to be said about Heliopolis, or On; and its demise in the Greco-Roman era is not the end of the story.

Influence on Greco-Roman World

The Greek geographer Strabo (ca. 63 BCE to ca. 23 CE) recorded the strategic location of Heliopolis on a noteworthy mound at the top of the Nile delta, between Libya and Arabia. As the Cairo-based architects Agnieszka Dobrowolska and Jaroslaw Dobrowolski observe in their book about the city, by Strabo’s time the Egyptian gods were worshiped “in a Hellenized guise.” Egypt was long under the rule of Greece and then Rome, and both cultures derived a significant influence from Egypt.

For example, in similar fashion to the idea of Pharaoh as the son of Ra, first instituted in the third millennium BCE by Pharaoh Chephren, “the concept of a god-like king conveniently merged with the idea of the Roman emperor representing divine power” (Heliopolis: Rebirth of the City of the Sun). These emperors, viewing Egypt’s obelisks as symbols of power and authority, took many of them (including some that stood at Heliopolis) and reerected them elsewhere to attest to their own imperial glory.

In similar fashion, the Greeks adapted the Egyptian myth of the benu bird, which Egyptians believed to be the soul of Ra the sun god, and renamed it the phoenix—a concept that persisted into Roman times. The Greeks believed that this mythical bird, an emblem of the sun, flew to Heliopolis following each rebirth; the Greek word for “sun” being helios, they thus derived the name Heliopolis.

According to some ancient scholars, the influence of Heliopolis on Greek intellectuals was very direct. They indicate that the philosophical mystic Pythagoras and the lawgiver Solon visited the city and associated with its priests. Clement of Alexandria suggests that Plato traveled to Heliopolis (a notion that Strabo also held) and was a disciple of the Egyptian priest Sechnuphis. Plutarch adds the detail that Plato sold oil to the Egyptians while in Egypt to offset his travel expenses. And Strabo suggests that Plato and his travel companion courted the favor of the priests of Heliopolis to “let them learn some of the principles of their doctrines.” We find additional accounts of Plato’s sojourn in Egypt in the writings of Diogenes Laertius and Cicero.

Plato used the image of the Sun to represent the idea of the One, the Good, and the Beautiful, seen as the source of existence and Being.”

David R. Fideler, Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism

Though Plato himself left no record of traveling into Egypt, he does refer to the influential nation in some of his dialogues, casually expressing a belief in its gods in the Phaedrus and the Philebus. In the Timaeus he further suggests that the priests of the Nile delta could boast a superior knowledge to that of his fellow Greeks.

While such references don’t prove whether or not Plato went to Egypt, they remain significant in that Plato’s views about the sun are distinctly similar to those that are traced to Heliopolis. David Fideler, an authority on the history of Western thought, suggests that in Egypt, “many hundreds of years before Plato, the physical sun had been seen, at least by the learned, as a lower manifestation of a higher principle. Likewise, Plato uses the symbol of the Sun to denote a higher principle, itself the source of the physical sun and, indeed, the All.”

Ironically, as Fideler points out, one of the other names for Heliopolis, On, also happens to be the Greek word for “being,” and “Plato uses the symbol of the sun in the Republic to represent this very principle.” It is also in the Republic that Plato refers to the eye as “the most sunlike of the senses.” Further demonstrating his ties to the religious ideas of Heliopolis, the philosopher suggests that just as the sun is the “god” that causes and controls the link between sight and visibility, so the physical sun itself, in his abstract terms, is merely the “offspring of the good, which the good begot as its analogue.”

The Hellenized version of Egyptian religion shared Plato’s sense of the sun as a god that is a lower manifestation of a higher principle. Plutarch, priest of Apollo at Delphi, writes that the sun (Helios) is merely the offspring of Apollo. Plutarch himself documents much about Egyptian religion and alludes to practices concerning the temples of Heliopolis. Likewise, Strabo reports that he has seen the “schools [or possibly residences] of Plato and Eudoxus” (a Greek astronomer, mathematician and student of Plato) at Heliopolis. These Greek philosophers believed that Egypt and its priest-run schools were the source of an ancient and profound knowledge, a source from which Greek intellectuals could draw; and they saw Heliopolis, supposed city of origins, as an important wellspring of such knowledge.

The Sunset of Heliopolis?

An account from the time of Rameses III (12th century BCE) records that in Heliopolis 12,963 people were employed just at the temple of Ra, a figure that excludes women and those working on construction. By the time Strabo visited the city, he found it entirely deserted. In the late fourth century of the current era, the Christian emperor Theodosius, seeking to stamp out paganism, ordered the closure of all pagan temples throughout the empire (though he did have one of Egypt’s ancient obelisks removed and reerected in Constantinople). The high times for the city of Heliopolis were over. When British orientalist, translator and lexicographer Edward Lane visited Egypt in 1825, he wrote that the site of the ancient city was a flat, sandy desert. Today the only significant physical vestige of Heliopolis is a single remaining obelisk.

However, the legacy of Heliopolis is not yet defunct. Its ancient Greek name lives on as the moniker for a modern district of Cairo. Physical remains of Heliopolis are to be found overseas, with a high concentration in Rome. Some of the obelisks that were taken to Rome by the Roman emperors in antiquity were later acquired by the popes to adorn their own religious buildings; a massive Egyptian obelisk still stands in the center of the basilica at the Vatican, now adorned with a cross. In addition, two obelisks commissioned for ancient Heliopolis, famously known as Cleopatra’s Needles, were taken to Alexandria and then moved again in the 19th century. The monuments now stand in New York’s Central Park and on London’s Victoria Embankment.

Much like the physical remains of Heliopolis, its ideological influence has passed beyond the borders of Egypt and lingers on today. Modern obelisks such as the Washington Monument can be seen in cities all over the world or adorning graveyards and religious buildings as symbols of eternity and resurrection, much as the Egyptians viewed them. In the Great Seal found on the back of a dollar bill, the pyramid with a god’s eye at the top appears to reinterpret elements highly reminiscent of Egyptian religious conceptions. Further, some Christians, disregarding the pagan origins of the phoenix, over the centuries adopted its iconography as symbolic of resurrection and even attempted to alter the biblical account of Jesus Christ to fit the myth.

The adaptation of such concepts has not ended with religious or religio-political syncretism. Plato himself is widely considered the most influential of all philosophers, an influence that is still exacted today. The central question of what in the 17th century came to be called ontology from the Greek word for “being”—the metaphysical study of existence, as framed by the ancient Greeks who drew upon various influences—remains an ongoing subject for debate in modern philosophy. However, the question of “being” is not just limited to obscure philosophy departments; it is a debate that has already been concluded for the structure of the English language. The use of words such as paleontology (the study of ancient beings) demonstrates the extent to which a Greek perception of the concept of “being” still underwrites an enigmatic modern sense of why and how things are. The legacy of concepts upheld at Heliopolis, whether directly or indirectly through the continuation of mythical concepts adhered to there, is still very much in evidence today.

City of Iniquity

There is yet another account to give of the city of On: the biblical account. From this perspective, the mythical status of the sun, as imagined in any divine form by humankind, is merely a counterfeit of the God of the Bible who created all things, including the physical sun (John 1:3 and Genesis 1:1–31). In other words, things “are” because God made them and sustains them. Of course, this doesn’t mean that other perspectives don’t still exist in the world today; they do. The question is whether such perspectives have valid origins and will have lasting value in the future. As the Hebrew Scriptures attest time and again, false gods and idols were nothing at all compared to the true and living God of Israel.

He [Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar] will also shatter the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he will burn with fire.”

Jeremiah 43:13, New American Standard Bible

By the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it was clear that the idolatry at On had no future. Jeremiah wrote that God would kindle a fire “in the houses of the gods of Egypt” and, by the hand of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, would “break the sacred pillars of Beth Shemesh that are in the land of Egypt; and the houses of the gods of the Egyptians he shall burn with fire” (Jeremiah 43:12–13). The Hebrew term for Heliopolis here, Beth Shemesh, is literally the “house of the sun.”

Jeremiah’s contemporary, Ezekiel, appeared to reinforce the future demise of Heliopolis and its idolatry: “the young men of Aven” would “fall by the sword” (Ezekiel 30:17). Commentators suggest that Ezekiel makes a play on the Hebrew word for Heliopolis at the time of Joseph, the city of On. The Hebrew word aven or awen means “evil” or “iniquity” and is spelled similarly to the Hebrew for On (awn), so the reference perhaps implies “temple of evil” or “temple of iniquity.”

History shows that the city of On was indeed razed by Nebuchadnezzar, who attacked Egypt in 568 BCE.

The Dawn of a New Day

Judgment on the idolatry at On, as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, was enacted against the erroneous religious and cultural systems and those who upheld them. However, the plan that God had, and still has, for all human beings is one of tremendous future hope. In the book of Genesis we read that Pharaoh gave Joseph, son of the patriarch Jacob (whom God renamed Israel) a wife, the daughter of Poti-Pherah, priest of On (Genesis 41:45). This was not a priest of the God of Israel but, as the end of his name in all probability indicates, a priest of Ra. His daughter was called Asenath, a name that some associate with the goddess Neith, mother of Ra in Egyptian mythology. By this marriage Joseph, son of Israel, and Asenath, daughter of the priest of On, had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Although immersed in Egyptian high society, Joseph’s explanation of the meaning of his sons’ names demonstrates his continued and bold acknowledgment of the true God of Israel (Genesis 41:51–52).

At the same time, Joseph was about to enact his God-inspired plan to store up grain through seven years of plenty. Egypt was entering the prophesied seven years of famine, and God, through Joseph, was saving not just Israel but all Egypt from starvation. This aspect of God’s active involvement in saving people caught up in systems that God condemns has been little heard and little understood. Imperatively, Joseph’s role in this regard foreshadowed the salvation that Jesus Christ would later bring to all humanity.

It is true that future generations of Israelites in Egypt would become captive slaves until God, through Moses, would lead them out to freedom under His system. As an interesting side note, the Septuagint indicates that On was one of the cities that captive Israel built, though this part of Exodus 1:11 does not appear in the Masoretic Text (the primary source for translations of the Hebrew Scriptures). Further, it is missing—a lacuna, or hole—in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In any case, just as God delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so He will deliver all willing human beings from a world enslaved to baseless ideas and systems that lead only to death. The recent history of Egypt, centered on modern Cairo, provides abundant proof of the total inability of human governments to unite people of different religious perspectives and ethnic backgrounds, and of democracy and other forms of government to provide lasting social and economic solutions resulting in true peace.

In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt. . . . For they will cry to the Lord because of the oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Mighty One, and He will deliver them.”

Isaiah 19:19–20

The prophet Isaiah spoke of a yet-future time when God would not only unite all people under His system but give them a mindset that would want that unification: “In that day five cities in the land of Egypt will speak the language of Canaan [i.e., Hebrew] and swear by the Lord of hosts; one will be called the City of Destruction” (Isaiah 19:18). Commentators suggest that in an allusion to Heliopolis, Isaiah is punning on “city of the sun” by using a Hebrew word similar to that for “sun” but which actually means “destruction.”

Certainly the message concerning Egypt (and by extension all held captive by false systems) coming to know their Creator in the future is clear: “Then the Lord will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the Lord” (verse 21). “In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria—a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance’” (verses 24–25). The scene depicted is one of all people, regardless of where they come from, being able to know the true Creator God and being delivered from false ideas and systems that hold people unwittingly captive. However, once awake to the prospect of this future, the biblical requirement is for repentance, personal change and obedience to God’s law of liberty, which promotes right relationships toward God and fellow man.

Under the righteous rule of God the Father and Jesus Christ, the future for Heliopolis, for Egypt and for all people is bright and full of hope.