1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Heliopolis

HELIOPOLIS, one of the most ancient cities of Egypt, met with in the Bible under its native name On. It stood 5 m. E. of the Nile at the apex of the Delta. It was the principal seat of sun-worship, and in historic times its importance was entirely religious. There appear to have been two forms of the sun-god at Heliopolis in the New Kingdom—namely, Ra-Harakht, or Rē;‛-Harmakhis, falcon-headed, and Etōm, human-headed; the former was the sun in his mid-day strength, the latter the evening sun. A sacred bull was worshipped here under the name Mnevis (Eg. Mreu), and was especially connected with Etōm. The sun-god Rē‛ (see Egypt: Religion) was especially the royal god, the ancestor of all the Pharaohs, who therefore held the temple of Heliopolis in great honour. Each dynasty might give the first place to the god of its residence—Ptah of Memphis, Ammon of Thebes, Neith of Sais, Bubastis of Bubastis, but all alike honoured Rē‛. His temple became in 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 said to have been frequented by Plato and other Greek philosophers; Strabo, however, found them deserted, and the town itself almost uninhabited, although priests were still there, and cicerones for the curious traveller. The Ptolemies probably took little interest in their “father” Rē‛, 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 Fostat and Cairo, only 6 m. to the S.W., caused the ruins to be ransacked for building materials. The site was known to the Arabs as ‛Ayin esh shems, “the fountain of the sun,” more recently as Tel Hisn. 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 Senwosri I., the second king of the Twelfth Dynasty) and a few granite blocks bearing the name of Rameses II.

See Strabo xvii. cap. 1. 27-28; Baedeker’s Egypt. (F. Ll. G.)