All that is to be seen now of the in situ remains of the ancient city of Iunu, Heliopolis (also known today as Tell Hisn), is a single shaft of granite, an obelisk erected in the Middle Kingdom by Senwosret I to embellish what was one of the largest and most important religious structures of ancient Egypt, the solar temple of Re-Atum. Part of the reason is the location of Heliopolis, now absorbed within the expanding city of Cairo itself, and part is the lack of systematic archaeological fieldwork when more of the site remained to be excavated.
The work that has been done, both to recover fragments of temple buildings and the statuary placed within them and to study texts that mention the city, has largely been concerned with trying to understand the layout of the temple enclosure – which seems to have been the largest in Egypt, larger even than Karnak – at different periods. This is especially the case for the Old Kingdom, when Heliopolis was clearly Egypt’s predominant religious institution, but exactly what that means in terms of the functions of a city beyond this religious role (how many people lived there, and where?) remains a mystery, owing to the lack of surviving evidence, apart from that of some cemeteries from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period in the area to the east of the temple.
The still-standing obelisk of Senwosret I is a remarkable Middle Kingdom survival at Heliopolis, one of ancient Egypt’s largest temples of which astonishingly little now remains. Rutherford Picture Library.