The Sun Temple of Re-Horakhty at Iunu Discovered under Cairo Market
In 2005, local landowners proposed to develop the area of the Suq el-Khamis (Thursday Market), which lies in the Ain Shams and Matariyya districts near Heliopolis, a suburb in the northwest of Cairo. Some of this area they proposed to turn into a shopping mall. As this area is known to lie over the ancient city of Iunu (Heliopolis) the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) invited the German Institute (DAIK) to undertake joint excavations with them to investigate the ancient site, possibly for the last time before building work begins.

During the first season, 25th August to 6th October 2005, the northwest remains of a large limestone temple, along with statues and other artefacts were recovered. Many Amarna period blocks were found in a secondary context, reused in the extant remains of Ramesses II’s temple. It therefore appears that the Sun Temple at Heliopolis continued to function as a place of sun worship during the Amarna Period. The major part of the excavations focused on the great open courtyard of Ramesses II’s Temple. In this court were found many statues of kings and gods, two to three times life size. Many of these statues date to the beginning of Dynasty XII of the Middle Kingdom to the reign of Senusret I. A further two statues of Senusret I, 4-4.5 m tall were found in this court. These set of statues were complimented by the Dynasty XIX statues of Ramesses II, one being a seated quartzite statue of the king. There were also a few artefacts from the late Ptolemaic Period found.

The ancient city of Heliopolis – Iunu, was the centre of Pharaonic sun worship, and is today located beneath the Ain Shams and Matariyya districts of Heliopolis. Little remains of what was once one of the ancient Egyptians' most sacred cities, since much of the stones used in the temples were later plundered. The area is now covered with residential neighbourhoods, close to the modern district of Heliopolis. However, in the past, other areas of the ancient city of Iunu have been discovered, particularly during the early part of the twentieth century by British and Italian excavators. Many of the remains from these excavations have ended up in private collections in Europe and America. The most famous remains at Heliopolis is the red granite obelisk of Senusret I, which still stands about 20.4 meters high, virtually in situ near Tell Hisn. This is the oldest of all the standing obelisks in Egypt. At the foot of Senusret’s monument is a small open-air museum containing parts of the some of the monuments that have been discovered at the site, such as the small quartzite obelisk that would appear to be of even greater antiquity, given that it bears the name of Teti, the first pharaoh of Dynasty VI. Also on display is the base of a large Dynasty XVIII obelisk in situ, along with a few granite blocks that presumably belonged to it, probably dating to the reign of Thutmose II, although this was usurped by Ramesses II, as testified to by his inscriptions. Other objects in the small museum are inscribed with names such as Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV, and Amenhotep III. The oldest monument in the museum is the ruins of a Dynasty III shrine of King Djoser, of which only fragments now survive. Two of these fragments bear the name of Netjerikhet, and another shows the king seated with the ladies of his family gathered at his feet. Other fragments of this shrine indicate that the scenes may be connected with the celebration of a Heb-Sed festival and with the Heliopolotian Ennead. Each of the nine traditional gods was probably shown, as in the fragment that depicts the god Geb shown in human form, and the god Shu, who was attested to have been included in the shrine. The open-air museum has recently been paved with blocks of stone, and a route laid out for tourists, starting at a colossus head of Ramesses II and ending at the obelisk. It will also take in the nearby "Tree of the Virgin", where legend has it that the Virgin Mary rested during the holy family’s sojourn in Egypt.

To the north of the open–air museum is a spot called Arab al-Tawil, the location of the burial places of the Mnevis bulls. However, the two tombs of the Mnevis bulls that have been excavated, one dating to the reign of Ramesses I and the other to that of Ramesses II, do not form part of an impressive complex such as the Serapeum, where the Apis bulls were buried.

A leaking sewage system, exasperated by the rising population, and the general rise in the water table caused by the Aswan High Dam, made the groundwater rise in the Matariyya and Ain Shams districts. Several Old Kingdom tombs of high priests dated to Dynasty VI have been found in this area southeast of Senusret’s obelisk, near the southeast corner of the enclosure. Saite tombs have also been discovered in this area. In 1988, while the foundations were being dug for a new apartment block, an empty, but very well preserved tomb was discovered more than six meters below ground level, that of Panehesy - ‘divine father of Heliopolis’ and treasurer of Psusennes II. When it was discovered it was covered in sewage and causing the limestone and hieroglyphs to disintegrate. In 2002, to protect Panehesy’s tomb from the rising ground water and salinisation, the monument was dismantled and relocated to a dry area well above ground level at the open-air museum.

Systematic excavations inside the western sector, mainly by the SCA, have revealed the ruins of what appear to be workshops, dwellings, a Ramesside pylon, a monumental gateway built by Ramesses III, and a large temple complex with monuments dating back to the New Kingdom. Among the most fascinating architectural elements still visible, according to Dr. Hawass, are the temples of Ramesses II and Ramesses IV, and a chapel built by the latter's son Nebmaatre. Equally visible, near the temple remains, are rectangular mud-brick foundations, circular granaries and a granite column of Meneptah depicting the king making offerings to various gods as well as figures of bound and humiliated enemies commemorating a victory over Libyans.

During the Graeco-Roman Period Heliopolis became a kind of warehouse for ancient remains – reusing the various architectural elements of the monuments or using them as a quarry for ready made blocks they needed for their many building projects such as the famous Pharos lighthouse. Augustus removed the famous Cleopatra’s Needles, which were first erected at Heliopolis by Thutmose III, but were later transported by the emperor to stand outside the entrance to the Ceasareum, before being moved again in the late nineteenth century, one to the banks of the Thames in London in 1877, and the other to Central Park in New York in 1879. Many of the sphinxes in Graeco-Roman cemeteries come from Iunu. Further destructing occurred in the Coptic Period when stones from the temples were used in the building of basilicas and in the Fatimid era when more of the stones were used to build mosques and the city walls of Cairo.

The city of Iunu (Coptic On) has a long history dating back to the Maadian culture c. 4,000 BC, the indigenous culture of Lower Egypt. However, the first temple was built at the site during the Early Dynastic period with sun temples being built all through the Old Kingdom. The city remained important throughout most of Egypt’s Pharaonic history and the temple went through numerous rebuilds, with other temples also being erected in the city. The Dynasty V Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurob, near Abusir is believed to have been modelled on the great Sun Temple Complex of Iunu. The city was a centre of astronomy as reflected in the title of its high priest’s, wr-m3w, "Chief of Observers" or "Greatest of Seers”. This title was held by the architect Imhotep during the reign of King Djoser Netjerikhet of Dynasty III and possibly dates to the earlier reign of his father - Khasekhemwy in Dynasty II.

In February 2006, the DAIK/SCA team resumed their excavations in the area of the Suq el-Khamis and discovered more of the temple and statues of Ramesses II. This season work is concentrating on excavating the entrance and western side of the temple. Magazines for the storage of wheat, a kiln for making amulets and columns with cartouches of Ramesses II have been discovered. It is now believed to be the remains of the famous Sun Temple of Iunu dedicated to the God Re-Horakhty. The partially uncovered site is the largest sun temple ever found, and the whole complex was originally larger than Karnak and the city possessed more monuments than Thebes. The walls of the city ended up as a huge trapezium about 1,200 meters west to east, and 1,000 meters north to south. Theses walls remained sufficiently well preserved at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Expedition to make a reasonably accurate record. A century later, in 1898, in some places the walls were still ten to twelve meters high, practically nothing is left today. The walls were some 15.6 meters thick. In comparison with the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak, the outer wall measures 480 meters by 550 meters and is nearly twelve meters thick. Thus, if the temple of Re had escaped the ravages of time and humans, it would have certainly been the grandest temple in Egypt today, dwarfing that of Karnak.

Along with architectural elements of the Sun Temple, such as the green pavement stones, many artefacts have been found this season, including a pink granite statue weighing four to five tonnes whose features resemble those of Ramesses II. Although the statue is in need of restoration, it is one of the largest and most important so far found at the site. Also found was a five-metre-high seated statue wearing a leopard skin robe of a priest with cartouches bearing the name of Ramesses II. This statue is in the style of Dynasty XII, and is possible a Senusret I statue that Ramesses usurped. A 3-tonne head of royal statue, possibly Senusret I, has also been recovered.

Dr. Zahi Hawass said that the market under which the majority of the temple lies has to be removed so that the archaeologists can excavate the entire site. Under Egyptian law 117 this area of Heliopolis was placed under SCA supervision, and where substantial archaeological remains are found the SCA has the power to declare the area an archaeological protectorate. In the area of the DAIK/SCA excavations a shopping centre was due to be erected last year. However, Dr Hawass has declared that this area of high archaeological importance and the SCA are planning on preserving it and classifying it as an archaeological site and opening it to the public, may be in two years time. Dr Hawass stressed that the developers and landowners would be compensated for their loss of land. Declaring this site an archaeological protectorate is a significant advance in the protection of one of Egypt’s most historically important areas to be discovered in many years.

Urban excavation and management of cultural heritage is not unique to Cairo. In London the archaeological unit of the Museum of London – MoLas - have been piecing together a mosaic picture of ancient and historical London for many years. Before every new building is erected in London the MoLas archaeologists evaluate and record the archaeological deposits at the site. Indeed, the MoLas system of urban single context recording and excavation has become so wide spread that it is now the industry standard for urban excavation. The type of excavation in large urban centres differs greatly from research excavation in rural areas, for it is only when developers knock down existing buildings or start to develop areas that archaeologists have a chance of conducting watching briefs and observing what lies beneath the surface of the modern city. If any archaeological remains are observed in London or elsewhere in the UK, the developers are legally bound to pay for the archaeological investigation of these remains. Although Egyptian Law 117 does not at present provide the legal framework to enforce that watching briefs are conducted at building sites throughout Egypt, it is hoped that the new law may encourage more cooperation between developers and the SCA and as the law already exists it provides compensation to developers for loss of land. The majority of sites discovered in urban environments in the UK are recorded and have their artefacts removed before the developers continue their work, only very rarely are sites deemed so historically important that they are preserved in situ like the Sun Temple at Heliopolis. However, in Alexandria many watching briefs have been conducted allowing a mosaic of the ancient city to be constructed. This new initiative in Cairo may lead to a fuller understanding of not only the ancient city of Iunu, but also of Memphis and Babylon which all lie beneath the modern city of Cairo (Also see Egypt’s Cultural Heritage under Threat of Destruction below and the DAIK site: also see
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