Giant Ancient Egyptian Sun Temple Discovered in Cairo

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 1, 2006
Archaeologists announced Sunday that they have discovered an ancient sun temple containing large statues of the pharaoh Ramses II under an outdoor marketplace in Cairo, Egypt.

The temple was found in a suburb of Cairo called Ain Shams. The site was once part of the ancient city of Heliopolis, which served as the center of sun worship in ancient Egypt. The chief sun god, Re, was the patron sun god of Heliopolis.

Ramses II, who is believed to have ruled Egypt from around 1279 to 1213 B.C., is known for his military exploits and monumental building projects. To celebrate his victories, he erected statues and temples to himself all over Egypt.

"The area where we are excavating now is where Ramses II of the 19th dynasty [1320 to 1200 B.C.] built an enormous temple for Re, the largest temple of Ramses II ever found," said Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo.

Hawass is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence.

An Egyptian team has been cooperating with a team from the German Archaeological Institute on the excavations in the Ain Shams and Matariya neighborhoods of Cairo.

Egyptologists not involved with the discovery said it confirms suspicions that much of ancient Egypt has been buried under modern cities and still remains to be found.

Pink Granite Statue

The temple was built of limestone, and the archaeologists have uncovered the remains of one pillar bearing inscriptions of Ramses II.

The researchers are currently excavating the entrance area and the west side of the temple site.

They have found chambers for the storage of wheat, a kiln for making amulets, part of a large statue—the head of which weighs 5 tons (4.5 metric tons) and would have stood almost 20 feet (6 meters) tall—and another head of granite, weighing 2 tons (1.8 metric tons).

"Perhaps the most exciting [find] is an unusual seated statue that shows Ramses II in the leopard skin of a priest, showing that he built this temple as the high priest of Re," Hawass said.

"This statue is in the style of dynasty 12 [1991 to 1786 B.C.] and may have been usurped by Ramses II," he added, meaning that it may have been altered to resemble Ramses II.

"This is an important discovery, giving us information about the cult of Re."

Ramses II, who made a name for himself by battling the Hittites and the Syrians, is traditionally believed to have been the Pharaoh of Exodus, the biblical figure from whom Moses demanded that his people be released.

Ramses II erected monuments to himself up and down the Nile with records of his achievements. His most famous temple is Abu Simbel, which was carved into a sandstone mountain on the banks of the Nile, near what is now Egypt's southern border. (See photo gallery: "Towering Treasures of Ramses.")


Numerous temples to Egypt's many sun gods—particularly the chief god Re—were also built in ancient Heliopolis.

"This was the center for the worship of the sun god Re," Hawass said.

"A number of important remains have been discovered here, and there is evidence that this cult went back at least to the Old Kingdom [from about 2700 to 2200 B.C.] if not before and was active to the end of Egyptian history."

The German excavations show that lakes or swamps dominated the area in ancient times.

Most of the temples of ancient Heliopolis were later plundered, and the area is now covered with residential buildings.

The discovery of the sun temple may shed light on the status of Heliopolis in ancient Egypt.

"We do not know enough about Heliopolis, which was one of the main cities in Egypt and moreover a religious and, let us say, intellectual center," said French archaeologist Alain Zivie, leader of a team that has been excavating Saqqara, the cemetery of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, for more than two decades.

Zivie says the discovery also shows that much of ancient Egypt's treasures are still buried under modern cities, particularly Cairo and its suburbs.

"Cairo is the child of three cities: Memphis, [the Roman fortress of] Babylon of Egypt, and Heliopolis," Zivie said. "Expanding more and more, it swallows now its three mothers, especially Babylon and Heliopolis. But these [ancient cities] are not completely lost. They continue to exist in the underground Cairo."

Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, agrees.

"The recent find of a giant temple built by Ramses II, ancient Egypt's greatest builder pharaoh, in Cairo again reminds us of how archaeological discovery would increase exponentially—almost beyond imagination—if digging under urban centers and dismantling buildings of later date ever becomes, technically and politically, even more feasible," he said.

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