Although Anthony Trollope scoffed “Humbug!” when he saw what little remained of it in 1858, the site of ancient Heliopolis, near modern day Matariyya, originally covered some five square kilometres. The City of the Sun (called On by its founders, but better known by its Greek appellation) evolved in tandem with Memphis, the first capital of Dynastic Egypt. As Memphis embodied the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, Heliopolis syncretized diverse local cults into a hierarchical cosmogony that surpassed other creation myths of the Old Kingdom. In the Heliopolitan cosmogony, the world began as watery chaos (Nun) from which Atum the sun god emerged onto a primal mound, spitting forth the twin deities Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture). They engendered Geb (earth) and Nut (sky), whose own union produced Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nephthys. Later texts often regarded this divine Ennead (Nine) as a single entity, while the universe was represented by the figures of Shu, Nut and Geb. Meanwhile, the primal deity Atum was subsumed by Re (or Ra), a yet mightier aspect of the sun god, who manifested himself as hawk-headed Re-herakhte (Horus of the Horizon), the beetle Khepri (the rising sun), the disc Aten (the midday sun), or as Atum (the setting sun). From the V Dynasty onwards, pharaohs claimed descent from Re by identifying themselves with Horus and Osiris, and the rituals in Re’s sanctuary (exclusively accessible to pharaohs and priests) were adopted by other cults and fused with Osiris-worship.

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