During the last century, Cairo’s northern suburbs swallowed up villages and farmland and expanded far into the desert to form a great arc of residential neighbourhoods stretching from the Nile to the Muqattam. Heliopolis, with its handsome boulevards and Art Deco villas, is still favoured above the satellite suburbs that have mushroomed in recent decades, and retains a sizeable foreign community.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the doubling of Cairo’s population and the exponential growth of its foreign community had created a huge demand for new accommodation, which fired the imagination of a Belgian entrepreneur, Baron Édouard Empain, itching for new projects after his successful construction of the Paris Metro. Baron Empain proposed creating a garden city in the desert, linked to the downtown area by tram: a venture attractive to investors since Empain’s company would collect both rents and fares from commuting residents of the new suburb, which was named Heliopolis after the ancient City of the Sun nearby in Matariyya. The suburb’s wide avenues were lined with apartment blocks ennobled by pale yellow Moorish facades and bisected by shrubbery. Wealthy Egyptians settled here from the beginning; merely prosperous ones moved in as foreigners left in droves during the 1950s. Heliopolis is known in Arabic as Masr al-Gadida (“New Cairo”).
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.