Ayn Shams, meaning “Eye of the Sun” in Arabic, is located where the ancient Pharaonic centre Iunu was built. The Greeks called this town “Heliopolis”, referring to the Greek god of the sun Helios, as the Egyptian sun god Ra was worshipped in the main temple. It is one of the oldest capitals of the world.
Little of the ancient town or temples were preserved. Still, many blocks have been found in the area and reused in the houses of Cairo during Islamic times. The town is still excavated nowadays. The cemeteries preserved tombs of the Old Kingdom, including the tombs of Panhesy and Khonsu-ankh. It is likely that the temple, now destroyed, was as large as the temple of Karnak dedicated to Amun in modern Luxor. There, the priests were in charge of recording the passing of the solar year, establishing the Egyptian calendar and chronology.
The obelisk of Senwosret I dating to the 12th Dynasty (1956-1911 BC) remains standing on the site. Obelisks were sun rays represented in stone, thus a regular symbol for the sun god in ancient Egypt. Many obelisks from local temples were likely relocated by Greeks and Romans in the ancient world. A granite and sandstone column built by king Merenptah (1213-1203 BC) was discovered dismantled. It was transported, rebuilt and exhibited in the Grand Egyptian Museum.
Thanks to the discovery of texts related to the cult, the influential role of Heliopolis in the Pharaonic religious life is well-known. The sun god Ra-Atum was associated with one of the ancient Egyptian theories of creation. This god sat on the original mound that emerged from the flooding waters “Nun”, and started creating other gods of the air, Shu and Tefnut. From these air gods, the earth Geb and the sky Nut emerged, initiating the world's creation.