About a kilometer across the desert from Abu Sir lies Abu Gorab, home to a Sun Temple erected by 5th Dynasty pharaoh Nyussere. While not in the greatest condition, it’s still one of the Old Kingdom’s best-preserved temples.
At first glance, Nyussere’s Sun Temple may not look like much. But the temple is host to some fascinating objects that can’t be found anywhere else in Egypt. And it also provides us with important insight into how the lost Sun Temple of Heliopolis may have looked in its prime.
In addition to having one of the very first obelisks, Abu Gorab is home to a unique alabaster altar and an assortment of mysterious bowls. The true purpose and function of these objects have baffled researchers for centuries, and the question remains far from settled. But one thing for sure is that they’re beautiful to look at.
Nyussere's Sun Temple
Nyrussere ruled for around 30 years in the 25th century BC. And in addition to a pyramid at nearby Abu Sir, he built this Sun Temple a kilometer away in Abu Gorab. It sits in a walled enclosure of about 100 by 76 meters. And while this was undoubtedly a temple and not a pyramid, there’s something peculiar about the temple’s layout.
As is the case with pyramids, it had an additional valley temple further east in the desert, connected by a long causeway. To this day, archaeologists aren’t entirely sure why. Regardless, little of the valley temple or causeway remains.
The original entrance, situated at the east of the enclosure, once consisted of a hallway with five granite-lined doorways. But it’s no longer standing, and the entrance is only apparent from the gap in the wall.
As we’ll cover in more detail below, the focal point of this open-air temple was its large obelisk. And over to the north (right) of the obelisk, there would’ve been a series of magazines which likely stored various offerings.
While pretty much entirely missing today, the temple would’ve also been lined with intricate relief carvings. Subject matter included scenes of the Sed festival, a special ritual only reserved for kings who ruled for 30 years or more. (Nyussere is believed to have been one such king.)
To the south of the obelisk, meanwhile, various scenes related to the different seasons were depicted in a long-gone chamber. Archaeologists have appropriately named it the ‘Chamber of the Seasons.’ We can also presume that there would’ve been many depictions of Re in his various forms all over the temple.
Over a thousand years after the temple’s construction, Ramesses II is said to have restored Abu Gorab. But at the same time, Egyptologists also accuse him of usurping stones from Abu Sir to use in new construction projects!
According to an ancient document called the ‘Abu Sir Papyri,’ the 5th Dynasty kings built as many as six Sun Temples in the area. But only two have been found. And the other, the very first one constructed by Pharaoh Userkaf, is nothing but a pile of stones.
Nyussere’s Sun Temple, therefore, is incredibly important because it reveals much about the sun cult which grew increasingly prominent during the 5th Dynasty. Moreover, it also helps us imagine how the original temple of Heliopolis may have looked.
That temple, around 40 km north of Memphis, was the abode of Re, and both the Giza and Abu Sir pyramids were built in alignment to it. For example, the the northwest corners of the first three Abu Sir pyramids form an invisible line pointing directly at Heliopolis.
But by Nyussere’s reign, it would’ve been impractical to build a pyramid further southwest and even deeper into the desert. Instead, he built his pyramid in front of that of his predecessor, Neferirkare.
He then likely compensated for its lack of alignment with Heliopolis by building this Sun Temple further north. Abu Gorab, in contrast, would’ve at least been directly visible from Heliopolis.
And it just so happens that when a line is drawn from Abu Gorab to Nyussere’s pyramid at Abu Sir, it passes right through Userkaf’s original Sun Temple!
The centerpiece of Nyussere’s Sun Temple is (or at least was) its obelisk. The obelisk was a symbol of the sun, and by extension, a symbol of Re. It also likely represented the djed pillar, the backbone of Osiris.
All of the surviving obelisks we see today are long and narrow, having been carved from single blocks of granite. That wasn’t the case with the earliest obelisks of the Old Kingdom, however.
What once stood at Abu Gorab in the 25th century BC would’ve been much thicker and also comprised of various materials. We can also surmise that a similar-looking obelisk stood at Heliopolis around the same time.
At first glance, Abu Gorab’s obelisk looks more like a mastaba or even a ruined pyramid. But what we see today is just the base, and that alone originally stood at around 20 meters high.
Its core is comprised of mudbrick around which blocks of limestone were placed. The whole thing was then lined with granite casing stones, and you can still see some by walking around the structure today.
On top of the base stood the obelisk, now completely missing. But archaeologists estimate that it once stood as high as 36 meters, with the total height surpassing that of Nyussere’s pyramid!
All of the 5th Dynasty kings incorporated Re into their names. While often called a sun god, Re is not the solar disk in the literal sense. As John Anthony West put it, ‘Re is God as creator, whose visible manifestation is the sun.’
Re personifies the creative aspect of the divine. And all Egyptian deities with creative properties, such as Ptah, Khnum, Thoth, etc., were considered aspects of Re.
At Heliopolis, Re was worshipped as Atum, or Re-Atum – a personification of the evening sun (i.e., completion).
Like many other creation myths around the world, Egyptian mythology details a mound rising from the primordial waters of creation.
The mound was created by Atum, the original creator god and an aspect of Re. As he was all alone in the beginning, he had to create the earth and the various elements by means of masturbation.
The primordial mound was called the benben, and it was upon this mound that the very first rays of light shone at the beginning of time. It was believed to be located at Heliopolis, a site which remained an important cult center throughout Egyptian history.
In ancient Egypt, both obelisks and pyramids symbolized the benben, and were thus associated with the sun, Re and the creative aspect of nature.
The base of the obelisk likely represented the primordial mound of Heliopolis from the Egyptian creation myth. It looks solid from the outside but can actually be entered and climbed. While there are no engravings to see inside, it’s an amazing feeling to stand right in the middle of such a structure.
From the top of the obelisk, take in the views of the distant desert and the rest of the temple down below. There’s still lots more to check out within the enclosure.
Sitting in front of the obelisk is one of the temple’s most interesting features: its altar. It’s formed of five huge blocks of alabaster and measures at 5.4 x 5.8 m. In its center is a perfectly cut circle which is 1.8 m in diameter.
Notably, on each of the four sides, we can see the hieroglyph for hotep (or hetep). Hotep was the symbol for offering, though it could also mean ‘satisfied.’ The circle in the middle, meanwhile, resembles the hieroglyph for Re. As such, some researchers have surmised that the altar as a whole forms a glyph for Rahotep, or ‘Re is satisfied.’
As we see it today, the altar is a beautiful piece of art. But what was its true function and purpose? At first glance, I thought it might be some kind of compass. It’s interesting to note that the north/south-facing blocks are smaller than the east-west ones.
The standard answer from Egyptologists is that the altar was used for animal sacrifices. And it is indeed true that multiple sacrifices were happening every day in the general area of Abu Sir/Abu Gorab.
We know this from the Abu Sir Papyri, which mentioned various offerings being transported from Neferirkare’s Sun Temple (now missing) to his pyramid. Additionally, the Palermo Stone mentions that oxen and geese were sacrificed daily at the Sun Temple of Userkaf (now in total ruin).
But here at Nyrussere’s Sun Temple, no evidence of animal sacrifice has ever been found. For example, no anchor stones, flint knives or bones were ever discovered here, leaving the true purpose of the mysterious altar up for debate. And as mentioned earlier, this is the only altar of its kind in Egypt.
It’s possible that this Sun Temple was a place where certain offerings were ritually purified before being delivered to the king’s pyramid at Abu Sir. Or maybe it was meant for non-sacrificial offerings.
Around 1,000 years later, Akhenaten would build his open-air temple for the Aten (sun disk) at Amarna, and it’s believed that offerings there were mostly vegetarian. Akhenaten also spent much of his childhood at Heliopolis, and he surely would’ve been influenced by the Sun Temples of the Old Kingdom.
Looking closely, one can see that the ancient Egyptians used tube drills when making this altar. By examining the corners of some of the ‘arrows,’ you can see places where they went a little bit too far with the drill.
As is also the case with the nearby bowls, Abu Gorab provides us with plenty of evidence that the Old Kingdom Egyptians had more sophisticated technology than many give them credit for.
Another fascinating anomaly one can only see at Nyussere’s Sun Temple is the collection of stone bowls. While not their original position, visitors to the temple can see nine alabaster bowls lined up in a row near the eastern edge of the temple.
Note how the lids of the bowls have cogs all around them, making them appear like suns!
As with the altar, the true purpose of these bowls remains hotly debated. Again, the standard answer from many Egyptologists is that they were simply designed to collect the blood of sacrificial animals. But as mentioned, no bones or objects associated with sacrifice have ever been found around here.
Furthermore, by looking in the bowls, there’s no residue of blood whatsoever. Alabaster is especially porous and it can even be ‘dyed’ different colors to imitate other stones.
If blood was being poured into these bowls day in and day out over the course of centuries, at least some of it would’ve permanently stained the alabaster.
Another mysterious aspect of these bowls is their holes. These perfectly clean-cut holes would’ve had to have been put there with some kind of advanced drilling technology.
But ‘lost technologies’ aside, look at their position. They’re relatively high up in all of the bowls. It would’ve been easy to pour something in with a pipe, but much more difficult to drain the fluid out.
Supposedly, the bowls are lined up where they are today because they were originally meant to be taken to a museum for display. Obviously, that never happened, and they’ve been in their current position for years now.
But these aren’t the only bowls at Abu Gorab.
Lying around the obelisk are less attractive but equally interesting bowls made of limestone instead of alabaster. Many of them have three holes and not just one. And they also lack the ‘cogs’ of the other type, with their lids forming a basic circle.
Looking closely at the ground, you can even see a few of these bowls in their original positions. It seems as if all of the bowls were once part of the temple floor.
As you can observe next to the obelisk, Nyussere’s Sun Temple also had an intricate piping system which was raised several inches off the ground. There was most likely some kind of connection between the pipes and the bowls, but we can only guess at what kind of liquid (or liquids) was flowing through them.
More Around Abu Gorab
As is the case with Abu Sir and Giza, you can find a lot of interesting, strange stones just lying on the ground. In addition to the limestone, alabaster and granite, the temple complex also contains jasper and quartzite.
Many of the intricately carved stones look as if they were parts of much more complex networks. But like the bowls, the stones were probably moved around, and it’s now unclear where they were supposed to fit.
Over by the wall, there are also some strange indentations that couldn’t have been easy to cut out. We can only guess at what purpose these strange niches in the stone would’ve served.
While not evident to visitors today, there used to be a mudbrick model of a solar bout just outside the temple. Additionally, there are even burials around here from Egypt’s 1st Dynasty! What else is there to discover beneath the sand?
As Abu Gorab consists of just a single temple, it’s easy to take things slow during your visit. And given the fact that the site is normally closed to tourists, you surely won’t have to deal with any crowds.
Strange stones aside, one of the highlights is simply relaxing and soaking up the atmosphere as the evening sun begins its descent in the horizon.
While we almost always cover locations that are accessible to the general public, this is a rare exception. Both Abu Sir and Abu Gorab are officially closed to the public and have been for some time.
There are a few ways you can gain entry, however. One would be to apply for official permission through the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism, but expect to pay a hefty fee.
Recently, more and more multi-day group tours are including Abu Sir and Abu Gorab on their itineraries, so try booking one if you can afford it. Some of these special tours also take attendees to other off-limits sites like Abu Rawash.
But if you can’t afford a tour, there’s also a rumor that you can arrange a visit if you establish a local connection in the nearby village.
Abu Sir and Abu Gorab, despite being so close to one another, are considered to be two separate and distinct sites. They have different archaeological teams working on them and are patrolled by different guards. Gaining access to one won’t automatically guarantee entry to the other. Unless you’re with a tour who’s arranged everything in advance, you’ll may need to arrange both visits separately.
The Greater Cairo Area is home to many of Egypt’s, and the world’s, most impressive sites. The city of Cairo itself, on the other hand, is overwhelming in terms of both traffic and pollution, yet rather underwhelming in regards to tourist attractions. Therefore, I recommend that people stay in Giza and not in Cairo.
I find it puzzling that so many travelers decide to stay in central Cairo and then commute multiple times to reach Giza and Saqqara. For archaeology enthusiasts, it makes much more sense to stay in or near Giza and dedicate 3 or 4 full days to exploring the various pyramid sites. As Saqqara and Dahshur are both south of Giza, which itself is southwest of central Cairo, staying in Giza gives you a big head start for those excursions.
You will want to commute to central Cairo at least once, however, to visit the Egyptian Museum and maybe an additional day for Islamic Cairo.
Staying in Giza, right by the Giza Necropolis, allows you to get there right when the pyramids open at 8:00am. That means you’ll get at least 90 minutes or more with the entire complex all to yourself (as long as you don’t visit on a Friday or Saturday, that is).
While the modern suburb of Giza has a reputation for being dirty and rundown, it’s no worse than the average neighborhood of Cairo. And while there are lots of touts around, they’re not nearly as bad as the East Bank of Luxor.
I took things even further and also stayed for a few nights in the small village of Abu Sir, just north of Saqqara. I then switched to accommodation in Giza for a few nights so that I could visit the pyramids right when they opened.
Later, at the end of my trip, I based myself in downtown Cairo for better access to the historic sites in the city center, not to mention the airport.
In Abu Sir/Saqqara I stayed at the Sakkara Inn. Not only is the hotel situated in an authentic local village, but Mohamed the owner can set you up with reliable drivers for an affordable price. (I even continued to have him arrange drivers for me after checking out, as other places were quoting me much higher.)
In Giza I stayed at Abo Stait Pyramid View Homestay. It’s literally a one-minute walk from the Sphinx entrance of the Giza Necropolis. The family who runs it was very friendly and helpful. And while the bathroom is shared with a few other guests and family members, it wasn’t a big deal.
I’m a budget traveler, but those with more money to spend will find no shortage of accommodation options in the Giza area.
People especially interested in the ancient sun cult of the Old Kingdom may consider making a pilgrimage to the original site of Heliopolis. Sadly, there’s not a whole lot to see there other than a single obelisk erected by Senuseret I. But that didn’t deter me from going.
Given the major importance of the site to ancient Egyptian history, I didn’t want to pass up the chance to visit during my time in Cairo. Since I also had plans to see the early 20th-century Baron Empain Palace in the modern neighborhood of Heliopolis, I didn’t think much of visiting both sites in the same outing.
As I’d soon learn, however, the historical Sun Temple of Heliopolis is NOT in the same neighborhood we know as Heliopolis today. It’s actually in a neighborhood called El Matareya,
My driver knew I wanted to go and see an obelisk, but everything changed once he finally looked at the map. At first he refused to take me there, telling me how El Matareya is notorious for its horrible traffic – even by Cairo standards.
I told him fine, I’ll hop out and take an Uber. But he ultimately relented, explaining that since things are so chaotic there, I’d never find an Uber driver willing to take me. And even if I did, I’d probably never find a ride back to my hotel!
As we left the posh district of Heliopolis and rode into El Matareya, I soon discovered that he was not exaggerating in the slightest.
The streets were full of potholes. But that didn’t stop countless minibuses from carelessly speeding around with zero regard for the other vehicles. Huge piles of trash were lined up on either side of the roads, with some of them on fire. Construction seemed to be happening everywhere, causing us to take numerous detours down little alleyways that were never meant for cars.
I’d already been traveling in Egypt for awhile by that point, but the scene was still shocking. The whole place was somehow several times grimier and more chaotic than any other place I’d seen in Cairo.
My driver chainsmoked, swore to himself and asked about twenty different people for directions before I spotted something in the distance. It was the ancient obelisk of Senuseret I, partially obscured by a small ferris wheel. We rode up to the entrance, only to find it locked.
The obelisk is in the middle of a small park, all of which is surrounded by a tall gate. Sadly, the guard was nowhere in sight.
We met a couple of local guys who were surprised to see a foreigner in the area, and they walked us around so I could get a clear vantage point from the outside.
The only way to get a clear view over the fence was to climb up one of the huge mounds of trash which completely surrounds this once-sacred site. As we hung around atop the garbage heap, I showed them some pictures of the obelisk, originally from this same location, that now stands in New York City’s Central Park.
They were also surprised to learn that other obelisks from Heliopolis now stand in London, Istanbul, Paris and Rome. Only then did it dawn on my driver what a significant site this once was, and why a foreigner would ever want to come all the way out here!
Over time, I hope to go and visit all of the Heliopolis obelisks standing throughout Europe. And then upon my return to Egypt, I’ll visit El Matareya once again at a more ideal time of day.
I can’t shake the feeling that the original benben stone could still be somewhere out there, waiting to be uncovered beneath a mountain of rubbish.