Alternative Egypt Travel Guide
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Ancient Heliopolis and The Virgin Tree

Ancient Heliopolis and the Virgin Tree


Originally known as the City of the Sun, Ancient Heliopolis (as it was renamed in Greek) once covered more than 5 square kilometres and included the renowned temple complex devoted to the Sun god Ra.

Where Memphis – the first capital of Dynastic Egypt – embodied the political and administrative heart of the ancient kingdom, Heliopolis was its spiritual, theological and cosmological counterpart.

Despite being sacked by the Persians in the 6th Century BC, Ancient Heliopolis remained a centre for learning and religion until the mantel was taken by Alexandria two hundred years later.

Visiting Ancient Heliopolis

All that remains from this large and significant temple complex is a single standing obelisk, built by Senusret I In 1940 BC/CE. This is the only standing obelisk in Cairo from ancient times. Efforts are being made by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and Antiquities to restore the area and make it ready for tourists to visit in the near future.

The Virgin Tree

A small, peaceful, pilgrimage site devoted to the Virgin Tree lies one kilometre southwest from the Senusret obelisk.

According to the Coptic Christian tradition, when the Holy Family (Virgin Mary, Joseph, and Jesus) entered nearby Heliopolis during their travels in Egypt, all the Egyptian idols were destroyed by their presence.

The Holy Family fled Heliopolis seeking refuge from the angry, ancient Egyptians.

They stopped at a sycamore tree, whose branches covered the Holy Family and hid them from the ancient Egyptian mob.

The original Virgin Tree has been dead for centuries, but it has two generations of trees that have grown out of its dead shell. The second generation tree is also dead, but the third generation tree is still alive and bearing fruit which is considered “blessed”. Over the centuries, many people have carved their names on the different trees. Caretakers will show you the engraved names of some of Napolean's troops who visited the site over 200 years ago.


The restoration of the Senuseret obelisk area should be complete by summer 2010. Your visit will be more enjoyable if you visit after this time. The Senuseret obelisk and the Virgin Tree site together can be seen in less than an hour.

Charter a taxi for a few hours from downtown to visit the sites for between EGP 40-60 (depending on traffic and length of time spent at the sites).

If you are up for more of an adventure and taste of the local scene, take the metro (EGP 1 one-way) to Al-Matariya stop on the Helwan-El-Marg line. Take a "tuktuk" (a rickshaw) to "Shagarit Miriem" (The Virgin Tree) for EGP 1-2. From the Virgin Tree, take a "tuktuk" to the "Masalla" (The Obelisk) for EGP 1-2. After your visit to the Obelisk, return to the metro by tuktuk for EGP 2-3.

Entrance Costs

Virgin Tree: EGP 16 Adults/ 8 Students The Obelisk: Free to see from a far. Price unknown for future park.


Lambelet, Edouard. (1993). The Escape to Egypt: According to Coptic Tradition. Cairo: Lehnert & Landrock. (pp. 18).

The Caretakers at the Virgin Tree

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