Helwan Observatory

Date of Submission: 03/11/2010
Criteria: (ii)(vi)(vii)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Arab Republic of Egypt to Unesco
State, Province or Region:
Helwan City, Helwan Governorate, Egypt
Coordinates: N 29 51 31 E30 15 5.5
Ref.: 5574

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It is well known that Astronomy in Egypt started a long time ago, and Egypt is considered as one of the oldest countries whose people studied astronomy. The Egyptian monuments at Nabta Playa (Neolithic, which antedates Stonehenge by a millennium), the Pyramids at Giza (4th Dynasty), Abu Simbel Temple (21st Dynasty) and the zodiac at the Temple of Denderah (Ptolemaic), all bear distinct evidence that Egyptians were very much preoccupied with observing heavenly bodies and their motion, with unrivalled skill.

The Alexandria school (330 BC -168 AD) attracted famous scientists to come to Egypt, where the circumference of the Earth was measured for the first time by Eratosthenes from his observations in Aswan, and the famous Almagest (The Great Compilation), a mathematical and astronomical treatise proposing the complex motions of the stars and planetary paths, was written in the 2nd century AD by Ptolemy of Alexandria, which remained valid till the 16th century.

During the Arab period, astronomical sciences continued to advance in Egypt by observing many stars and Nebulae (although Nebulae were discovered in the 20th century, some were earlier observed by the Arabs). Nowadays, most of the star names are of Arabic origin, like Aljabir, Altair, Aldabaran. Furthermore, some astronomical instruments like the astrolabe were efficiently used by Arab navigators. The Arabs, under Fatimid rule, erected many observatories in Egypt, such as at the Moqattam Hills east of Cairo (11 th century AD), notably EI-Guyushy and the EI-Maamoon Observatories. IbnYunus wrote in that period an accurate astronomical table known as al-Zi} al-Kabir alHakimi (Big Hakimi Zij), and also wrote the Kitab bulugh al-umniyya (liOn the Attainment of Desire"), a work concerning the heliacal risings of Sirius, and on predictions concerning what day of the week the Christian Coptic year will start on. His works are noted for being ahead of their time, having been based on almost modern-like meticulous calculations and attention to detail. The crater Ibn Yunus on the Moon is named after him.

Modern Astronomy in Egypt

Modem Egyptian astronomy was revived and developed at the hands of the first modem notable Egyptian astronomer, Mahmoud Pacha EI-Falaki (1815-1885), who pioneered the Egyptian Renaissance in the mid 19th century. EI-Falaki (the astronomer) became his family name. In 1842, Mahmoud decided to study astronomy and practiced at the first modem Egyptian Observatory at the Boulaq Rassd-khana (Observatory), built in 1840. He was commissioned by Khedive Ismail to observe the solar eclipse in the 1860s, which made news in the country.

Another observatory was built in 1865 at Abbasiya, NE of Cairo (Fig. 1), at his advice and supervision. It was later transferred to Helwan, south of Cairo, in 1903, due to urban encroachment. The Abbasiya Observatory, however, remained till 1952 standing as an empty monument. The Helwan Observatory was built on top of a limestone plateau (116 m a.s.I), on the eastern side of Helwan city. The observatory was provided by a 30 inch reflector telescope offered by M. Reynolds in 1905 (an English astronomer, who becamelaterthetreasurer ofthe Royal AstronomicalSociety ofthe UK).

The story of the 30 inch telescope at Helwan

The historical 30 inch Reynolds's reflector at Helwan (Fig. 2) was the first large telescope inThe historical 30 inch Reynolds's reflector at Helwan (Fig. 2) was the first large telescope in Africa and the Middle East till 1945 and was the first telescope in the world to record Halley's Comet in 1909 and 1911. The finder telescope fitted to it was also used by Herschel to observe the Comet in 1835/6. - 3

The historical Observatory at Helwan also contains two Clock Rooms which have been used in the 18th century for time service and adjusting artificial satellite observations. An old 6 inch Zenith telescope has been used since 1874 for correcting the time recording by Meridian passage of stars. Two historical buildings of 1903, and many old astronomical instruments are still kept there.

Helwan Observatory in post-war period

Helwan Observatory was provided by a 74 inch reflector from Grubb Parsons

U.K. The Egyptian government ordered the telescope in 1948, the same year that the giant telescope of Mount Palomar, California was erected. Tracking Artificial Satellite telescopes and stations have been directly installed at Helwan Observatory after the launch of the first satellite in 1957. In the same year a horizontal solar telescope was erected to observe transient solar phenomena, and solar activity cycles. Different names have been given to the present Institute which was known as Helwan Khedivial Observatory in 1903, Royal Observatory in 1946, and finally became in 1986 the "National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (NRIAG)". NRIAG has two main scientific branches, namely, Astronomy and Geophysics. Each branch consists of several departments, laboratories and units.

Historical Observations at Helwan:

Observing Galaxies:

Since the Reynolds 30-inch reflector was first brought into regular use in Januaryl909, its chief work has been the photography of nebulae. This has been confined almost exclusively to those galaxies south of the Equator and includes nebulae down to 44 degree south declination, the southern limit of the telescope. Except in the case of a few nebulae which have been the subject of special study, such as the Variable Nebulae in Corona Australis, of which over 130 photographs have been taken, it was the aim of the work to obtain two photographs of each nebula from the 310 nebulae observed at Helwan till 1922. Table 1 gives the number of nebulae observed at Helwan in each zone from 0 to 45 degree south declination (Knox-Show 1922).

Table 1: Bright and Large Nebulae Observed at Helwan till 1922 (see Knox-Shaw 1924)












South declination









45 0

Total known











Photographed at Helwan











Not yet












The modern galaxy classification

The Reynolds reflector helped the astronomical community in the development of the modem galaxy classification. The early systematic work of Knox-Shaw, Gregory, and Madwar with the Reynolds reflector at Helwan (Vols. 1 and 2 of He/wan Observatory Bulletins). Knox-Shaw (1915a) and Reynolds (1920) were among the first to call attention to amorphous galaxies with no trace of spiral arms, "E systems" (Sandage 1975).

Observing Comets:

The Reynolds reflector for a search of Halley's Comet during its visit to the earth in 1909 (Reynolds 1907, Knox-Shaw 1911). During 1909 photographs of Halley's Comet were obtained by Mr. Knox-Shaw on August 24, September 13, 15, and 16, October 15 and 22, and December 7 (Fig 3). Observations of the comet continued for 3 years till 1911, so there is a complete series of photographs for the entire period it was observable.

After the success of observing Halley's Comet, the telescope was utilized for the photography of comets -in order to determine their positions -which are either so faint or so situated as to make their observation with smaller telescopes or at more northerly observatories difficult. Comets like Neujmin, Grigg-Skjellerup, Forbes, Tempel's, Peltier Whipple, Kaho, Peltier, Jackson, Brook's, Wolf's, Borrelly's, Quenisset's, Beljawsky's and Mellish were regularly observed by the 30 inch Reynolds telescope (Madwar 1937, Curry, 1927, 1929,1930,1931,1933, Knox-Shaw 1912a, Knox-Shaw 1915b).

Observing The Eighth Satellite of Jupiter:

The search for Jupiter VIII was unsuccessful in 1921, but the satellite was found in 1922 February. Fifteen good plates were obtained for the satellite, and it's various positions were derived ( Knox-Shaw 1912b, Knox-Shaw 1916).

Discovery of Pluto :

The 30 inch telescope was used in 1930 to search for the planet Pluto according to the celestial position suggested by Persival Lowel (1915), in the publication Memoir on a Trans-Neptunian planet) from the deviations of orbital motions of the planets Uranus and Neptune with respect to theoretical results. According to Helwan observations the celestial position of Pluto was found to be deviated by 7 degrees from the location defined by Persival Lowel.

Observing the Solar Constant:

Helwan astronomers participated during (1914-1921) in the international programme of measuring fluctuations of the Solar Constant under the supervision of Professor Abott. Some of Helwan values (1367 Watt/m2) of the Solar Constant coincide with the results obtained by Rockets, Solar Max. Satellite and the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE) Mission during 1980 and 1992 respectively (Eckersely 1914; Knox Shaw1915).

Observing: the Total Solar Eclipses:

Helwan astronomers took an active role in the observations of the total Solar Eclipse (1952) in Khartoum, Sudan, together with the famous French scientist Bernard Lyot. A wealth of information was obtained from the secured observations about the spectroscopic structure and physical conditions prevailing in the solar corona (Comptes Rendus Acd Sci, 237, 1955). Moreover, successful observations were registered by solar astronomers of Helwan for the 29 March 2006 total solar eclipse, observed at Salloum in the NW of Egypt. The data enabled to develop the processing methodology of digital photography and calculation accurate models for the magnetic structure of the Solar Corona.

National Services and Public Outreach:

In addition to its R&D functions, Helwan Observatory has provided, SInce establishment in 1903, the following national activities,

  • Time service activities, which lasted up to 1961, the Meridian Circle telescope, erected in 1874, has been currently used to observe the meridian passage of stars and correct the time, which was broadcast to airports, harbours, radio and TV stations, and the clock of Cairo University.
  • Synoptic observations of meteorological elements and weather forecasting in Egypt up to 1944.
  • Housed the Standard Tools for Meteorology up to the Sixteenth.
  • Organizing tours for the general public, pupils in schools, and students of universities to visit the Museum of Astronomy and Geophysics, to watch the moon and stars at night, and the Sun during daytime, using amateur telescopes.
  • The Museum of Helwan observatory has a long history of activity. It was envisioned as an objective manifestation of the efforts made, in the course of the last centuries, to promote astronomical and geophysical cultures and studies in Egypt.
  • Popularization of Astronomical and geophysical Sciences.

Thousands of visitors have visited this museum to see illustrating models of the celestial sphere, the mounting of Mahmoud Pasha EI-Falaki 10-inch refractor, models of seismographs and samples of successful astronomical photographs taken by the 30-inch telescope for Halley's comet, nebulae, planets, and moons. Furthermore the museum contains two Clock Rooms which have been used in the 18th century for time service and adjusting artificial satellite observations. An old 6 inch Zenith telescope has been used since 1870 for correcting the time recording by Meridian passage of stars. Two historical buildings of 1903, and many old astronomical instruments are still kept there.

International Services:

  • Observations of the New Crescent and calculation of the beginnings of Higri (Hejira) months, for prayers and fasting in the month of Ramadan, for Egypt and for all Arab and Muslim countries. This service is unique among other observatories in the world in that it renders a vital service to Muslims in Egypt and allover the world, as they depend on the lunar calendar that was followed by Arabs throughout their history.
  • Calculation of the prayer times is not the only daily service rendered to Muslims, but also definition ofthe direction ofMecca from any place in the world.
  • The Helwan observatory used to host the standard meter, which was an exact replica of the one kept in Paris. After establishing the Egyptian Institute of Metrology, the meter was transferred there.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Helwan Observatory is suggested to be inscribed on the World Heritage List based on the following criteria:

Criterion (ii):

The results of comprehensive observations of the Solar Constant at Helwan Observatory during (1914-1921) are basic data for research on solar energy, atmospheric physics and geophysics. It provides an important interchange of human scientific values. The 30 inch Reynold's reflector at Helwan was the first large telescope in Africa and the Middle East till 1945 and was the first telescope in the world to record comet Halley in 1909 and 1911 respectively. The finder telescope fitted to the Reynold' s telescope was the one used by Herschel to observe the Comet in 1835/6.

Reynolds reflector helped the astronomical community in the development of the modern galaxy classification. The early systematic work of Knox-Shaw, Gregory, and Madwar with the Reynolds reflector at Helwan (Vols. 1 and 2 of Helwan Observatory Bulletins). Knox-Shaw (1915a) and Reynolds (1920a) were among the first to call attention to amorphous galaxies with no trace of spiral arms "E" systems (Sandage 1975).

Moreover, Helwan Observatory, with its accurate timing of the movements of the sun, the moon, and Sirius, for religious purposes, helped to inculcate in the popular mind respect, trust and dependence on authentic scientific calculations, and science in general, rather than hearsay. Its observations of Sirius, the setter of the year in Pharaonic times, are considered more reliable than either the sun or the mean. Sirius is still the basis of the Coptic calendar at present.

Criterion (vi):

Reynold's reflector at Helwan Observatory helped expanding the views of the astronomical community by observing Halley's Comet in 1909, and changing our ideas about galaxies, and prove that galaxies are another category of objects outside our own. All these observations beside the accurate time measuring using stars since 1850 helped African peoples to change their beliefs about astronomy, comets, time and to encourage other countries in Africa to enter the science era.

The activities of Helwan Observatory, in the course of its history are tangibly associated with the social traditions and beliefs dealing with observations of the new crescent, definition of Higri months, the time of fasting Ramadan and the time of pilgrimage. Furthermore, the observatory tackled the calculation of pray times for Muslim and Coptic Calendars, as well as the Direction of Mecca.

Criterion (vii):

The building of the Helwan Observatory drastically transformed the landscape of Helwan city, as well as transforming the city itself so that it became a tourist destination for admiring the Observatory and enjoying its fascinating landscape. Around the Plateau of Helwan Observatory, you can see the green land bordering the Nile River, Saqarra Step Pyramid, and Dahsur Pyramids in the West. The Giza Pyramids are beautifully seen in the NW. The site exhibits interesting natural features where the desert extends in the Eastern side, while desert, vegetation and green cultivation cover appear on both sides of the River Nile stream, prevail in the western side. The Japanese Garden, the mineral water sources, and the Wax Museum, not forgetting the University of Helwan, are relatively close to the Observatory.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The historical buildings of Helwan observatory are still existing in a good condition. They are stony bricks building with wooden roofs to keep out thermal insulation inside. The main building is characterized by a 15 meters meteorological tower and it encompassed the Museum, clock rooms, microphotometric and spectroscopic labs, recording chronometer for the transit circle observations.

The residence of the observatory director is a beautiful villa of the same style of stony buildings and it has a garden outlooking to the charming landscape in the western side of the plateau, where you see an air view ofthe Nile River Valley and the Pyramids.

The housing of the transit circle telescope and the dome of the 30-inch reflector are also still existing and included, at present, together with the old laboratory instrumentation in the Museum.

The historical central building of the observatory was one story building and a second floor was added later for expansion purposes, where the director and staff offices, the library and astronomical measurements labs have been scheduled. The first floor of this building is occupied now by administration offices, the clock-rooms, and the seismometers-room, its second floor mainly for the library. The museum was partially transferred to the historical villa of the director.

Comparison with other similar properties

 1. The Maritime Greenwich, London, United Kingdom:

Greenwich, on the south bank of the River Thames, is famous for its naval and military connections and its green spaces. Fronting the Thames is the famous Greenwich Park, in which the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Naval College are found. In 1433 Humphrey Plantagenet, the duke of Gloucester, enclosed Greenwich Park and built a watchtower on the north-facing hill above the Thames.

Maritime Greenwich was inscribed on the World Heritage List on the basis of criteria (i), (ii), (iv) , (vi) and (vii), considering that the public and private buildings and the Royal Park at Greenwich form an exceptional ensemble that bears witness to human artistic and scientific endeavour of the highest quality, to European architecture at an important stage of its evolution, and to the creation of a landscape that integrates nature and culture in a harmonious whole. This area, which is also known as Maritime Greenwich. was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1997.

Helwan observatory may be considered an extension of Greenwich observatory in a different geographic location. The first directors of the observatory were English scientists up to 1935. At that time Helwan was a small town with 5000 inhabitants and the region was characterized by sunny days, clear sky, and more than 300 clear sky night/ year. Helwan enabled English Astronomers to observe Southern sky zone which is not available at Greenwich. Helwan Observatory is the only institute for astronomy and geophysics in Egypt, and sharing Greenwich observatory in many fields of study, such as time services, historical background, old astronomical observations, public outreach, etc.

2. The Ancient Observatory, Beijing, China

In the 13th century Kub1ai Khan founded the first observatory on the site of the current Ancient Observatory in Beijing to refonn the inaccurate calendar used in China. The present Ancient Observatory, known as the Star Observatory, was built in 1442, the 6th Year of Ming Dynasty. The name was shortened to Observatory during the Qing Dynasty, and to Central Star Observatory after the Revolution in 1911. As one of the world's oldest observatories, it has celebrated nearly 500 years of successive astronomical observation, from the Zhen tong period of the Ming Dynasty to the year 1929.

At one time, Muslim scientists staffed the observatory. In 1603 Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), a Jesuit priest, arrived in Beijing from Macao and proceeded to astonish the local citizens and the Chinese emperor by making a series of precise astronomical forecasts. The emperor granted the Jesuits permission to man the Ancient Observatory, which was re-equipped by the Jesuit priests. They remained in charge of the Ancient Observatory unti11830.

Eight huge bronze astronomical instruments are displayed on top of the terrace. Navigational equipment from the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty and astronomical instruments, such as armillary spheres and theodolites, from the Ming Dynasty, decorated with dragons, lions and clouds are exhibited in the Observatory. The Celestial Globe, made in 1673 during the Qing Dynasty was designed for measuring the lime and azimuth of the rising and setting of celestial bodies.

The Ancient Observatory is currently being restored and it is reported that it is the Chinese authorities' intention to include it on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites for China.

As in the case with Greenwich, Helwan observatory share the ancient observatory, Beijing in many fields of study, such as time services, historical background, old astronomical observations, public outreach, and many others. Helwan observatory as a national observatory is the only astronomical institute in Egypt