From Pre Dynastic Egypt to the Age of the Pyramids

As we saw in Chapter 4, the sciences in Egypt in general, and in the Old Kingdom in particular, have been given rather short shrift by most scientific historians, to the extent that Neugebauer even concluded that Egypt "has no place in a work on the history of mathematical astronomy." This is, as we shall see, patent nonsense.

The fact, however, that Egypt—especially the Old Kingdom—has been largely ignored is a stroke of luck for us, a not-to-be-missed chance to test all the notions we have painstakingly acquired regarding the ancients' relationship with the heavens without being fazed by too many preconceptions. To learn about the Old Kingdom astronomy, we have to start with what we have, everything we have, whether objects, texts, or even monuments weighing millions of tons, such as the pyramids. Indeed, the Old Kingdom is distinctive for being what we might call the Age of the Pyramids, a short, intense burst in human history in which the most amazing funerary monuments of humanity were created. We know little about how the decision to build such grandiose monuments was made; all we can do is seek to understand how the funerary cult of the first centuries of Dynastic Egypt evolved. Before doing this, a premise is required: no pharaoh of the Old Kingdom has ever been found buried in his pyramid. (with the possible exception of Neferefre, see Verner 2002). Egyptologists blame this frustrating lacuna on the theft and desecration that took place over the centuries, though this explanation seems, at least in some cases, rather weak.

The unification of Egypt under a unique ruler, the pharaoh, took place around 3100 BC (Grimal 1994, Shaw 2004). The tombs of the pharaohs of the

G. Magli, Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76566-2_16, 307 © Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2009

first two dynasties are to be found at Abydos, about 100 kilometers along the Nile from Luxor. These tombs, covered with small sand tumuli held in place with rough mud-brick walls, contain one or two rooms carved out of the rock, in which fairly convincing evidence of human sacrifice has been found. We do not know much about the significance of the human sacrifice in Egypt; for example, sometimes we find in funerary iconography the so-called tekenu—a man curled up on a sled, carried by bearers, possibly being sacrificed on the occasion of a royal funeral.

No remains of the pharaohs have ever been found in the graves at Abydos. However, in 1935, other royal tombs relating to the first two dynasties were discovered at Saqquara, not far from Cairo. These take the form of Mastaba— basically a large parallelepiped building, much shorter than it is wide, equipped with inner rooms and funerary chambers carved out of the rock (the Arabic word mastaba means "bench"). The rulers of the early dynasties thus had two tombs, one in Abydos and one in Saqquara. One of the two tombs (usually the one in Abydos) is called cenotaph, or symbolic tomb. Various theories have been put forward, for instance, that the double tomb denoted the duality of the king (the King of Upper and Lower Egypt). Another theory, not necessarily conflicting with the first, hinges on the fact that Abydos was the main center of the cult of Osiris, father of Horus, and also the place where Osiris's tomb was identified, a tomb equally as lacking in function as the cenotaphs. Indeed, at Abydos we find an extraordinary structure dedicated to Osiris (connected with the New Kingdom temple of Seti I, but not necessarily contemporary with it) called the Osireion, whose architectural style, characterized by enormous megalithic triliths, is much more similar to the style of the temples of the great pyramids of the Old Kingdom (a style we shall discuss shortly) than to the style of the New Kingdom.

Due to the presence of the Osiris tomb, the reason for the Pharaohs' cenotaph being at Abydos may have been connected with the very foundations of their power, which was traced back directly to a divine descendance from this God. One has indeed to bear in mind that the Egyptian state was to survive, despite various troubles (see Chapter 4), for three thousand years, and the fundamental, unifying power of this state derived from the divine nature of the pharaoh. Asserting this divine nature required, in the course of the millennia, different but equally impressive manifestations of power in the form of monuments—tombs, cenotaphs, and temples—constructed in strategically placed sites. The first such site was the Sun Temple of Heliopolis, a city located on the east bank of the Nile near the apex of the Delta, today submerged by the buildings and the airport of modern Cairo. Heliopolis was the place where the so-called Great Ennead, the cosmological doctrine that underpinned the divine nature of the monarch, was formulated. According to this doctrine, the temple marked the place of a pyramid-shaped stone, the ben-ben (very probably an iron meteorite). The stone was linked with sun worship, in that it marked the spot of the "first sun," which arrived in the world in the guise of a bird, the bennu. The "first sun" was the first God, Atum, who had created the sun, which had been incorporated with him. Adopting the appearance of a bird, he flew to the stone ben-ben, on which he perched. He then created the first divine couple, Shu and Tefnut (air and water), who in turn begat Geb and Nut (earth and sky). And so the world was created. From Geb and Nut came forth Seti, Nephthys, Osiris, and Isis, the latter two being the parents of Horus. Since the pharaoh credited himself as the living Horus, the royal power was directly resting on the descent from the Gods.

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