Solar Orientations of Egyptian Temples

Many of the Egyptian temples had a millenary life, and were, through the centuries, modified and extended according to the will of the different pharaohs. The typical structure, made of a pylon, which is a large masonry facade, followed by a courtyard, a hall with columns, and at the end a chapel, became longer and longer through the years thanks to an added second pylon, a second hall, and sometimes extra chapels, obelisks, or accessories buildings. Even if many Egyptologists still doubt it, I believe that there is no question regarding the fact that the great majority of the Egyptian temples were astronomically oriented; in any case, at the moment a vast archaeoastronomical campaign is being carried out, and I hope a definitive answer to the question will be found (cf. Belmonte and Shaltout 2005, 2006.)

A pioneer in the studies regarding the astronomical orientation of the Egyptian temples was Norman Lockyer, who addressed the subject in his book, The Dawn of Astronomy (1894). The book was published at a time when the chronology of ancient Egypt was still unclear, and was thought to go much further back in time than it actually did. Therefore, the book is now quite dated, and many of Lockyer's statements are wrong because they are linked to incorrect dates. Despite all this, Lockyer had the great merit of having been the first to demonstrate the ancient Egyptians' interest in astronomy and, in particular, in the sun cycle.

The orientation of the temples could be solar, that is, toward the rising or the setting of the sun on some special days, not necessarily the solstices; or stellar, that is, toward the rising of important stars or toward circumpolar stars. A very important example of a temple with solar orientation is the grand temple of Amon-Ra in Karnak, built for the first time during the 12th dynasty (c. 1900 BC). It is a magnificent complex beautifully refurbished in time by the various pharaohs (Plate 7). Contrary to the nearby Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple Plan
Figure 4.3: Plan of Karnak and Luxor temples (north on top). Notice that the Karnak axis goes perfectly straight, while the Luxor axis bends several times. Both temples have been embellished and elongated in the courses of several centuries.

(Plate 8), the temple clearly shows a main axis to which various homogeneous parts were added by Amenhotep III, Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis III, Hatschepsut, and Rameses II; this last pharaoh contributed the wonderful hall with columns that are 14 meters tall and 2 meters wide, which became popular worldwide thanks to the film inspired by Agatha Christie's novel Death on the Nile. Lockyer showed that the axis of this temple, when one is looking from inside out, is oriented toward the sunset on the day of the summer solstice. He thought, therefore, that the sun rays at sunset would flood the corridors and reach the chapel at the end of the temple, and that the latter was used as an astronomical observatory to keep track of the solar cycle. But this actually could not happen, because the hills on the west act as a barrier that blocks the sun rays just before they align with the corridors. Unfortunately, this "mistake" made by Lockyer (I will explain the quotation marks; see below) was a disastrous one, because the archaeologists became diffident about the astronomical interpretation, and convinced themselves that the orientation of the temples, Karnak in particular, was toward the Nile. Actually, the position of the axis of the Egyptian temples was always decided on by taking into account the position of the Nile, both for religious (for instance, the arrival of the procession via the river) and for practical reasons (the transport of construction materials and of obelisks). The temple in Karnak, in particular, was built with its main facade facing the river. This did not exclude the astronomical orientation at all, however; the solstitial orientation of Karnak is a fact, and it would have been enough, before deciding that Lockyer's ideas were wrong, to have considered that the sun, on the day of the winter solstice, rises in the direction opposite to the one where it sets on the day of the summer solstice.

In the 1960s, the problem was reconsidered by Gerald Hawkins. He noticed a window, in a little chapel built by Tuthmosis III in the east end of the temple, aligned with the sunrise at winter solstice. An inscription in the chapel shows the pharaoh in front of the window, and the texts says: "We applaud your beautiful face, you biggest of all Gods, Amun-Re" (Krupp 1983). The temple was therefore really aligned on a solstitial axis, as Lockyer determined, but given the existence of the hills on the western horizon, the observations of the solar cycle took place on the opposite side.

Lockyer found other solstitial alignments, for example that of the axis of the temple of Amenofi III in Luxor. Today we know that solar alignments were also used in Egypt to realize some spectacular events that I will call, borrowing the term used by the religions historian Mircea Eliade (1964), hierophanies.

To describe them, let's think of a building aligned with the sun that rises or sets in a particular direction, and consider it together with the sun itself, in its constant motion, as a single thing, like a mechanism made of different gears. When the gear in motion (the sun) aligns with the given direction, the mechanism operates and something happens (for example, the light penetrates in a dark corridor). If this mechanism has a religious connotation, one can envision the phenomenon as a divine manifestation. In a certain way, then, it is as if the objects produced by human effort become alive at the very same moment they become the instruments of such a manifestation (see Chapter 15 for further details). In this book we discuss some extremely impressive hierophanies of rare beauty, and the first one is indeed in Egypt, in

Abu Simbel, where Rameses II (1279-1213 BC) built two temples excavated in the rock. Until the 1960s, the temples stood on the bank of the Nile and for over three thousand years they welcomed, and intimidated, all those who reached Egypt from the south. The construction of the great Aswan Dam, which created the artificial Lake Nasser, would have sunk the temples, so they were dismantled and rebuilt inside an artificial cavity made of armored cement some dozens of meters above the site of the lake.

The facade of the main temple is carved in the rock and houses four gigantic statues, 22 meters tall, of the pharaoh. The temple is oriented toward the east (we shall shortly see how), and on the top of the facade a line of baboons watches the dawn with their paws raised as a sign of adoration. On the left side of the facade, a chapel dedicated to Re-Horakty is oriented toward the raising of the Sun on the summer solstice (Krupp 1988). The interior, originally carved in stone, contains a series of halls aligned one with the other and with frescos telling the heroic life of the king. The last, small hall has, in its rear wall, four statues representing four divinities sitting down next to one another: Ptah, Amun-Ra, Rameses II as a God, and Re-Horakhti (Plate 8).

On February 22 and October 22 of every year, since 3200 years ago, the sun rises in alignment with the axis of the temple. Since the temple was restored and the corridor was cleared of debris in the 19th century, the sun rays, on those two particular days, run again through the galleries, crossing all the halls in a row and reaching the chapel at the very end of the building. The sun carefully avoids Ptah but illuminates Amun-Ra, and then it moves, illuminating Rameses II and, in the end, also Re-Horakhti. The sun, then, manifests and makes tangible the sacredness of the temple through a cyclic phenomenon that occurs twice every year (it is likely that the two dates had calendrical significance and/or coincide with the date of accession of the pharaoh).

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