The Stretching of the Cord

The orientation of a temple took place when the foundations were laid. This operation had an important symbolic meaning, and coincided with a precise ceremony described and represented in many temples, such as that of Hatshepsut and that of Dendera, for instance. The ceremony was called stretching of the cord, and it is extremely ancient, being quoted for the first time in the Palermo Stone, a list of the kings of the first five dynasties (Belmonte 2001).

In a typical depiction of the ceremony, the pharaoh who ordered the

Stretching The Cord

Figure 4.4: The "Stretching of the cord" ceremony from a carving in the Hatshepsut temple

Figure 4.4: The "Stretching of the cord" ceremony from a carving in the Hatshepsut temple building of the temple is shown together with the goddess Seshat. Seshat was associated with wisdom and knowledge, as well as with writing. Interestingly, it seems that she was also associated with the transmission of knowledge, since one of her titles was Guardian of the House of the Books.

The pharaoh and the goddess face each other, and both of them have a kind of hammer in one hand and a pole in the other. Between the two poles there is a rope ring being pulled. The texts associated with these depictions include sentences that doubtlessly regard the observation of the northern sky. For example, in Dendera, the texts state, "Watching the sky and at the celestial objects rising movements, once identified the Ak of the constellation of the Bull's Foreleg, I calculated the angles of the temple."

The Bull's Foreleg constellation, called Mesketiu (Mes) by the ancient Egyptians, is our Ursa Major constellation and precisely the brightest part of it is also known as the Big Dipper or Chariot, composed of seven stars and typical of the northern sky. Therefore, the ceremony refers to the orientation of the temple toward the north. The same shape of the Bull's Foreleg recalls the terrestrial geographic north in Egypt; the delta of the Nile was indeed indicated as a Bull's Foreleg. Anyway, it is still not clear how the orientation was carried out (maybe by specialized astronomers, even though we cannot be sure if the pharaohs themselves studied astronomy or not), and it is not clear at all toward which northern direction they were looking when orienting a temple to the stars. Indeed, these temples are not oriented toward true north, and therefore the ceremony was not meant to find the celestial North Pole using the movements of suitable stars (as was done for the pyramids, as we shall see in Chapter 18). The main problem is that we do not know what the term Ak indicates. It could be a certain position, for instance the maximum distance reached by a circumpolar star east of north, or a particular position of two or more stars together. In any case, the orientation of a temple toward the circumpolar stars had a strong symbolic meaning: these stars were one of the destinations of the soul of the dead pharaoh, and the typical shape of the two constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major appears frequently in the ceremony of the opening of the mouth. As we saw, the priest officiating the ceremony used some curved axes, and also a bull's foreleg (Plate 10).

The celestial objects were observed with a simple but effective instrument called Merkhet (one of these instruments from the late period is today preserved in Berlin). The Merkhet was basically a palm stem with a slit at the bottom of one side to be used as a viewfinder. Then a level with a plumb line was used to show the directions on the ground. Even if the Merkhet is the only Egyptian astronomical instrument of proven existence, the Spanish astrophysicist and archaeoastronomer Juan Belmonte pointed out that the goddess Seshat, in the depictions of the stretching of the cord, is represented with some kind of hat (which is also her hieroglyphic) in the shape of a seven-petal flower with a long stem, which is included in a bell-shaped symbol. The seven petals could again be the seven stars of the Ursae, and the goddess hieroglyphic could represent a true instrument for observation where, in the middle of the seven-point star, a star was collimated so that the stem would offer the perpendicular to the horizon and therefore the direction sought (Belmonte 2001).

Even if it is likely that the temples oriented in directions close to true north have been intentionally oriented toward circumpolar stars, further research is needed to clarify the specifics of the orientation. For example, let us consider the Hathor temple of Dendera, located close to the city of Qena, some 60 kilometers north of Luxor. The temple dates back to the Middle Kingdom, but its present state is dated around the first century BC. The wall carvings record the ceremony of the stretching of the cord, and indeed the main axis is oriented northerly, in the direction 18.5 degrees east of north. One of the possibilities is that the axis was oriented as to indicate the maximum distance reached on the right side of the pole by the brightest star of the Big Dipper, Alfa-Ursae o Dubhe. Interestingly, however, the orientation of the east-west axis, which is 18.5 degrees south of east, points to the rising of Sirius, and a chapel dedicated to Isis is aligned on the same axis.

In the course of his pioneering studies on the temple's orientation, Lockyer was the first to notice the existence of a very interesting circumstance. A stellar alignment of a building remains operative only for a few centuries after construction, because precession drifts, slowly

Figure 4.5: The astronomer and his assistant making measures with the Mercket

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Figure 4.5: The astronomer and his assistant making measures with the Mercket but regularly, the rising point of all the stars on the eastern horizon. As a consequence, let us suppose we build a temple according to a certain stellar orientation and then, after three or four hundred years, we decide to renovate it by adding, for instance, a new corridor hall. When measuring the orientation, we will find that if we want the corridor to be oriented toward the same astronomical phenomena of the one previously built, the new axis has to be shifted (we have already encountered a similar situation in the temple of Ggantjia in Malta, where a new temple was built that was very similar to the previous one but with a shifted axis).

Puzzling deviations of the axis of the same building or nearby buildings are found in many instances in Egypt; for instance, in Medinet Habu, where Rameses III (1184-1153 BC) had his House of Millions of Years built with an axis that deviated a few degrees from that of a preexisting temple built by Hatschepsut and completed under Tuthmosis III (1490-1436 BC). Even in Dendera, the chapel dedicated to Isis was built on top of a previous building from the Rameses II period (c. 1300 BC), and its plan is rotated of 2V2 degrees compared to the previous one, a measurement that seems to correspond to the precessional movement of the rising of Sirius in the time that elapsed between the two constructions. A similar situation can be found in the so-called Thoth Hill temple in Thebes, rebuilt during the Middle Kingdom on the foundations of an archaic temple (Wilkinson 2003).

Finally, perhaps the most puzzling example is given by the magnificent temple of Luxor. The axis of this temple, contrary to what happened, as we have seen, to the solstitial axis of nearby Karnak, which was strictly maintained in each subsequent addition, was slightly deviated on the occasion of each of the four New Kingdom renovations that occurred in the course of the centuries.

Judging from the plan, there seems to be no doubt that these subsequent shifts were dictated by the desire to build according to some astronomical phenomenon that was shifting as well; however, no one has been able so far to prove this circumstance.

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