Egypt Looks

While the Chinese, the Babylonians, and the Chaldeans used astronomical observations to help them rule and regulate the living, the ancient Egyptians used the observations and measurements they made to help the dead find their place in the afterlife. Actually, Egyptian astronomers worked for both the living and the dead. They created a calendar to help predict the annual flooding of the Nile—essential information for a people whose entire agriculture was subject to the whims of that river. To create their calendar, Egyptian sky watchers concentrated in particular on the rising of the star Sirius (which they called Sothis). Working from these data (measuring the time from one rising of Sirius to the next), Egyptian astronomers were able to determine that a year was 365.25 days long.

Celestial Pyramids

To think of the Egyptians is to think of the pyramids, the great tombs of the pharaohs. Prayers carved into the walls of pyramid chambers make reference to the stars and to the pharaoh's ascent into the sky among them. Texts inscribed on the monuments at Saqqara, Egypt, tell of the pharaoh joining the circumpolar stars, which neither rise nor set, and therefore live eternally. These texts also tell of the pharaoh's journey to the constellation Orion—identified by the Egyptians with Osiris, the eternally resurrected god.

Replete as the pyramids are with such astronomical texts, it is little wonder that many archaeologists and others have speculated about the astronomical significance of the pyramid structures themselves. Certainly the Great Pyramid, by far the largest of the 80 or so known pyramids along the Nile's west bank, is celestially aligned. Internal shafts or ducts point to the star Thuban, which in ancient Egyptian times was the

North Star (see the discussion of precession in Chapter 3, "The Unexplained Motions of the Heavens"). Other shafts point to Orion's Belt at certain times of the year, as if to indicate the afterlife destiny of the pharaoh, toward the deathless North Star (which does not rise or set) on the one hand, and toward the constellation associated with the eternally reborn god Osiris on the other.

The Universe-in-a-Box

The pyramids were not observatories, although it is tempting to think of them as such. The astronomical alignments they demonstrate were symbolic or magical rather than practical. Indeed, except for their very accurate calendar, the Egyptians seem to have made little of what we would call scientific use of their many astronomical observations. The ancient Egyptians drew images of constellations (an Egyptian star map was discovered by one of Napoleon's generals in 1798 when the French army campaigned in Egypt) and made accurate measurements of stellar positions. However, they also reached the fantastic conclusion that the universe was a rectangular box, running north and south, its ceiling flat, supported by four pillars at the cardinal points—due north, south, east, and west. Joining the pillars together was a mountain chain, along which the celestial river Ur-nes ran, carrying boats bearing the Sun, the Moon, and other heavenly deities. In fact, many early cultures developed an accurate astronomical calendar side by side with a fanciful mythology.

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