Egyptian Temples and Tombs

During the earliest dynasties in ancient Egypt, from about 3000 b.c.e. onwards, royal burials increased steadily in size and complexity. However, it is the construction of huge pyramids that for most people epitomizes ancient Egyptian burial customs and captures the imagination.

Large stone architecture first appeared during the Third Dynasty (twenty-seventh century B.C.E.) in the form of the 77-meter- (254 foot-)high stepped pyramid at Saqqara, some ten kilometers (six miles) south of modern Cairo. Pyramid building reached its peak (after some initial shortcomings) during the Fourth Dynasty (2613-2494 b.c.e.) with the construction of the famous Pyramids of Giza. Pyramids actually formed part of complexes, typically built on the edge of the desert plateau above the fertile river valley where they would dominate the surrounding landscape yet remain inaccessible to the masses: they were enclosed, together with other sacred structures, within a high wall. The precinct interior could only be reached by means of a covered causeway leading up from a separate temple in the valley, accessible by boat.

The subsequent Fifth Dynasty is particularly characterized by the construction of temples dedicated to the sun god, Ra (or Re). The pharaoh's power depended upon sun worship, and these "sun sanctuaries" followed the design of the mortuary complexes in having two enclosed precincts on different levels linked by a causeway. Six of the nine pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty built temple complexes; the best preserved is that built by the sixth pharaoh, Neuserre, at Abu Ghurab.

All of this happened during Old Kingdom times, up to the mid-twenty-second century B.C.E. Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for a further two millennia, its complex history including periods of political instability and social upheaval as well as two further periods of relative stability: the Middle Kingdom (mid-twenty-first century to mid-seventeenth century) and the New Kingdom (mid-sixteenth century to mid-eleventh century). Monumental tombs and temples proliferated in these later times, but they were generally more modest and not just the preserve of the kings themselves. However, the New Kingdom has left us some spectacular remains in the vicinity of its

Part of the painted ceiling of the burial chamber of the tomb of Seti I (New Kingdom, thirteenth century B.C.E.), listing and depicting the decans—stars and asterisms that marked ten-day calendrical periods. (Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis)

sacred capital, Thebes, some five hundred kilometers (three hundred miles) upriver to the south of Cairo, near modern Luxor. Amun (or Amon), the patron god of Thebes, had become identified with the existing sun god Ra, and the Great Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak provided a spectacular setting at the heart of the city for public ceremonials relating to the sun god. On the opposite side of the river is the so-called Valley of the Kings, which contains over sixty underground pharaohs' tombs, including the famous (because it was discovered intact) tomb of Tutankhamun.

The most obvious clues to astronomical associations of temples and tombs are found in the inscriptions within them. A number of New Kingdom tombs and temples, for example, contain painted "astronomical ceilings," listing and depicting stars, constellations, and even planets. But why should these be placed inside tombs? The answer is that ancient Egyptians' understanding of the sky was framed within a worldview that bound together inextricably the gods, the otherworld Duat, the afterlife, and what was seen in the night sky. It had long been engrained in ancient Egyptian minds that the sun god Ra traveled nightly through Duat, the world beyond the horizon, on his journey to the eastern side where the sky goddess Nut would give birth to him once again. Similarly, most of the stars in the sky disappeared from view for a period of some weeks in the year, between their heliacal set and heliacal rise; during this time they too were understood to pass through Duat. Likewise, the deceased were required to pass through the twelve parts of the underworld in order to join the gods in the sky. As far back as Old Kingdom times, pharaohs' tombs contained sets of spells known as pyramid texts that were designed to ensure a safe passage. Circumpolar stars, on the other hand, were immortal: ever present in the night sky, they never crossed the horizon into Duat, never died, and were never reborn. It was these stars that the human soul, striving for immortality, endeavored to join.

These beliefs, and especially the deep importance attached to the north direction with its imperishable stars, may well have given rise to a practice during Old Kingdom times of aligning tombs and temples with the cardinal directions. Pyramids from Saqqara onwards were oriented to the cardinal points, and at the Pyramids of Giza this was achieved with remarkable precision. This practice of cardinal orientation also appears to have been followed, though not necessarily with such great precision, at Old Kingdom temples such as those at Abu Ghurab. Other celestial alignments have also been discovered at Old Kingdom temples and tombs. The great pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the three pyramids at Giza, contains two long shafts connecting the King's Chamber directly to the outside world. Thought for many years to be mere ventilation shafts, it was discovered in the 1960s that one was aligned upon the star Thuban in the north, the closest thing to a pole star at the time, and the other upon Orion's belt in the south. While it is possible that the alignments are fortuitous, it is more likely that they had a very real purpose relating to the journeys to the stars that the pharaoh would need to make in the afterlife.

Various New Kingdom temples seem to have been aligned with the sun. The central axis of the Great Temple of Amun-Ra is aligned toward winter solstice sunrise. The main enclosure at Karnak also contains several other temples with solstitial orientations. This is scarcely surprising, given that it was the center of a sun cult, but the reasons that particular importance was attached to the winter solstice are unknown. The main axis of another great New Kingdom temple, Abu Simbel, was aligned upon sunrise on (in our calendar) October 18 and February 22. (This temple was moved in the 1960s out of the way of the floodwaters created by the Aswan Dam, but the alignment was carefully preserved.) These dates were probably significant for cal-endrical reasons, but precisely what these were is hotly disputed.

A number of enthusiasts have investigated possible astronomical align ments at Egyptian temples and tombs over the years, going back to the pioneering efforts of the German scholar Heinrich Nissen and the British physicist Sir Norman Lockyer in the late nineteenth century. Not only solar but also stellar and even lunar alignments have been claimed, but there are inherent dangers in all this. The mere existence of an alignment does not prove that it was intentional, and the number of different structures in each temple complex provides many putative alignments. Only recently have systematic studies of temple and tomb orientations in ancient Egypt, sensibly interpreted in the light of the broader knowledge that has been obtained over the years from a range of archaeological evidence, begun to be undertaken. Preliminary results seem to indicate that temples in the Upper Egyptian Nile valley were predominantly topographically oriented, although some astronomical orientations were included as well, especially upon the winter solstice sun. According to another recent idea, the builders of Old Kingdom pyramids perfected (over time) their orientation and proportions so as to achieve impressive illumination effects at the summer solstice and equinoxes.

See also:

Astronomical Dating; Cardinal Directions; Lockyer, Sir Norman (1836-1920); Nissen, Heinrich (1839-1912).

Ancient Egyptian Calendars; Pyramids of Giza.

Circumpolar Stars; Heliacal Rise.

References and further reading

Belmonte, Juan. "Some Open Questions on the Egyptian Calendar: An Astronomer's View." Trabajos de Egiptología [Papers on Ancient Egypt] 2 (2003), 7-56.

Clagett, Marshall. Ancient Egyptian Science: A Source Book, Vol. 2: Calendars, Clocks, and Astronomy. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1995.

Fagan, Brian, ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 194-202. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hawkins, Gerald. Beyond Stonehenge, 193-218. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Hodson, F. R., ed. The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World, 51-65. London: Royal Society, 1976.

Krupp, Edwin C., ed. In Search of Ancient Astronomies, 214-239. New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Lockyer, Norman. The Dawn of Astronomy. London: Cassell, 1894.

Neugebauer, Otto. The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, 70-91. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951. (2nd ed., Providence: Brown University Press, 1959, 71-96; further corrected ed., New York: Dover, 1969, 71-96.)

Neugebauer, Otto, and Richard A. Parker. Egyptian Astronomical Texts, III: Decans, Planets, Constellations and Zodiacs. Providence: Brown University Press, 1969.

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom, 473-499. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 495-503. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

Shaltout, Mosalam, and Juan Antonio Belmonte. "On the Orientation of Ancient Egyptian Temples: (1) Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia." Journal for the History of Astronomy 36 (2005), 273-298. Walker, Christopher, ed. Astronomy before the Telescope, 32-37. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

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