Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Not accidental

The alignment between the position of the sun’s rays and the design of ancient Egyptian temples is far from accidental, writes Zahi Hawass

Al-Ahram Weekly

Some people today are talking about the rays of the sun shining inside the sanctuaries of various ancient Egyptian temples and claiming that this is accidental. Others think that the rays of the sun that enter the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel on the solar equinox indicate the days of his birth and coronation.

A major problem that we are facing today is that many people who talk about ancient Egyptian antiquities do not have a scientific background. There is one person, for example, who does so even though he does not have an academic degree and used to hire out horses at the Pyramids. This person was mistakenly thought to be an Egyptologist by a reporter who gave him the title of doctor, subsequently making an incorrect statement about the restoration of the Step Pyramid to the effect that it was going to fall down.

I am sure that this person did not know the name of the owner of the Step Pyramid. After the 25 January Revolution, many unqualified people appeared in the media and were very destructive to the country’s reputation.

The public knows that the sun’s rays penetrate the sanctuary of the Temple of Abu Simbel twice a year, on 21 February and 21 October. When the temple was moved during the international campaign to save it, the phenomenon also happened twice a year, but now on 22 February and 22 October instead.

Egypt used to benefit from this occasion for the promotion of tourism, and people from all over the world attended the celebrations. I have read in the newspapers that some people believe that the sun’s rays enter the temple on these two days to celebrate the birth and coronation of Ramses II. We do not have any evidence that points to this.

In my opinion, the ancient Egyptians were skilled astronomers, and the alliance of the sun with the temples was deliberate because the gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhty, the universal gods of Egypt, were closely associated with the sun. Therefore, the temples were made for the worship of the sun god, and the kings worshipped the gods inside the temples. Thus, the sun had to be a major element within them.

We know that Ramses II did not win his first battle against the Hittites. At the time, defeating Egypt’s enemies was one of the fundamental roles of the king, and it was necessary for the sustainability of his position as a pious ruler. The king had to present the gods with offerings, keep Upper and Lower Egypt united, build temples for the worship of the gods, and defeat the enemies of Egypt. Then he could be a god in the hereafter.

Ramses II built the Abu Simbel Temple to worship himself as a god. He constructed it to serve his kingly office and because he was not sure that he would be a god in the afterlife after he had lost his battle with the Hittites.

The ancient Egyptian astronomers carefully aligned the temple so that the sun could shine inside the sanctuary on the face of Ramses II twice a year. In this sanctuary there are seated statues of Ramses II and the gods Ptah, the god of craftsmen and controller of the north, and Amon and Re-Horakhty, who represent the solar deities. The presence of these universal gods ensured the divinity of Ramses II by being placed adjacent to him and hosting him as a god equal to them. The gods of the sun then sent its rays as a sign that all of them had chosen Ramses as a god in the afterlife.

There is another alignment of the sun at the Temples of Karnak on the east bank of the Nile at Luxor, and the Temple of Hatshepsut on the west bank. This alignment takes place on 21, 22 and 23 December each year. The sun’s rays enter from the eastern gate of the Karnak Temple and pass by the sanctuary. At the same moment the sun directs its rays towards the face of queen Hatshepsut as well as the face of Amon in the innermost sanctuary of Hatshepsut’s Temple.

The reason for this alignment is not clear, but there have been several suggestions: the first days of winter and the change of seasons; the feast of the rebirth of Osiris, since this god was associated with agriculture; and Amon as the sun god entering the sanctuary of Hatshepsut to ensure her divinity.

The other event that many people do not notice takes place at the Pyramids during the equinoxes. The sun sets behind the Sphinx’s shoulder twice a year, on 21 and 22 March and 21 and 22 September. I used to watch this event every year and bring reporters to share the celebrations with me.

Some people are saying that another alignment occurs inside the four other temples of Kom Ombo, Edfu, Dendera and Qasr Al-Sagha in Fayoum. I cannot say that this is merely an accident, and scholars must study these temples and determine if there is a possibility of this happening.

The ancient Egyptians established a calendar of 365 days and divided it into 12 months. They also invented a system of the constellations. The Pyramids were precisely oriented. We know that they were aligned facing true north, and some were aligned with the Pole Star. Astronomy played an important role in ancient Egyptian religious lives, and the pharaoh fixed the exact date of festivals and also had the Book of Amduat that explains the 12 hours of the day and the 12 hours of the night inscribed in tombs.

We also know that the temples preserved records of the movements of the stars. We can see this on the astronomical ceiling relief from the Dendera Temple, known as the zodiac, which is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The rising of Sirius at the beginning of the annual flooding of the Nile was very important to the ancient Egyptians in starting the yearly calendar.

We can also look at the Book of Nut to understand many astronomical features, and paintings in the tombs of Ramses VI and Ramses IX depict the hours of the night and show a man seated on the ground facing an astrologer in such a way that the line of observation to the Pole Star passes over the middle of his head.

The alignment of the sun inside ancient Egyptian temples is unique, and we see it only in Egypt because the ancient Egyptians were concerned with the worship of the sun. Many temples were built from east to west, corresponding to the direction of the rising and setting of the sun. Therefore, we can see a connection between temple construction and the sun. The solar alignment inside the temples is no accident. 

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