Mid-Winter Solstice Celebration Holiday 2013
A fabulous week holiday in Luxor visiting many ancient sites culminating in celebrating the mid-winter solstice at the magnificent temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
16th - 23rd December:
OrientationAstronomical Alignment in the Temples of Egypt
by David Furlong
(This article runs over six pages. To download the whole article in pdf format please click here)
For .pdf article on Karnak Temple Alignments click here
Solar Aligned Temples
In the case of Ipet-Isut, a more plausible explanation is that the temple orientation was set to the opposite solar event of the mid-winter sunrise, which is a case that was argued by Gerald Hawkins in his book Beyond Stonehenge published in 1973 and is supported by the SB study. It was initially thought that whilst the solstice phenomenon would have been observed when the original temple was laid out in the early part of the Middle Kingdom in the reign of Senwosret 1, the temple design would have blocked this phenomenon being observed from within the sanctuary. Photographic evidence of solstice sunrises from years 2007, 2008 and 2010 suggests this perception may be incorrect. Magnificent solstitial sunrises can be experienced today from the position of the alabaster altar in the outer courtyard, close to the entrance of the present temple right through to the alabaster altar in the middle of the courtyard behind the present ‘barque’ shrine of Amun. This latter altar marks the position of the original Middle Kingdom temple complex. The reason the mid-winter solstice sunrise can be experienced so clearly today is that some of the eastern walls of the temple that would have blocked the view through to the eastern horizon have collapsed.
Unlike Newgrange in Ireland , where the golden light of the rising mid-winter Sun slowly illuminates the inner chamber, the Karnak alignment would not have work in the same way. At first observation the Sun shining from behind the sanctuary would only symbolically appear to illuminate the aisle of the temple. However, unlike almost every other temple in Egypt, the present sanctuary of Amun has two doorways; a main door that faces out to central aisle of the temple and a secondary rear doorway, opposite the first, facing east towards the morning Sun. Despite the visual obstructions of the “Festival Hall” of Tutmosis III and Nectanenbo’s Gateway, a point close to the horizon can still be seen in the Fig 1 picture, and as such, the mid-winter solstice can still be witnessed from within the sanctuary. One might speculate that at special moments, such as the mid-winter sunrise both doors could have been opened to allow dazzling sunlight to flood the aisle from behind the ‘golden statue of Amun. Such an effect would have been awesome.
The Karnak temple developed in stages. What we see today is the remains of nearly two thousand years of history and construction. There is no doubt from all of the Karnak studies that at one point the view through to the eastern horizon was blocked by the erection of a huge obelisk, at the eastern end of the temple. Standing over 32 meters in height this enormous block of stone was erected during the reign of Thutmosis IV around 1400 BCE. It is known today as the ‘Lateran’ obelisk because it now stands in Laterano Square in Rome and its position and size would have certainly blocked any view of the solstice sunrise along the axial line of the temple.
Prior to the erection of the obelisk Thutmosis’ grandfather Thutmosis III had erected a festival hall called the ‘Akh-menu’ across the rear of the temple and there is no evidence that it would have permitted the solstitial sun to be seen from within the barque sanctuary of Amun after its construction. Yet prior to the erection of these monuments the situation is not so clear.
Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled for twenty-two years from around 1500 BCE built a barque shrine, known as the ‘Chappelle Rouge’ or Red Chapel, in what is now thought to be the position of the present shrine. What is interesting about Hatshepsut’s shrine and that of the one that preceded it, known as the Alabaster shrine of Amenhotep 1 is that both had two door entrances, one looking west into the main temple and the other looking east towards the solstitial sunrise. From the excellent computer graphical reconstruction of the Karnak temple by the University of California, Los Angeles it is clear that with minor adjustments a view through to the eastern horizon could have been seen from within the temple complex and may indeed have played a part in its rituals. Opening the rear doors of the barque shrine to allow the brilliant solstitial Sun to flood behind the cult statue before opening the opposite doors would have produced a profound effect on all who witnessed such an event.
The present “holy of holies”, was built circa 323 BCE by Philip Arrhidaeus the half brother of Alexander the Great. It is the last of a number of shrines that have stood on this sacred spot. It is possible today to witness the power of the solstitial Sun, from within this sanctuary as it rises for several days on either side of the solstice around 21/22 December as can be shown from the photographic evidence that is now available to us.
The Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III and the ‘Lateran’ obelisk to the east of the shrine would have prevented this event being experienced during most of the temple’s active life. The height angle created by the ‘Latern’ obelisk to the sanctuary is a little over sixteen degrees, which in practice would have meant that more than fifty days would have been required for the Sun to penetrate directly into the shrine.
Does this mean that all solstitial observations from the temple then ceased? Not necessarily, for the computer graphics show that observations could easily have been made from the roof of the temple (see below) and other monuments, such as the shrine of Taharqa (690-664 BCE) could also have been used for the mid-winter solstitial observations. Indeed, Hawkins argued a case for another room, called ‘The High Room of the Sun’ within Thutmosis III’s ‘Akh-Menou’ to have used for such solar observations.
Other projected alignments are also shown running from the Luxor Temple, the Mut temple and Hatshepsut’s temple in Deir El Bahari.
Hatshepsut Temple at Deir El Bahari (Plan 2)
Queen Hatshepsut perceived herself as the divine daughter of Amun - Ra, which is how she asserted her claim to the throne of Egypt. It is hardly surprising then that her temple should mirror, in its alignment, that of Amun’s temple on the opposite bank of the Nile. There can be little doubt that the alignment to the mid-winter sunrise was clearly intended in the orientation of this temple. This has now been confirmed in a visit in December 2007 (Click here for a full report). The view from the upper terrace level provides a panoramic outlook towards the far distant eastern horizon and there is every indication that the rising sun of mid-winter would illuminate the inner recesses of the central chapel.
For full details on Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple at Deir El Bahari please click here.
Amenhotep III Temple at Qurna (Plan 4)
Other Solar Orientated Temples
All material copyright David Furlong 2010