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:
Click here for details.
available through Amazon. Click books to follow the link.
An excellent book by Richard Wilkinson describing the different temple sites of Ancient Egypt.
A clear concise book on the history of Egypt.
The definitive book on the pyramids.
Information on all of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
An excellent guide to learning hieroglyphs.
Detailed information on one of the most famous sites in Egypt.
Astronomical Alignment in the Temples of Egypt
by David Furlong
This is the fourth part of the article of Egyptian Temple Orientation. This part looks at stellar Orientations. The sites involved are:
1. Amenhotep III Temple
2. Ramses II temple + Avenue of Sphinxes
Ramses III Temple
(This article runs over six pages. To download the whole article in pdf format please click here)
For the reasons already given stellar alignments are much more difficult to determine. The following section highlights these problems and offers some suggestions and possibilities on how the Ancient Egyptians might have used the stars in the setting out of their temples.
This part looks at the temples of Hathor at Denderah and Horus at Edfu
Hathor Temple at Denderah (Plan 10)
The dating of this magnificent temple can be very precisely set to 54 bc because of textual information. However we also know that an early Middle Kingdom temple resided on this site so any alignment might have been set at a prior time. The temple is on an azimuth of 18º - 7’ which accords with the SB study. Textual information of the setting out of the temple tells us that the alignment was to Meskhetu or the Ursa Major stars. At the latitude of Denderah not all of the stars of Ursa Major are visible all of the time, with the tail of the constellation, the star Alkaid, disappearing briefly at its lowest descent before re-appearing again as the constellation climbs back up into the heavens. Around 54 bc this reappearance would have been very close to 18 degrees and therefore this is the most likely orientation for the temple. The SB study put this forward as the main contender.
However there are two other possibilities. Firstly, as already mentioned, the extant temple was but the latest incarnation of other temples that have stood on this site. If we project back in time to the Middle Kingdom then other possibilities with orientations to the ‘Meskhetu’ become possible. Around 1400 bc a similar alignment to that suggested for the Mut temple would certainly have worked.
Secondly, at the rear of the Hathor temple and orientated at 90 degrees to it lies the temple of Isis. The azimuth of this temple is 108º- 29’ and at 54 bc the star Sirius, so important to the Ancient Egyptians, would have been seen rising on the eastern horizon on the same azimuth. We therefore have three possible contenders for astronomical orientation for this temple. The most likely, particularly because it is backed up by textual evidence is that put forward in the SB study, namely the orientation to the re-emergence of Alkaid after its descent below the horizon. This is still, at best, an educated guess.
Plan 10 (From Google Earth Mapping Service/image©2007 DigitalGlobe)
The alignment of the Hathor temple of Denderah can be clearly seen. Built in 54 bc its orientation points towards the rising azimuth of the Alkaid, the tail star of Ursa Major known as Meskhetu. The Hathor temple is full of astronomical and astrological signs and originally included the famous Denderah zodiac, which is now in the Louvre museum in Paris. To the rear of the Hathor temple is a small temple dedicated to Isis. This is aligned to the rising of Sirius at the time of the temple’s foundation.
Horus Temple at Edfu (Plan 11)
This temple is dated textually to 272 bc. It is the best preserved of all of the Egyptian temples and lies approximately on a north/south axis. Like the Hathor temple it was built on a site that had been used since antiquity. The calculated Google Earth alignment from sanctuary to entrance is on a bearing of 181º- 58’ which accords well with the SB study of 181.75º. Had the temple been set to an exact north/south meridian the alignment conclusion would be that it was simply orientated to the cardinal points of the compass. This would have been following the traditions of the Old Kingdom pyramids and perhaps a recognition of Horus’ ancient mythological roots that stretched back into the Archaic period. An error of half a degree or even one degree might have been acceptable but one and three-quarter degrees would seem deliberate, bearing in mind that in the case of the Great Pyramid the Ancient Egyptian were able to obtain accuracies down to seven minutes of arc.
The problem with such an orientation is that there is no obvious astronomical fit. The ‘stretching of the cord’ ceremony, depicted on the temple walls, suggests an orientation towards Meskhetu or Ursa Major. Unlike the Denderah temple, where the reappearance of Alkaid could have set the alignment, nothing of a similar nature occurs on Edfu temple’s azimuth, for in this location Alkaid rises on an azimuth close to 17°. It is just possible that the bucket stars of Merak or Phad could have set the orientation, for, at this latitude, these stars also disappear or come very close to it, through atmospheric extinction. Of the two Merak is the most likely contender but this would be very difficult to demonstrate, with any certainty today.
It is possible that the temple is orientated on some other basis that is now lost to us, or perhaps we need to look in a different direction for the orientation, possibly at right angles to the present main axis. Even here would require a jump back in time to make sense of a stellar alignment. Around 770 bc Betelgeuse, one of the main stars of Orion could be found descending on the western horizon on an azimuth of 272°. Going further back in time to the 2nd Intermediate period around 1700 bc this same star could be found rising towards the east on an azimuth of 93°. Neither of these alignments is very convincing.
Topographically the Edfu temple is situated in level terrain, and runs very approximately parallel to a bend in the Nile some one kilometre away. The surrounding countryside is flat, so there are no obvious hills on which the temple is sighted. Its north/south axis is close to its twin temple of Hathor at Denderah but not sufficiently close to be an obvious match. These two temples were linked through ritual festivals that performed twice a year when the cults statues of the two deities were ferried to each others temple in form of sacred union.The entrance to the Horus temple faces towards the south, while the Hathor temple points to the north, the difference between the two entrances being about 164 degrees. We might surmise that the Horus association with the Sun logically determines the facing direction of the Edfu temple, whilst the sky goddess Hathor linked with Nut and the night sky is best placed facing north. This may be why there are so many astrological scenes within the Denderah temple, Whether there is some other long lost esoteric significance in the difference in the two azimuths we are unlikely to ever know. Frustratingly the Edfu temple does not appear to have any obvious clear alignments, excepting as stated and in this sense it is reminiscent of the Luxor temple. Yet because of the distance from the Nile it is difficult to see how the river could have been instrumental in the setting out of the temple.
With the incredible skill and attention to detail shown in the Edfu temple it is hard to credit that the alignment was arbitrary. The most likely explanation is that the alignment was set from some subtle combination of the Meskhetu stars. Without further information this has to remain entirely speculative.
Plan 11 (From Google Earth Mapping Service/image©2007 DigitalGlobe)
The Edfu temple is aligned within 2° of a north/south axis. The probable alignment is to the stars of Ursa Major, but how this was done on the temple axis is unclear.
Other Stellar Orientated Sites:
Ramses III temple - Medinet Habu
Mut Temple Kernak
Luxor Temple Amenhotep III
Luxor Temple Ramses II
To return back to the begining of the article click back button
This article has attempted to provide some insight into the setting out of different temples in Egypt. Clearly in some cases topographical features played a prominent part; in others astronomical alignments were also significant. Those temples orientated towards the Sun or Moon would still work today perhaps requiring only the right time to check them out. Stellar alignments are likely to be much more suspect because of precessional changes and the difficulty in fixing dates. Some star based temples, such as that of Denderah are backed up by textual information and this certainly helps in any interpretation.
The temples studied here only scratch the surface in relation to the many extant temples in Egypt. Further work is required in this area, which fortunately now can be extensively done with the aid of computers.
Starry Night Complete Space and Astronomy Park Deluxe Edition 6
Red Shift Deluxe Edition 5.1
StarCalc ver 5.73
MyStars ver 2.7
Google Earth Plus ver 3.0.0762
Plans of the different Temple sites taken from Google Earth mapping Programme.
For further information please write to:
Myrtles, Como Road, Malvern Worcs WR14 2TH
or phone 01684-569105 or 07779789047
David has been taking groups to Egypt for more than 15 years
The temple of the goddess Hathor at Denderah. The temple would seem to be aligned to the rising of Alkaid the tail of the Plough stars of Ursa Major.
A part of a star map on the ceiling of the temple of Denderah.
Part of the Denderah Zodiac. Some of the constellations, such as Leo can just be made out.
The inner courtyard of the Edfu temple. This temple would appear to be aligned to the Plough stars of Ursa Major, which the Ancient Egyptians knew as Meskhetu.
The statue of Hours at Edfu
Relief of Horus and Hathor from the Edfu temple.