The Karnak Temple Religious Theme’s Astronomic Angle

Today our Egyptologist and guide Mehdat who I would like to introduce with this entry showed Alan Green and I the Temple of Karnak and the Luxor Temple in Luxor.  Here is Mehdat standing next to the legendary Famine Stele where he took me a couple of days ago...a place very few tourists ever get to see.

Luxor is located at 25.6872 degrees North and 32.6396 degrees East. I mention this because Mehdat provided a key clue to the astronomy behind the religious theme of this large temple complex.  Briefly, the temples are dedicated to the Theban Triad, the gods Amun-Re (the Sun-Ram god), his consort Mut (the primordial Sea godess) and their son Khonsu (the Moon god).  Here is Amun-Re in two versions shown with either ram or human features alongside his consort and son.

 

Construction of the Karnak and Luxor temple complex occurred mostly during the New Kingdom which is a period of about 500 years from around 1500 B.C. to 1000 B.C., in other words about 1000 years after the Pyramid Age and the Old Kingdom.  This is the age of Aries astrologically, which in astronomic terms means that if you had gazed east just before sunrise on the first day of spring you would be seeing the constellation Aries hovering over the horizon.  Today we see the last remnants of Pisces and in a few centuries we will see Aquarius.  The reason why the spring equinox very slowly moves against the 12 constellations is because of precession.   Here is what Aries looks like in the night sky....minus the lines added here for illustration. It looks like the horn of a ram and the ancient Egyptians very likely made that association at some point during the second millennium B.C. suggested by the Karnak Temple orientation as it relates to the sun as we shall see in a moment.

 

Mythologically speaking, the sun engulfed or "ate" or "burnt" the ram on the first day of spring.  This played out as a ram sacrifice on an altar which basically reenacted the dying and rebirth of Amun-Re.  But what inspired this myth of dying and living again?  The answer in all likelihood is the Sun and its path across the horizon during the year.

On December 21, the sun rises south of east and sets south of west and reaches its most southward extension on the horizon which is why the day is shortest the night is longest.  Then, there are three days of no visible change in the position after which time the sun begins to rise and set slightly more north and onward.

 

And when we look at the main axis of the Karnak temple what do we see on December 21?

 

This photo was taken by Mehdat on December 21 right down the long path across the Temple of Karnak.  Unlike many monuments with a solar theme which are oriented to the equinoctes' sunrise at due east, the Karnak temple's entire axis is oriented to the sunrise of the winter solstice, the day after which the sun seems to stop moving across the horizon for three days as if it has died. On that day the sun sets in the southwest and that can be seen from the Luxor temple which is oriented accordingly such that when you faced the holiest part at the end you would have seen it shine its last light through the opening in the back...where Alexander the Great built a holiest of holy shrines within the holiest of holies built by Amenhotep III.

 

So thanks to Mehdat, we learned something very stunning today. The Theban religious theme was inspired by the movement of the sun across the horizon which goes to show how attentively ancient Egyptian astronomer-priests were watching the sky and taking notes.  Originally, this alignment was recognized by Norman Lockyer in 1894 and I read about this in Robert Bauval's book Imhotep The African: Architect of the Cosmos.

To contact Mehdat e-mail him at temooaswan@gmail.com.  Mehdat often works with Ya'llah Tours, our tour organizer.

 

 

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