Daily Cosmobite: winter solstice at Deir el Bahari

This special Boxing Day 2014 Cosmobite is prepared by Brenan Dew, Sydney Observatory guide, archaeologist and cultural astronomy researcher.

Hello! My name is Brenan and I am usually a guide at Sydney Observatory. However, I am currently overseas as a part the Macquarie Theban Tomb Project where I am spending two months, along with several colleagues from Macquarie University, excavating and recording the tomb of an official by the name of Amenmose who lived in the Ramesside period of ancient Egypt, some 3300 years ago.

Several days ago on the morning of the December solstice I was able to combine my two passions of Egyptology and Astronomy when I ventured to the famous mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahari to watch the sun rise. But this is no normal sunrise. On the morning of the December solstice the sun rises directly in line with the main axis of the temple, it shines through the door on the upper terrace and illuminates the inner sanctuary, and I was in the right place at the right time to see it! I stood with my camera poised, practically alone within the temple, and managed to capture some amazing shots.

Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahari © Brenan Dew.
Entry to the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahari. Photograph taken during the summer solstice, 2014 © Brenan Dew.


The first image (above) is the view looking through the doorway in the direction of the rising sun and the second was taken when I turned around, looking into the inner sanctuary of the temple.

Grand temple of Karnak © Brenan Dew.
Upper terrace of the mortuary temple during the summer solstice, 2014 © Brenan Dew.

As this second image shows, the sunlight that comes through the door on the upper terrace does not exactly line up with the inner sanctuary as it would have when this temple was originally built. This is not due to the effect of precession as I first thought, but this slight variation is caused by minor changes in the obliquity of the ecliptic. That is, changes in the Earths axial tilt that occur on a very long timescale, means the sun does not rise in exactly the same position today as it did when the temple was built almost three and a half thousand years ago. Nonetheless, this event was a truly remarkable one to experience.

I was lucky enough to be in Egypt for the December solstice of 2012 and at that time I visited the grand temple of Karnak, which is also aligned to the rising sun of the December solstice! These events highlight the importance of astronomy within this ancient culture, and that the ancient Egyptian people must have paid close attention to the skies to both notice the sun when it reached the solstice and to align their buildings to this once a year event. I highly recommend anyone travelling through Egypt at the right time of year to get up early and visit either of these temples for this incredible solstice event, it is one you will never forget!!

PS: previously this blog was titled ‘Summer’ solstice- thanks to all who picked this mistake (made by T. Stevenson) up!>

6 responses to “Daily Cosmobite: winter solstice at Deir el Bahari

  • nice photo , but sadly what Drew Brennan failed to notice is what happens if you extend a line directly between this spot in Egypt and the sun , then ” walk ” along this straight line for 7 24ths or 7 hours of 15 degrees , or 105 degrees each of 111.3km , then drop a line to the ground , you will discover the place the entire Egyptian temple was originally constructed for , the original meaning for this alignment , how very sad to see so many people ” blinded ” by the morning sunrise , and FAIL to understand what it is they are viewing , the ancient Egyptian ” earthy paradise ” spoken about in all the ancient Egyptian texts , is located one hour before dawn along this exact alignment , but sadly it will still take the experts many years to even notice . they are all blinded by the sun and fail to ask WHY did the ancient Egyptians choose this exact spot on this exact day , you could easily achieve the exact same result in any location on any day if you simply did some very basic maths , WHY DID THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CHOOSE THIS SPOT AND THIS TIME , seems a very easy question to answer once you examine the ancient texts .

    • its great to see young people like Drew Brennan taking an interest in astronomy AND ANCIENT EGYPT , and its worth noting his honesty in the last sentence of his blog post above , ” quote PS: previously this blog was titled ‘Summer’ solstice- thanks to all who picked this mistake (made by T. Stevenson) up!>” , This is a simple error we all face , especially those living in the southern hemisphere , we are all human and all make errors in highly complex matters , its a good scholar who openly admits his errors and corrects them , MOST EXPERTS SIMPLY IGNORE THE ERRORS and sadly they often get quoted and passed on to future students as facts , NOT MANY PEOPLE TAKE THE TIME AND EFFORT TO GET QUALITY PHOTOS LIKE THIS ,

    • Hi Mal,

      Thank you for your comments, it’s always great to know that others are interested in something as niche as ancient Egyptian astronomy. Can I ask where you get these numbers and angles from? If you could point out which ancient texts you are referring to, I would be happy to read them.

      The first evidence of the sundial in ancient Egypt is roughly contemporary with the temple of Hatshepsut, and there is no evidence (that I know of) for anything more advanced in terms of the calculation for determining the position of the sun, nor evidence to suggest that the sun or its rising position was used as a means of way-finding.

      The sunrise on the December solstice was (and is) a special event. The sun rising at its most southern position marks the changing of the seasons. For those living in the Northern Hemisphere, the amount of daylight is at its shortest, and the nights at their longest. There are also religious undertones to this event, as it marks the position where the ultimate sun god, Re, is most distant from Egypt. Re then makes its return journey back towards Egypt, getting higher and hotter in the Egyptian sky each day, until the June solstice, in an eternal, forever repeating, cosmic cycle. It is also well known that Re, as the sun, had rejuvenating powers, so the sunlight that shines into the inner sanctum of this temple, on this single day per year, would have been a religiously significant event.

      As for why Hatshepsut chose this specific location, there would have been many determining factors, some physical and some religious, such as the fact that this location is within line of site to the great temple complex of Karnak, it is adjacent to the Valley of the Kings and similarly located beneath el-Qurn. The position of this temple is among many other mortuary temples of the period and directly adjacent to the earlier mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II.

      In other news, the inner sanctum of the temple of Hatshepsut at Dier el Bahri is now open to the public… so I know where I will be next December solstice!

      All the best,

      • HI BRENAN , SORRY TO HAVE TAKEN SO LONG TO REPLY , I AM GETTING OLD AND HAD A BIG JOB MOVING HOUSE , ONLY JUST RECOVERING AFTER ABOUT A YEAR , OOPS cap lock stuck down , sorry again , yes i am an unqualified armchair historian And no doubt it shows at times …., but my interest in the angle of orientation of these temples , for my angles of orientation I rely on the work by ON THE ORIENTATION OF ANCIENT EGYPTIAN TEMPLES:
        JUAN ANTONIO BELMONTE, Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias,
        MAGDI FEKRI, Minufiya University,
        National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics, this research shows the azimuth angle of 116.75 degrees , for the Hatshepsut and temple at Karnak in Egypt , I remain convinced there is much to be learned by simply following the line created by these alignments at northern mid-winter solstice dawn , leads to the place mentioned in many ancient Egyptians , and other texts in the general region, that I assume you are familiar with the many references In ancient Egyptian mythology, to the fields of Aaru (/ɑːˈruː/; Ancient Egyptian: jꜣrw “Reeds, rushes”), known also as sḫt-jꜣrw or the Field of Reeds, are the heavenly paradise where Osiris rules
        Aaru is also known as the home of Osiris.
        Aaru usually was placed in the east where the Sun rises, and described as boundless reed fields, like those of the earthly Nile Delta. This ideal hunting and farming ground allowed the souls here to live for eternity. many ancient texts describe it as being in the last ” hour ” of the sun’s daily trip through the so called underworld. or in the ” hour ” before sunrise as seen from Egypt , ie 7 ” hours ” east of the Nile . sorry if I have wandered a bit in my reply , take time to digest it and get back to me with your thoughts , some of my research includes speculation of the location of the ancient Egyptians paradise, and is not covered by any other scholars yet , but a case is slowly coming together, that one day may get into print or be taken up by others with more skill and resources .

  • Hello Brenan!

    I really like your post. What a sight it must have been to watch the winter solstice Sunrise at the temple. I am interested also in archeoastronomy and all temple/pyramids alignments, ancient calendars and astronomical events.

    The ancient Egyptians seems to have a strong grasp of the night sky and stars. Interlace with the ancient beliefs of the ancient gods. So it is hard in a way to understand the relations with the astronomy and the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.

    Great post!
    Thanks for sharing.

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