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 procession 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!>


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

  • 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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