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Ancient Egyptian Astronomy. Some Historical Background. What Constituted Ancient Egypt. Timeline. 7500 BC: Earliest permanent settlements. 3100 BC: Early Dynastic, Egypt unified 2700-2150 BC: Old Kingdom 200-1750 BC: Middle Kingdom 1550-1050 BC: New Kingdom

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Ancient Egyptian Astronomy

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  • 7500 BC: Earliest permanent settlements.
  • 3100 BC: Early Dynastic, Egypt unified
  • 2700-2150 BC: Old Kingdom
  • 200-1750 BC: Middle Kingdom
  • 1550-1050 BC: New Kingdom
  • 1050-332 BC: 3rd Intermediate/Late Period
  • 332-30 BC: Ptolemaic Period
  • 30 BC: Roman Conquest
early dynastic period
Early Dynastic Period
  • Egypt grew out of a loose collection of farming villages, each with various traditions.
  • Villages formed alliances, creating kingdoms.
  • Egypt was finally unified around 3100 B.C.
  • The Early Dynastic Period was a time of internal consolidation. Other than for trading, there were no international aspirations.
  • Even in this early period, the features of pharonic were established.
  • The first stone buildings were constructed.
old kingdom
Old Kingdom
  • The pyramid age.
  • Pharaohs considered divine.
  • Centralization of power in the pharaoh.
  • Concrete evidence of Egyptian presence beyond the Nile Valley in Lebanon and Sinai.
  • Huge advances in the fields of building, technology, writing, and art.
  • First funerary texts, which mention the stars.
  • Ended with a gradual decentralization of power that led to complete anarchy.
middle kingdom
Middle Kingdom
  • Emerged with the recentralization of power in the pharaoh, originally a local ruler from Thebes.
  • Never reached the heights of the Old Kingdom.
  • Pyramids were still built, although now with mud brick faced with stone.
  • With internal stability, Egypt expands South into Nubia (Sudan) for trading goods, especially gold. However, Nubia is not annexed and remains more of a colony.
  • Eventually, Northern Egypt is invaded by the Hyksos, who established themselves in the delta region at Avaris. Egyptians retained the South and were based in Thebes.
new kingdom
New Kingdom
  • A reunified Egypt builds an true empire and annexes many conquered peoples.
  • No more pyramids, building now concentrates on temples and tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
  • Most of these gains are lost under the religious reformer/heretic pharaoh Akhenaten.
  • Successors to Akhenaten regain what was lost. Egypt peaks in influence under Ramesses the Great.
  • After Ramesses’ death, Egypt goes into a slow decline, with high priests eventually rivaling the pharaoh in power. Egypt splits internally, greatly weakening the country.
later egypt
Later Egypt
  • Egypt is no longer the dominant power in the region.
  • Characterized by brief resurgences and periods of foreign domination.
  • Last native pharaoh, Nectanebo II flees into exile in 343 BC after losing a major battle to the Persians.
  • Alexander the Great conquers Egypt in 332 BC. Descendants of his general, Ptolemy, establish a line of Greek pharaohs, who increasingly come under the influence of Rome.
  • With the Roman conquest in 30 BC, Egypt ceases to be a sovereign nation.
  • Egyptians were farmers.
  • To anticipate the Nile, which flooded annually, Egyptians needed a calendar.
  • Measuring flood depth was helpful for anticipating the growing season.
  • With just the right amount of water, the flood would deposit a thick layer of nutrient- rich Nile mud.
telling time of day
Telling Time of Day
  • 24 hour days. Sundials during daylight
  • For night, divided the path along the ecliptic into 36 groups of stars called decans, which rise about 40 minutes apart.
  • Called decans because first helical risings of each decan are about 10 days apart.
  • The Egyptian hours were lengthened/shortened so that day/night would always be 12 hours.
  • This was done for religious reasons so that rituals could be done by the hour.
the egyptian calendar
The Egyptian Calendar
  • 365 day year.
  • New year started with the first helical rising of Sirius, more importance of Sirius later.
  • 10 day weeks, 36 weeks in a year.
  • 12 lunar months of 30 days.
  • 5 extra days to make lunar and solar calendars align.
  • 3 seasons: Inundation: Jul.-Oct. (Nile flooded), Sowing : Nov.-Feb (planting crops), Dry: Mar.-Jun. (harvesting).
  • It is believed that the monuments were built during inundation, when the fields were flooded.
calendar problems
Calendar Problems
  • The approximate ¼ day left over was discounted.
  • No leap years.
  • After every four years, the calendar would be about a day off.
  • In 100 years, the calendar would be about 25 days off. A complete cycle was 1460 years.
  • This 1460 year cycle was called a “Sothic Cycle,” after Sirius, “Sothis” in Greek.
  • In time, the calendar alone was useless for predicting the Nile’s movements.
not to fear
Not to Fear…
  • Sirius, visually the brightest star, could also be used to predict the Nile.
  • Shortly after the helical rising of Sirius, just ahead of the Sun, the Nile flooded. Because of precession, this is no longer accurate.
  • As a result, Sirius became important, eventually becoming associated with the goddess Isis, goddess of among other things, rebirth. This becomes important later.
  • The Nile flood leads to rebirth of the land.
the dog days of summer
The Dog Days of Summer
  • We have the Egyptians to thank for this phrase.
  • Every summer, Sirius becomes invisible when it moves into the glare of the Sun.
  • Thinking the bright Dog Star lent it’s heat to the sun, the Egyptians coined the term “Dog Days of Summer” to describe the hottest period of the year.
  • Tombs started off simple and became increasingly complex, culminating in the pyramids.
  • The earliest pyramids were stepped, creating a staircase to heaven.
  • The Step Pyramid is 200 feet tall and almost 5000 years old. It also has 3 ½ miles of tunnels underneath.
the giza pyramids
The Giza Pyramids
  • Oldest and only surviving member of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.
  • The Great Pyramid is almost 500 feet tall, has a base of 13 acres, contains about 2.3 million blocks weighing an average of 2.5 tons each.
  • More interesting are the architectural features, which may have astronomical significance.
  • The other pyramids are “only” 450 and 215 feet tall.
more mythology
More Mythology
  • The Southern facing “air shafts” point to Sirius, associated with Isis and to Orion, associated with the god of death/rebirth, Osiris.
  • The Northern shafts point to circumpolar stars Alpha Draco and Kochab, more on this later.
  • The circumpolar stars were called “The Immortals” because they never set.
  • Sirius and Orion equate to rebirth.
more pyramid astronomy
More Pyramid Astronomy
  • All pyramids are orientated to the four cardinal directions.
  • The Great Pyramid is closest, being less than 1/20th of a degree (3 arc minutes) off of true North.
  • Perhaps done by looking at the Immortals.
  • There was no North Star, the Celestial Pole was a point directly between Mizar and Kochab.
  • When these stars were vertical of each other, true North was indicated.
later pyramids
Later Pyramids
  • Stars remained important to a lesser degree.
  • Ancient texts still mention the king’s spirit stellar journey.
  • However, architects would not take the trouble to construct shafts pointing at the stars after the Great Pyramid.
  • Quality of construction declined.
the valley of the kings
The Valley of the Kings
  • By this time, the sun was the central symbol of rebirth.
  • Although less important than before, stars were still depicted in tombs.
  • Astronomical ceilings often depicted constellations and the hours of the day as seen by Egyptians.
obelisks stone sun pillars
Obelisks, Stone Sun Pillars?
  • Tall pillars carved from a single stone, often capped with Gold and dedicated to the sun god, Ra.
  • Coincidently, as Ra rose in importance, stellar associations lessened.
  • This transition started taking place shortly after completion of the Great Pyramid
celestial alignment
Celestial Alignment
  • Built by Ramesses II, known as “The Great,” this temple not only has statues 70 feet tall in the front, but extends almost 200 feet into the mountain.
  • Despite its vast size, the temple is aligned so that on the 20th of October and February, the sun shines into the inner sanctuary.
  • According to legend, one of these dates is Ramesses’ birth or coronation day.
an astronomical achievement
An Astronomical Achievement
  • At a cost of $80 million at the time, the two temples at Abu Simbel were dismantled from 1964-8, moved up 200 and back 600 feet to escape the rising Nile, caused by construction of the Aswan High Dam.
at a glance
At A Glance
  • Like many other ancient societies, the Egyptians first became interested in astronomy for practical purposes.
  • As civilization progressed, people began to attach deeper meanings to objects in the night sky.
  • More than anything else, architecture embodies the astronomical knowledge of Ancient Egypt.
when reading about ancient egypt especially works of a speculative nature be on the lookout for
When reading about Ancient Egypt, especially works of a speculative nature, be on the lookout for…Warning:
getting serious
Getting Serious
  • There is a lot of outlandish, recklessly speculative material on Ancient Egypt.
  • Often, authors take a quite reasonable theory or genuine unknown and transform it into something completely unrecognizable.
  • These books make a good read, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
  • Speculative authors often completely ignore any evidence that contradicts their theories.
pyramids have been
Pyramids have been…
  • Encoded ancient mathematics.
  • Repositories for lost, ancient knowledge.
  • The Biblical grain storehouses of Joseph.
  • Prophecies in stone.
  • Built by survivors from Atlantis.
  • Built by aliens.
  • Power plants.
  • Weapons of mass destruction (not kidding!)‏