The title of a current exhibition at the Antiquities Museum of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria was peculiar enough to arouse the curiosity of this writer.
Through a friend of a friend I got in touch with the curator of the “Chapels of the Sacred Horizon” exhibition, who explained that the horizon referred to was where the Ancient Egyptian afterlife began or ended.
I decided I had to find out more about the enchanting world of the Ancient Egyptians who even today still mesmerise the globe.
Ahmed Awad, the exhibition curator, is a researcher and professor at the Faculty of Engineering Department of Architecture at 6 October University.
His exhibition at the Antiquities Museum investigates the phenomenon of solar alignment where the sun illuminates the faces of statues of the Ancient Egyptian gods at different times of the year. Awad’s academic thesis also discussed the symbolism of architecture in Ancient Egypt.
Awad has investigated the sun’s relationship to Ancient Egyptian religion, dividing his research into four main parts.
The first looks at the sun in Ancient Egyptian religion, it being seen as a sacred celestial body embodying the creator.
The Ancient Egyptian religion contains material on the genesis of the universe and the beginning of sun worship, and its myths recount the daily journey of the sun across the sky and its three sacred phases.
According to Awad, the sun is the dominant god in Ancient Egyptian religion.
The second part of his research looks at the theological status of the temple in Ancient Egyptian religion, as well as the religious symbolism of its main architectural components.
He thinks that Ancient Egyptian temples and chapels represented a “celestial isthmus” which the sun god took as a passage to the afterlife lest he got lost in the underworld.
Thirdly, in his research Awad rejects the findings of previous researchers, especially those of an Egyptian-Spanish mission in 2007 which used religious beliefs in Ancient Egypt to identify the direction of sacred buildings.
Previous research has not tackled Seshat, the goddess of architecture, wisdom and astronomy, he says.
Fourthly, Awad’s research relates the astronomical phenomenon of the sun to the Ancient Egyptian belief that on certain festival days the spirit of the god or the Pharaoh returns to a statue.
In the exhibition he has provided photographs of temples and chapels where solar alignment takes place, such as the Deir Al-Bahari temples, Deir Al-Shalweit, the Temple of Hibis, the Temples of Dendara, Philae and Edfu where annual rites of birthing were once held, as well as Gabal Al-Selsela, the Temple of Al-Ghweita and Deir Al-Hagar.
“I have made a detailed study of the direction of Ancient Egyptian temples and chapels. My conclusion is that all of them face the sun either in a direct way related to the three sacred phases of the sun — sunrise, noon and sunset — or in a symbolic way that relates to the theological idea of sunrise in Ancient Egyptian religion,” Awad told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Light and darkness had great importance in Ancient Egyptian beliefs.
Light represented life, and darkness death. Therefore, strong sunlight signified the power of the god Ra, whose sun rays descend from the sky to the earth to give it life. Sunlight was seen as the creating power that erases darkness and renews creation.
When the sun god dies and descends into the underworld, he is reborn when the sun touches his body. In Ancient Egyptian myth, Osiris came alive again when he was touched by the sun, and along with him all good people whose deaths were related to Osiris,” Awad added.
“Strong sunlight was directly related to the return of the spirit to the dead, which is why Ancient Egyptian temples contain statues and images of those who built them.
During annual festivals when the solar alignment takes place, the statue or inscribed images become vessels that host the return of life into the person, be he a king or a god. An example of this can be found at the Dendara and Edfu temples, where there are inscriptions depicting a winged solar disc arriving along with the spirits of the gods,” Awad said.
In Search Of Sunlight
Varying climatic conditions may lead to the sun being hidden, like when it did not shine on the Abu Simbel Temple on 22 February 2016 even though this day has been designated as the annual sun festival since ancient times.
“Ancient religious beliefs explained solar eclipses as a temporary victory for the forces of darkness and chaos. Ancient scriptures mentioned that the enemies of the sun were three natural forces: storms, which affect the sunrise and sunset; clouds, which hide the sun; and the cold, which affects all creatures and angers the god of the sun.
The enemy of the sun was often depicted in the form of a snake,” Awad explained.
From there comes the importance of the sun in Ancient Egyptian theology, also explaining the importance the Ancient Egyptians gave to solar alignments when the sun illuminates the faces of gods in temples and chapels.
“The architecture of a temple or chapel is a representation of the celestial isthmus that connects the world and the underworld. The structure of the building is a manifestation of the transportation of the sun god and his sacred convoy between the two worlds, across the two dimensions of time and space,” Awad said.
Ancient texts prove how entrenched this solar phenomenon was in the creed of the Ancient Egyptians. Some texts and inscriptions depict rituals of “unity with the solar disc” or the “chapels of the sun god”.
The walls of temples in Thebes carry inscriptions saying that it is the will of the sun god to rise in the east after his disappearance in the underworld.
On the walls of the Temple of Amenhotep III in Luxor, there is a message from Amun Ra, for example.
“My son from my body, Neb-Mat Ra, Amenhotep III, I am your father who loves you. Your face is beautiful, and your heritage is great. I celebrate my achievements. My heart is happy to see your beauty resembles Ra on the horizon… You speak like the king of Lower Egypt and are reborn as the king of Upper Egypt and rule what the sun disc has in the house of your father Amun Ra, master of the two worlds, who stands in front of Karnak, whose coronation took place on the throne of Hur for the living, just like Ra, forever,” it says.
“This text refers to the presence of the god Ra in front of the Karnak Temple in Luxor at sunrise, indicated by the illumination of the temple when the sun is perpendicular to it. This happens annually on 21 December, the day of the winter solstice,” Awad explained.
Head of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Hussein Abdel-Bassir said that “astronomical phenomena in Ancient Egypt played an important role in the lives of its people.
The Ancient Egyptians didn’t work haphazardly. Everything was planned and systematised, whether in administration, engineering or astronomy.”
“When Awad discovered how the phenomena of solar alignment work in a scientific and organised manner in many of the temples and chapels of the Western Desert and in Qena, Luxor and Aswan, it was like a revelation. It proves that we have laid our hands on the scientific methods the Ancient Egyptians used for constructing their buildings, just like in the case of the Giza Pyramids,” Abdel-Bassir said.
“The Pyramids lie at a central point on the Giza Plateau, with temples and the ramp road surrounding them. This indicates that the Ancient Egyptians excelled in the fields of astronomy and engineering and that the solar alignment that takes place at the Abu Simbel Temple is not by chance or simply a coincidence,” he added.
“Some archaeologists have dismissed Awad’s findings over the past three years.
But his study leaves no room for doubt that the phenomenon of solar alignment has taken place annually on a certain day from Ancient times until today. Even when the Abu Simbel Temple was moved, the sun still illuminated it on a certain day, though this happened some days earlier.
The different date is because the temple was moved and not relocated at the same angle,” he explained.
“As archaeologists, we are always thrilled to work with engineers and astronomers, because their findings complement our own. Their contributions to the study of different aspects of Ancient Egyptian society helps us to draw a more accurate picture of the lives of the Ancient Egyptians,” Abdel-Bassir said, adding that some aspects of these remain unknown.
“This is why research in other fields such as medicine and pharmacology is still needed to understand medical papyri the secrets of which have yet to be revealed,” he added.
“We want to know how the Pharaohs lived and died and how they were treated for illnesses. The main quality of the Ancient Egyptians, however, is that their work was always accurate and systematic. They must have strongly believed in its value,” he said.
According to Mona Dabbas, deputy director of the Antiquities Museum, attendance at the exhibition has been overwhelming.
“It presents something unusual, even for archaeologists and specialists in the field. Everybody is aware of the solar alignment at the Abu Simbel Temple, but few knew about all the other places where the sun’s rays fall on the faces of the gods on other days,” she said.
“This is sure to have a positive effect on tourism, especially at the places Awad presents in the exhibition.”
Awad himself said of his research that “it is not the first conducted in this field, but it has reached better results in identifying the solar alignments in the Ancient Egyptian temples and chapels.
Maybe others will continue researching in this area and reach more accurate measurements. It depends on what technology has to offer in the future to better probe into the secrets of the Ancient Egyptians.
Solar alignments at Ancient Egyptian temples
The famous phenomenon of the sun’s rays falling on the face of a statue of the Pharaoh or a god at particular times of the year, in other words solar alignment, is not restricted to the Abu Simbel Temple in Upper Egypt.
Deir Al-Hagar Temple
The sun’s rays fall twice annually on a rock platform at the Deir Al-Hagar Temple on 9 March 6:25 am and 5 October 6:03am. The platform is inscribed with a royal cartouche, indicating that the text within it is a royal name. Some have suggested there may be a statue of Amun Ra under the platform.
The Temple of Hibis
On 7 April 5:50am and 6 September 5:46am the sun’s rays fall on an image of the god Amun Ra at the Temple of Hibis.
Also known as the Temple of Mandulis, on 14 February 6:27am and 29 October 5:56am every year the sun illuminates images of the sun god Mandulis and the sun goddess Isis on her solar throne at the Kalabsha Temple.
The Mamisi at the Dendara Temple
The sun’s rays fall on the mamisi, or birth chapel, at the Dendara Temple twice annually on 4 February 6:38am and 8 November 6:07am and on a false door that connects to the other world. Images on this door include three winged sun discs and a line of cobra snake figurines crowned by the sun.
The sun’s rays are aligned with the Edfu Temple on 21 June 11:50am every year to illuminate a statue of the god Horus and his solar boat and offering table.
Gabal Al-Selsela Chapel
The sun’s rays fall on statues of the gods Horemheb and Amun Ra on 29 September 5:43am and 15 March 6:02 every year at the Chapel of Gabal Al-Selsela.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly