One of the central themes behind the Oldest Show on Earth is the recognition that Man has been looking to the night sky for both explanation and inspiration from prehistory to the present. This ritual of observance is more than just the casual stargazing occasionally practiced by modern enthusiasts. The ancients really looked to the sky for answers, for meaning, for their religion, and for their destiny. In Egypt, a long tradition of astronomical observation developed in the parched desert west of the Nile, spreading out along the rivers’ length to become an important element of the burgeoning Pharaonic culture.
Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by the history of ancient Egypt and until recently it had been an unfulfilled dream to travel there and see the ruins of the ancient temples, tombs, and pyramids. Having now returned from a brief but entrancing tour, accompanied by my father, Richard, my expectations were surpassed by the scale, complexity, and beauty of the monuments, as well as the numerous indications that the Oldest Show on Earth was a signature act in the drama of ancient Egypt.
Egypt may not be the oldest civilization we know of, but its longevity as a unified state is unsurpassed. Starting around 2950 BCE, it lasted for nearly three millennia until it was absorbed into the growing Roman Empire. Perhaps, the remoteness of the distant past in ancient Egypt can be hinted at by considering that to Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, the famous pyramids of Giza built during the 4th Dynasty were already older in her time than she is to us in the present.
Today, with the benefit of modern scientific understanding, we certainly view the night sky, the Universe, and our place within it differently than the ancients did. Our current perspective developed with and was influenced by a growing understanding of Nature. Yet, we should not hastily discount the beauty and harmony of those perspectives of the distant past. There was a time when they were both relevant to daily life and widely accepted. How certain are we of the permanence of our current views? It will take a long time to match the longevity of ancient Egypt by which time our species may be either far more advanced than it is today, or quite possibly, much less.
The Colossi of Memnon, as it is known, are two huge statures of the Amenhotep III (c. 1350 BCE).
The most famous monuments in Egypt are the pyramids, specifically those at Giza. They represent the largest and best preserved pyramids in Egypt, as well as the most complex in design and interpretation. Much has been written about the incredible precision in which they were built, using methods that have thus far eluded modern researchers. While the pyramids were intended as tombs, their design reveals the builders understood and incorporated significant astronomical alignments into their construction.
Apart from visitors’ graffiti, some of it already centuries old, the pyramids of Giza are bare. In the largest of them, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, there are no inscriptions adorning the exterior blocks, interior passageways, or the presumed burial chamber. However, even without written record, the design itself speaks to its sophistication. The precision with which the square base is aligned to the cardinal directions indicates great care was taken in positioning of the pyramid. Built long before the invention of the compass and an understanding of magnetic variation, this alignment could only have been done by sighting the stars. Additionally, narrow shafts lead outward from the interior burial chambers to the North and South, symbolic passageways to the points in the sky where Sirius and the stars of Orion's belt reached their transit altitude, that is where they cross the meridian, and to the position of Thuban near the pole.
Then there is the overall layout of the three largest Giza pyramids with relation to each other. The arrangement resembles the three bright stars visible as Orion’s belt (Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka). The similarity is not just in position but also in the relative sizes of the pyramids with respect to the stars’ apparent brightness. Furthermore, the proximity and relative position of the Nile in ancient times, a branch of which ran much closer to the pyramids than it does today, suggests Giza may have been designed and built as a sacred landscape, constructed to mirror the stars above including the hazy glow of the Milky Way represented by the Nile. While these explanations may not be fully settled, there is a growing acceptance that there is just too much going on here to be coincidence.
Consider also the enigmatic Sphinx, generally attributed to Khafre, builder of the second (middle) pyramid at Giza. For a culture who demonstrated complete mastery in stonework and sculpture on the largest scales, the Sphinx’s head seems disproportionately small, even compared with other surviving sphinx statues from later periods. Aside from the missing nose and false beard, the head appears to be in much better condition than the body which shows deep erosion and weathering. Even in ancient times, the Sphinx underwent periods of restoration making it more difficult to discern the original form. Like sections of the body, the pit in which the Sphinx resides shows weathering argued to be more consistent with water erosion than that from wind. Wetter conditions have not existed in this corner of the Sahara for many thousands of years before the monuments of Giza were thought to have been built, suggesting the Sphinx or some earlier version of it may date to a period of far greater antiquity. Perhaps it was adorned with a larger head more proportional to the body. Perhaps it was the matching head of a lion, a symbol of divine kingship from pre-dynastic times and modified later to what we see today? Such practices of restoration and modification were widespread in ancient Egypt, sometimes for the purpose of claiming credit for past constructions.
Is the Sphinx also part of a sacred landscape to mirror the stars? It is hard to say. There are some superficial similarities between the relative positions of the constellations Leo (the Lion) and Orion, with those of the Sphinx and the pyramids (representing the belt of Orion). However, there are also some obvious discrepancies. If there was an intended association, it was not executed with the accuracy that we might have expected based on what was achieved by the pyramids. Then again, perhaps it was merely a symbolic association, and the ancient Egyptians were big on symbolism. Either way, Giza will likely remain as one of those places that defies explanation.
With appreciation for the astronomical acumen of the ancient Egyptians, I planned to capture an image of the Giza pyramids with the night sky. Despite having scheduled our visit to coincide with a New Moon, there were doubts about the proximity of the urban build up that constitutes modern Giza and Cairo where fully one-quarter of the population of modern Egypt resides. Light pollution can be troublesome, if not prohibitive, when trying to capture starlight and despite a persistent disconnect between my elaborate plans and what actually transpires, I was still going to try.
In this case, the real limiting factor was that the monuments close before nightfall and it is not possible for regular visitors, such as myself, to get close enough to capture images with the pyramids or Sphinx looming large in the foreground. Upon reflection, it makes sense. These monuments represent a nation’s most treasured heritage and security is an important part of their preservation. There was to be an evening sound and light show at the site, consisting of a recorded narrative synchronized to an array of colored lights which alternately illuminate the subjects of the show. The show was certainly not designed to highlight any astronomical phenomena and if anything, the additional lighting would be detrimental to achieving my goal, but this would provide our only opportunity to attempt to capture the desired image.
While the audience was seated some distance back from the monuments, much farther away than I would have preferred, the location did provided a very nice view of the two largest pyramids and the Sphinx. We arrived just minutes before the show was to begin and while the sky was not fully dark, the pyramids were only dimly illuminated. I set my camera on a tripod, a Canon 6D with 28mm prime lens, and quickly focused on Sirius before framing the shot. Once satisfied, I started to capture some images. Due to the foreground lighting on the Sphinx, exposures were limited to just 2 seconds at f/4.0, ISO3200. After the third exposure, the show started and the fourth and following exposures were all overexposed by the colored light illuminating the monuments. Pretty, perhaps, but not what I was looking for. The rest of the show was entertaining and informative, but I spent much of the remainder pondering the awesome presence of the pyramids and wondering if the data on my camera would suffice.
The combined total was only six seconds of exposure, but those were six precious seconds. In the past, I’ve spent upwards of 30 hrs capturing enough data for one image. Where projects can span weeks or months depending on weather and the changing seasons, one image is sometimes all you get. In this case, I am very pleased.
The Great Sphinx, attributed to Khafre (2558-2532 BCE), but possibly older.
The following evening we were in Luxor and after a day of touring the historic sites, we returned to the Temple of Karnak for another sound and light show. This one differed from our experience at Giza in that the audience walked through part of the temple during the show, providing some more varied compositions. However, at Karnak I would have to capture my images while the show was in progress and the dynamic lighting conditions made it difficult to get enough successive images with consistent lighting to utilize my preferred technique for processing these images. Like the show at Giza, the narration was informative and the ruins of the temple were beautifully lit throughout the show, but while the audience was looking one direction I was focused in the opposite, toward darkness. At Karnak, I ended up getting enough good exposures for four more images, making a nice set of varied temple foregrounds against the sky.
First pylon of the Temple of Karnak with stars.
Later that night, back at our hotel on the east bank of the Nile, we found a spot from which the surrounding lighting was not especially troublesome. Again, I setup the camera and tripod, this time to capture a series of 90x 1 minute exposures looking west across the Nile, toward an ancient sacred mountain known in modern times as El Qorn (the Horn), or to the ancients as Ta Dehent (the Peak). When combined, these images show the path of the stars through elapsed time. Visible on the horizon, Ta Dehent was modestly illuminated by nearby cultural lighting.
Set into the slopes of the mountain and the surrounding valleys are many tombs from the New Kingdom of Egyptian history. These include those of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, as well as numerous non-royal tombs. Additionally, there are several remaining temples from the period near the base of the mountain, where the desert meets the edge of the fertile land fed by the Nile. This is the Theban Necropolis, built opposite the ancient religious center of Thebes whose ruins now reside in the modern city of Luxor.
While I was aware of the composition while capturing the data, it was only when processing the image that it dawned on me that Orion, one of the brightest and most iconic constellations in the night sky, appears trailing toward the western horizon and would set almost directly behind the sacred mountain. While Orion always sets to the west, it was from the vantage point of Luxor on the east bank of the Nile that Orion sets where the Theban Necropolis meets the sky. It may be that this is no coincidence and was actually by design, another great sacred landscape.
One well-known astronomical association is of the constellation Orion with that of Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. Recorded in the star trail above, captured from modern day Luxor, is Orion descending to the Theban Necropolis, one the most important ancient regions in all of Egypt. It is as if Osiris is going over to the West, to the Land of the Dead in Egyptian myth, acting out his role in the afterlife every night. It is a powerful and compelling association. In fact, it may even explain why the ancient religious center of Thebes was situated where it was, a city for the living to witness their most sacred beliefs unfold before their eyes in a stunning realization of the Oldest Show on Earth! It is as though the soul of ancient Egypt still inhabits this mystical land split by the Nile.
Ceiling of interior chamber at the Temple of Hatshepsut. Note the painted stars on the ceiling.
Cairo as viewed from our hotel balcony. The city is huge, densely populated, and notorious for its congested traffic.
In 450 BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus said that "Egypt was the gift of the Nile." He understood that Egyptian civilization depended on the Nile, its annual floods bringing water and rich silt to replenish the fields on its banks and in the delta. The Egyptians viewed the Nile as flowing down from above (if one were to envision a map with South at top), originating in Upper Egypt, to the South. It then flowed to Lower Egypt, in the North. This division dates from pre-dynastic times, before Egypt was a unified state. Later on, the Pharaohs ruled over the "Two Lands," meaning Upper and Lower Egypt, just one of many examples of the concept of dualism that appears throughout Egyptian culture. Similarly, the concept of an afterlife was itself a reflection of this dualism, and one for which the Egyptians expended so much time, resources, and effort to ensure.
Elsewhere on the tour we saw other indications that the night sky shone brightly in the minds of the ancient Egyptians. One common motif found on the painted ceilings of temples and tombs of the Theban Necropolis was a field of stars, often set on a dark blue or black background. They were neither random nor arranged into constellations, but packed densely into orderly rows. Interestingly, they each had five points, but unlike the common five-point star we are familiar with today, each Egyptian star consisted of five short line segments attached at one end and radiating outward, twinkling. Interior chambers at the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak as well as the temple of Hatshepsut also shared similar ceiling decoration, with either carved or painted stars.
As we saw later in tombs at Saqqara, the starry sky theme was in widespread use there as well. However, these tombs date from as much as a thousand years before those near Thebes. In the burial chambers of the pyramids of Unas and Teti, they were accompanied by some of the oldest religious writing ever found, the Pyramid Texts. Again, why were the stars arranged in such an orderly fashion? Perhaps it reflects how the Egyptians viewed the stars in the sky, not scattered as we tend to think of them, but part of an orderly cosmos. It certainly seems to be consistent with their religious views.
In the Luxor Museum, there was another aspect of ancient Egyptian astronomy on display. Found in rubble outside the entrance to the tomb KV29 in the Valley of the Kings was a small chipped piece of limestone. It had a small hole for the placement of a gnomen and several radiating lines tracing out a semi-circle. Believed to date from the 19th Dynasty, approximately 1200 BCE, it is the oldest sundial ever found. It stands as a reminder that there was a practical side to astronomical observation in ancient Egypt as well.
Like many cultures throughout history, the Egyptians associated the Sun with the divine. At various times, the Sun represented several gods, or aspects of gods, going by the names of Amun, Atum, Re, Ra or Aten. For a time, during the Amarna period, when the Pharaoh Akhenaten changed the state polytheistic religion to one of monotheism, only the god Aten was worshipped. The rising and setting of the Sun, observed throughout the year, came to mark off time at scales spanning the seasons. Temples were constructed to provide alignment with the Sun on certain days of the year, with the Sun rising above the outer pylon, signifying the distant horizon.
Perhaps the best known example of the use of Solar alignment was at the great temple of Abu Simbel, built for Ramesses II. On two days of the year, October 22nd and February 22nd, a shaft of dawn sunlight penetrates to the sanctuary in the deepest recess of the temple and illuminates three seated statues facing the entrance. These dates are assumed to have been of great importance, when the power of the Sun god could be seen to rejuvenate the likeness of the Pharaoh. The statues in the sanctuary at Abu Simbel represent a deified Ramesses II and Amun-Ra. A fourth statue, that of Ptah, remains in shadow by design due to its association with the underworld.
To the ancient Egyptians, temples and monuments were not just buildings and sculpture. They were like machines, vast and static mechanisms of stone, built to demonstrate the sacred aspects of their religion and mythology.
Sundial recovered from the Valley of the Kings, possibly the oldest ever found (c. 1200 BCE).
While we may be awed by the legacy left by the ancient Egyptians with respect to the night sky, an honest assessment reveals that their astronomy was not science. Knowledge of the sky was used primarily to reinforce and legitimize the system of governance based on divine kingship. Even practical applications such as timekeeping were framed in this context, where the Pharaoh was he who created and maintained order out chaos. To the populace, the Pharaoh was a living god. The vast majority of ancient Egyptians were not only poor, but also illiterate, living short lives full of hard work. Astronomy was used as a tool of the state to reinforce this status quo, a chilling contrast to our modern sensibilities.
However, that began to change in the last few centuries BCE as the final act of ancient Egypt played out on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Alexandria. Founded by and named for Alexander of Macedon who defeated the Persians and came to be seen as a liberator throughout Egypt, it would eventually become the center of knowledge of the ancient world. After Alexander's death, one of his more insightful generals brought his body back to Egypt, installing himself as heir to the throne and founding the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Ptolemy and his successors made Egypt anew, restoring it to prominence after centuries of decline and reshaping it with the influence of Greek philosophy. In Alexandria, they built a great library, perhaps the first in Human history.
Over several centuries, those who came to the library advanced many fields of study including philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, geography, anatomy, and others. Literature, poetry, and history itself were also studied. It was here that Euclid wrote his treatise on Mathematics and Geometry, the Elements, that is still considered to be the most successful and influential textbook ever written. Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth and Archimedes invented his water pump, the Archimedes’ screw. Aggressive and well-funded policies to acquire and copy all books for inclusion into the library collection were largely successful, but as the generous patronage of the Ptolemaic Dynasty waned and Egypt fell into the orbit of Rome, the library and its related institutions of study were neglected, then purged, and ultimately destroyed. Its last practitioners murdered by fanatical mobs around 415 AD. Now, there is almost nothing left of it. The destruction of the library was a great loss to Western Civilization, though some of the treasured manuscripts did survive as copies or fragments, slowly resurfacing centuries later. This is the final legacy of ancient Egyptian astronomy, rare and precious seeds of knowledge for future minds.
While the astronomy of the ancient Egyptians may not have been used in the way we use it, it nonetheless served as part of the framework in which they lived their lives. From the perspective of the average person in that time, the sight of Osiris transiting overhead and setting beyond the Theban Necropolis from the vantage point of Thebes, was validation that their orderly Universe was functioning as they understood it. With humble homage, that stability would extend to Egypt itself lasting through the millennia. It would have been difficult to refute this at the time, even if you were to harbor any doubts, much like those of medieval Europe holding fast to the age old notion that it was the Sun that revolved around the Earth.
Over the span of one week, my father and I toured Egypt from the Mediterranean coast in Alexandria to the iconic temple of Abu Simbel on the shore of Lake Nasser. With the assistance of several very knowledgeable and accommodating guides (Tarek, Abdo, Ahmed, and Karim), we saw and explored some of the most awesome constructions in all of Human history, as well as some of the more unique and less-frequented sites which helped to paint a more complete picture of the breadth of ancient Egyptian civilization. Additionally, we gained greater appreciation for the people and state of modern Egypt. There are some big differences from what we know at home, but also some surprising and comforting similarities. For me it was a trip many years in the making and returning from Egypt with a few images of ancient monuments under a starry sky was a personal goal met with some modest but satisfying success. But most precious of all are the memories made with my father, Richard. It was a fantastic experience to share with him. Thanks for joining me, Dad!
Looking through the door of a Roman era chapel built on grounds just outside the Temple of Luxor.
The High Dam at Aswan dwarfs any of the ancient monuments of Egypt. It is symbolic of modern Egypt and has transformed how the nation interacts with the Nile, the river which gave rise to its civilization.
For those who are considering travel to Egypt to see the historic sites shown here, a summary of our activities is shown below:
Day 1 Arrived in Cairo
Day 2 Egyptian Museum, including the Royal Mummies
Giza Pyramids and Sphinx, with entry into the Great Pyramid and camel ride
Evening Giza Sound and Light Show
Day 3 Flight from Cairo to Luxor
Temple of Karnak
Temple of Luxor
Evening Karnak Sound and Light Show
Day 4 Valley of the Kings including tombs of Ramesses IV, Ramesses III,
Tutankamun, and Merenptah
Temple of Hatshepsut
Temple of Medinet Habu
Valley of the Queens including tombs of Amon Her Khepshef, Queen Titi,
and Kha Em Waset
Nobles tombs of Ra Mosa, Kha Em Hat, and Wesr Hat
Colossi of Memnon
Day 5 Drive from Luxor to Aswan
Temple of Isis at Philae
Aswan High Dam
Day 6 Drive from Aswan to Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel temples of Ramesses II and Nefertari
Drive from Abu Simbel back to Aswan
Flight from Aswan to Cairo
Day 7 Drive from Cairo to Alexandria
Alexandria including: Royal Gardens of King Farouk
Abbo Elabbas Mosque
Castle of Qaitbey (site of Lighthouse)
Experience the city market
Church of St. Mark
Library of Alexandria
Drive from Alexandria to Cairo
Day 8 Saqqara including the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the pyramids of Unas and
Teti, as well as various mastabas
Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid at Dahshur
Memphis open-air museum
Day 9 Departed Cairo
Richard and Chad in the burial chamber of Khufu's pyramid with the Pharaoh's empty sarcophagus.