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Hatshepsut temple

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Egyptian Temple


Astronomical Alignment in the Temples
by David Furlong

Part 4A
This is the fourth part on the article of Egyptian Temple Orientation. This part looks at stellar alignment. The sites involved are:

Medinet Habu:
Ramses III Temple
Mut Temple
1. Amenhotep III Temple
2. Ramses II temple + Avenue of Sphinxes
Hathor Temple
Horus Temple

(This article runs over six pages. To download the whole article in pdf format please click here)

Stellar Alignments
For the reasons already given stellar alignments are much more difficult to determine. The following section highlights these problems and offers some suggestions and possibilities on how the Ancient Egyptians might have used the stars in the setting out of their temples.

This part looks at the mortuary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu and the temple of Mut at Karnak.

Ramses III Temple at Medinet Habu (Plan 6)
The first temple we shall look at was built by Ramses III at place now known as Medinet Habu, which is in the Luxor area. The alignment of this temple highlights all of the problems associated with assessing stellar associations. Its calculated azimuth is 138º - 42’; whilst the SB study suggests a marginally smaller figure of 137.5º. We can therefore assume that any major stars or astronomical events close to 138 º or to its converse angle of 318 º (looking in the opposite direction), would fit a possible stellar alignment. As these azimuths lie outside of the plane of the ecliptic we can discount any relationship to the Sun or Moon. Any associations, if they exist, must be to the stars.

Ramses ruled from 1190 bc to 1160 bc so these are likely to be the key dates for the temple’s orientation. However other temples existed on the site so we cannot discount the possibility that the temple’s orientation had already been determined at an earlier time.

Running the astronomy programme first to the 138º azimuth, towards the eastern horizon, showed no possible major star rising alignments or constellations for a period extending from 1160 bc to 2000 bc and beyond; looking in the opposite direction on a 318° azimuth, towards the Theban hills, initially appeared more hopeful.

The two potential alignments emerged for the stars Vega and Arcturus, which are both within the top seven brightest stars in the sky. However looking west towards the hills affects the visual extinction of the stars, which through calculation would have to be at a height of just over 9 degrees from a level horizon. Watching stars drop behind a hill, as opposed to disappearing on a level horizon has some advantages. It avoids a problem known as atmospheric extinction, where the density of the atmosphere affects the luminosity of any celestial body. The closer to the horizon the denser the atmosphere becomes, which is why it is possible to watch the rising or setting Sun. In a country like Egypt bright stars will disappear from a level horizon around a height of 2 degrees and fainter stars a degree or two higher. Star alignments have to take this extinction effect into account.

The figures for two different astronomical programmes are shown below for a height of 9 degrees:

Temple azimuth = 318 º

· 1190 bc Vega 311 º
· 1190 bc Arcturus 309 º
· 2000 bc Vega 314 º
· 2000 bc Arcturus 315 º
· 2700 bc Vega 316 º
· 2700 bc Arcturus 320 º

· 1190 bc Vega 310 º
· 1190 bc Arcturus 308 º
· 2000 bc Vega 312 º
· 2000 bc Arcturus 313 º
· 2700 bc Vega 314 º
· 2700 bc Arcturus 318 º - The temple azimuth.

From these figures it is clear that the only possible 1st magnitude star that fits is Arcturus but only if we travel back in time, more than fourteen hundred years to the Old Kingdom period and this seems very improbable. So does this mean that there are no other possible stellar choices?

If we turn instead to look at the constellations there is one possible option; Cassiopeia, known for its giant ‘W’ formation in the sky, sets on the required bearing. Around 1190 bc the last tail star of the formation known as Segin, disappears on an azimuth of 318 º.

If stars played a part in the orientation of Ramses temple it must be to the faint star Segin and the constellation of Cassiopeia that we have to look and like the Karnak temple the azimuth was not aligned to face the star but away from it. Clearly in these cases it is the Nile that determines primary direction of the temples orientation.

Medinet Habu Temple
Plan 6 (From Google Earth Mapping Service/image©2007 DigitalGlobe)
There is a very clear alignment that runs for the full length of the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu. The axis of the temple is on an azimuth of 138°, which does not have any obvious astronomical alignments. The converse angle, looking towards the Theban Hills shows an alignment to Segin, one of the stars of the constellation of Cassiopeia.

Mut Temple at Karnak (Plan 9)
Before moving away from the Karnak area one other temple and its attendant alignment deserves mention. Another Mut temple, built by a succession of pharaohs, that included Hatshepsut, lays a little way to the south of the main Karnak temple complex. To the rear of the Mut temple there is a horse shoe lake, which must have created a beautiful setting for this now much ruined structure. An avenue of sphinxes also runs from its gateway towards the Karnak complex, which is then picked up by additional buildings so that a straight alignment can be walked for two thirds of a kilometre. Before reaching the central axis of the Karnak temple the alignment deviates to being at right-angles to the median line, but if uninterrupted would have hit the middle of the great Hypostyle Hall.

The calculated alignment azimuth is 19º- 14’ as opposed to the SB calculation of 18 degrees. The proximity to north suggests an orientation towards the tail stars of Ursa Major or the Great Bear, which we know as the ‘Big Dipper’ or ‘Plough’ but to the Ancient Egyptian was known as Meskhetu. This star grouping was perceived as the thigh and leg of a bull. To ancient minds the stars that never set were generally regarded with special awe; to the Ancient Egyptians they were the imperishable ones. We know from textual references (see Denderah temple) that these stars were used in the setting out of temples, but quite how is still unclear. Obviously it is not possible to sight to their rising or setting positions, so how might this constellation have been used. When observing the tail stars of Ursa Major, it becomes apparent that at certain times they are in vertical alignment to the ground. Indeed four of the seven stars, Merek, Megrez, Alioth and Mizar, very nearly line up in this way. Being high in the sky about twenty degrees above the horizon and in an arc of only twenty degrees they are not difficult to observe. By using a simple weighted plumb bob, which the Egyptian called the Merkhet, it would have been easy task to establish an orientation, when these stars were in vertical alignment. If we take a date of around 1190 bc for the main temple construction we find such an alignment to Meskhetu on an azimuth of just under 19°, which neatly fits the temple and sphinx avenue orientation. The difficulty here is that this alignment only works close to a date of around 1200 bc. Three hundred years earlier, during the reign of Hatshepsut, the Meskhetu alignment would have been two degrees off the bearing.

The Mut temple, along with its attendant sphinx avenue could have been astronomically aligned to the suggested stars of constellation of Ursa Major or Meskhetu for the dates given. The other possibility is that the intended alignment was to the centre of the Great Hypostyle Hall and as such had nothing to do with the stars.

Mut Temple alignments
Plan 9 (From Google Earth Mapping Service/image©2007 DigitalGlobe)
The Mut temple along with the connecting Sphinx Avenue is aligned to the tail stars of Ursa Major known to the Ancient Egyptians as Meskhetu. However this alignment also follows through to the Great Hypostyle Hall of the Karnak temple. It is possible that it was this latter topographical alignment was the intended orientation.

Other Stellar Orientated Sites:
Luxor Temple - Amenhotep III
Luxor Temple - Ramses II
Hathor Temple Denderah
Horus Temple Edfu

This article has attempted to provide some insight into the setting out of different temples in Egypt. Clearly in some cases topographical features played a prominent part; in others astronomical alignments were also significant. Those temples orientated towards the Sun or Moon would still work today perhaps requiring only the right time to check them out. Stellar alignments are likely to be much more suspect because of precessional changes and the difficulty in fixing dates. Some star based temples, such as that of Denderah are backed up by textual information and this certainly helps in any interpretation.

The temples studied here only scratch the surface in relation to the many extant temples in Egypt. Further work is required in this area, which fortunately now can be extensively done with the aid of computers.

Computer Programmes
Astronomy Programmes
Starry Night Complete Space and Astronomy Park Deluxe Edition 6
Red Shift Deluxe Edition 5.1
StarCalc ver 5.73
MyStars ver 2.7

Google Earth Plus ver 3.0.0762

Azimuth Calculator

Plans of the different Temple sites taken from Google Earth mapping Programme.

For further information please write to: David Furlong
Myrtles, Como Road, Malvern Worcs WR14 2TH
or phone 01684-569105 or 07779789047                        
Email: David Furlong

David Furlong
David has been taking groups to Egypt for more than 15 years


Medinet Habu
The temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, looking west. The theban hills can just be made out in the background between the entrance gateway of the temple complex.

Medinet Habu
Main temple entrance to the courtyard area of Medinet Habu. The alignment points towards one of the stars of Cassiopeia known as Segin.

Medinet Habu
Looking towrds the southeast from the sanctuary to the entrance at Medinet Habu.

Mut Temple
The ruined temple of Mut. The alignment towards Karnak can be clearly seen. This alignment points towards the stars of the Plough, which the Ancient Egyptians knew as Meskhetu.

Mute temple and the avenue of Sphinxes
The avenue of Sphinxes leading from the Mut temple towards Karnak.

Ursa Major stars
The Plough stars of the constellation of Ursa Major, which the Egyptians knew as Meskhetu

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