Speculation that Karnak Temple was aligned to the winter solstice sunrise has finally been confirmed by the recent studies of Juan Belmonte of the Canaries Astrophysical Institute in Tenerife, Spain.
In a statistical survey of over 300 temples in Egypt, he has demonstrated that not only Karnak but the vast majority of Egyptian temples are aligned with significant astronomical events, principally sunrise at solstices and equinoxes, or the heliacal rising of the stars, Sirius or Canopus.
At dawn, therefore, in Karnak, on the 21st December, the sun will rise between the portals of the great gate of Nectanebo (usurper of the 29th dynasty and slayer of Persians), light up the sanctuary of Amoun-Re (built by Philip Arrhidaeus, simpleton and half-brother to Alexander the Great), glint off the obelisk of Hatchepsut (precocious daughter of Tutmosis I, grasping half-sister and wife to Tutmosis II, evil step-mother to Tutmosis III), and flicker across the symbolic swamp of the Hypostyle hall built by Ramses II (tyrant and alleged persecutor of Moses).
It’s a pivotal moment, the mid-winter sun appears as northerly as it ever gets at dawn and rises obliquely to its lowest position above the horizon at midday, keeping the day short and the night cold and thankless, but as the days follow on, the sun slips south and reaches higher in the sky, bringing warmth and a feeling of rebirth. The whole massive structure of Karnak is there to mark this moment of transition and bind the power of the sun to that of princes while inspiring the lives of passing druids and new-age pilgrims.
But let’s leave the politics and the metaphors aside. The winter solstice is that moment in the Earth’s orbit when its tilt is directed furthest from the sun. It doesn’t have to be at dawn. In fact, this year, it occurs at 11.12 am at Greenwich, which is 1.12 pm in Egypt. It doesn’t even have to be on the 21st December. Last year it was on the 22nd! This arises because the Earth takes a little longer than 365 days to return to the same position relative to the Sun and stars. Over 4 years, the solstice drifts into the 22nd, but, by adding a day to the leap year, we pull it back to the 21st.
But due to a slow wobble in the Earth’s spin, there is another cycle in which the date of the winter solstice drifts back through the whole year, taking 26,000 years to complete the cycle. In a quarter of that time, 6,500 years, the dates of the solstices will switch with those of the equinoxes – unless we fiddle with the calendars to keep the dates the same. The mystery of the solstice is pinned by mathematics, not priests and princes!