Dodwell: The Obliquity of the Ecliptic




Setterfield note:  Dodwell seems to have inserted a number of explanations in the quotes he uses.  They are set off in parentheses, with the understanding that we are not sure if these are his explanations or those of the author whom he is quoting.  There may be a mix.  In addition, there are a few times when we have inserted a word or two to clarify meaning.  These are put in brackets. 


Reference has been made to the famous astronomical monuments of ancient times, which throw light on the changed position of the earth’s axis, namely (1) the great Solar Temple of Amen Ra at Karnak, Egypt; (2) the Stonehenge monument on the Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England, where the giant Stone Circle of trilithons was used for calendar purposes, among other things, by observing the point of sunrise at its farthest north-easterly position at, and about, the time of the summer solstice.  It will be shown that this ancient monument was re-constructed, in accordance with what has always been the popular belief, in the time of the ancient Druids; and it agrees with other solar monuments in confirming the conclusion that a change in the earth’s axis occurred at the date which has been found.  (3) The third of these solar monuments of early times is the remarkable and ancient (pre-Inca) Peruvian Sun Temple of Tiahuanacu, in the mountains of Bolivia. 

In ancient times Egypt was pre-eminently a centre of Sun-worship.  Many of its temples were dedicated to the sun gods Ra, Amen Ra, Horus, Osiris, etc.  Among these were the famous temple of the Sun at Heliopolis, Karnak and Abu Simbel.  Sir Norman Lockyer, who describes their astronomical purposes in his book The Dawn of Astronomy, also mentions the Solar Temples at Abydos, Kasr Kerun, Memnonia (Avenue of Sphinxes), and Erment, in addition to the group of temples at Karnak which were solstitially oriented

A special feature of the Egyptian Solar Temples was the long central Avenue, or Axis, through which the beams of the rising or setting sun shone upon the altar in the darkened sanctuary, or “Holy of Holies” at the farther end of the Axis.  The shining of the sun, with its long horizontal beam of light traversing the Axis and illuminating the image of the sun-god, [which was] placed in the sanctuary, was called by the Egyptians “The Manifestation of Ra.”  A detailed account of this is given in Sir Norman Lockyer’s book, The Dawn of Astronomy.

It is well known that the temples of Egypt were also astronomical observatories; and the priests were the astronomers and philosophers of their time. 

The needs of common life, and the daily routine and annual festivals of the temples demanded a reliable calendar, and subdivision of time, which could only be provided by astronomical observations.  The priests became astronomers, and at a surprisingly early date the opening of the year was fixed by the heliacal rising of Sirius. 
(G.E. Hale, Beyond the Milky Way, 1926, p. 5)

Strabo says that “their astronomical documents, or registers of observations, made during long centuries, have remained celebrated.” (Strabo, Geography, Book 17.  Chapter 1, section 29)

Many of the famous Greek philosophers, such as Thales, Pythagoras, Democritus, Plato, etc., went to Egypt to receive instruction from the Egyptian priests.

If, for the solstitially oriented solar temples, we can obtain the exact orientation, and the altitude of the horizon, and if it can be shown that the sun shone centrally along the Axis, when these temples were built, then we have the necessary data for obtaining the sun’s soltitial position at that epoch; and from this the earth’s axial inclination at that time can be easily calculated.  For most of these temples, the orientation has not been determined with sufficient accuracy, either on account of their ruined state, or through lack of observation by experienced observers; and in most cases the altitude of the horizon is still lacking.

For the great Solar Temple of Amen Ra at Karnak, however, we have all the necessary information, thanks to the pioneering work of Sir Norman Lockyer, supplemented by the more recent exact survey and re-measurement of this temple, made by the Survey Department of Egypt.  We shall therefore study this temple as thoroughly as possible, but before doing so we will also consider others, namely the temple of Ra at Heliopolis, and the temple of Amen Ra at Abu Simbel, which join with the Karnak temple in throwing light on the practice of the ancient Egyptian Astronomer-priests in connection with their solar observations, and their use in temple-building and in their religious ceremonies.

The Great Solar Temple of Ra at Heliopolis

At a very early date “the place round which the solar worship centred was An, (Hebrew, On).”  It was also called by the Egyptians Pa Ra (the house of Ra);  Beth Shemesh (House of the Sun) by the Hebrews, and Heliopolis (City of the Sun) by the Greeks.  It reached the height of its power under Rameses III, when 12,963 persons were said to have been engaged in its service.   (Great Harris Papyrus, plate 31, 1.8)

Thothmes III also erected a pair of obelisks (afterwards known as Cleopatra’s Needles) in front of this temple.
In 34 B.C. these obelisks were removed by Augustus, or possibly by the orders of Cleopatra, to Alexandria, but were not set up till the 8th year of Augustus.  One of them fell, and remained lying, much to the detriment of the inscriptions, until it was removed to London by Sir Erasmus Wilson in 1877; and it now stands on the bank of the Thames.  The other was given to America, and now stands in the Central Park of New York
(E. Bell, Architecture of Ancient Egypt, page 246)

The temple faced 14° N. of W., and the sun shone into it, along the temple axis, at sunset on April 18 and August 24 each year. (J.N. Lockyer, The Dawn of Astronomy, 1894, p. 77).  On these dates there were festivals connected with the Harvest and Inundation, respectively.  An account is given of a visit to this temple by King Piankhi of Ethiopia, about 730 B.C., on his triumphal march through Egypt:

After performing his ablutions, Piankhi went in ceremonial procession to a sandhill at Heliopolis, and there offered a great offering of white cattle, milk, balsam, incense, and all manner of sweet smelling woods before the god Ra at his rising.
(Piankhi Stela 1.102, translated by Brugsch, “Gesch. Aeg.” page 682, et. seq.)

Later on, further ceremonies at the Temple of the Sun are described, including the loosening of the bolts and the opening of the doors of the sanctuary, so as to behold “his father Ra in the sacred Hat Benben (Holy of Holies),” (see Religion of the Ancient Egyptians, A. Wiedemann, 1897, p. 21).   This is evidently an occasion of the “Manifestation of Ra,” to which further reference is made in the account of the temple of Karnak.

As the sanctuary was without windows, and its interior was in darkness, the image of the sun-god could only be seen to advantage when the sun shone along the axis, and illuminated it.  No doubt the visit of the king was timed to coincide with such an occasion. 

The chief relics of the sanctuary visited by Piankhi were two barks; in each of these was a central cabin, in which was an image of the sun-god.  It was commonly understood that the Sun had two barks at his disposal in his daily course through the sky; the Mad, or Madet, boat for the morning, and the Sekti boat for the afternoon.  These barks were made on the ordinary model of the Nile boat; amidships was a cabin, in which the god Ra is installed himself; fore and aft were his attendant deities to fight his foes and navigate the boat, the watch being relieved hourly.  Tum (the sun at sunset) and Khepera (the sun at sunrise), cognate forms of Ra himself, were generally represented as accompanying him.

As the axis of the temple was open to the west-north-west, so that the sun at sunset shone directly into the sanctuary, illuminating the image of Ra on two special festival days of the year, it is clear that such a dramatic occasion would naturally be used with advantage in connection with the Egyptian ceremonies of sun worship.

The Rock-Hewn Solar Temple of Amen Ra at Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel is on the left bank of the Nile, about 40 miles lower down the river than the second cataract at Halfa [Halfeh], on the border of Nubia.  The temple was built by Rameses II and dedicated to Amen Ra.  It is one of the most remarkable temples in Egypt on account of the distance into which it is excavated into solid rock -- 180 feet.

At the entrance are four enormous statues, carved in stone, representing Amen, Horus, Ptah, and Rameses II.  This is said to be the grandest piece of rock work in Egypt. 

abu simbel

The temple was oriented in such a direction that the rising sun shone into the dark interior sanctuary on the 26th February and 17th October each year.  These were festival times near the commencement of the Harvest and Sowing seasons, respectively.

In front of the temple is a forecourt, reached by a flight of steps from the level of the Nile bank, and enclosed at each end by a brick wall of the same date as the temple. 

The natural face of the rock at the back of this forecourt and terrace slopes at an angle of about 60 degrees; and in cutting it away from the floor level upwards, material had been left so as to provide for four gigantic statues of Rameses, 65 feet high, which project from the slightly sloping plane of the façade.  Much smaller statues of various family members of his family are placed near or between the legs of the colossi.

temple front

This front is 119 feet wide and over 100 feet high.  A doorway between the two central figures leads through a short passage to a spacious chamber 58 feet long by 54 feet wide, the whole of which is supported by four square pillars on each side, with Osiride figures attached to the faces towards the central walk.

Beyond this there is the Hypostyle hall, and other chambers, with a central sanctuary at the extreme end, containing an altar for statues of the Egyptian gods.  The darkness of this inner sanctuary, and the remarkable effect produced when the beam of light shone into it at sunrise on the two special festival occasions, can well be imagined.

The following account of the shining of the sun into the temple is quoted by Miss E.M. Plunkett, in her book Ancient Calendars and Constellations, 1903, p. 40:

I was fortunate in seeing another wonderful thing during my visit to Aboo Simbel.  The great temple is dedicated to Amen Ra, the sun god; and on two days in the year the sun is said to rise at such a point that it sends a beam of light through both halls till it falls on the shrine itself in the very Holy of Holies.

Many theories are based on the orientation of the temples, and Captain Johnson wished to find on which day in the Spring of the year the phenomenon took place; so he took his instruments, and we all went up to the temple before dawn. 

It was the 26th of FebruaryThe great hall, with its eight Osiride pillars, was wrapped in semi-darkness.  Still darker were the inner hall and shrine.  Behind the altar sat the four gods – Amen, Horus, Ptah, and Ramses himself, now deified. 

All the east was a deep rosy flush; then that paled and a hard white light filled the sky.  Clearer and whiter it grew, till, with a sudden joyous rush, the sun swung up over the low ridge of the hill, and in an instant, like an arrow from the bow of Phoebus Apollo, one level shaft of light pierced the great hall and fell in living glory straight upon the shrine itself.  A.F.
(extract from the Pall Mall Gazette, 20th April, 1892)

The Great Solar Temple of Amen-Ra at Karnak, Thebes

Karnak Temple

The great temple of Amen-Ra at Karnak has been described as the most majestic ruin in the world, whose vast proportions quite overpower the imagination.  It covers an area twice as great as any other ecclesiastical building in the world.   The temple proper is 400 yards in length, and with the north-west and south-east dependencies extends to a total length of 600 yards.  David Masters, in Romance of Excavation, 1923, p. 71, gives the following vivid account of Thebes, when at the height of its fame:

Thebes at its zenith was one of the glories of the old world, with some of the most marvelous temples ever imagined by the mind of man or executed by human hand.  The ancient capital of Egypt was unequalled in magnificence.  King after king increased the wonders of the temple of Amen; their sculptors carved great sphinxes out of stone, which were set up in an avenue over a mile long.

Building after building was added to the original one.  Mighty gateways, or pylons, 142 feet high, were built, and from these projected flagstaffs, on which gaily coloured banners fluttered in the breeze.

The great hall of Amen was composed of pillars 78 feet high and 33 feet round, all carved and painted in vivid colours.  Lesser halls and temples were added; and here, amid a blaze of colour and sunshine, the festivals were held; the high priests performed their sacred rites; the Pharaoh drove up in his gorgeous chariots with the harness of his horses ablaze with gold, while his subjects shielded their faces from the monarch, who shared the glory of Amen.

At intervals the high priests brought out the sacred boat of the god, raised it aloft on their shoulders, and carried it around the temple, while the populace stood silent with awe.

For a brief instant the curtains were drawn aside and the god was disclosed to the multitude before returning to the silence and sanctity of the temple from which the common people were rigidly excluded.

About the King gathered all the wit and wisdom of the Egyptian Empire.  Magnificent banquets were held, at which were served to the guests fine dishes of venison, roast ducks, and other fowl and fish.  Wine flowed, maidens danced.  There was talk and laughter and love.

Today Thebes has vanished.  The one-time capital of Egypt is a desert ruin.  Nearby are the villages of Karnak and Luxor, with a few natives living in their humble dwellings, and just a big hotel for the use of travelers who come here to gaze on the ruins of the past.

The actual building period of the great Temple of Karnak lasted for 17 centuries, and the most ancient part of the temple is said to be 4000 years old, dating back to the early years of the reign of Amen Emhat I, the first king of the XII Dynasty, and his son and co-regent, Senusert I.  (E. Bell, Egyptian Architecture, 1915, p. 103; J. Capart and M. Werbrouck, Thebes, 1926, pages 21, 61, 63)

Karnak plan

The mean date, taken from a number of recent Egyptological works  (Cambridge Ancient History, Breasted, Budge, etc.) places the commencement of the XII Dynasty at about 2050 B.C., and I have adopted 2045 B.C. as the date of the foundation of the earliest part of the Karnak Temple of Amen Ra.

The rise of the religion of Amen Ra dates from this time, and the Kings of the XII Dynasty were the first to incorporate the name of Amen in their accession names, Amen-Emhat meaning “Amen is at the head.” (J. Capart and M. Werbrouk, Thebes, 1926, p. 61)  The meaning of ‘Amen’ in the ancient Egyptian language is “The Hidden One,” referring to the Divine Power behind or represented by, the Sun, whose life-giving rays support all life on the earth.

Three or four centuries later, the temple was repaired and greatly extended by the Kings of the XVIII Dynasty, and great pylons were built by Thothmes I, Thothmes III and Amenophis III, with large halls, adorned with sculptures, columns and obelisks.

The first 500 years of the Temple of Amen Ra were thus marked by great building activity, culminating in the Pylon of Rameses I, of the XIX Dynasty, and the Hypostyle Hall, with its 134 immense columns, the “Hall of Columns” built by Seti I and Rameses II.  The total length of the temple up to the Propylon of Rameses I was 300 yards.

Its principal extension was towards the west-north-west, or sunset point at the time of the summer solstice.

In the time of Shishak I (970 B.C.), who reigned in Egypt in the latter years of King Solomon, and in the time of his son Rehoboam (in the reign of Rehoboam, Shishak attacked Jerusalem and “took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the King’s house; he even took away all; and he took away all the shields of gold which Solomon had made.” 1 Kings 14:25-26), the forecourt in the front of the Pylon of Rameses I was enclosed with walls on the north and south sides, forming the Great Court of Shishak, but the entrance was not completed till the Ptolemaic period, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, when the Great Ptolemaic Pylon, enclosing it on the western front, was built (320 B.C.)

Three Astronomical Uses of a Solar Temple

The late Sir Norman Lockyer considered that the great Temple of Amen Ra, with its axis directed towards the point of sunset at the summer solstice, formed practically a great horizontal telescope, and served three purposes, according to the intention of its builders:

  1.  The observation of the sun at the summer solstice, in connection with the rectification of the Egyptian Calendar.
  2. The prediction of the Nile floods, which commenced about the time of the summer solstice.  This was the most important season of the year in Egypt.
  3. The provision of an impressive annual religious ceremony, the “Manifestation of Ra,” when the sun shone into the sanctuary and illuminated the statue of the sun-god at sunset on the day of the summer solstice.

Karnak hall

As showing the importance of solar observations at the Temple of Amen Ra, it is stated that the third Priest of Amen took the same titles as the Grand Priest of Annu (the Sun), who was the head of the first priesthood in Egypt.  The Grand Priest of Annu was also  called the “Great Observer of Ra” (the Sun at Noon) and Atmu (the setting Sun), and had the privilege of entering at all times into the Hat Benben (Holy of Holies).

The Priest Padouamen, whose mummy was found in 1891, bore this among his other titles (Sir Norman Lockyer, The Dawn of Astronomy, 1894, p. 340).

Orientation Ceremonies

The care taken by the ancient Egyptians in the orientation of their temples, when an astronomical use was intended, is shown by the inscription, in which the foundation ceremonies are described with great minuteness.  Dr. G.E. Hale in a chapter on “The Oriental Ancestry of the Telescope” (George Ellery Hale, Beyond the Milky Way, 1926, pp 1-38) dealing with astronomy in Egypt, describes the measuring instrument used for sighting on the sun or stars, known as the “Merkhet.”

merkhet 1


merkhet 2


merkhet 3

It was a type of instrument used in the orientation of the early Egyptian Temples.  A complete example described by Borchardt dates from the 6th century BC.  This consists of a sight vane, made from the middle rib of a palm leaf, with a narrow slot at the top, through which the observer looked, and a plumb line suspended from an ivory (or ebony) support, with which the object observed was bisected. 

One of the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the instrument reads, “I know the path of the sun, moon and stars, each to its place.”

A meridian line was fixed by an observer sighting north through the slot (close to the eye) towards the plumb line, which was held at arm’s length, and moved east or west until it coincided with a star near the celestial pole.  In the case of an observation of the sun on the horizon, the solar disk would be bisected by the plumb line.  Considerable accuracy, probably within 1’-2’ of arc could be obtained by an observer in an orientation directed towards the setting sun at the solstice.  Such an observation is perfectly easy, and today, even a school boy could be relied upon to obtain an accurate result in this simple manner.

Dr. Hale gives an account, written by the American Archaeologist, Professor Breasted, of what he describes as Tutankhamen’s Transit Instrument, which he discovered in 1923 at the shop of a well-known London dealer in antiquities.  This was a rectangular strip of ebony wood, a little over 10 ½ inches long, which was the principal portion of the plummet used by Tutankhamen.  It bore an inscription stating that it was made by King Tutankhamen’s own hands. 

A portion of a similar instrument at the Berlin Museum, described by Borchardt, bears the name of Amen Hotep III, the predecessor of Tutankhamen in the XVIII Dynasty. 

The complete example of the Merkhet, described by Borchardt (just previously mentioned), and dating from the sixth century B.C., was more than seven hundred years later than the reign of Tutankhamen. 

The ceremony of fixing the temple axis was called “the stretching of the cord.”

stretching cord 1


stretching cord 2


To determine the axis of the new edifice, “stakes have to be planted according to the rules of the divine geometry.” (J. Capart and Werbrouck, Thebes, p. 100)

Nissen says, on account of the stretching of the cord, the Egyptian Engineers were called by the Greeks ‘Harpedonaptai’ (cord-handlers), whose art Democritus boasts of having acquired

The King proceeded to the site where the temple was to be built, accompanied by an assistant representing the goddess Sesheta, who is styled the “Mistress of the laying of the foundation stone.”  Each was armed with a stake.  The two stakes were connected by a cord.  Next the cord was aligned towards the sun or a star, as the case might be; when the alignment was perfect the two stakes were driven into the ground by means of a wooden mallet; there was no difference of procedure in the case of temples directed to the sun.
(J. N. Lockyer, Dawn of Astronomy, 1894, p. 173)

This fixed the main axis of the temple.  The instrument used by Thothmes III at the laying of the foundation bears the mark of the King, with the addition “as he stretched the cord upon Amen resplendent on the horizon.”

From the choice of the sun-god Amen and the horizon, it is to be concluded that the direction of the sun on the horizon was the standard for the foundation procedure of the temples in the early centuries B.C.  (E. Zinner, Untersuchungen Zur Geschichte der Sternkunde, 1932, p. 29)  Thus there is an important understanding about the orientation of the Temple of Amen Ra at Karnak.

Another inscription, describing the building of the Temple of Amen at Heliopolis gives the following account:

Arose the King, attired in his necklace and the feather crown;  all the world followed him, and the Majesty of Amen Emhat (first King of the XII Dynasty.)

The Ker-Heb (Master of Ceremonies) read the sacred text during the stretching of the measuring cord and the laying of the foundation stone on the piece of ground selected for this temple, then withdrew.  His Majesty Amen Emhat and King Usertsen (son and co-regent) wrote it down before the people. 
(J.N. Lockyer, Dawn of Astronomy, p. 175)

At Abydos there is an inscription relating to the rebuilding of one of the temples in the time of Seti I (son of Rameses I).  In this the goddess Sesheta addresses the King as follows:

The hammer in my hand was of gold as I struck the peg with it, and thou wast with me in thy capacity of Harpedonapt.  Thy hand held the spade during the fixing of its (the temple’s) four corners with the accuracy by the four supports of heaven.

On the pictures the King appears with the Osiris crown opposite the goddess.  Both hold in their right hand a club and with it they each hammer a long peg into the ground.  Round the two pegs runs a rope which is stretched tight, the ends being tied together (Lockyer, The Dawn of Astronomy, p. 175).(1)

Other inscriptions related to the alignment of the temple axis to certain stars observed at their rising. 

In the record of the ceremony used in the building of the temple of Hathor at Denderah, the inscriptions state that the King, while stretching the cord, had his glance directed to the “ak” of the Egyptian Constellation Bull’s Thigh, and on this line was built the new temple “as had been done there before.”  The actual inscription has been translated as follows:

The living god, the magnificent son of Asti (a name of Thoth) nourished by the sublime goddess in the temple, the sovereign of the country, stretched the rope in joy.

With his glance towards the “ak” of the Bull’s Thigh constellation, he establishes the house of the Mistress of Denderah, as took place there before.

At another place, the King says, “Looking to the sky at the course of the rising stars [and] recognizing the ‘ak’ of the Bull’s Thigh constellation, I establish the corner of the temple of Her Majesty.”  (Lockyer, p. 176)

In an account of the ceremonial used at the laying of the foundation stone of the temple at Edfu, the King is represented as speaking thus: 

I have grasped the wooden peg and the handle of the club; I hold the rope with Sesheta; my glance follows the course of the stars; by eye is on MesXet (that is, the Bull’s Thigh constellation, or the Great Bear); (mine is the part of time of the number of the hour-clock); I establish the corners of thy house of God.

And in another place:

I have grasped the wooden peg; I hold the handle of the club; I grasp the cord with Sesheta; I cast my face towards the course of the rising constellations; I let my glance enter the constellation of the Great Bear (the part of my time stands in the place of his hour-clock); I establish the four corners of thy temple.

The translation is Brugsch’s.  The phrases in the parentheses are interpreted differently by Dumichen, who translates them: “Standing as divider of time by his measuring instrument” or “representing the divider of time (i.e. the good Thoth) at his measuring instrument.”  (Lockyer, p. 179)   The word suspected by Grugsch to be hour- or water-clock is ‘merech,’ or ‘merchet,’ evidently the same instrument ‘merkhet’ earlier described. 

Dupuis, Origine des Cultes, Vol. 1, p. 450, quotes a statement (referring to a solar temple facing eastwards) “that the greatest precautions were taken that the first rays of sunlight should enter the temple.”  (Lockyer, p. 181)

The Manifestation of Ra

From what has now been said about the orientation ceremonies, so carefully carried out by the Egyptian temple-builders, we have good reason for believing that the Temple of Amen Ra at Karnak, the most important solar temple in Egypt, was truly oriented to the setting sun at the summer solstice in the year of its foundation, about 2045 B.C.  It then gave the astronomer-priests for long ages, as long as the sun continued to shine into the sanctuary, a perfect observational site for determining the time of summer solstice each year.

As this time drew near, the Chief Astronomer, responsible for these observations, i.e. the “Grand Priest of Annu” (the Sun) and “Great Observer of Ra” (the Sun in its noontide strength) and Atmu (the Sun at sunset), could see, from the central portion of the sanctuary, the disc of the setting sun coming into view at the southern edge of the Entrance Pylon of the Temple.  He could note its gradual northward movement each day, until, at sunset on the day of the summer solstice, it could be seen exactly in the centre of the entrance of the temple.  Thus he would be able to keep a perfect check on the calendar from year to year; for it must be remembered that the Egyptian civil calendar year was a “wandering year” of 365 days, and in course of time it became noticeably out of step with the sun.

He knew also when the Nile floods were to be expected, for they commenced at the summer solstice season.  In addition, and this was a most important part of his duties, he was able from these observations, to know when to arrange in advance for the great annual ceremony of the “Manifestation of Ra” on the exact day of the solstice. 

In this spectacular ceremony, the King stood at the entrance of the sanctuary, with his back to the people; and when the doors were opened, the sun shone upon both the King and the statue of the sun-god in the sanctuary. 

The statue is said to have been made of “precious materials, of gold, encrusted with fine stones (lapis lazuli and coloured stones), as the texts say.”  It was generally placed in a tabernacle.  Amen Ophis III describes the tabernacle, which he made, as being “of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver), and its radiance fills the whole earth.”  (J Capert and M. Werbrouck, Thebes, 1926, pp 72, 90, 102, 182)

When the doors were opened, and the sun shone into the darkened sanctuary, a very brilliant scene was presented to the on-lookers.  The English version of De Rouge’s translation of an inscription describing the ceremony is as follows:

He (Pharaoh) comes, passing towards the temple of Ra.  He enters the temple adoring (twice).

The Kher-heb (celebrant) invokes him who drives away evil from the King; he performs the rites of the door; he takes the Seteb (sacred band); he purifies himself with incense; he makes a libation; he brings up the flowers of the Habenben (the inner sanctuary); he brings perfume (?).

He mounts the steps of the great Adytum, to see Ra in the Habenben.  He remains there alone.  He inserts the Key; he opens the door; he sees his father Ra in the Habenben; he venerates the boat of Ra and the boat of Tum (the setting sun). 

He shuts the doors, and places the sealing clay, which he seals with the King’s Seal.  He himself orders the priests.  “I have placed the seal; let no one enter but the King alone, who remains there.”

This inscription relates to a ceremony which took place at Heliopolis, but it is obviously the typical service of the Egyptian solar temple; a similar procedure would be followed at the Karnak temple, and the Egyptians at Thebes doubtless took full advantage of this impressive spectacle in their ritual for the Temple of Amen Ra.

In an inscription on the base of one of the great obelisks erected by Queen Hatshepsut, in front of the temple of Amen Ra, the summits of the obelisks are referred to as being “of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver), and the best of every country, which are seen on both sides of the river.  Their rays flood the two lands when the sun rises between them as he dawns in the horizon of heaven.”  (Capert and Werbrouk, pp 72, 90, 102, 182)

The sun would be seen between the obelisks looking from the altar end of the temple outwards at sunset at the summer solstice, and also looking from the other side of the river, in the line of the temple axis towards the east-south-east at sunrise at the winter solstice.

The obelisks in front of the Egyptian solar temples were always set squarely to the line of the temple axis, and it is clear that the striking effects of the beam of sunlight shining down the axis into the interior of the temple were fully appreciated and made use of by the ancient Egyptian priesthood.

The “Eye of Light” at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance (2)

A similar modern use of a beam of sunlight entering a shrine is in operation annually in the dim interior of the Shrine of Remembrance at Melbourne, Australia, which commemorates the Australian soldiers who fell in the Great World War of 1914-18.  The National War Memorial is one of the most striking features of the City of Melbourne.  It is situated on a hill, enclosed within park lands, “The Domain,” at a height of 82 feet above sea level.   The top of the Memorial is 208 feet above sea level, and is clearly visible from almost every part of the city and suburbs, and even from ships, far out in Port Phillip Bay, both by day and by night, when it is illuminated by brilliant flood lights.


In the centre of the floor of the inner Shrine, or “Holy of Holies,” as it has been called, is the “Rock of Remembrance,” a large flat slab of granite bearing the words, engraved in the centre, “Greater Love Hath No Man.”

At 11 o’clock in the morning, on the 11th November (Armistice Day), each year, the sun, shining through two apertures, 22 feet apart, in the outer and inner walls of the building, throws a beam of light upon the Rock of Remembrance.  The aperture in the inner wall is 3 inches in diameter, and a circle of light, called “The Eye of Light,” which illuminates the Rock of Remembrance, is 9 inches in diameter.

eye of light

Eye of Light at the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, Australia
first opened 11 a.m., 11th November, 1932


The account given by the Surveyor, Mr. F.J. Doolan, of his preliminary survey of the Shrine of Remembrance, shows the responsibility that he felt in orienting the axes of the Shrine correctly, and determining beforehand the exact positions to be occupied by the Rock of Remembrance and the apertures.

For this purpose he made a series of observations of the sun at the Shrine in August, 1931.  In his words, the projection of the circular patch of sunlight on the Rock of Remembrance

depended entirely on correct orientation, and any failure of the ray of light to strike correctly would have been a fiasco too appalling to contemplate.

The field work, he says, was done under some difficulties, notably that of setting out a line, using a diagonal eyepiece…with the sight threading through a multiple grille of scaffolding and planks…in an unfavourable light, and one confesses to having been oppressed at times by anxieties rising from the possibility of most momentous issues being affected by physical limitations so imposed.

An independent check was made by his assistant, Mr. Knight, but the “ultimate test…could be nothing other than the result obtained on the Armistice Day of which I speak, in 1931, when the passage of the ray of light across the mortar board, which took the place of the Rock of Remembrance in the unfinished building, had elements of personal drama additional to the impressive spectacle itself.”

The great building thus erected to commemorate the Australian soldiers of 1914-1918, with an impressive ceremony strikingly similar to that adopted in the Great Solar Temple of Amen Ra at Karnak, and other temples of the Sun in Egypt nearly 4000 years before, was complete in the following year, 1932, at a cost of £250,000.

The “Eye of Light” from the sun illuminated the completed Rock of Remembrance, in the darkened inner Shrine of the National War Memorial, at a great public opening ceremony at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1932, at the same time of day, and the same day and month when the Great Armistice was signed 14 years earlier, at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

We may be permitted to wonder if King Amen Emhat also possibly felt something of those “elements of personal drama additional to the impressive spectacle itself,” when the first public “Manifestation of Ra” took place in the presence of all his nobles 4000 years ago at Karnak, when the beam of sunlight from the setting sun at that ancient summer solstice fell for the first time right upon the King and the statue of the sun-god,  placed in the center of the darkened sanctuary of the temple Amen Ra, thus confirming the accuracy of the foundation line of the Temple, which the King himself had established in preparation for the building of the Temple.

One thing is certain, that the observation of the Sun made by the King with the Merkhet and with the assistance of the priestess, representing the “goddess of the foundations,” was far easier and simpler than the difficult observation and calculation made by the Surveyor of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance in 1931.  There can thus be no reasonable doubt that the foundation axis of the Temple of Amen Ra did correctly point to the centre of the Sun at sunset at the time of the summer solstice in the year of the foundation of the Temple, about 2045 B.C.

Sir Norman Lockyer’s Observations at Karnak

When carrying out his pioneer work, early in 1891, on the Karnak Temple as an astronomical monument, Sir Norman Lockyer came to the conclusion that the line of the axis of the Temple pointed almost one degree too far to the North to allow the sun now to shine down the temple axis at sunset at the summer solstice.  He had noticed, moreover, that photographs he had taken outside the temple indicated that the outermost, or Ptolemaic, Pylon was out of line with the more ancient part of the temple axis. 

This was, he says, a question that, in the absence of accurate measurements, could only be determined by an actual observation of the solstice.  This being so, I begged the intervention of Col. Sir Colin Scott-Moncrieff, the Under Secretary of State of the Public Works Department in Egypt, to detail one of his officers to make observations of the summer solstice of 1891.  He was good enough to accede to my request, and I proceeded to give extracts from the report of the officer in question, Mr. P.J.G. Wakefield, to Mr. Allan Joseph, the Director of Works and Irrigation:

“In accordance with instructions received, I made the following observations at Karnak on June 21st, 1891:

I found that the points which I have marked A, C, D, on the photographic plan {being centres of the pylon of Rameses I, the Pylon of Thothmes I, and the Shrine of Sanctuary of Philip III of Macedon (?)}(3) respectively were all in a straight line. 

B is a point midway between the only two opposite pillars of which the bases are intact (one set up by Rameses I and the other by Seti I), and was very nearly in line; probably the true centre between the pillars (which is difficult to obtain) would be exactly so.

The centre of the Great Pylon (Ptolemaic) is not in line at all with these points, there being 1 degree difference between DA prolonged and AE; I therefore accepted the line DCA as the true axis.

From an inspection made on June 20th, it appeared to me that the setting sun would not be visible from any of the points indicated by Professor Norman Lockyer. 

I therefore placed the theodolite at A.

I regret to say that my above supposition was correct, as even from A, I was only able to see a portion of the setting sun, the remainder being hidden behind the south wall of the Great Pylon.

I obtained, however, one reading, the right limb at, as nearly as I could judge, the moment of impact of the sun’s diameter with the hill.

Of the measures given, the most important are the angle between the axis of the temple, looking south-east from A, and the north point, 116°  23’  40” (amplitude 26°  23’  40”), and the angle between the top of the hills and the horizontal, 2°  36’  20”.
(Lockyer, pp 117-118)

Unfortunately, there was an error in Mr. Wakefield’s azimuth of the temple axis, as was subsequently found by the very thorough survey made by the Egyptian Survey Department at a later date.  One factor which made it difficult for Mr. Wakefield to obtain the desired accuracy was the great accumulation of debris along the axis of the temple.  The task of clearing the temple was subsequently commenced by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, and in 1911 Mr. Howard Payn made further observations for Sir Norman Lockyer.  These observations, however, were taken under difficulties, as the axis of the temple was not completely cleared.

hall rubble

[The two photos above and the following aerial photograph of the Temple at Karnak are part of Dodwell's original material. Since the Temple was cleared in 1911, the above photographs must date from before that, if only by a year or two. The aerial photograph below gives an excellent view of the Temple Axis and the indication of its length. It probably also dates from very early in the 20th century.]

Karnak arial

Observations Made by the Egyptian Survey Department

In order to obtain definite results, the Surveyor General of Egypt then arranged to have accurate measurements made as soon as the axis of the temple was cleared.  This clearance was affected without delay.

The account of the operation, which follows, is taken from the Survey of Egypt Paper No. 38, 1921:  “Note on the Age of the Great Temple of Ammon at Karnak as determined by the orientation of its axis,” by F.S. Richards, Director of Computation Office, and later Surveyor General of Egypt (reprinted 1932)

In April, 1913, Mr. T.B. Scott observed the astronomical azimuth of the centre line of the Sanctuary, and measured the distances, the centres of the doorways, pylons, etc. on the axis, [which] deviate from this line.

So as to make quite sure of the facts, it was consequently decided to make a complete survey of the axis of the temple from end to end.  This was undertaken early in 1914 by Mr. P.G. Windsor, and the method adopted was as follows:

Two inter-visible points were taken, roughly in the axis of the temple, one on the old quay outside the temple to the West, and the other on the window sill of the eastern wall of the sanctuary.
By means of the theodolite, points were accurately lined in at all important points on the axis along this line, which was also extended right through the temple to its eastern extremity.
A very accurate survey of the axis was then made off this line, and plotted on a scale of 1:200, the actual dimension to the nearest half-centimetre being recorded on the plan.
The azimuth of this line was then measured by Mr. D.R. Meldrum in March, 1914.
The vertical angle of the hills on the West side of the Nile along the axis of the temple was observed by Mr. Skill in June, 1913.
The observed value was found to be 2°  36’  38”. 
The instrument was placed 1.10 meters west from the altar in the granite chapel in the axis of the temple, and the height of the axis of the instrument was 1.52 metres.
The instrument was placed so as to be about the same height as the sacred images placed on the altar.
No correction for height is thus needed.
This value also agrees very closely with the vertical angle adopted by Sir. N. Lockyer.

The declination of the sun, corresponding to the azimuth of the central line of the temple axis was determined by means of the standard formula, in which the given data are:

h  = the angular height of the hills
Ф = the latitude of Karnak
A = the azimuth of the temple axis, measured from North.

Of these, the value adopted for h was 2°  36’  38” as above, and, applying it to the centre of the sun on the horizon, corrections for parallax and refraction were also used.  For Ф (the latitude of Karnak), it was decided that, as “there is no reason to suppose that the latitude of Karnak has altered since the foundation of the temple, so it is taken as 25°  43’  5” N., which is scaled from the Survey of Egypt 1:50,000 map.”

Also, “for the azimuth, as it is the date of the oldest part of the temple we require, we take Mr. Scott’s observed azimuth of 63° 6’  3” West of North.”

Karnak plan

(It should be mentioned here that, following their usual custom, the Egyptians maintained the original axis line of the temple in all subsequent extensions of the temple buildings; until the last one, the Ptolemaic Pylon, built by the Greek Ptolemys about 320 B.C., after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great.  This deviated considerably northwards from the line of the ancient axis.  The Southern edge of the Ptolemaic Pylon seems to have been built at the normal distance from the original temple axis; but, probably in order to provide a much greater width of the entrance, viz. 24 1/3 feet, the northern edge of this Pylon was built so far to the
North that the centre of the opening, as seen from the Sanctuary, is half a degree north of the original temple axis.  By this time, 320 B.C., the sun at the summer solstice had gradually, during the ages, moved so far to the southward of the axis line that it was impossible under any circumstances for it to shine any more into the sanctuary; so that the deviation of the Ptolemaic axis from the original one was not for the Greeks a matter of importance.)

Using the values given above for height, latitude, and azimuth, Mr. Richards calculated that the declination of the sun, corresponding with the orientation of the original axis of the temple, was 25°  9’  55”.  He then states, “This then is the necessary declination of the sun, or what is the same thing, the Obliquity of the Ecliptic for the sun to shine down the temple axis.”

Mr. Richards then proceeded to determine the age of the temple in accordance with Newcomb’s Formula. 

Sir Norman Lockyer had estimated the date of the foundation of the temple from his own observations, and in the light of Newcomb’s Formula, as about 3700 B.C. (Lockyer, p. 119), and his surveyor, Mr. Howard Payn, from later observations, amended this date to “a little earlier, possibly…4000 B.C.” (letter dated October 11, 1911, and published in Nature, October 19, 1911.)

For the year 4000 B.C., Mr. Richards calculated the Obliquity of the Ecliptic, from Newcomb’s Formula, to be 24°  6’  39.6”.  He then remarks,

This we see differs by more than a degree from the required obliquity to make the sun shine down the axis at 4000 B.C., which is about the time of the supposed foundation of the temple.  We also see that since 4000 B.C., up to the present day, the Obliquity of the Ecliptic has only decreased by some 40’ (i.e. by Newcomb’s Formula).

Also, if the sun shone down the axis of the temple at the date of its foundation, it has since decreased by more than 100’, which would give a ridiculous date for the foundation of the temple.

He was then led to the conclusion that “Never since the great temple of Karnak was built has the sun ever shone straight down its axis”…and finally he expresses the opinion that there is “no reason to suppose that the temple of Amen Ra at Karnak was originally laid down to have any relation whatever with the position of the setting sun at the time of the summer solstice.”

Let us notice here that,, according to Stockwell’s formula for the long-period variation of the Obliquity of the Ecliptic, which is still more comprehensive and more far-reaching than Newcomb’s formula, the maximum value which the obliquity can ever reach, under the combined gravitational effects of the sun, moon and planets upon the earth is 24°  35’  38”.  The Obliquity given by the solar orientation of the Temple of Karnak, 25°  9’  55” is more than half a degree greater than this maximum.

If only the normal gravitational effects of the celestial bodies were involved, a quite impossible situation would thus arise for the astronomical dating of the Temple, just as the Surveyor General of Egypt pointed out.  But it is evidently not so, for the clear and factual accounts of the foundation ceremonies, carried out by the Kings of Egypt themselves as an impressive act of their religious duty in the founding of a Solar Temple, the nature of the instruments they used, the simplicity of the observations, and the special use of the temple of Karnak in particular, made by the Egyptian priest-astronomers, for astronomical and religious purposes, including the keeping of the Egyptian Calendar, and the dramatic “Manifestation of Ra” – all these are so clearly established, that we cannot escape the conclusion that there must be some other factor, in addition to those which are represented by Newcomb’s Formula (or equally by Stockwell’s Formula), affecting the sun’s apparent position in past ages. 

We can thus see clearly how great an error is produced by accepting Newcomb’s Formula (or, equally, Stockwell’s formula), by itself, as giving the exact solar position in those far distant ancient times, when the Sun-worshiping Kings of the XII to the XVIII and XIX Dynasties of Egypt recognized the position of the setting sun on the horizon at the summer solstice at Thebes, and used its ray of light, passing down the temple axis, and falling upon the image of their Sun-god in the Sanctuary, in the annual ceremony of the Manifestation of Ra.

Another important circumstance, confirming this result, is found in the consideration of the width of the field of view, looking west-north-west towards the setting sun, at the summer solstice, from the ancient altars.  In the most ancient part, belonging to the XII dynasty, the original pylon is not now in existence.  A new one, and a new sanctuary were made by Thothmes III, who found the work of his predecessors in a dilapidated condition; but he “preserved the original orientation of the original shrine, which is found from the walls towards the centre of the present ruins.” (Lockyer, p. 116)

Taking the average width of the entrance pylons of Thothmes III and later Kings, 10 feet 8 inches, the field of view from the most ancient altar would have been 4°  58’, nearly ten times the diameter of the Sun.  Under these conditions, even if the Sun, at the time of the foundation of the Karnak Temple, had been in the position assigned to it by Newcomb’s Formula, it would certainly have shone into the Sanctuary, but displaced from the central position, as seen from the altar in the sanctuary, by two solar diameters.

When the building of the temple was completed, the sun would have been seen by the astronomers and the King’s subjects generally to be in the corner of the opening instead of in the centre.  No reason could be given for such a mistake in a temple designed with so much care to be the chief Solar Temple of Egypt.

The observation made at the time of the foundation ceremony was so simple that even a schoolboy could have carried it out with precision, and it is impossible to think that King Amen Emhat I, whose foundation-laying ceremony has been so strikingly described, could have made such an extraordinary mistake, or that his successors, including Thothmes I, Thothmes III, Amenophis III and Rameses I, would have perpetuated such a mistake with their great buildings and pylons, all on the same orientation as the original one.

But with the new curve of Obliquity, it is clear that at the time of the original building of the Karnak temple, the Sun was exactly central in the axis of the temple, and the temple was truly oriented for the purpose for which it was built.  Further, by retaining the same axis throughout the building period up to the time of Rameses I, that is, for approximately 475 years (2045 B.C to 1570 B.C.), the gradual southward movement of the sun brought about an inevitable slow displacement of its setting point from the original central position.

With the increasing length of the temple, the field of view from the altar was correspondingly diminished, and the Propylon of Rameses I, 15 feet, 5 inches in width, reduced the field of view to 1°  28’  14”.  The Southern wall of the Propylon was therefore only half that amount, i.e. 44’ 7” from the central line of the axis, as seen from the sanctuary. 

With the sun in the position indicated by Newcomb’s Formula, the building of the Pylon and Propylon by Rameses I would have completely excluded the sun from the sanctuary, whereas previously it shone in, though obliquely, through the earlier pylons of Amenophis III, Thothmes III and Thothmes I.

Here again is an anomaly which we cannot admit.  It cannot be imagined that Rameses I would build in such a way as to deliberately exclude the sun from the sanctuary into which it had previously shone.  On the other hand, the new curve of Obliquity gives a position for the Sun in the time of Rameses I, such that it shone effectively into the sanctuary, though not centrally; but the Manifestation of Ra could still be witnessed in the Sanctuary.

These conditions continued for a further limited period, and in the time of the later Kings of the XIX Dynasty, corresponding with the period of Moses and the Exodus, the setting sun at the summer solstice began to cease shining fully into the sanctuary. 

In later centuries, about 600 B.C., the effect was complete.  The Sun-god, Amen Ra and its glory had altogether departed from the Sanctuary.  Perhaps the psychological effect upon the Egyptians of these circumstances was to a certain extent connected with the downfall of Theban supremacy, which occurred during and after the XXI Dynasty, and ultimately with the general decline of Egypt, ending with its conquest by Alexander in 325 B.C.

Quite apart from the foregoing historical evidence for the large value of the Obliquity of the Ecliptic at the date of the foundation of the Karnak Temple, the strongest possible confirmation that it is the true value for that date is given by its complete agreement with the curve which unites so closely the actual astronomical observations handed down to us by all the ancient and mediaeval astronomers who in their day made direct measurements of the Obliquity of the Ecliptic.  The greatest astronomers of former times have nearly all made a notable contribution to this problem of astronomy, i.e. the change in the Obliquity which has occurred in past ages.  Among these were Thales, Pythagoras, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and many others, including all the Astronomers Royal of England from Flamsteed onwards.

The remarkable curve which unites the observations of the famous astronomers of early times with those of the present connects accurately with the value found, at the date of the foundation of the Karnak Solar Temple, 2045 B.C., by the measurement of the orientation of its axis, and the resulting position of the Sun at the summer solstice, when at its setting it shone straight down the axis and illuminated the centre of the sanctuary at that time.

We could hardly have a more convincing proof that the curve is correct.

Moreover, after removing the known gravitational factors which are fully represented by Newcomb’s Formula, we are left with a particular type of mathematical curve, namely a logarithmic sine curve, which provides its own determination of the date of its starting point in 2345 B.C., and of its end in 1850 A.D..

We are therefore limited, as we have seen, to the interpretation which the curve itself implies, namely that it indicates a recovery after a major disturbance of the earth’s axis in the year 2345 B.C., with a complete restoration to equilibrium in modern times – in, or about, the year 1850 A.D.

Karnak Temple



  1. from the Setterfields:  this may be part of a direct quote from the book, but it was impossible to tell from the Dodwell manuscript. return to text
  2. from the Setterfields:  the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne was designed so that at precisely at 11:00 a.m. the sun illuminates the plaque in the Memorial.  However, it has become standard practice in recent times to set the clocks forward by one hour (for daylight savings time).  Thus when the Memorial Service is held at 11:00 a.m., the effect is no longer seen. return to text
  3. Philip Arrhidaeus, about 325 B.C. The Point D marks the door of the Granite Chamber, constructed by Thothmes III, but the existing door of this sanctuary and a window in the East wall were afterwards made by Philip Arrhidaeus. return to text

continue to chapter 9