‘Sacred’ alignments

In common with many ancient cultures worldwide, Egyptian mythology developed from close observation of local conditions – climate, geography, fauna and flora. In the developing state : counting, accounting, standard weights and measures, geometry and surveying, astronomy and conceptions of time : all needed to be studied and defined. But all of this was established within an ambiguous religious context, making interpretation difficult.

Ancient peoples lived in ‘sacred’ landscapes grown hoary with tradition – a waterfall, a sacred mountain, a river – the axes of some Egyptian temples are parallel to the sacred Nile. Then kings might pay homage to the work of their ancestors, for example in architectural form, or by situating religious monuments along ‘sacred’ alignments.

Perhaps the earliest alignments celebrated by ancient man were to the setting sun at the winter solstice when the year is ‘renewed’, and this too is discovered in Egyptian work. But the orientations of many temples are to the horizon rising and setting points of prominent stars, pointing to an evolved stellar mythology.

The following is an attempt to summarize the salient points of Egyptian religion as best I understand it, focussing on its stellar aspects, as well as highlighting some of the ongoing controversies concerning putative meridian alignments inside Khufu, and even the date of the pyramid’s construction.


‘Sacred’ alignments in the Memphite region

Many of these these alignments were created over succeeding dynasties as a kind of ancestor respect. Often it appears rulers felt the need to return to venerated traditions. (With some relief I imagine if Giza really was the result of Khufu’s geometric experiment).

For example, Magli discovered alignments from Giza to the hallowed IIIrd dynasty step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara –

The Giza / Saqqara alignment

– he argues that the later pyramids of Userkaf and Unas were so positioned as to echo the Giza triad, and notes that Niuserre’s sun temple lies on the Khufu/Userkaf alignment.

Niuserre’s Sun temple also lies on an alignment to Memphis –

Alignment to Memphis

– notice also indications of an alignment to Heliopolis (blue line), even though the latter was invisible because of rising ground.

Heliopolis was intervisible with post-Khufu pyramid sites on the western horizon. At sunrise during the flood, and before atmospheric pollution, the vista from Heliopolis would have been most impressive –

Intervisibilty of post-Khufu pyramid sites

The earlier pyramids at Saqqara and Dashur play no part in this arrangement – such sight lines would be blocked by the rising ground south of Heliopolis. Survey data for the Dashur pyramids remains uncertain nor is there yet evidence of an overall plan of the sort proposed for Giza. Magli suggests north-south alignments from Gisr el Mudir, a large ancient enclosure at Saqqara of unknown purpose, touching the west sides of the Dashur pyramids.