Temples faced the rising sun

The amazingly brilliant Dr Alun Salt has published a paper called
The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples in which he demonstrates that temples were oriented when possible to face the rising sun.

This instantly caused me to say, "Uh oh," and go back and read every temple description I'd ever written. Luckily for me I'd only once committed myself, and I got it right that one time because Pausanias had told me the answer.

The title link is to the actual paper. Or you can read Alun's own blog article on same, or else read the article in the Times Online (!), or else read Mary Beard's commentary. Talk about making a splash.

Alun is a regular reader and occasional commenter on this blog. He's even been known to link to me, which frankly I take as a huge compliment because he's a for-real professsional archaeoastronomer and seriously knows what he's talking about.

11 comments:

A Writer said...

Interesting. I always associated that with the Egyptians. Another enlightening article Gary.

Amalia T. said...

Thanks for the heads up. This is definitely a moment where I'm profiting from your research! I hope you don't mind :)

Gary Corby said...

The thanks all go to Alun. I merely report his clever labour.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Thanks for passing this along, Gary. I didn't know that the Greeks oriented their temples that way, although it doesn't surprise me. I recently had to do oodles of research on Egyptian temples and astronomy so I wonder if there are more parallels out there. I bet there are!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Stephanie, I'd never thought of it either. Another example might be standing stones?

Stephanie Thornton said...

I actually don't know of any standing stones or megaliths in Egypt. They did sometimes use large boundary markers, especially in Amarna, but no henges or anything like that, at least not that I'm aware of.

I wonder- did the Greeks do much with astronomical ceilings? The first one I'm aware of was actually from Hatshepsut's time period, but I wonder if any other civilizations picked up the trend.

Gary Corby said...

I don't know of any astronomical ceilings but surely by the time of the Library at Alexandria there must have been some.

Matthew Delman said...

It's also worth noting that the sun and worship tends to figure strongly into Abrahamic religions as well. Artwork of the Catholic Church stole the Egyptian sun-disk as the saints' halo, and the Muslims still pray toward either East (the rising sun) or toward Mecca.

I don't know about the sun figuring into Judaism at all, but I know for a fact that Akenaten crafted the Aten as a gigantic sun-disk type god he wanted to use to bring monotheism to Egypt.

L. T. Host said...

Most major cultures throughout history have done the east-facing temple thing. Given that the east is associated with birth and youth through the sunrise, and the west associated with age and wisdom through the sunset, it's all very symbolic: as you enter the building, you come from youth and "naivete" into wisdom through the teachings within.

Early Catholic and Christian churches are oriented this way, as well, all the way through the Renaissance (that I personally know of), though I think the tradition is less-followed today.

The Romans did this too. There are a lot of similarities between the cultures because the Romans liked the Greeks so much that they pretty much copied everything they had, haha. And the Egyptians had a big influence on everyone because they were so prevalent in general with trading and conquering and everything.

Art history (which includes architecture) is absolutely fascinating to me. But then, so is history in general.

Alun said...

Erin Nell, currently working on an American project in Cairo, has suggested there might be a connection between the Greeks and Egyptians in solar orientation. There were certainly Greek mercenaries in Egypt in the archaic period, but I'm not sure it's significant. Solar orientation's common in a lot belief systems as people have pointed out here. It's not a huge leap to suggest that the Sun's prominent enough that cultures noticed it independently of each other.

If you're looking for megaliths in Egypt, there's an interesting circle at Nabta Playa in the south of modern Egypt. I'm agnostic on whether or not it's an astronomically aligned site. The claims that it has the distances to the stars encoded in it seem a bit eccentric to me, but that doesn't rule out the north-south or solsticial alignments being meaningful.

Gary Corby said...

Hi L.T., I'd once known that about the early Christian churches and then totally forgot it. Very good point.

Hi Alun! Could the common orientation be for something as simple as merely wanting to maximise the amount of light to see by inside?

I had no idea Egypt had any megaliths. Somehow it doesn't go with the image.