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- Like fellow planets Jupiter and Mars, Saturn was associated with the god Horus, who was believed to represent the living pharaohs in the sky. All three planets were often pictured floating above a hawk-headed Horus. Birds were often associated with both celestial objects and gods. The Pyramid Texts tell of a time "when the sky was split from the earth and the gods went to the sky," leaving birds as a remnant of that earlier time when earth and sky were joined.
- The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius was the embodiment of Isis, sister and consort of the god Osiris, who appeared in the sky as Orion. Sirius first appeared in the dawn sky each year around the time of the summer solstice and just before the Nile's flood season. Egyptians believed Sirius was responsible for the rains, so it was vital to accurately predict its arrival. Sirius was the centerpiece of Egypt's 365-day solar calendar, and its appearance marked the beginning of the new year.
- Chief adversary and eventual murderer of his brother Osiris, Seth represented the sterility of the desert, chaos, and destruction of the cosmic order in Egyptian mythology. Seth maintained a fierce rivalry with the god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, and was ultimately defeated a triumph of order over chaos. In one of their battles, Horus tore away Seth's leg, which was represented by the Big Dipper, believed by Egyptians to be a source of immortality because it never left the night sky. The power of this belief is evident in the mummification ritual of pressing a dipper-shaped object to the deceased's mouth and eyelids, restoring the spirit and reanimating the body for life in the afterworld.
There are two solstices each year. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs when the sun appears farthest south in the sky. The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, occurs when the sun appears farthest in the north. Egyptians were especially interested in the summer solstice because it marked the beginning of the Nile's flood season. Accurately predicting the floods was of such vital importance that the appearance of Sirius, which occurs around the time of the summer solstice, was recognized as the beginning of the Egyptian new year.
Solstice at Nabta
The Sun was the physical manifestation of Re, the chief god of the pharaohs. Yet the Sun was also viewed as a ball of fire that sailed across the cosmic ocean in a boat, only to sink beneath the Earth to face a terrifying underworld filled with demons. During this nightly journey, Re merged with Osiris, god of the dead, and was reborn at sunrise from Nut, the sky goddess. Egyptians viewed this daily drama of life, death and rebirth not merely as a natural phenomenon but as daily affirmation of life over death. The Sun also represented the Aten, a god who bestowed life through his light. During the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten, the Aten became the sole official god of Egypt, and the other gods were banished. After Akhenaten's death, however, the older gods returned, and the cult of the Aten was eradicated.
An important capital city in Upper Egypt for hundreds of years, Thebes is home to two of Egypt's most famous and magnificent temples Karnak and Luxor. Many pharaohs, including Tutankhamen, were buried near Thebes in the Valley of the Kings.
Temple of karnak at Thebes
- Today, the star Polaris marks the north celestial pole, but at the time the Great Pyramids of Giza were built, the star closest to the pole was Thuban, in the constellation Draco, the dragon. Thuban was considered a symbol of immortality since it never left the night sky, so it was natural for King Khufu to make plans to join both Thuban and Orion, symbol of Osiris, the god of the dead. Khufu's burial chamber included two shafts, one aimed at Thuban and the other at Orion, to expedite the king's journey into the afterworld.
Originally named Tutankhaten ("living image of the Aten"), King Tut became pharaoh at about age nine and reigned for only about eight years. Yet in that short time, he banished the worship of Aten, the disc of the Sun that brings light to the world, and restored the traditional worship of Amun, the most powerful of all Egyptian gods, and the pantheon of dozens of other gods. Tutankhamen (or Tutankhamun) signified this return to traditional Egyptian religion in the second year of his reign when he and his queen changed the -aten ending of their names to -amun.
- The original name of Tutankhamen, the name Tutankhaten was abandoned by the young pharaoh in the second year of his reign when he was about 10 years old to signify a break with the Aten worship favored by his predecessor (and possibly his father), Akhenaten. Tutankhamen's decision to restore the ancient religion, which worshipped the god Amun, came at the urging of his vizier Ay, who eventually succeeded him as pharaoh, and other advisors.
- Valley of the Kings
A dry riverbed behind the cliffs on the west side of the Nile, near Thebes, the Valley of the Kings became home to more than 70 royal tombs, beginning with Thutmose I in about 1482 BC. The secret and remote location of these elaborate tombs in the mountainside was believed to protect the pharaohs and their possessions from plunderers. Sadly, most of the tombs were looted in antiquity. One tomb that survived relatively unscathed was that of the boy king Tutankhamen, whose treasures were discovered by British explorer Howard Carter in the 1920s.
Valley of the Kings
- Upper Egypt
- Upper Egypt spread along the 660-mile (1,060 km) valley formed by the Nile River. Located south of Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt was home to the earliest Egyptian kings and seat of power through much of ancient Egyptian history. Upper and Lower Egypt were unified about 3100 BC by a king known only as Scorpion because of the scorpion symbol carved on his macehead. Among the historically significant sites in Upper Egypt are Abydos, burial place of the first kings; Thebes, home of the magnificent temples of Karnak and Luxor; Abu Simbel, site of temples honoring Ramesses the Great; and the Valley of the Kings.
- For centuries, Egyptians employed two separate calendars: a lunar calendar that spanned 12 lunar cycles (and thus was about 11 days shorter than our solar year) and a 365-day solar calendar that included 12 months, each with three 10-day weeks. The 365-day calendar was the world's first calendar based on the true length of the year. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar used the Egyptian solar calendar as the basis for a reformed Roman calendar; with minor revisions, this calendar is still used today. The solar year began with the appearance of Sirius, around the time of the summer solstice and the onset of the annual flood. Believed to the embodiment of the goddess Isis, Sirius was viewed as "a feminine sun .. that coaxes the Nile out of its source hole to provide life to living people."
- Egyptians created one of the world's first zodiacs using animals familiar to them, including the crocodile, hippopotamus, and scarab beetle. The modern Western zodiac is based upon this ancient view of the night sky as an arc covering a round world. Egyptians viewed the sky as a giant ocean through which gods sailed in celestial boats, much as they plied the waters of the river Nile. This concept of a universal ocean surrounding the world was vital to Egyptian mythology and religion and remained virtually unchanged through more than three centuries of Egyptian history.
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