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Did the Pyramid Builders of the Old Kingdom use the Pole of the Ecliptic?

By Robert G. Bauval


There are many studies that show that the pyramid builders linked their religion, and consequently their pyramids, to the stars [18]. It is also known that the ancient pyramid builders observed the stars as they culminated at the meridian north and south. Special attention, too, was given to the rising of the stars in the east, especially at dawn. The dominant group of stars that have been identified from ancient Egyptian sources with certainty are Orion, Sirius and the circumpolar constellations of Draco, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. These circumpolar stars were perceived as being 'immortal' and 'indestructible' because they never rise or set but perpetually revolve in concentric circles around the north celestial pole. This led many Egyptologists to assert that the ancient Egyptians gave special attention to this region of the sky. At the very least, this all shows that the pyramid builders were avid observers of the rising and culmination of the stars, and most probably recorded their positions over long periods of time. It is also reasonable to assume that observations of the circumpolar stars might have been made while also observing simultaneously other stars rising in the east and still others simultaneously culminating in the south. The opinion is unanimous among Egyptologists and astronomers that the square bases of the Old Kingdom pyramids were deliberately made to face the four cardinal directions, in some cases with remarkably high precision. This, when coupled with the ancient builders' keen interest in the sky, would mean that the dominant alignments were an axis running east-west and another axis running north-south, forming an imaginary cross through the pyramid. The implications are, therefore, that the east-west axis served for the observation of the rising of celestial bodies in the east whereas the north-south axis served for the observation of the culmination of celestial bodies north and south at the meridian. Now, due-east defines the rising place of the equinoxes i.e. the positions occupied by the sun at the spring or autumn equinox. When an equinox is rising due-east on the horizon, the prime meridian or 'great circle' will loop directly above, passing through the north celestial pole and also through the pole of the ecliptic. Thus, by definition, the pole of the ecliptic is always on the prime meridian line when an equinox point is rising in the eastern horizon. However, the pole of the ecliptic will be at upper culmination at the meridian (about 53.5° altitude) only when the vernal point (spring equinox) is rising due-east. When this happens, all the main 'stations' (or 'collures') of the sky --the two equinoxes and the two solstices-- will be found in the four cardinal directions of the celestial landscape.

Figure 5
An observer at Giza at epoch c. 10,500 BC. When the vernal point (VP) is on the rise due east, the prime meridian loops directly overhead and passes through the north celestial pole, the pole of the ecliptic and the star Zeta Orionis in Orion's belt.

Thus if the ancient pyramid builders had wished to design a symbolic representation of this very special moment in time when the sky can be truly said to be in perfect order around the pole of the ecliptic, they would have selected a time when Orion was sitting due-south at the same time as the pole of the ecliptic was sitting due-north and the vernal point was sitting due-east.

When was that time?

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  1. See The Orion Mystery.

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