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Towards an absolute date for the Egyptian New Kingdom, part 3: Abu Simbel

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The rock-cut Great Temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia built by Rameses II has been associated with the royal jubilee of the pharaoh. Based on our proposed accession year-1297, we can demonstrate that the first few jubilees of the king would have been celebrated when the traditional civil date for the festival (V Tybi 1) coincided with the climax of the autumnal lightshow at Abu Simbel. We regard this coincidence as a proof that we indeed have identified the absolute (astronomical) year for Rameses II's accession.
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Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 1 of 8
Towards an absolute date for the Egyptian New Kingdom, part 3:
Abu Simbel
Petra Ossowski Larsson* and Lars-Åke Larsson, Sweden
* Corresponding author: petra@cybis.se
Abstract
The rock-cut Great Temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia built by Rameses II has been
associated with the royal jubilee of the pharaoh. Based on our proposed accession
year -1297, we can demonstrate that the first few jubilees of the king would have
been celebrated when the traditional civil date for the festival (V Tybi 1) coincided
with the climax of the autumnal lightshow at Abu Simbel. We regard this coincidence
as a proof that we indeed have identified the absolute (astronomical) year for
Rameses II's accession.
Introduction
In part 1 of our Egyptian suite of articles we took a closer look at the Egyptian civil
calendar (ref.1) to see if it was useful as an exact dating tool. The civil calendar was
a solar calendar with a year of exactly 365 days distributed to 12 months with 30
days each, and an additional "intercalary month" of 5 days. The 12 months were
grouped into 3 seasons of 4 months each (hence 120 days), initially beginning
around midsummer with the flood season, followed by the growth season starting late
in October and finally the harvest season starting early in spring. New Year was
celebrated on I Thoth 1, the first day of the flood season.
I II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X XI XII Intercalary
month
Thoth Phaophi Athyr Choiak Tybi Mechir Phamenoth Pharmuthi Pachons Payni Epiphi Mesore Hryw Rnpt
(1)
Akhet (2)
Akhet (3)
Akhet (4)
Akhet (1)
Peret (2)
Peret (3)
Peret (4)
Peret (1)
Shemu (2)
Shemu (3)
Shemu (4)
Shemu 5 days
Flood season Growth season, winter Low water or harvest season, summer
Table 1: Months and seasons of the Egyptian civil calendar. A date can be given as a certain day (e.g.
20) either of a month of the year (e.g. IX Pachons 20) or a month of a season (e.g. (1) Shemu 20).
As the astronomical solar year is longer than the civil year, almost ¼ day, the
Egyptian civil calendar lagged about 1 day in 4 years. Therefore the civil year slowly
cycled backwards through the solar year, growing more and more out of phase with
the seasons. One full cycle, when the civil year again was about in phase with the
seasons, took 1460 (4 x 365) years. For this peculiarity the Egyptian civil calendar is
sometimes called the "wandering calendar".
When the Egyptian civil calendar was launched - we propose in -2781 at Memphis -
it was on the day for the heliacal rising of Sirius at this place and only two days after
midsummer. We propose that the Sirius observation was chosen as a straight for-
ward substitute for the more difficult observation of the summer solstice. For the first
four years the "Sothic date" (day for the heliacal rising of Sirius) was on I Thoth 1.
Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 2 of 8
After four years the Sothic date shifted to I Thoth 2, and so on. This rigorous, non-
astronomical rule was perhaps the great benefit of the civil calendar which allowed a
longterm yearcount for administrative purposes. It also makes that we today can
firmly synchronize the Egyptian civil calendar with our calendar if we only know the
Julian date for the heliacal rising of Sirius in -2781 at Memphis. Modern astronomical
retrocalculations show that this (standard) date was July 16Jul. Read more about the
civil calendar and the heliacal rising of Sirius in ref.1.
Using the Egyptian civil calendar with modern astronomical parameters, we then tried
to synchronize the "days of the Feast of the New Moon" handed down from the
Egyptian New Kingdom with the Julian calendar. This led to our proposal of absolute
accession years for two New Kingdom pharaohs: -1497 for Thutmose III, and -1297
for Rameses II (ref.2). These accession dates comply well with recent radiocarbon
dates (ref.3), but are almost two decades older than the recent consensus.
Rameses II ruled Egypt for 66 years. For such long-lived pharaohs it was custom to
demonstrate after 30 years that they still were fit for office, and after that check they
were enthroned as their own successors. This was done with a lot of pomp and
splendour at a festival called Heb-Sed, or royal jubilee. If the pharaoh lived further,
the jubilees were then repeated with three years intervals. The first day of the growth
season - V Tybi 1, 120 days from New Years day I Thoth 1 (see table 1) - was
regarded as especially suitable to celebrate royal jubilees. As Breasted writes (ref.4a,
§874):
The ceremony of erecting the symbol of Osiris, the curious column, which is
also the symbol of stability, was performed on the morning of the traditional
royal jubilee feast day (first of Tybi).
Rameses II definitely kept this tradition as we know that his 5th and 6th jubilees were
held on V Tybi 1 (ref.4b, §559 and §560). Moreover, as his 5th jubilee was held in his
42nd year, there had been four jubilees before that, most probably the first in his 30th
year and then the 2nd, 3rd and 4th with three years interval. With our proposed
accession year -1297, the 1st jubilee would have been in -1268, the 2nd in -1265, the
3rd in -1262, the 4th in -1259 and the 5th in -1256, always held on V Tybi1. See also
the appendix.
The rock-cut Great Temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia built by Rameses II has been
associated with the first jubilee of the pharaoh (ref.5), as the temple's decorations
appear completed around the 34th year of Rameses II's reign. However, the temple
was most probably commissioned and founded very early in the pharaoh's sole reign
(ref.6), perhaps even earlier while his predecessor Sety I was still alive. The temple
was consecrated to the devine Rameses and aimed at the glorification of the
pharaoh. An intricate lightshow is staged to manifest the king's deification by the Sun-
god himself. This lightshow consists of a part repeated every morning at sunrise, but
also of a seasonal part occurring twice a year at distinct dates. We will have a look
at these dates to see if they have some significance with respect to Rameses II's
jubilees.
Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 3 of 8
Abu Simbel
Figure 1: Front elevation of the Great Temple of Aboosimble Nubia / David Roberts, R.A. 1846
https://lccn.loc.gov/2002718662
The Great Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel in Nubia 230 kilometers southwest of
Aswan was carved out of the rock as a site to celebrate the sun, and in addition
certainly the deified pharaoh himself. The temple facade with its colossal statues
faces about east towards the rising sun, and each morning a phantastic lightshow is
staged at dawn (read a detailed description in ref.7).
The inner parts of the temple, a man-made cave with rich decorations, comprises two
entrance halls forming a long pathway, and the inner sanctuary with statues of the
pharaoh and the three state gods Ptah, Amon and Re Horakhti seated in the back of
the room (figure 2). Twice a year the first rays of the sun enter all the way into this
inner chamber and perform an elaborated lightshow over the seated statues for a
couple of minutes on a few consecutive days. The hierophany culminates on the day
when the position of the rising sun is aligned with the temple axis. On that day the
statues of Amon and Rameses are illuminated together, probably symbolizing the
deification of the king by the Sun-god himself. The statue of Ptah, the god of the
underworld, remains in perpetual darkness.
The exact (Gregorian) dates when the temple axis originally was aligned with the
rising sun were October 19 and February 21, as observed in 1961 (ref.7). This
however is no longer the case, because the whole monument was relocated to a
higher position when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s. Left at its original
place, the temple would have been swallowed by the rising waters of Lake Nasser.
Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 4 of 8
Though the original orientation of the temple was thoroughly restored, today the
climax of the lightshow is said to take place on October 22 and February 22 (ref.8)
due to a completely changed horizon line.
Figure 2: Sanctuary of the Temple of Aboo-Simble Novr 9th 1838 / David Roberts, R.A.
https://lccn.loc.gov/2002717580 From the left: Ptah (god of the underworld, remaining in the dark),
Amon (the sun god), Rameses and Re Horakhti (the sun rising on the horizon).
The temple also featured a small chapel dedicated to Re Horakhti, the sun rising on
the horizon. This chapel was arranged so that a priest could watch the rising sun's
position at winter solstice (December 21/22). At that time of the year the Egyptians
celebrated the important "Feast of the Birth of the Great Ra".
If we analyze the original dates of the seasonal lightshow as observed in 1961, we
find 125 days between October 19 and February 21, and 240 days between February
21 and October 19. The latter time distance is interesting as it consists of 2 x 120
days, an important time span in the Egyptian calendar because 120 days was the
length of one season. At the center between the two seasons is June 21 which is the
Gregorian date for the summer solstice. As far as we can determine, the only
literature acknowledging these circumstances is an article by Robert Bauval (ref.9).
Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 5 of 8
According to Mosalam Shaltout and Juan Antonio Belmonte, who made extensive
investigations in the topographical and astronomical orientation of a vast number of
ancient Egyptian temples, the Great temple at Abu Simbel belongs to the so called
"seasonal sun family of temples", but also to the “solstitial family” which the authors
interpret as a more specialized subgroup of this (ref.10). While the seasonal
lightshow might act as a harbinger of both the growth season (end of October) and
the harvest season (end of February), there is however no feature at the site which
would identify the summer solstice, though this would have been most important to
determine when the flood season (end of June) began. But maybe it was regarded
easier to watch the heliacal rising of Sirius which could be done at any place in
Egypt.
Shaltout et al. regard the Great Temple at Abu Simbel the most eminent example of
the group of apparently solar oriented Egyptian temples. However, they also softly
suggest that the orientation could be connected to important feast days in the civil
calendar, especially around the times when the civil calendar was in phase with the
solar year and the seasons which was the case during Rameses II's reign.
Discussion and Conclusions
When the Egyptian New Year (I Thoth 1) coincided with the summer solstice, the
Civil year was in phase with the seasons according to the conditions when the
calendar was launched. Then the lightshow at Abu Simbel identified the first day of
the growth season (V Tybi 1) exactly 120 days later. This happened to be the
preferred date to celebrate royal jubilees. Does that mean that the Great Temple at
Abu Simbel with its seasonal orientation of the main axis was explicitely
commissioned for the royal jubilee of Rameses II?
Most probably not, for several reasons. The temple was founded about 30 years
before Rameses II's first jubilee, early in his reign as sole pharaoh or perhaps already
during his father's liftime (ref.6). Who could imagine that Rameses would live and
reign for 30 more years and plan for that possibility? A much more probable
explanation for the special orientation of the temple is its astronomical function as a
harbinger of the commencement of the growth and harvest seasons. Moreover, Abu
Simbel is not the only example for this special orientation around that time.There are
two temples of Aton at Tell el Amarna (18th dynasty), one temple of Sety I at
Memphis and one temple of Rameses II at Heliopolis with a similar orientation of the
main axis towards the rising sun (ref.10). We do not doubt that the ancient builders
were well aware of the solar year and that they were able to align their buildings with
high precision to the sun - at least from the times of the New Kingdom.
But while the seasonal lightshow appears exactly 120 days after midsummer every
year, it would have the Egyptian civil date V Tybi 1 only for four years in an about
1460 years period due to the "wandering calendar" (see the introduction). The
question is: in which four years period fell October 19Greg on V Tybi 1, and June
21Greg on I Thoth 1 in the 13th century BC?
Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 6 of 8
To answer this question we first have to convert the Gregorian dates to Julian dates.
For the whole 13th century BC October 19Greg fell on October 30Jul, and June 21Greg
fell on July 2Jul (ref.11). Between July 2Jul and July 16Jul (the standard Sothic date)
are 14 days, that means that, when July 2 corresponded to I Thoth 1, July 16
corresponded to I Thoth 15. This is true for the period -1265 to -1262 which include
the 33rd to 36th years of Rameses II in our revised chronology (see the appendix). So
during the 2nd and 3rd jubilees of the pharaoh the climax of the lightshow would have
occurred on V Tybi 1. And also in -1268 - the year of his 1st jubilee - the climax of the
lightshow was just one day off.
Of course the pharaoh could not resist the temptation to politically exploit this
coincidence of his first few royal jubilees with the "correct" nominal civil date for the
light event, even if this was mere number mysticism. When his reign got close to 30
years, he probably ordered some temple decorations to be re-carved to include his
own deified image. There are indications that the temple's decorations were
sculptered in several stages (ref.5). Then, on the day of the royal jubilee, the blessing
of the pharaoh by the Sun-god himself became evident to every beholder.
On the other hand, this coincidence which was so important politically makes us
confident that we indeed have identified the absolute (astronomical) year for
Rameses II's accession (-1297) in our previous article (ref.2).
Figure 3: Excavated temples of Aboosimble--Nubia / David Roberts, R.A. 1846
https://lccn.loc.gov/2002718695
Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 7 of 8
References
1. Ossowski Larsson P. & Larsson L.Å. (2020). Towards an absolute scientific date for the Egyptian
New Kingdom, part 1: the Egyptian Civil Calendar revisited. ResearchGate DOI:
10.13140/RG.2.2.33028.07049.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338543618_Towards_an_absolute_scientific_date_for_the_
Egyptian_New_Kingdom_part_1_the_Egyptian_Civil_Calendar_revisited
2. Ossowski Larsson P. & Larsson L.Å. (2020). Towards an absolute scientific date for the Egyptian
New Kingdom, part 2: the New Moon dates. ResearchGate DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.12339.66088
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341279875_Towards_an_absolute_scientific_date_for_the_
Egyptian_New_Kingdom_part_2_the_New_Moon_dates
3. Bronk-Ramsey, C., Dee, M.W., Rowland, J.M., Higham, T.F.G., Harris, S.A., Brock, F., Quiles, A.,
Wild, E.M., Marcus, E.S. and Shortland, A.J. 2010. Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic
Egypt. Science 328: 1554 –1557. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44683433_Radiocarbon-
Based_Chronology_for_Dynastic_Egypt
4. Breasted J.H. Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents (Chicago: 1906),
a. Part II. http://etana.org/sites/default/files/coretexts/14897.pdf
b. Part III. http://etana.org/sites/default/files/coretexts/14898.pdf
5. Christophe, L.A. Abou-Simbel et l'epopee de sa decouverte. Bruxelles 1965.
6. Spalinger, A.J. (1980). Historical observations on the military reliefs of Abu Simbel and other
Ramesside temples in Numbia. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 66, p.83-99.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/3856392?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
7. Van der Haagen, J.H., Rameses' mysterious encounter at dawn. UNESCO Courier, Oct. 1962 p.10.
http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0006/000636/063659eo.pdf
8. Shaltout, M. and Belmonte, J.A. 2005. On the orientation of ancient Egyptian temples: (1) Upper
Egypt and Lower Nubia. Journal for the history of astronomy, xxxvi, 273–98.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234487564_On_the_Orientation_of_Ancient_Egyptian_Tem
ples_1_Upper_Egypt_and_Lower_Nubia
9. Bauval, R. (2008). The sunrise of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.
https://www.academia.edu/11603171/THE_SUNRISE_OF_RAMSES_II_AT_ABU_SIMBEL
10. Shaltout M., Belmonte J.A. and Fekri M. (2007). On the orientation of ancient Egyptian temples:
(3) Key points in Lower Egypt and Siwa Oasis. Part I Journal for the history of astronomy xxxviii, 141–
160. Part II Journal for the history of astronomy xxxviii, 413-442.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/252319923_On_the_Orientation_of_Ancient_Egyptian_Tem
ples_3_Key_Points_in_Lower_Egypt_and_Siwa_Oasis_Part_I
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11. Fourmilab's Calendar converter, by John Walker (Sept. 2015).
https://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/calendar
Appendix: Civil dates related to the seasonal lightshow at Abu Simbel during
the reign of Rameses II
The direct assignation of possible Sothic dates in the Egyptian civil calendar to the corresponding four-
years period in the Julian calendar (youngest to oldest) is taken from a schematic calendar (i.e.
without observation of Sirius), see Appendix B in ref.1. The table covers most of Rameses II's reign
Dating New Kingdom - Abu Simbel, draft, 2020-08-11, Page 8 of 8
based on our suggested accession date -1297 (ref.2). For all years the civil dates for the summer
solstice and the climax of the autumnal and vernal illuminations at Abu Simbel are given. The years for
Rameses' first five royal jubilees are highlighted.
Year
CE
Sothic date
(July 16
Jul
)
(July 2
Jul
)
Autumnal illu
mi
-
nation (October 30
Jul
)
Vernal illumi
-
nation (March 4
Jul
)
Kings of Egypt
-1234
I Thoth 22 I Thoth 8 V Tybi 8 IX Pachons 13
Rameses II
-1235 Rameses II
-1236 Rameses II
-1237 Rameses II
-1238
I Thoth 21 I Thoth 7 V Tybi 7 IX Pachons 12
Rameses II 60
-1239 Rameses II
-1240 Rameses II
-1241 Rameses II
-1242
I Thoth 20 I Thoth 6 V Tybi 6 IX Pachons 11
Rameses II
-1243 Rameses II
-1244 Rameses II
-1245 Rameses II
-1246
I Thoth 19 I Thoth 5 V Tybi 5 IX Pachons 10
Rameses II
-1247 Rameses II
-1248 Rameses II 50
-1249 Rameses II
-1250
I Thoth 18 I Thoth 4 V Tybi 4 IX Pachons 9
Rameses II
-1251 Rameses II
-1252 Rameses II
-1253 Rameses II
-1254
I Thoth 17 I Thoth 3 V Tybi 3 IX Pachons 8
Rameses II
-1255 Rameses II
-1256 Rameses II 42
-1257 Rameses II 41
-1258
I Thoth 16 I Thoth 2 V Tybi 2 IX Pachons 7
Rameses II 40
-1259 Rameses II 39
-1260 Rameses II 38
-1261 Rameses II 37
-1262
I Thoth 15 I Thoth 1 V Tybi 1 IX Pachons 6
Rameses II 36
-1263 Rameses II 35
-1264 Rameses II 34
-1265 Rameses II 33
-1266
I Thoth 14 Hryw Rnpt 5 IV Choiak 30 IX Pachons 5
Rameses II 32
-1267 Rameses II 31
-1268 Rameses II 30
-1269 Rameses II
-1270
I Thoth 13 Hryw Rnpt 4 IV Choiak 29 IX Pachons 4
Rameses II
-1271 Rameses II
-1272 Rameses II
-1273 Rameses II
-1274
I Thoth 12 Hryw Rnpt 3 IV Choiak 28 IX Pachons 3
Rameses II
-1275 Rameses II
-1276 Rameses II
-1277 Rameses II
-1278
I Thoth 11 Hryw Rnpt 2 IV Choiak 27 IX Pachons 2
Rameses II 20
-1279 Rameses II
-1280 Rameses II
-1281 Rameses II
-1282
I Thoth 10 Hryw Rnpt 1 IV Choiak 26 IX Pachons 1
Rameses II
-1283 Rameses II
-1284 Rameses II
-1285 Rameses II
-1286
I Thoth 9 XII Mesore 30 IV Choiak 25 VIII Pharmuthi 30
Rameses II
-1287 Rameses II
-1288 Rameses II 10
-1289 Rameses II
-1290
I Thoth 8 XII Mesore 29 IV Choiak 24 VIII Pharmuthi 29
Rameses II
-1291 Rameses II
-1292 Rameses II
-1293 Rameses II
-1294
I Thoth 7 XII Mesore 28 IV Choiak 23 VIII Pharmuthi 28
Rameses II
-1295 Rameses II
-1296 Rameses II
-1297 Sety I/Rameses II 1
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Preprint
Full-text available
Using modern astronomical parameters and based on handed-down dates for "days of the Feast of the New Moon", we propose the exact accession years for two Egyptian New Kingdom pharaohs:-1497 for Thutmose III, and-1297 for Rameses II. These accession dates comply well with recent radiocarbon dates. We also include some remarks about the eight years adjustment of the radiocarbon calibration curve (Intcal) which we have applied in our Egyptological studies. As it appears just now, this eventuality seems to be at least detected-but not yet acknowledged-in recent academic research.
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Full-text available
In this article we take a closer look at the Egyptian civil calendar and its primary sources to see if this provides useful understanding for the Egyptian chronology. Scientific dates for e.g. the Egyptian New Kingdom do still not comply fully with the historical consensus chronology in force. This might be due to the lingering use of outdated scientific parameters, perhaps because of historical bias at Egypt's transition from sovereign kingdom to Roman province.
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The historical chronologies for dynastic Egypt are based on reign lengths inferred from written and archaeological evidence. These floating chronologies are linked to the absolute calendar by a few ancient astronomical observations, which remain a source of debate. We used 211 radiocarbon measurements made on samples from short-lived plants, together with a Bayesian model incorporating historical information on reign lengths, to produce a chronology for dynastic Egypt. A small offset (19 radiocarbon years older) in radiocarbon levels in the Nile Valley is probably a growing-season effect. Our radiocarbon data indicate that the New Kingdom started between 1570 and 1544 B.C.E., and the reign of Djoser in the Old Kingdom started between 2691 and 2625 B.C.E.; both cases are earlier than some previous historical estimates.
Rameses' mysterious encounter at dawn. UNESCO Courier
  • J H Van Der Haagen
Van der Haagen, J.H., Rameses' mysterious encounter at dawn. UNESCO Courier, Oct. 1962 p.10. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0006/000636/063659eo.pdf