OF ARCHAEOASTRONOMY AND EQUINOXES: Thoughts Inspired by Petra
ARCHAEOASTRONOMY: “The anthropology of astronomy,” or the investigation of how ancient cultures wove astronomical knowledge into their mythologies and practices.
This is a term I have just learned in the past few days, following my recent visit to Petra in Jordan. I went to Petra with only a minimal amount of research on the history of the place, but with the understanding that this was an important cultural and archaeological site. In fact, this legacy of the Nabataen civilization is now named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
Essentially, in its heyday, Petra was a robust trading center the size of Manhattan. It served as a crossroads for traders especially of frankincense and myrrh, and because many cultures intersected here, the architecture of Petra reflects a synthesis of Greek, Roman, Syrian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian styles. Most of the buildings in Petra are temples or tombs, which are not really constructed, but rather carved out of the cliffs. Thus, the Nabataen architecture must have been dictated in many ways by the rocks and mountainous structures that already existed there.
Our Petra trip happened to be a day before the autumnal equinox, so I was especially interested in the intertwining of death and life here: the city is full of tombs on display, carved everywhere into the mountains, yet it was also once a bustling city full of life. This balance reminded me of the equinox’s balance of night and day.
BUILDING WITH THE SKY IN MIND
But what really captures my attention about Petra is its similarity to other ancient advanced civilizations who had a keen understanding not only of elements and natural resources such as earth, stone, and water, but also of astronomy and celestial events.
So many of our ancient, majestic, and technologically advanced sites around the Earth seem to indicate a close relationship with astronomical knowledge.
In Machu Picchu, the Incans worshipped the sun and "specialists say that the Intihuatana [stone] was an astronomical clock or some sort of calendar...The sun almost stands at the pillar at midday on March 21st and September 21st, when the equinoxes occur. Then, no shadow is cast at all."
The three Giza Pyramids, according to some sources, “simulate the stars Delta Orionis [Mintaka], Epsilon [Alnilam], and Zeta [Alnitak] that comprise The Orion Belt,” and “the Sphinx, which originally may have fully resembled a lion, would have been looking directly due east at it’s celestial counterpart as it rose at dawn of the vernal equinox in 10,450 BC.” Furthermore, J. Donald Fernie notes that “the eastern side of the Great Pyramid points only three arcminutes away from a true north–south line, and other pyramids in the group are not much worse. This makes it virtually certain that some astronomical method was used to establish the local meridian.”
- At Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan, where the advanced Harappan Civilization dwelled, there are certain archaeological artifacts discovered that show a connection to astronomy. According to an article in the Astronomical Society of India, the artifact seal numbered 420 “represents four constellations corresponding to the four cardinal points of vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, and winter solstice…and the seal 430 represents the configuration of sun, moon, and five planters on feb. 7 3104 BCJ, which corresponds to the so called beginning of the astronomical 'Kaliyuga.'"
At Carnac, France there are thousands of “stone-circles, alignments, dolmens, menhirs, passage-mounds and tumuli.” Sources indicate that Carnac is located at the "unique latitude on the Earth at which the solstice sun, both summer and winter, form a perfect Pythagorean triangle relative to the parallel of latitude, that is to the east-west, equinoxial axis of the site. In turn, this 3:4:5 triangle is the first of the Pythagorean triangular set and is expressed in the dimensions of the Crucuno monument.”
- Regarding Tiwanaku, the ancient ruins in Bolivia, Claudio Zorrospin says that “the famous Gateway of the Sun is precisely aligned to the solar events around 15,000 BC, corroborating the [calculations of where we have determined the solar events occurred].”
And the list could go on!
PETRA’S ASTRONOMICAL ARCHITECTURE
Similarly to these other ancient civilizations, there is evidence that the Nabataens built with celestial events in mind.
According to, National Geographic writer Christine Dell'Amore, many of Petra’s most important buildings seem to align with the sun during events such as solstices or equinoxes. For example, during the winter solstice, the setting sun creates a dramatic show of light and shadow exactly on the podium inside the Monastery. This phenomena “manifests only a week before and after the solstice,” rendering plausible the theory that the alignment is purposeful.
Furthermore, according to a study by J.A Belmonte and A.C. Gonzales-Garcia from Instituto de Astrofisica de Canaris (results published in the Nexus Network Journal), just at this moment when the podium/altar is illuminated, “the silhouette of the mountain opposite draws the head of a lion, a sacred animal.” It is believed that in Petra, the unworked blocks of stone represent their most important deity, Dushara. His symbolic animal is the bull. One of the main goddesses of the Nabataens was Al-Uzza or Al-lat, whose symbolic animal is the lion. Thus, there seems to be a celestial connection with the podium (probably dedicated to Dushara) and the lion silhouette symbolizing Al-lat.
From the same study, “Mathematical calculations also show an astronomical plan for Urn Tomb, where king Malichus II is thought to be buried. Its main gate is centered with its environment according to the equinox sunset...and the solar rays during the solstices establish the two interior corners of the building.” Belmonte believes this was an attempt to “convert the hall of the Urn Tomb into a type of time-keeping device."
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Ancient civilizations took celestial events and astronomical knowledge so seriously that it affected their lives on a deep religious and architectural level. These civilizations also happened to be extremely and perhaps inexplicably technologically advanced, with great knowledge of building infrastructure and hydraulic engineering. Don’t worry, I’m not about to throw in a reference here to the Ancient Aliens series from the History Channel (oh wait, I guess I just did)...
My larger point is that I think it is still important for societies to pay attention to celestial events and allow our lives to naturally align with them. We can observe the patterns, just as the ancient civilizations did, and perhaps create a kind of harmony with them. It doesn’t even have to be huge scale awareness with buildings and architecture, but just simply awareness and honoring the cycles.
As I may have mentioned before, I believe the relationship between the largest scale frontier and the tiniest scale frontier are inextricably intertwined. One may consider the largest scale frontier to be outer space/the cosmos/the multiverse, and the tiniest scale frontier to be our “individual” selves, our cells, our atoms, down to string theory. And the mind and consciousness fit in here somewhere. In some ways, it makes sense that the rate of expansion of understanding of outer space/universe/multiverse is equal to the rate of expansion of understanding of consciousness and what “reality” could mean for us little humans.
Anyway, in the spirit of the ancient civilizations, let us draw our gaze upwards, towards the sky and all that is “out there,” and also inwards, towards that equal space of vastness in which we can reflect and learn.
A final note: isn’t it interesting that many holidays from different religions and philosophies tend to fall together? Around this autumnal equinox we have:
-Mabon for the Wiccans & Pagans
-Higan for the Japanese
-Moon Festival/Mid-Autumn Festival in China
-Michaelmas for the Christians
-The Chumash Native Americans celebrate their Hutash sun ceremony
-And incidentally, this year Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha fell on exactly the same day…
It’s quite a synthesis! And why not embrace this synthesis of cultures, just as the Nabataens did with their architecture, rather than argue about which reason for reflection or celebration is the “right” one?