More and more, we are discovering the extent to which ancient cultures all over the world possessed remarkable knowledge of astronomy, architecture and engineering. We know they possessed this knowledge because it is immortalized in stone.
For agricultural civilizations from Africa and the Middle East to Europe, Asia, and the Americas, timely marking the seasons to facilitate planting and harvests was a matter of survival. Not surprisingly then, the equinoxes and solstices became important occasions associated with sustaining, renewing, and celebrating life.
Tracking the equinoxes and solstices can be relatively simple – you can even do it by hammering a straight stake into the ground and accurately recording the movements of its shadow hour by hour and day by day over the course of a year. Nevertheless, the ancients went to staggering lengths to mark the equinoxes and solstices in the most elaborate and beautiful ways imaginable. The good news is we can still marvel at their work today.
The three small pyramids in front of the Great Pyramid serve as a simple solar calendar. On the winter solstice, the shadows of all three appear on the Great Pyramid’s eastern face, and the shadow of the southernmost small pyramid is exactly flush with the Great Pyramid’s southeast corner. On the spring and autumn equinox, only two shadows appear, and the shadow of the middle small pyramid is exactly flush with the corner. On the summer solstice, only the shadow of the northernmost small pyramid appears, and yes – it is exactly flush with the corner.
On the mornings of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, visitors gather in front of the western entrance gate of Cambodia’s vast Angkor Wat temple. The sun rises from behind the temple until it is centered perfectly atop the 250-foot-high pinnacle of the central tower, the most sacred point. This phenomenon occurs only on the dates of the equinoxes.
One of the most imaginative spectacles in the world takes place at the ancient Maya site of Chichen Itza, on the stepped Pyramid of Kukulkán during sunset on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Kukulkán is the Maya equivalent to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztecs’ legendary Plumed Serpent deity. As the sun nears the horizon, a sliver of golden light suddenly hits the top of the pyramid and appears to expand and slowly slither its way down the pyramid’s shadowy side until it illuminates a stone serpent’s head at the very bottom of the steps.
The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Hindu temple near the southern tip of India is considered by many to be the richest temple in the world, with vaults said to contain as much as $1 trillion in treasure. The temple’s most striking feature is its monumental entrance tower, 100 feet in height and covered with ornate sculptures. The center of the tower contains five window-like openings. The tower blocks the view of the setting sun on every day of the year except the vernal and autumnal equinox. On those days, and only on those days, the temple’s perfect east-west alignment allows the sun to shine brilliantly through each window in sequence.
EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA
At prehistoric sites like Stonehenge and the much older Goseck Circle and Pömmelte Ring Sanctuary in Germany, the builders created openings in the circular enclosures to permit sunlight to reach the center only on solstice days. Likewise, many European and North American churches were constructed at precise orientations so that the sun would shine from the building entrance straight through to the sanctuary altar only on solstice days or the church’s patron saint’s day.