Sparavigna, A. (2018). On the orientation of the Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor. PHILICA.COM Article number 1236.
On the orientation of the Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor

Amelia Carolina Sparavignaunconfirmed user (Department of Applied Science and Technology, Politecnico di Torino)

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The Avenue of Sphinxes is a 2.8 kilometres long Avenue linking Luxor and Karnak temples. This avenue was the processional road of the Opet Festival from the Karnak temple to the Luxor temple and the Nile. For this Avenue, some astronomical orientations had been proposed. After the examination of them, we consider also an orientation according to a geometrical planning of the site, where the Avenue is the diagonal of a square, a sort of best-fit straight line in a landscape constrained by the presence of temples, precincts and other processional avenues. The direction of the rising of Vega was probably used as reference direction for the surveying.

The Avenue of Sphinxes is a 2.8 kilometres long Avenue linking Luxor and Karnak temples. This avenue was a processional road built by King Amenhotep III (Amenhotep the Magnificent, the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, who ruled Egypt from about 1390 to 1350 BC) and took its final form under Nectanebo I in 400 BCE ( Also the Queen Hatshepsut was involved in the evolution of this architectural complex. As recorded on her red chapel in Karnak temple, she built six chapels dedicated to the god Amun-Re on the route of this Avenue during her reign [1]. In the past, a large part of the Avenue was covered by silt and buildings. Restoration started around 2004 ( [2]. We can see the evolution of this restoration by means of the time series of satellite images in Google Earth (Figure 1).

Along the Avenue, it moved the procession of the Opet Festival. The statues of the deities of the Theban Triad, that is Amun, Mut and their child Khonsu, hidden from sight in a sacred barque, were escorted from the temple of Amun in Karnak, to the temple complex of Luxor. This complex is composed by the temples of Amenhotep III and Ramses II. The Amenhotep III Temple was the cult temple of the goddess Mut [3]. As explained in [3], originally a Middle kingdom temple existed on this site but it was substantially rebuilt by Amenhotep.

The Amenhotep temple was extensively surveyed by Schwaller de Lubicz in 1937, "who suggested many subtle aspects woven into its design". Ramses II "added an extension to the temple on a slightly different azimuth, … The Ramses additions are aligned with an avenue of sphinxes which runs directly through to the Karnak temple, … Effectively this extension skews the axis of the temple" [3]. The azimuths of these temple - Furlong notes - could only be aligned to the stars. At the latitude of Luxor, alignments along sunrise/sunset or moonrise/moonset are not possible. Furlong continues telling that, in the case of Amenhotep’s temple, there are no 1st magnitude stars or constellations that fit construction dates, "whether looking towards the north or south". In his work, De Lubicz suggested the rising of Vega, but for this alignment, the temple construction has to be dated back to around 3600 BC, "a very improbable date”. The best-fit offered by an astronomical orientation is that according to the setting of the Southern-Cross. It “broadly fits the southern azimuth but this would have been too high in the sky to produce an exact alignment" [3]. As concluded by Furlong, it seems that it was the Nile that forced the orientation, which is close and runs parallel to the axis of the temple.



Figure 1: The Avenue of the Sphinxes in a satellite image of Google Earth.


Figure 2: The Ramses II Temple in Google Earth.

As we can see from the Figure 2, the Ramses II temple is strongly linked with the Sphinx Avenue. And the Avenue does align with the rising of star Vega [3]. "However it is also aligned to the sanctuary of Amun in the Karnak temple. Without clear textual evidence it is impossible to say what the intentions of the original architect might have been in this alignment" [3] (Furlong gives an azimuth of 44°36' for the rising of Vega around 1290 BC, the assumed construction date of the temple).  The avenue runs in a straight line from the Ramses II temple to the south-west corner of the boundary wall of the Karnak temple. Then, the avenue joins a secondary avenue of sphinxes from the Mut temple. "At first glance the sighting to Vega suggests this had to be a primary element in the alignment of the avenue. However, by hypothetically projecting the avenue a little further, one finds that it is exactly aligned to the main sanctuary of Amun-Ra at the heart of the Karnak complex". Furlong describes this alignment in the following manner: a "bow shot from the sanctuary roof in Karnak, would exactly follow the avenue of sphinxes, through the entrance gateway of Ramses temple to the middle of the its far end". For what concerns the Karnak temple, its alignment along the sunrise on winter solstice is well-known (see [4] and references therein).

We see that both Schwaller de Lubicz and David Furlong have mentioned the alignment along the direction of the rising Vega. Let us use Stellarium, an open source free software planetarium, that we considered for simulating the astronomical landscapes of the ancient stargazers and also for more recent astronomical events [5-9]. We can simulate for 1290 BC at Luxor. In the Figure 3, we see Vega, the direction of the rising of the star is that of the Avenue; therefore, we can imagine in the Figure the Karnak temple below the star. Using Stellarium, we can see that also Arcturus and the Cassiopeia constellation (Figure 4) are rising in the range from 40° to 50° degrees.


Figure 3: Rising of Vega, simulated 1290 BC, Luxor. If we simulate for a year during the reign of Amenhotep the Magnificent, we cannot see any appreciable difference. The blue line represents the astronomical horizon.


Figure 4: Rising of the Cassiopeia constellation, 1290 BC, Luxor.

Let us turn the view towards the southern temple. We can see that in the range from 40 to 50 degrees (from West), we had the setting of the Crux, the Southern-Cross (Figure 5).


Figure 5: Setting of the Crux, 1290 BC, Luxor.

Also in [10], we find the astronomical orientation of the Avenue considered. Magli tells that in 2014 he proposed the Avenue as having an inter-cardinal azimuth, that is, of 45 degrees (Magli’s data) [10,11]. In [10], it is told that the choice of an inter-cardinal orientation is "hardly random, and its most likely explanation is astronomical"; moreover, it is present in Egypt since the Early Dynastic times [12,13]. Then Magli continues giving references to the stars. "From the astronomical point of view," the inter-cardinal orientation corresponded to the Milky Way,” in a band 12 degrees wide, “from approximatively 3200–1100 BC. Close to 45 degrees at rising, we can see "the “northern branch” of the Milky Way with Cygnus, (but also Arcturus and Vega)" [10]. To the other end, we had the Southern Cross-Centaurus group. Considering the Milky Way, Magli argues that the "orientation of the avenue was therefore deliberate and highly symbolic".

Let us conclude our discussion, considering again Ref.3. Furlong notes that, for the Avenue of Sphinxes and in other cases, we have to face the following problem in assessing star alignments: "What takes precedence? Was the alignment to Vega a fortuitous co-incidence or was it deliberate? These are insuperable questions and may never be satisfactorily answered, even if it is possible to establish the precise date when the avenue … was first laid down". The same is true for an inter-cardinal orientation. Is it linked to the stars of the Milky Way? Or was dictated by a geometrical approach, to have the Avenue as the diagonal of a square?

For the Avenue of Sphinxes, let us imagine the Furlong's bow shot from Karnak to Luxor. Let us consider a planning as in the Figure 6. We have two points: A is the end of the Avenue at Ramses II court and B is the point where the Avenue meets another processional avenue. Drawing two perpendicular lines we have point C. If we use the satellite image, the angle of the Avenue is of 45,5 degrees (the complementary angle is the azimuth of the rising of Vega, around 1300 BC), AC is 280 pixels long and BC is 285 pixels long. AC is 400 pixels long. Actually, AC is the diagonal of a square. The persons that planned the Avenue were well aware of the involved geometric figure, and it is possible that decided it after a surveying of the local environment and related constraints. They were probably the architects of Amenhotep the Magnificent.

The court of Amenhotep “was luxurious beyond imagination, with the wealth of the Mediterranean world flowing into Egypt’s coffers” [14]. The architects who worked for him had the possibility to live in a privileged environment where, besides the luxury and exotic goods, also knowledge and science were flowing, from the Mediterranean and Eastern countries into the cultural elite of Egypt. We know one of these architects. He was Kha, a high-ranking official, whose tomb was found by the Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli in February 1906 [15] in Deir el Medina. This was a village located on the west bank of the Nile, across the river from Luxor, that was inhabited by people working for the two great royal necropolises of the Valleys of the Queens and of the Kings. Kha, his wife Merit and all the objects found in the tomb are today in the Egyptian Museum of Torino. Among the remarkable objects that we have in Torino [16,17], one is showing that the use of compass and straightedge was common in the Egypt of the time [18]. Therefore, it is possible that the architect who planned the Avenue used, after a proper land surveying, a layout based on a geometric compass and straightedge construction, to have a line, the diagonal of the square, as a sort of best-fit of the data concerning the layout of the Avenue. These data consisted in the presence of other temples, precincts and other avenues, which were constraining the line. In this framework, the direction of the rising of Vega was the proper reference for the surveying.




 Figure 6: The geometry of the square.

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Sparavigna, A. (2018). On the orientation of the Avenue of Sphinxes in Luxor. PHILICA.COM Article number 1236.

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