Friday, June 3, 2011

Page 16: Temple Origins

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The beginnings of the ancient Egyptian temples are as shrouded in mystery as any aspect of that civilization's ancient origins. Working backwards from the historical period when temples dotted the Egyptian landscape and were present in virtually every town, we arrive eventually at the proto-historical and pre-historical periods when it becomes far more difficult to label the remains of architectural structures. In this formative period of ancient Egyptian society it is not always possible to tell which structures had sacred functions, or were regarded as sacred space, and which did not. We are also faced with questions regarding the nature of the sacred itself, such as what did sacred mean to this most ancient people and at what point did specific physical areas assume sacred status. We will probably never know  the precise answers to these questions, but archaeologists have recovered evidence which at least suggests the path along which the earliest temples may have developed.
The Stone circle at Nabata Playa in southern Egypt is the
earliest astronomically aligned site (possibly with cultic
significance) ever discoveed. It is between 6000 and 6500
years old. Click to enlarge.

Nebata Playa: standing stones

Ancient remains only discovered in the Sahara Desert about 100 km (60 miles) west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt may represent the earliest existing evidence for religious structures in Africa. They may also provide a possible starting point for the evolution of what would become, in time, the ancient Egyptian temples.

The ancient site now known as Nabta Playa is between 6000 and 6500 years old and was discovered by an international archaeological team led by Professor Fred Wendorf of the Southern Methodist University of Dallas, Texas. The site stands on the shores of what was once an ancient lake which existed in the now parched landscape. It contains standing stones as much as 2.75 m (9 ft) high, dragged to the site from a mile or more away. Several of the stones are lined up in an east-west direction and appear to have been used as vertical sighting stones aligned with the sun at the summer solstice. During summer and autumn, other stones would have been partially submerged in the lake and may have served as markers for the onset of the rainy season.

While the carefully arranged stones of this site seems to have served as a simple calendric observatory, Nabta Playa is also believed to have had symbolic and ceremonial functions.. It may thus have integrated the temporal cycles of the sun with the recurrent cycles of the life-giving waters as a kind of cosmic clock tied to the underlying principles of life and death. As such, the site might even be called a proto-temple, and while the people of this region may or may not have been among the ancestors of the ancient Egyptians of pharaonic times, these same factors of life and death, water and the sun certainly lie at the symbolic core of all later Egyptian temples.

It is impossible to know exactly what the religious functions of the stones of Nabta were, or if they represent a type of religion which predated the worship of tribal fetishes and Egyptian gods which is evident in later predynastic Egyptian history. But the climate of North Africa was changing during the period in which the Nabtans began carefully to follow the cosmic cycles and as the region of the Sahara became increasingly dry, various nomadic