How a solar eclipse rewrote the history of Ancient Egypt

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Nov 4, 2017, 6:31 PM EDT

Egyptian pharaohs have given up their age through cryptic hieroglyphs in their tombs or carbon dating of their mummies, but scientists were recently able to unearth when one king of the Nile ruled by examining an ancient Biblical passage that revealed the timing of a solar eclipse.

The Old Testament is as much of historical document as it is a religious text. The passage in question tells of Joshua leading the Isrealites into Canaan and then sending a mysterious prayer to the heavens:

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”

His prayer was apparently answered:

“And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.” (Joshua 10:12–13)

Astrophysicist Graeme Waddington and Professor Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University believe the meaning of these seemingly mystical words is that Joshua witnessed a solar eclipse. While the literal translation may imply that the sun and moon ceased to move (which would effectively blow apart everything we know about our star and satellite), Waddington and Humphreys shed light on how an alternate interpretation could mean they ceased to shine.

“As a solar eclipse can only occur when the Moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun, the Moon itself is not visible and so it is not reflecting sunlight to the Earth,” they said in a paper recently published in the journal Astronomy and Geophysics. “like the Sun, it has “stopped shining” as well.  

When linguist Robert Wilson suspected this a century ago, it was impossible to delve any deeper because the calculations required then would have been enough to give anyone a migraine—but his translation is very telling:

“Be eclipsed, O sun, in Gibeon,

And the moon in the valley of Aijalon!

And the sun was eclipsed and the moon turned back, while the nation was avenged on its enemies.”


An example of an ancient Egyptian stele.

Previously, researchers were not convinced that there was also a solar eclipse at that time because they only counted total eclipses as being possible candidates for what Joshua saw, and none aligned with the time he supposedly witnessed this miracle. But. Joshua could have been marveling over an annular eclipse, which occurs when the moon is too far away from the sun to block it out and send Earth into total darkness when it passes. This results in a glowing cosmic ring that could have been seen as something paranormal several thousand years ago on October 30, 1207 B.C.

The Merneptah Stele reaches through time and space to tell us that Merneptah, son of none other than Rameses II aka Rameses the Great, was the pharaoh who ruled over Egypt as Joshua and the Isrealites crossed over into the land of milk and honey otherwise known as Canaan. Steles are stone slabs used as commemorative monuments in the ancient world. Merneptah’s is inscribed with hieroglyphs that say it was carved five years into his reign and describe the pharaoh’s army defeating the Isrealites in Canaan during the same period. That was around—you guessed it—1207 B.C.

Meaning, this new chronology would rewrite history to shift the first year of Merneptah’s reign to about 1210 B.C and the almost eternal reign of Rameses the Great from 1276-1210 B.C. His mummy certainly doesn’t betray his age.

If your mind isn’t completely blown yet, this is just one example of the fascinating things you find out when astronomy and history collide.

(via Astronomy and Geophysics)

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