Eclipse over Amarna: Beginning of the End for Akhenaten in his City of Light?
The ancient Egyptian civilization was wedded to the Sun, and yet, extant records only ever mention the solar aspect as the giver and sustainer of life that shines brightly for all eternity. Sterling astronomers, the Egyptians, unlike the Mayans, never left us details of the times when the sun-god Ra briefly vanished from the sky at daytime. The lack of chronicles of eclipses by the inveterate and meticulous “sky watchers” is utterly baffling. But why would a rare occurrence such as a solar eclipse fail to find mention in their religious and cosmological texts? One of the probable reasons could be the innate fear that ancient peoples across the world had of celestial phenomenon which they could not explain; and hence, considered it an ill-omen or harbinger of evil.
The beautifully sculpted face of one of Akhenaten’s colossal statues that was purposefully wrecked, when the shrines and sanctuaries he had dedicated to the Aten were dismantled during the Amarna backlash. Karnak Temple. Luxor Museum. Credit: Chris Naunton
Early records of eclipses and of eclipse predictions survive from the late Babylonian period (c. 750 BC) and, later, from the Greek and Roman period, continuing into the Islamic Near East and India; the earliest Chinese records are older, dating from the middle of the Second millennium BC. However, it would be entirely premature to draw conclusions that (what appear to be) descriptions of eclipses were not registered by the Egyptians—only, we have not been able to conclusively identify it as such.
The Ipuwer Papyrus from the late Twelfth Dynasty contains the ‘Admonitions of Ipuwer’ an incomplete literary work. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. ( public domain )
Beholding Darkness by Day
The ‘Admonitions of Ipuwer’, an incomplete literary work, is originally dated to the late Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1991-1803 BC). Known popularly today as the Ipuwer Papyrus – officially Papyrus Leiden I 344 recto, translated from Hieratic by Sir Alan Gardiner in 1909 – the extant copy was produced during the Nineteenth Dynasty; and it contains a passage which has for long been hotly debated. Some scholars believe that a striking parallel of the Biblical account of the Ninth Plague of Egypt, darkness, can be found in this verse: 'The land is without light' (IP 9:11). Sure enough, Exodus 10:22–23 reads: '... and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt'. Was this perhaps a reference to a total solar eclipse?
Another noteworthy example is the text inscribed on the votive stela of the scribe Amennakht (Twentieth Dynasty), now at the British Museum. A resident of Set Ma’at ("Place of Truth" – modern-day Deir el-Medina), he makes the following plea to the goddess Meretseger to rid him of - what is widely considered - a physical affliction: ‘Praises for your spirit, Meretseger, Mistress of the West, by the scribe of the Place of Truth (Set-Ma'at), Amennakht true-of-voice: 'Be praised in peace, O Lady of the West, Mistress who turns herself to grace! You made me see darkness in the day.’
In this ostracon from Deir el-Medina, goddess Meretseger - meaning "she who loves silence" - is depicted in the form of a coiled serpent. She was the guardian of the pyramid-shaped mountain over the Valley of the Kings. Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy. Credit : Leena Pekkalainen
A workman called Neferabu, again from Deir el-Medina, apparently lost his sight because of his sins; he erected two stelae, one to goddess Meretseger and another to Ptah, begging for forgiveness. ‘I am a man who swore falsely by Ptah, Lord of Truth, and he caused (me) to behold darkness by day.’ Further, the Stele of Huy, Viceroy of Kush (Amenhotep called Huy) states: 'Be propitious, my Lord Tutankhamun: Day after day, I see a darkness that you provoke.' It appears to readers that these examples constitute prayers and supplications in figurative terms that were addressed to both deities and kings; without actual references to events in the sky.
Unraveling Celestial Secrets
However, recent studies have led Egyptological experts to believe that all along it was our modern interpretation of the words which made us assume that whenever "blindness" or "darkness" was mentioned, it was literal or of a spiritual nature; and that these were euphemistic terms at best. In fact, it is likely that the many votive objects dealt with actual observations; in other words, a solar eclipse, in the instances cited above. David G. Smith writes: "There may even have been strong reasons why such events were not always recorded, since the act of recording it may have been considered to endow the event with a degree of permanence. If it were recorded, therefore, it may have been referred to obliquely or in some cryptic way. Such a rare event would probably not even have had a name and thus be referred to in terms of the way the event was experienced “seeing it get dark during daytime”, which is precisely the kind of expression found in these texts."