Ancient statue of Ramesses II.

Oldest Recorded Solar Eclipse Helps Date the Egyptian Pharaohs

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Researchers have pinpointed the date of what could be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded. The event, which occurred on 30 October 1207 BC, is mentioned in the Bible, and could have consequences for the chronology of the ancient world.

Using a combination of the biblical text and an ancient Egyptian text, the researchers were then able to refine the dates of the Egyptian pharaohs, in particular the dates of the reign of Ramesses the Great. The results are published in the Royal Astronomical Society journal Astronomy & Geophysics .

Abu Simbel Temple of King Ramses II, a masterpiece of pharaonic arts and buildings in Old Egypt. Source: BigStockPhoto

Abu Simbel Temple of King Ramses II, a masterpiece of pharaonic arts and buildings in Old Egypt. Source: BigStockPhoto

The biblical text in question comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua and has puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. It records that after Joshua led the people of Israel into Canaan -- a region of the ancient Near East that covered modern-day Israel and Palestine -- he prayed: "Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies."

"If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place -- the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means," said paper co-author Professor Sir Colin Humphreys from the University of Cambridge's Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, who is also interested in relating scientific knowledge to the Bible.

‘Joshua commanding the sun to stand still’ (1816) by John Martin.

‘Joshua commanding the sun to stand still’ (1816) by John Martin. ( Public Domain )

"Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and moon stopped moving," said Humphreys, who is also a Fellow of Selwyn College. "But going back to the original Hebrew text, we determined that an alternative meaning could be that the sun and moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining. In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated 'stand still' has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses."

Humphreys and his co-author, Graeme Waddington, are not the first to suggest that the biblical text may refer to an eclipse, however, earlier historians claimed that it was not possible to investigate this possibility further due to the laborious calculations that would have been required.

Independent evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC can be found in the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian text dating from the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, son of the well-known Ramesses the Great. The large granite block, held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, says that it was carved in the fifth year of Merneptah's reign and mentions a campaign in Canaan in which he defeated the people of Israel.

The Merneptah Stele, known as the Israel stela, from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The Merneptah Stele, known as the Israel stela, from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Earlier historians have used these two texts to try to date the possible eclipse, but were not successful as they were only looking at total eclipses, in which the disc of the sun appears to be completely covered by the moon as the moon passes directly between the earth and the sun. What the earlier historians failed to consider was that it was instead an annular eclipse, in which the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but is too far away to cover the disc completely, leading to the characteristic 'ring of fire' appearance. In the ancient world the same word was used for both total and annular eclipses.

The researchers developed a new eclipse code, which takes into account variations in the Earth's rotation over time. From their calculations, they determined that the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC was on 30 October 1207 BC, in the afternoon. If their arguments are accepted, it would not only be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded, it would also enable researchers to date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.

Comments

Great article, thanks. So datum would be good to establish. There is a Minoan sundial, that a research suggests an eclipse calculator, so circa 1500bce, a precursor to the antikythera mechanism. Imagine the power of being able stop the sun. If you don't do what I say, the sun will go out in tomorrow...

OK, there was a solar eclipse 30 October 1207 BC. The calculations will be correct, I guess. And yes, a stele of pharaoh Merneptah mentions the Israelites in Canaan. But the description in the Bible mentions the sun an de moon in clearly separate positions: "Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped". Maybe the word used for "stop" is the same as the word used for "eclipse", but with the sun and the moon far apart, there is definitively no eclipse possible.
Whatever happened back then, may have been very special, but it was not an eclipse.

Thanks for a great (and thought-provoking) site!

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