What is the summer solstice?
For many people, the summer solstice is simply the longest day of the year, meaning that it has more daylight hours than any other day. In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice falls between June 20 and 22; this year, it’s on June 20. (In the southern hemisphere, it’s in December.) But for some ancient civilizations, the summer solstice was a major yearly event—so much so that they built large constructions and monuments based on the sun’s place in the sky on this particular day.
The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and stitium (still or stopped). The summer solstice was such a big deal for people in ancient times because it marked the point of the year when the sun stopped moving northward in the sky and allowed them to start tracking its southward movement as summer turned to autumn. From a practical standpoint, the summer solstice meant that it was time to determine when to plant and harvest various crops.
Stonehenge in England is probably the most well-known example of an ancient monument that aligns with the sun of the summer solstice, but there are several others around the world that are equally impressive. When you’re done marveling at these creations, check out these facts you never knew about the summer solstice.
Let’s start with the one everyone knows: Stonehenge. Located in Salisbury Plain in England, this UNESCO World Heritage site was built in several stages. The first monument on the site was an early henge monument, built about 5,000 years ago. But the stone circle most people think of when they think of Stonehenge was erected in the late Neolithic period, around 2500 BC, near some early Bronze Age burial mounds. Despite studying the site for hundreds of years, experts still aren’t sure who, exactly, built Stonehenge—or why. A recent analysis of the human remains found there suggests that the people who built it may have been from western Wales or Wessex.
As for its relation to the solstice, the main axis of the stones is aligned upon the solstitial axis, according to English Heritage, a charity that cares for more than 400 historic buildings, monuments, and sites in England. “At midsummer, the sun rises over the horizon to the northeast, close to the Heel Stone,” the English Heritage website explains. “At midwinter, the sun sets in the southwest, in the gap between the two tallest trilithons, one of which has now fallen.” Want to see this for yourself? You can watch a live stream of both the sunrise and sunset at Stonehenge on Facebook. Don’t miss these other virtual day trips you can now take online.
The Temple of Karnak, Egypt
Though the Great Pyramid of Giza gets all the press, there’s another incredible architectural wonder in Egypt built around the light of the summer solstice. The Temple of Karnak in Luxor is the modern-day name for the ancient site of the Temple of Amun in what was formerly known as Thebes. Ancient Egyptians believed that Thebes was the first city founded on the primordial mound that rose from the waters when the world was created. The Temple of Karnak was built on the site where the mound was thought to have been located, and it served as both a center of worship and an observatory.
Dedicated to Amun, the god of sun and air, the temple was designed so that the inner sanctum—as well as its western gate—was perfectly aligned with sunset at the summer solstice. Priests interpreted this beam of light as the will of the god and his wishes for humanity. In addition to gathering at the Temple of Karnak, here are 14 fascinating summer solstice traditions from around the world.
Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico
The indigenous people of New Mexico paid close attention to the sun. In addition to the Pueblo-built sandstone buildings of Chaco Canyon, the state is also home to the Aztec Ruins National Monument, located in the town of Aztec. Ancestral Pueblo people had a strong relationship with the cosmos, and they built the back (north) wall of the monument so that it is perfectly aligned with the rising and setting sun as it touches the horizon during both the summer and winter solstices. Despite its name, the Aztec Ruins National Monument was not built by the Aztec people (that was just an incorrect guess from early settlers) but instead by the Ancestral Pueblans. It took approximately 200 years to build these structures, which date from around the 12th century.
Pyramid of Chichen Itza, Mexico
Though most people may associate pyramids with Egypt, there are some spectacular structures in Mexico as well. One example of that is the Pyramid of Chichen Itza, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cancún. Chichen Itza was the ancient capital of the Yucatán Maya, and as a result, it is home to an array of impressive structures, including this pyramid.
Built between 800 and 900 CE, the Pyramid of Chichen Itza was designed to be aligned with the summer solstice. Over the course of five hours on the longest day of the year, a combination of light and shadows creates seven triangles on the side of the staircase. And for 45 minutes, it appears as though a serpent is crawling down the side of the temple. The pyramid is dedicated to Kukulcan (or Quetzalcoatl), the feathered serpent god, and according to legend, it was designed so that it appears as though the serpent visits the monument during the summer and winter solstice. Ponder these ancient mysteries researchers still can’t explain.
Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu, Peru
Serving as the background for many photos on dating apps, the ancient city of Machu Picchu is the most-visited tourist attraction in Peru. Located in this Incan city is the Temple of the Sun, one of the site’s most sacred temples. One of the temple’s windows, shaped like a trapezoid, was positioned along the curve of the wall of the solar observatory to capture sunlight during the solstice in June (which in Peru happens to be the winter solstice). In addition, there are two windows in the section of the temple used for sacrifices that align with both the summer and winter solstices. Archaeologists hypothesize that the Inca may have used the information garnered by the movement of the sun from the temple to help inform their decisions about when to plant and harvest crops.
Mnajdra Temple, Malta
Located on the island country of Malta, the Mnajdra Temple was built 5,500 years ago to align with both the summer and winter solstices. Technically, there are three temple units in Mnajdra, set around a curved forecourt, placed next to one another to form a semicircle. The first temple is the oldest, and it is in the shape of a simple trefoil and made out of stone. One of the stones has what some think looks like a calendar on it, though there is no hard evidence that it is. The second temple was built next and is thought to have been an observatory. In this building, the sun enters the structure directly through the doorway and lights up a spot at the back center of the temple. Malta is also home to two temples that are among the oldest buildings in the world.
Jantar Mantar, India
Built in 1724 by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, this series of giant sundials in New Delhi isn’t quite as ancient as the other monuments on this list. Finding the existing astronomical instruments too small to take correct measurements, Jai Singh built Jantar Mantar as a way of making more accurate observations. Unfortunately, the tall buildings that surround the sundials today mean that their measurements are no longer correct, but they are still a popular tourist attraction. Of the 13 astronomy instruments, one called Misra Yantra was designed to mark both the summer and winter solstices, when the sun shines directly on the back wall of the structure, while a straight rod casts a shadow and functions like the hand on a clock. Next, discover the most fascinating winter solstice traditions around the world.
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