The most well known and iconic structures in Ancient Egypt are the Pyramids. These immense stone structures have been designed and laid out in such a way that they represent not only the sun but the position of the starts and the milky way. The angled sides and channels within the pyramids allowed the ancient Egyptians to follow the transit of the sun and the stars.
The Old Kingdom pyramids were constructed in 2686 – 2181BC, following the path of the Nile towards the sea. The position of the river in relation to the pyramids reflects the position of the Milky Way in relation to the major constellations which the pyramids represent.
Each individual Pyramid was constructed as a tomb for a Pharos and their method of assentation to the afterlife, a form of ‘resurrection machine’.
The attributes of the sunlight can be seen in the Abu-Simbel temple, orientated so the sun light would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall on October 22 and February 221, except for the statue of Ptah, the god of the underworld. Here the use of sun and shadows can be seen to have a symbolic purpose by highlighting or hiding specific statues. This illumination shows the high regard for the force of good and the shadows represent the underworld being sent into darkness.
Due to the cosmological movement of the Tropic of Cancer over the past 3,280 years, these two events have moved one day closer to the Solstices.
Similarly, the Maya civilisation also dedicated their temples to the gods. Specifically, the plumed serpent known as Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl. The temple in Chich’en Itza, Mexico was constructed in limestone between the 8th–12th century taking great consideration of the use of light and shadows.
The pyramid is orientated such that during the spring and autumn equinox a succession of triangular shadows appear to glide down the side of the pyramid, creating the illusion of a feathered serpent slithering towards earth.
Fascinated by mathematics, the Mayas took the movement of the sun into great consideration. They ensured there were 91 steps on each side, plus the final step on the top to make a total of 365 steps, equal to the number of days in one year2.
Another example of a building incorporating light into the design is the Kinkaku-ji temple3, also known as the ‘golden pavilion’, in Kinkakuji-ch?, Japan. The name Kinkaku is derived from the gold leaf coating the outside of the structure. It was constructed during the Kamakura period, 1185–1333 where the Japanese greatly relied on visual details, using gold leaf and patterns to give the building an overwhelming impact.
The colour of the structure, sitting on the water’s edge, creates an awe-inspiring doppelgänger on the surface. In addition, with the reflected light illuminating the underside of the eaves, the gold temple is given a sense of weightlessness.
1 Ancient Egyptain Architecture, University of Nottingham, Dr Wang Qi, 6/10/17
2 Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chich’en Itza, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/pyramid-kukulcan-chichen-itza, 18/1/18
3 Architectural History of the Eastern World, University of Nottingham, Dr Wang Qi, 1/12/17