Ancient sites shed light on our ancestors’ understanding of the solstice



Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic site discovered in Turkey in 1963, is made up of a series of sunken circular structures supported by massive stone pillars and dates back to between 9500 and 8000 BC (iStock)

At 15:58 GMT precisely on December 21, the winter solstice will occur across the northern hemisphere. The winter solstice marks the exact time when half of the Earth is tilted its greatest distance from the sun. This is one thing to celebrate, because from that day on the amount of daylight will be on the rise for the next six months. Cultures and civilizations have observed such celestial phenomena for thousands of years now, as evidenced by the prehistoric constructions they left behind. Many of these sites are in Europe. While visiting them at times when they are in tune with the universe is undoubtedly a fantastic experience, one can appreciate them and marvel at the skills and sophistication of our ancestors at any time of the year.

Ireland: One of the most coveted places in the world to witness the Winter Solstice is in Newgrange, a Neolithic monument in Irish County Meath, about 30 miles north of Dublin. The site consists of a large circular mound with an interior stone passage and rooms. It is one of the many passage tombs in Western Europe, a term used to describe a burial chamber covered with earth or stone with a narrow access passage constructed of large stones. It has occupied this place since around 3200 BC, before the thousand-year-old Stonehenge.

Just above the entrance to the passage leading to the burial chamber is an opening called the roof box. On the mornings around the winter solstice, a beam of light enters the roof box and travels up the passage 62 feet to the bedroom. As the sun rises, the beam widens so that the entire chamber is considerably illuminated.

Entrance to the area, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is through the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Center. Visitors are transported 5,000 years back, when the buildings found here were among the tallest in the world. Exhibits explore the seasonal nature of Stone Age society, the importance of the solar cycle, ceremonies, and the process of building monuments. Access to the room on solstice mornings is decided by a lottery organized in September of each year; those who are not among the lucky few are invited to gather in front of its entrance on the mornings of December 18-23. At other times of the year, admission to the visitor center exhibitions, as well as a visit to Newgrange, costs 8 euros for adults, 4 euros for young people aged 12 to 18 and is free for 11 and under. Online: newgrange.com

Malta: Scattered across the island nation of Malta and its much smaller neighbor Gozo are dozens of megalithic temples, seven of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. These monumental prehistoric buildings were constructed during the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. Each complex is a unique architectural masterpiece displaying sophisticated construction techniques and testifies to an advanced culture with impressive architectural, artistic and technological achievements.

Two of them, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples, are within a third of a mile of each other, the first at the top of a hill overlooking the sea and the second at the bottom of the hill. . Both are distinguished by an astronomical orientation which is revealed at the times of the equinoxes and the solstices.

The central building of Hagar Qim, made up of a series of C-shaped rooms called apses, is known for its oracle hole. The elliptical hole allows the light of the sunrise to enter the apse of the temple in perfect alignment at the time of the summer solstice. At the Mnajdra temple complex, at the time of the equinox, the morning sun rises in line with the main gate and floods the central corridor leading to the innermost apse with light. At the time of the two solstices of the year, narrow beams of light barely manage to pass through the main door and illuminate the far edges of a slab in the apse.

Heritage Malta operates a visitor center offering information on both sites; it is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission costs 10 euros for adults, 7.50 euros for young people from 12 to 17 years old, 5.50 euros for children from 6 to 11 years old and is free for children under five. Online: heritagemalta.org/hagar-qim-temples

Turkey: Göbekli Tepe’s recent discovery has forced historians and anthropologists to rethink man’s transition to sedentary life. The Neolithic site, a 20-hectare man-made mound near the town of Sanlıurfa in southeastern Anatolia, was noted by a team of surveyors in 1963, first excavated in 1995, and has was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2018. The site is made up of a series of sunken circular structures supported by massive stone pillars and dates back to some time between 9500 and 8000 BC. It is believed that the area was occupied for a thousand years before it was abandoned and covered with debris.

Ongoing research continues to shape knowledge about the Göbekli Tepe. Evidence suggests that the central pillars of four of the enclosures discovered on site are oriented towards the Alpha Cygni set point, a star clearly visible in July and August. Another enclosure seems to be oriented towards the rising point of the sun on the day of the Harvest Festival, which would have fallen approximately halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. While the most fantastical claims that the entire site served as an ancient observatory have yet to be substantiated by solid science, clues to Göbekli Tepe’s true purpose continue to emerge from the sands.

Göbekli Tepe welcomes visitors. Those who have made the trek are warning would-be travelers that a visit to the Şanlıurfa Archaeological Museum in advance adds valuable context. Online: whc.unesco.org/fr/list/1572


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