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SOLAR ECLIPSES IN THE ANCIENT NILE VALLEY

A full discussion of the presumed knowledge of solar eclipses by the ancient Egyptians is beyond the scope of these brief comments. However, it is pertinent to note that Greek writers, without exception, gave priority to Egypt in astronomical knowledge. Still, there has not yet come to light an Egyptian document specifically mentioning solar eclipses. However, that the Egyptians possessed accurate knowledge of eclipses is evident from external sources.

Diodorus Siculus (200 A.D.), stated categorically that the ancient Egyptian astronomers possessed the ability to predict solar eclipses. Plutarch related that the ancient Egyptians explained solar eclipses by the passage of the Moon between the Sun and the earth in daylight hours. There is evidence, admittedly disputed by some writers, that an actual solar eclipse was reported in Egypt in the 9th century B.C. and again in 610 B.C. The report of this latter eclipse has been attributed to Thales, though others, e.g., Herodotus, claim that Thales actually predicted an eclipse in 584 B.C. Thales, Greece's first "philosopher", was actually of Phoenician birth and spent seven years studying in Egypt. Greek commentators attribute Thale's mathematical and astronomical knowledge to this apprenticeship in Egypt.

The golden age of Greek science commences with the Ptolemaic dynasty (330 B.C.) in Egypt, the building of Alexandria, and the founding of the city's Library. The major Greek astronomers studied there. Moreover, several of the Alexandrian astronomers considered Greek were actually Egyptians who had adopted or been given Greek names. One such person was Ptolemy (150 A.D.), author of the Almagest, the most important astronomical text until the Middle Ages, whose knowledge of solar eclipses is well-documented.

Clement of Alexandria (2nd century A.D.), author of Stromateis, wrote that "a book of a thousand pages would not contain the names of all the Greeks who had drunk at the fount of Egyptian knowledge." Clement described the 49 books of Thoth preserved by the priests of ancient Egypt, at least four of them treating astronomical subjects. One book dealt with the "constitution of the Sun and Moon" and another "the conjunctions and variations of the light of the Sun and Moon." That the ancient astronomer-priests of Egypt could and did predict eclipses was considered axiomatic.

So many of the "blanks" in the history of ancient Egypt have been amply filled in by Greek writers. They are unequivocal in their admiration of the astronomical knowledge of the Egyptian priesthood and confirm repeatedly the remarkable ability of that priesthood to predict solar eclipses.

References

Dreyer, J.L. E., A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler (1953)

Neugebauer, Otto, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (1969)

Obenga, Theophile, La Philosophie Africaine de al Periode Pharaonique (1990)

Sarton, George, Introduction to the History of Science (1927)

Author:

Dr. Charles S. Finch III, M.D.
Director of International Health
Morehouse School of Medicine

 

ECLIPSE
QUOTATION

"When in the sixth year they encountered one another, it so fell out that, after they had joined battle, the day suddenly turned into night. Now that this transformation of day (into night) would occur was foretold to the Ionians by Thales of Miletus, who had fixed as the limit of time this very year in which the change actually took place."

Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC) Refrs to the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC, when the Lydians and Medes were fighting a war

       
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