Today is the darkest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere; the winter solstice. Also known as the longest night or the shortest day, this is the day on which the sun has its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky, the point where the sun stands still (solstice is derived from the Latin sol, sun, and sistere, to stand still). From tomorrow morning we’ll start to see the gradual lengthening of days and shortening of nights, a reversal of the pattern seen up until now.
This seasonal pattern of decline, death, rebirth and growth was extremely important to ancient peoples and midwinter was an important turning point in the year; a time for family gatherings, celebration and feasting, often with fires or candles lit during the hours of darkness. Many of these ancient rituals inspired and informed the familiar traditions surrounding Christmas and other winter festivals celebrated today.
The movements of the sun are traced in a number of ancient buildings and structures around the world. Here are 5 of the most well-known places to observe the winter solstice.
5. Karnak temple complex, Luxor, Egypt. On the solstice, the sun rises between the uprights of the gate of Nectanebo, illuminating the sanctuary of Amoun-Re and the obelisk of Hatchepsut.
4. Mnajdra temple complex, Malta. One of the most ancient known religious sites on Earth, the lowest temple at Mnajdra is aligned so that light from sunrises at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes passes through the main doorway and along the main axis of the site. On the solstices sunlight illuminates the megaliths at either side of the doorway.
3. Maeshowe, Orkney, Scotland. At more than 5000 years old, the Maeshowe chambered cairn is at the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering several neolithic sites on the mainland of Orkney. An image of the rising sun is projected on to the back wall of the tomb.
2. Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne), County Meath, Ireland. Visitors to the prehistoric tomb at Newgrange can apply to a lottery for tickets to witness the solstice sunrise as it illuminates the inside of the chamber. More than 25,000 people apply each year, but only 10 tickets are allocated.
1. Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England. Despite heavy rain last night, more than 3,500 people are reported to have gathered at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise this morning.