12 Days of Christmas #9: Solstice

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.

Sunrise at Karnak. Image from wilderness-ventures-egypt.com

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.

Winter solstice at Mnajdra, Malta. Image from gozonews.com

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.

Maeshowe, Orkney. Image from Orkneyjar.com

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.

Sunlight floods the chamber in Newgrange. Image from irishcentral.com

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.

Druids celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge, England. Image from nationalgeographic.co.uk
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12 Days of Christmas #5: Oh Christmas Tree!

IMG_2204Things are becoming considerably more festive at home now.  This afternoon I picked up a Christmas tree from a nearby Country Park, then dug out the fairy lights and decorations from the loft.  Now I’m sitting next to a twinkling, sparkly masterpiece (albeit sitting in a wastepaper bin held down with my diving weight belt), and picking pine needles out of my socks. Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon

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Looking south from Rackwick, Orkney

The line where the sea appears to touch the sky.  To an observer of my height, standing at on the shore, the horizon lies just less than 5km away.  But sitting back on the pink sandstone cobblestones of Rackwick bay the distance drops, and the cliffs of Caithness disappear below the horizon.

The Weekly Photo Challenge can be found here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Infinite

The theme of the weekly photo challenge is Infinite.

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The Standing Stones o’ Stenness in the gloaming.

At the heart of Orkney’s mainland, the Stones o’ Stenness are one of the oldest stone circles in Britain, dating from at least 3100BCE.  The stones, some almost 5 metres in height, dominate the flat, treeless landscape of mainland, bearing witness to infinite sunsets.