The Stonehenge of Ancient Egypt

Far out in the desolate sands of the Nubian desert in Egypt, lie the ruins of an ancient stone circle of unimaginable age. Who built it and why?

Nabta Playa, as the area is now called, is not easy to reach. In fact, its remoteness is one of the reasons that it took so long to discover. The reasons for locating a stone circle in the middle of the sand sound nuts until one considers the tremendous age of the site.

Nabta Playa — Image Credit Raymbetz — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Archaeologists now believe that Nabta Playa was built nearly 10,000 years ago, at around 7,500 BC. This would make it at least five thousand years older than the pyramids and 2,500 years older than Stonehenge. In fact, the builders of Stonehenge were not even in the British Isles at the time.

Because the site is so old, we now know that the climate may have been different at the time. Research suggests that there have been several periods of time when Egypt was much more lush than it is today. Nabta Playa may have been built at a time when the area was more green. However, it was used for several millennia, suggesting that its location remained sacred despite its remoteness.

The stones themselves are much smaller than Stonehenge, only coming up to about knee height. Their arrangement suggests the site was built to mirror Orion, with the southern line of three stones in the center representing the belt of Orion. If true, it is possible that the circle represents a date, possibly the future date (from then) of 4,800 BC.

Excavations around the site have turned up an abnormal amount of cattle bones. Cattle, during the time, were sacrificed only during important holidays. However, at Napta Playa, they are plentiful. Later, around 5,000 BC they started ceremonially laying the dead cattle in pits of clay and covered them with sandstone lids.

Because of these features, archaeologists now believe the area was mostly a ceremonial center it possibly the origin of one of Egypt’s most famous cults, the cult of Hathor. Hathor is featured heavily in very early Egyptian art, including the famous Narmer Palette, which depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The Narmer Palette commemorates the violent unification of Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BC. Image Credit Public Domain

Because of the abundant remains of cattle and the absence of any domesticated plants, archaeologists believe that the area may have fueled early Egyptian religion, thousands of years before it became civilized. Researchers are now focused on structures they are finding beneath the sand to determine just how the site’s use evolved over time.

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