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Ancient Calendars 1: Egypt

The New Year calls attention to the calendar, and to the fact that not everyone follows the same conventions for marking time. For Jews, the New Year began several months ago during the fall. Conversely, the Chinese won’t celebrate their new year for another month or so. The cultures of the ancient world were equally diverse when it came to calendars and chronology. Over the next few days, I’d like to provide some brief summaries of some of the more important ancient calendars used by Israel and its neighbors. I’ll begin today with the Egyptian calendar.

Over the course of their history, Egyptians developed four different indigenous calendars.

The (1) original lunar calendar apparently began with the new moon following the heliacal rising of Sirius (Egyptian Sopdet). Around 3000 BC this event took place on the 22nd of June (Gregorian), shortly before the annual Nile flooding began. (Due to precession, this event moves forward through the year approximately one day every 117 years. By AD 1, Sirius rose heliacally on the 16th of July (Gregorian; 18 July Julian).

The year was divided into three seasons: Akhet (ȝḫt, “inundation”), Peret (prt, “coming forth”), and Shemu (šmw, “summer”). These correspond to the periods of Nile flooding, planting, and harvesting. Since days were counted from sunrise to sunrise, it is likely the first day of the month was the first day of crescent invisibility at the end of a lunar cycle. Months were named, usually after a festival that took place within them. Little more can be said about this calendar.

The Egyptian (2) civil calendar came into use at the very beginning of Egyptian history. This was a solar calendar of 360 days (12 months of 30 days each) with a “little month” of 5 epagomenal days at the end, said to be the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephtys respectively. In this calendar, the months are not named but rather counted relative to their “season” (I Akhet, II Akhet, etc.). The days of the month were grouped into ten-day intervals.

Ideally, the Egyptian civil year began with the heliacal rising of Sirius in mid-summer. Since the calendar loses one day every four years, however, the civil calendar was usually out of sync with the agricultural calendar. Left unchecked, the civil calendar would regress over a 1,461-year cycle (1,460 Julian years) until it once again began on the date of the heliacal rising of Sirius. It is possible that various pharaohs enacted periodic reforms over Egypt’s 3,000-year history to attempt to bring the calendar back into alignment with the seasons, but it is clear that these measures, if they were taken, had only limited success.

By the New Kingdom era, a (3) civil-based lunar calendar replaced the original lunar calendar. In this calendar, the New Year begins with the first new moon after the beginning of the civil calendar. From this point on, there was no Egyptian calendar that followed the natural seasons of the year. There was much fluctuation as to how far into the civil month the lunar month began, but when averaged out, the middle of the lunar month (the full moon) fell on the first day of the “next” civil month (e.g., the 15th day of lunar Ipip = the 1st day of civil Wep renpet) (Depuydt, 56).

After the conquest of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies used the Macedonian lunar calendar. This was not a truly Egyptian calendar; therefore it will be described later in the context of Greek calendars.

Finally, the (4) Alexandrian calendar came into use some time after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. Instituted by Augustus, it coexisted for a while with the civil calendar, then eventually became the dominant calendar of daily life. The Alexandrian calendar was identical to the civil calendar except for the addition of a leap day every fourth year.

Civil Middle Kingdom New Kingdom Coptic Greek
I ȝḫt
tḫ, tḫy (Tekh, Tekhy)
ḏḥwty (Djehuty)
Thoout
Thōyth
II ȝḫt
mnḫt (Menhet), ptḥ (Ptah)
p n jpt (Pa-n-ipet)
Paope
Phaōphi
III ȝḫt
ḥwt ḥr (Hathor)
ḥwt ḥr (Hathor)
Hathōr
Hathyr
IV ȝḫt
kȝ kȝ (Ka-ka)
kȝ ḥr kȝ (Kaherka)
Khoiahk
Choiak
I prt
šf bdt (Shefbeti)
tȝ ‘bt (Ta’bet)
Tōbe
Tybi
II prt
rkḥ wr (Rekeh wer)
p n pȝ mḫr (pa-n-Mekhir)
Meshir
Mecheir
III prt
rkḥ nḏs (Rekeh nedjes)
p n jmn ḥtp (pa-n-Amenhotep)
Paremhotp
Phamenōth
IV prt
rnnwtt (Renenwetet)
p n rnnwtt (pa-n-Renenwetet)
Parmoute
Pharmouthi
I šmw
ḫnsw (Khonsu)
p n ḫnsw (pa-n-Khonsu)
Pashōns
Pachōn
II šmw
ḫnt ḫ(t)jj prty (Khenty)
p n jnt (pa-n-Inet)
Paōne
Payni
III šmw
jpt ḥmt (Apet)
pjpj (Ipip)
Epēp
Epiphi
IV šmw
wp rnpt (Wep renpet), mswt r‘ (Mesore)
wp rnpt (Wep renpet), mswt r‘ (Mesore)
Mesorē
Mesorē

Years were counted from the commencement of the reign of the current pharaoh. Thus, the epoch is reset with every change of royal leadership. The new numbering began immediately with the installation of a new pharaoh. Thus, for example, if a certain pharaoh died in his 10th year, the first part of the year in which he died would be so designated, but the remainder of that year would count as the first year of his successor. This practice is called “non-accession reckoning” or “antedating.”

Since for most of its history Egypt’s calendar progressed independently of the natural agricultural cycle, the following summary is tied instead to the Gregorian calendar:

Jun The first signs of the Nile inundation are seen at Syene (Aswan) in late June.
Jul
Aug
Sep The inundation peaks at Memphis (Cairo) by early September, then begins to recede approximately two weeks later.
Oct Planting crops and tending fields.
Nov Planting crops and tending fields.
Dec
Jan
Feb
Mar Nile at lowest level. Crops ready for harvest.
Apr Nile at lowest level. Crops ready for harvest.
May

Resources

  • E. J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World, 2nd ed. (Cornell University Press, 1968).
  • ________, “calendar.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  • M. W. Daly and Carl F. Petry, The Cambridge History of Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Leo Depuydt, Civil Calendar and Lunar Calendar in Ancient Egypt (Peeters, 1997).
  • Holger Oertel, “Several Calendars.”
  • Broughton Richmond, Time Measurement and Calendar Construction (Brill, 1956).
  • Bradley E. Schaefer, “The Heliacal Rise of Sirius in Ancient Egyptian Chronology,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 31/2 (2000) 149–155.

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