Researchers at the University of Cambridge have managed to accurately pinpoint the precise date of what is believed to be the very first solar eclipse on record. According to their findings, the event took place on October 30, 1207 BC — exactly 3,224 years ago today. If confirmed, this incredible discovery could rearrange the timeline of Egypt’s most prominent pharaohs and help “date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.”
The first known account of a solar eclipse seems to have come from the Old Testament and can be found in the Book of Joshua. The biblical text describes an astronomical event of great proportions that reportedly occurred after Joshua led the people of Israel into Canaan. In the Bible, Joshua prays, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.”
Professor Sir Colin Humphreys, head of research at the university’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, suggests the text could be referring to “a real observation” of actual events. Together with colleague Graeme Waddington, Humphreys studied the biblical text and compared it to the Merneptah Stele, an ancient Egyptian text dating back to the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses the Great.
In their opinion, Joshua may have in fact recorded the oldest solar eclipse known on Earth, which Humphreys and Waddington traced back to 1207 BC. To reach their conclusion, the researchers came up with an eclipse code, which is essentially a computer code designed “to calculate the dates of past and future eclipses” by taking into account the variations in our planet’s rotation over time.
Unlike previous attempts to date the first solar eclipse, their model analyzes not only total solar eclipses but annular eclipses as well — in which the moon is too far away to cover the solar disc completely, resulting in the appearance of a “ring of fire” in the sky. Their investigation suggests the Gibeon eclipse was in all likelihood an annular eclipse, which is why it may have been overlooked by past researchers focused solely on dating total solar eclipses.
“We used the latest astronomical data to input into our specially written eclipse code. We believe it is accurate because it agrees with an eclipse code written by NASA scientists,” the researchers said in a statement for the Daily Mail.
Humphreys and Waddington formulated their theory in a study featured this month in the journal Astronomy & Geophysics, a publication of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“We have dated it to October 30 1207 BC, making it possibly the oldest datable solar eclipse recorded. This enables us to refine the dates of certain Egyptian pharaohs, including Ramesses the Great.”
As Humphreys points out, modern English translations of this particular Bible excerpt offer the interpretation that “the sun and moon stopped moving.” However, the original Hebrew text could hold an alternative meaning to these words, namely that “the sun and moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining,” Humphreys explains in a news release issued by the university.
“In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining,” shows Humphreys.
The supposition that this is, in fact, the oldest solar eclipse on record is backed up by the etymology of the Hebrew word describing the cosmic event in the biblical text. According to Humphreys, this word, which was translated to mean “stand still,” shares “the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses.”
How does this influence the chronology of Egyptian pharaohs? Humphreys explains solar eclipses have a special importance in the calendar of the ancient world, since they are used to establish the timeline of past events.
By studying the Stele, Humphreys and Waddington found the ancient Egyptian text places the Israelites in Canaan (modern-day Israel and Palestine) between 1500 and 1050 BC. At the same time, their calculations revealed the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan in that time frame occurred on October 30 1207 BC, in the afternoon. Furthermore, according to the large granite block exhibited in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Pharaoh Merneptah carried out a campaign in Canaan against the people of Israel in the early years of his reign, which fits the timeline of the Gibeon eclipse.
“The dates agreed by mainstream Egyptologists for the reign of Ramesses II are c. 1279–1213 BC, with his son Merneptah reigning from c. 1213–1203 BC. These dates are subject to some uncertainty, with the latest possible dates for Ramesses II being 1270–1204 BC, and for Merneptah 1204–1194 BC,” the authors illustrate in their paper.
Nevertheless, the new findings challenge these dates and offer a more accurate dating for the beginning of the two pharaohs’ reigns, with a precision of plus or minus one year. The new calculations place the beginning of Merneptah’s reign in 1210 or 1209 BC. This, in turn, means Ramesses the Great would have ruled Egypt between 1276 and 1210 BC.
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