Ancient Egyptian Astrology

Digs & Discoveries July/August 2023

(Ahmed Amin, Egyptian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities)

For centuries, layers of soot have coated the ceilings and columns in the entrance hall of Egypt’s Temple of Esna. Now, an Egyptian-German team of researchers, led by Hisham El-Leithy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and Christian Leitz of the University of Tübingen, is restoring the temple’s vibrant painted reliefs to their original brilliance. The paintings mostly date to the first to third century A.D. One of the hall’s recently cleaned ceilings includes images of the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as representations of decans, or stars and constellations that were used to measure time. It displays strange hybrid animal creatures, which are identified in accompanying inscriptions and may represent constellations. The ceiling also features depictions of the 12 signs of the zodiac.

The zodiac system was developed by the Babylonians in the Near East and was introduced to Egypt at the end of the fourth century B.C. During the Ptolemaic period (304–30 B.C.), Leitz explains, the signs became quite popular among Egyptians, who adorned their tombs with their birth signs and inscribed horoscopes on ostracons, broken pottery pieces used as writing surfaces. Nevertheless, the Esna zodiac is one of only three preserved in Egyptian temples. “It’s astonishing because in a normal Egyptian temple, there isn’t anything showing foreign influence,” Leitz says. “This is a remarkable exception.”

  • Artifacts July/August 2023

    Norse Gold Bracteate

    Read Article
    (Arnold Mikkelsen, National Museum of Denmark)
  • Around the World July/August 2023


    Read Article
    (Alena Giesche)
  • Digs & Discoveries July/August 2023

    A New Day for the Ancestors' Mounds

    Read Article
    (© Doral Chenowith III–USA TODAY NETWORK)
  • Features July/August 2023

    Africa's Merchant Kings

    The early Christian kingdom of Aksum was at the heart of a great maritime trading network

    Read Article
    (Matyas Rehak/Adobe Stock)