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A merkhet is a device which was used in Ancient Egypt for the purpose of telling time at night. Merkhets were extremely accurate, and could be used to make astronomical observations in addition to to keeping time. Several extant merkhets are on display at museums with collections of Egyptian artifacts, and numerous works of Egyptian art depict the use of merkhets. It has been suggested that these instruments were probably used in the construction of temples and tombs to align the structures in particular ways.
The device is fairly simple. A merkhet includes a straight bar attached to a plumb line, a weighted line which can be used to establish a straight vertical line to the ground. To use the merkhet, the device was aligned with the North star, and a second merkhet would be used to establish a North-south meridian. This line could be used to align a structure, or as a reference point to track the movement of stars in the sky.
By making note of when particular stars crossed the meridian, the user could determine the time. Astronomers also used merkhets to map the skies and to make observations, often with the assistance of a bay, a specially designed tool used for sighting. During the day, when the stars are not visible, a sundial would have been used to mark the passing of the hours.
The word “merkhet” means “instrument of knowing,” and merkhets certainly were powerful instruments for learning more about the night. Prior to the development of the merkhet, people relied on things like water clocks to tell time, and their knowledge of the movements of the stars was imperfect, to say the least. When the merkhet entered the scene, it allowed people to make much more accurate scientific observations, and this undoubtedly had an effect on Egyptian mythology and cosmology.
With the development of time keeping devices which do not require the skills of an astronomer, the merkhet has faded from use, along with devices like the astrolabe. However, it is still possible to keep time with a merkhet, and some people enjoy creating their own versions of the device as a novelty, and to get a sense of what working as an astronomer in Ancient Egypt might have been like. Some science museums allow people to use devices like merkhets and astrolabes in their planetariums so that they can experience them firsthand.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a Merkhet and how was it used in ancient times?
A Merkhet, one of the oldest known astronomical instruments, was used by ancient Egyptians primarily for timekeeping at night. It consisted of a plumb line and a sighting tool that helped align with certain stars, allowing the user to determine the precise north-south axis. This alignment was crucial for establishing the hours of the night and for aligning buildings and temples astronomically, ensuring they were in harmony with the cosmos.
Can you explain the significance of the Merkhet in ancient Egyptian culture?
In ancient Egyptian culture, the Merkhet held great significance due to its role in timekeeping and architecture. It was integral to the creation of the Egyptian calendar and was used by priests to determine the exact moment for religious ceremonies. The Merkhet's ability to align structures with celestial bodies also reflected the Egyptians' belief in the connection between the heavens and the earthly realm, which was central to their cosmology and spirituality.
How accurate was the Merkhet compared to modern astronomical tools?
While the Merkhet was an innovative tool for its time, it does not compare in accuracy to modern astronomical instruments. The Merkhet allowed ancient Egyptians to align objects with a fair degree of precision, but modern tools use advanced optics, electronics, and computer algorithms to achieve pinpoint accuracy. For example, modern telescopes can measure the position of stars to fractions of an arcsecond, which is far beyond the capabilities of the Merkhet.
Were Merkhets used for purposes other than timekeeping?
Yes, besides timekeeping, Merkhets were also used in ancient Egypt for architectural purposes. They helped in laying out the foundations of important structures, ensuring that they were aligned with celestial bodies. This practice was rooted in the Egyptians' belief that such alignments could bring cosmic order to their constructions, which was essential for temples and pyramids that had religious and ceremonial significance.
Is there any evidence of Merkhets being used in other ancient civilizations?
While the Merkhet is specifically associated with ancient Egypt, other ancient civilizations had their own methods and instruments for astronomical observations and timekeeping. For instance, the Babylonians used astrolabes, and the Greeks developed the Antikythera mechanism. However, there is no direct evidence that the Merkhet itself was used by civilizations other than the Egyptians, as it seems to be a unique invention of their culture.