Sunrise, Sunset

A recent episode of the television series “Nova” revealed that scientists are only confident of one celestial alignment present at Stonehenge, dismissing all the claims in recent years of the structure being some sort of celestial observatory. Stonehenge’s main axis, a straight line through the entrance, points directly to sunrise on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. This means that the back part of the axis points to sunset during the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. But what does this say about why Stonehenge was built?

Archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson studied burial practices in Madagascar, where stone monuments are built to the dead. There, it is believed that stone belongs to the ancestors. The realm of the living belongs to perishable materials, like wood.

Pearson invited an archaeologist from Madagascar to visit Stonehenge. He immediately saw the monument as a meeting place to connect with the ancestors. The stones were linked to the ancestors and, indeed, the so-called blue stones, the smaller stones, had been transported from Wales, monuments to the dead, perhaps, that the people took with them when moving from Wales to the area around Stonehenge. But where was the place for the living?

Two miles north of Stonehenge are the remnants of another henge, this one made of timber. It is identical in size to Stonehenge. The post holes were found where timbers were placed. On the morning of the winter solstice the front axis of the timber circle aligns to the rising sun, while at the end of that day the back of Stonehenge frames the setting sun. During the summer solstice, the front of Stonehenge aligns with the sunrise while the rear axis at the timber circle aligns with sunset. Cremated remains have been found at Stonehenge. At the timber circle, there is evidence of a yearly celebration. One circle is for the dead; the other is for the living.

Beyond giving the chief archivist the heebie-jeebies for one more mystery of the world to be so logically solved — why did that photo of the Loch Ness Monster have to turn out to be a hoax? and wasn’t it already so completely obvious from the footage that it was the skin of the Hindenburg that so rapidly spread the fire? — what does this mean for Heliopoli, which is oh-so-similarly a monument to a belief system long dead, whose buildings stand sentinel over a past we cannot grasp?

Heliopoli has no alignment to the solstices, but it is telling that the Sun Disk Monolith rotates slowly throughout the year so that it is always aligned with the sunset. There are perhaps two kinds of people in the world, those who prefer sunrise to sunset, and vice versa. But there can be no denying the power of sunset in Heliopoli when standing in the Central Plaza and the amber, autumnal light comes shattering down the avenues to ring against the bronze disk in the monolith.

The buildings are blue with coming twilight, sparkling and bright. The surface of the plaza shines for one last time in the day. There is a chill in the air. The sunset delivers — mysteriously, curiously — a devastating form of homesickness.

But the question remains: Was Heliopoli built for the living … or the dead?

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