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From a very early time, the ancient Egyptians had a form of calendar based upon the phases of the moon followed a calendar system of 360 days, with three seasons, each made up of 4 months, with thirty days in each month. The seasons of the Egyptians corresponded with the cycles of the Nile, and were known as Inundation (pronounced akhet which lasted from June 21st to October 21st), Emergence (pronounced proyet which lasted from October 21st to February 21st), and Summer (pronounced shomu which lasted from February 21st to June 21st).

The beginning of the year, also called "the opening of the year", was marked by the emergence of the star Sirius, in the constellation of Canis Major. The constellation emerged roughly on June 21st., and was called "the going up of the goddess Sothis". The star was visible just before sunrise, and is still one of the brightest stars in the sky, located to the lower left of Orion and taking the form of the dogs nose in the constellation Canis Major.

Though the Egyptians did have a 360 day calendar, in a literal sense they did have a 365 day calendar system. The beginning of the year was marked by the addition of five additional days, known as "the yearly five days". These additional five days, were times of great feasting and celebration for the Egyptians, and it was not uncommon for the Egyptians to rituals, and other celebratory dealings on these days. As they made no provision for a leap year, the calendar and the seasons drifted out of step, and by the end of the Old Kingdom there was a discrepancy of five months.

The Egyptian calendar also took on other important functions within Egyptian life specifically in dealing with the astrology of the people. This was in the form of having other calendars used by the Egyptians like the solar (sun) calendar and the stellar (star) calendar.


  Ancient Egyptian Calendar



The civil calendar

The Ancient Egyptians were highly organised with a very efficient central government. The administrators needed a calendar simpler than one in which they did not know when the month started until the Priests had looked at the sunrise, and in which all the months had the same number of days and all the years the same number of months. So they introduced a civil calendar containing twelve months each with thirty days, and each month containing three weeks of ten days, and then five days of public holidays to bring the year to three hundred and sixty five days. These five holidays celebrated the birthdays of Osiris, Isis, Horus, Nephthys and Seth. The problem was that this calendar did not have leap years.

The months of the year were in the following order

AKHET (the time of flooding) June 15 - October 15



June 15 - July 15
July 15 - August 15
August 15 - September 15...............
September 15 - October 15

PERET (the time of sowing) October 15 - February 15



October 15 - November 15...............
November 15 - December 15
December 15 - January 15
January 15 - February 15

SHEMU (the time of harvest) February 15 - June 15



February 15 - March 15...............
March 15 - April 15
April 15 - May 15
May 15 - June 15

The hours of the day

Most of the ancient people ended one day, and so of course started the next, at sunset, but the Ancient Egyptians started their new day at sunrise.

The Ancient Egyptians divided the day-time into twelve hours, numbered one to twelve, and the night-time into another twelve, numbered thirteen to twenty four. The hours were not all the same length: in the summer the hours of the day were longer than the hours of the night, and of course the other way round in the winter.

The skies in Ancient Egypt were always clear so measuring the passing of the hours was easy: during the day they used a sundial and at night they used the stars.

Different stars rise at different times, depending on the seasons, and the Ancient Egyptians measured the hours of darkness by watching for the rising of certain special stars. The special stars they used to measure the hours of darkness were called decans. The stars painted on the ceilings of the pyramids were there so that the dead King could tell the time!

Later on they used water clocks ( clepsydra) to time things more accurately than they could with just a sundial or the stars.

The Ancient Egyptians were the first people to make a calendar which kept in step with the Sun and the seasons. They were also the first people to use a twenty four hour clock.

The solar calendar (based on the Sun)

The time at which the River Nile starts to flood depends upon a number of factors, and these all depend on the time taken for the Earth to go round the Sun, which gives us our seasons. This is a solar year, about three hundred and sixty five and a quarter days. But a solar year is not exactly three hundred and sixty five and a quarter days so we must not add an extra day every four years. The time between two heliacal risings of Serpet, at the latitude of Egypt, is about twelve minutes longer than a solar year. This means that their stellar calendar lost one day in about a hundred years compared to a solar calendar.

By the time the difference between the solar and the stellar calendar was big enough to make the day they had predicted for the start of the inundation to be wrong by more than a few days, the Ancient Egyptians had realised the start of the inundation depended upon a solar year and not the heliacal rising of Serpet, and had measured the length of a solar year so precisely that they were able to make a calendar more accurate than the Julian calendar, which had a leap year every four years, being used in Europe nearly four thousand years later! But they were not allowed to change the old calendar, so Akhet still started on the day of the heliacal rising of Serpet, even though they were using a solar calendar to predict the actual date of the start of the inundation.

This year is divided into three seasons of four months, the month into three weeks of ten days that do not overlap the months; the day into 24 hours. The Egyptians knew that this calendar year was too short, that it was lacking a quarter of a day in order for it to correspond to a complete sidereal revolution. Also in 4236 B.C. (the imagination remains transfixed), they invented a second astronomical calendar founded precisely on this time lag, this delay, of a quarter of a day per year, in the 365-day calendar year as compared to the sidereal, or astronomical, calendar. The time lag thus accumulated at the end of four years is equal to one day. Instead of adding one day every 4 years and thus instituting a leap year, the Egyptians preferred the masterful solution that consists of following this time lag for 1,460 years

The point in the sky exactly about the Earth's North Pole is called the Celestial North Pole, and as the Earth rotates all the stars seem to move in a circle round it. Polaris (the Pole Star) is very close to the Celestial North Pole so is always visible every night and always due North. The stars near Polaris, the circumpolar stars (from the Latin for around the pole), circle round Polaris but do not rise and set; the stars further away from Polaris rise in the East and set in the West, just like the Sun and Moon. Many ancient people associated the circumpolar stars, which never set, with the immortal gods. Although the circumpolar stars do not rise and set we can only see them at night. The stars of the constellation called Ursa Major. Every star of course rises and sets at a different time, but every night there are always plenty of different stars to see.

The first time a star reappeared after its period of invisibility was very important to the ancient Egyptians, and to all the ancient people. This first rising of a star in the dawn sky in the East, just before Sunrise, is called its heliacal rising. To the Egyptians it represented the end of the time the star had spent in the Underworld.

Almost as soon as the first people began to settle in the valley of the River Nile, before 4200, they noticed that the heliacal rising of Serpet, after a period of seventy days of invisibility, always came a few days before the start of the annual inundation. This enabled the ancient Egyptians to predict the coming of the inundation. The heliacal rising of Serpet was the start of Akhet, and the new year.


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