An old Arab proverb states that “man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” Indeed the pyramids of Giza are perhaps the most famous and recognizable structures to have ever existed, built beginning around 2500 BCE. The Egyptian civilization was not only concerned with grand projects like monumental architecture, or ethereal ones dealing with deities, mummification, and the afterlife, but also with more worldly matters such as mathematics, medicine, and keeping exact track of the day, month, and year. Until the end of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2181 BCE), the Egyptians numbered years according to a biennial census. By the end of the Old Kingdom a different system was employed that was very straightforward. Since the weather is largely unchanged throughout the year, the Egyptians reckoned time according to the inundation of the Nile, the most important event in their lives. The annual inundation renewed the fertility of the land, and it was an event for which the king himself was considered responsible in his capacity as the nearest living relation to the gods.
There were three seasons of 4 months each. The first began around mid-July, when the annual inundation began, and lasted until mid-Novem- ber, when it ceased. This season was named Akhet, meaning “inundation.” Following this was Peret, meaning “rowing,” which lasted until midMarch, and finally Shomu, meaning “harvest,” until mid-July and the next inundation. Each of the seasons was divided into 4 months, which also had names (rarely used), each with 30 days. Most monumental inscriptions begin with the date. This is written according to a standard formula. First comes the word for year (hezbet or renpet-hezbet), followed by a number. This signified in what year of the current king’s reign it was written. Then comes the sign for month, followed by a number, then the season, then the sign for day followed by a number. Finally, a phrase that goes something like “under (the reign) of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt . . .” ends the formula.
A variation occurs when the month is the first of the four within a season; this can be written using only the word for “first.” Another variation commonly occurs when it was the last (30th) day of the month, in which case the word for “last” replaced the sign for day and the following number 30. The Egyptian calendar also took into account the remaining 5 days left over after the 360 counted within the system, by adding 5 extra days after the end of the year (the last day of the harvest season). These are known as epagomenal (added) days, each representing the birthday of a different god: Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys. The first day of the year was called the “Birth of Re.” As the Egyptians had no leap years, their calendar lost a day every 4 years.
The Coptic calendar, still in use today, is based on the ancient Egyptian one. Ptolemy III attempted to introduce a 6th epagomenal day every 4 years to avoid the loss, but the idea met opposition from the priests. This reformation was not put into use until Roman Emperor Augustus synchronized the Egyptian calendar to the Roman, Julian one in 25 BCE. This became known as the Coptic calendar, which is still in use today by the Coptic Church. Egyptian farmers still think in terms of the harvest season for obvious reasons.
Translating Egyptian dates into our calendar system is problematic for Egyptologists. We do not know how many years every king ruled, and sometimes there were two kings at once. However, scholars are helped a little by Egyptian astronomical calculations, most importantly the annual rising of Sirius at the start of the inundation season. Given the loss of 1 day every 4 years, if the rising of Sirius is recorded (only three such examples exist) the year (BCE) can be calculated to within a 4-year time frame, for example 13171320 BCE. Otherwise, there are different systems of establishing a margin of error; from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050-1800 BCE) it is about 30 years, and accuracy increases with the passing centuries. By the 6th century BCE, the margin of error virtually vanishes.
The Egyptians also divided their days into 24 hours, with the day beginning at sunrise (about 6 a.m.). The day and night were composed of 12 hours each. In astronomical texts each hour has a name, but in ordinary accounts they are simply numbered.
The Egyptians regarded time as not only linear, as we do nowadays, but as cyclical as well. Each day, week, month, year, and reign was regarded as newly created, hence the reason they calculated years according to the current king. Egyptian has two words for eternity: djet and neheh. Djet represents linear time, which refers to an unchanging flow of existence. Neheh signifies cyclical time, viewed daily by the rising and setting of the sun, the seasons, the inundation of the Nile, birth, death, and the reign of a new king. In other words, the Egyptians saw themselves as passing through a single time continuum, albeit in a cyclical fashion. A typical Egyptian formula goes djet neheh, usually translated as “for ever and ever” or “for ever and eternity,” used, for example, when wishing eternal life upon a king. The Egyptian calendar thus not only calculates the day, month, and year of a given event, but also summarizes a great deal about the Egyptian cosmology and how they viewed time itself—the very time that man fears, the time that fears the pyramids.
See also Roman Calendar; Measurements of Time
Allen, J. P. (1999). Middle Egyptian: An introduction to the language and culture of hieroglyphs. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Collier, M., & Manley, B. (2003). How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gardiner, A. H. (1957). Egyptian grammar: Being an introduction to the study of hieroglyphs. Oxford, UK: Griffith Institute.