On the Thames Embankment and in the Place de la Concorde, atop the Spanish Steps and in St Peter's Square, even in the midst of New York's Central Park, the ancient Egyptian sun-god Ra illuminates unsuspecting passers-by. Thanks to the acquisitiveness of Roman emperors and 19th-century imperialists, many of the obelisks that once graced the sun-god's temples in Egypt now mark less sacred ground.
In The Cult of Ra , Stephen Quirke demonstrates how vital the worship of the sun-god was to Egyptian life and thought. Ra was the centre of the state, the source of all life and the power through which the dead would be reborn. In art, he could be represented in a myriad of forms - a falcon or ram-headed man, a scarab beetle, or a child - as he travelled by boat through the day and night skies. Priests in his cult were among the most powerful men in Egypt, while pharaohs were called the "sons of Ra" on earth. Sophisticated astronomical measurements charted the course of the sun in order to schedule rites in its honour, and state resources were poured into solar-inspired building projects such as obelisks, pyramids, and Ra's main temple at Heliopolis, which is now largely obliterated beneath the Cairo suburbs.
Quirke has assembled textual and archaeological sources and up-to-date scholarship to create a seamless narrative of how solar worship was ingrained in Egyptian myth and ritual. Although the subject (and at times the writing) is complex, this book effortlessly brings Egypt's most important god to life for Egyptophiles and students, while the same author's Ancient Egyptian Religion (1992) is an excellent starting point for readers with less background in the subject.
The cult of Ra is particularly associated with the tombs and monuments of Egypt's kings, but poetic hymns to the sun suggest that the tenets of solar theology reached a wider audience as well. Quirke analyses several examples of these hymns, which praise the power of the sun as it rises triumphantly each morning and calmly sets in the evening: "May your radiance come to be upon my breast" is the hymn-writer's simple request of Ra.
In a fascinating chapter devoted to Heliopolis, or Iunu in ancient Egyptian, Quirke collects the scattered and fragmentary evidence that shows what an important place this cult centre was in antiquity. Although only an expanse of grass and a handful of monuments survive at the site today, Heliopolis once boasted a temple complex for Ra that may have been nearly double the size of the Karnak enclosure in Luxor, where tourists can tramp through 100 hectares of temple ruins.
It would be easy to dismiss the cult of Ra as the simplistic worship of a visible body, the sun, but to do so misses the beauty and complexity inherent in Egyptian religion. The cycle of birth and death and the ongoing struggle to balance negative and positive forces are as present in Egypt's solar cult as they are in eastern philosophies that have more recently penetrated western consciousness, from feng shui to Ayurvedic skincare. One should spare an upward glance at Cleopatra's Needles, even on a cloudy day.
Christina Riggs is junior research fellow in Egyptology, Queen's College, Oxford.
The Cult of Ra: Sun-worship in Ancient Egypt
Author - Stephen Quirke
ISBN - 0 500 05107 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £18.95
Pages - 184