Step back in time to an ancient dawn at Newgrange, the dome-shaped stone tomb constructed on the rich lands of Ireland’s Boyne Valley more than 5,000 years ago—before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Your journey truly begins once you step inside, and a 62-foot-long (19 m) inner passage leads you into a chamber in the shape of a cross.
But time your visit to December’s winter solstice, and a single, golden ray of light will illuminate your sense of awe.
At dawn on several days around the solstice, December 21 or 22, a narrow beam of sunlight penetrates the opening just above the entrance. It reaches the floor, gradually crawling toward the rear of the chamber.
As the sun rises, the beam expands, filling the tomb with the first light of the year’s shortest days. The Neolithic light show, encapsulating the natural cycle of life and rebirth, lasts for 17 minutes.
“Archaeologists have classified Newgrange as a passage tomb,” writes local expert Michael Fox, “but it is more than that. ‘Ancient temple’ is a more fitting label: a place of astronomical, spiritual, and ceremonial importance.”
Ancient carvings can be seen on many of the massive, kidney-shaped mound’s curbstones, including the triple-spiral design synonymous with Newgrange.
In the know: Admission to the chamber is limited to 20 people a day during the winter solstice and is decided annually by lottery. Application forms are available at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, or you can email your name, address, telephone number, and email address to email@example.com.
At the end of September, 50 names are drawn by local schoolchildren. But even without a place inside, many gather for sunrise on the mornings between December 18 and 23 at the entrance to the mound.
This article first appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.