Mesopotamia – Sunshine Supermen

Chapter III – Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia has been home to some of the oldest major civilizations, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians. Grouped together they are known as the Chaldean. It began with the rise of the first cities in southern Mesopotamia around 7,300 years ago and ended with the Persian conquest around 2,500 years ago. The achievements of these early astronomers, especially the Persians, and later Islamic, which I will include in this chapter, though not being significant until the seventh century A.D., were extremely significant to astronomy.

Tablet Of Shamash / historyly.com

By about 2,500 years ago, the Sumerian civilization was firmly established in Mesopotamia, during the archaeological period of Uruk. These early Sumerians saw the night sky as a blackboard on which the gods left cryptic messages. Their priests began to seriously and systematically observe the stars and planet’s movements, with a form of writing, known as cuneiform, also emerging around this time. The Sumerians would only practise a basic form of astronomy, but they had an important influence on the sophisticated astronomy of the later Babylonians, when astral theologies would give planetary gods an important role in mythology and religion.

Celestial phenomena, known as portents, have become linked to earthly events for millennia. Centuries of Babylonian observations of celestial phenomena are recorded in the series of cuneiform tablets known as the Enu‑ma Anu Enlil, a collection of nearly seven thousand portents dating back to about 3,500 years ago. The oldest significant astronomical text is carved into Tablet 63, the Venus tablet of Ammi‑saduqa, which lists the first and last visible risings of Venus over a period of about 21 years and show the first evidence of recognition that astronomical phenomena are periodic, and of the application of mathematics to these predictions.  All the portents were considered affairs of the state, since the priests believed that the gods used the sky to communicate great matters.

As such, the study of astronomy in most all ancient cultures became associated with omens, and within these Babylonian tablets the many omens were divided into four categories. Each named for the four gods (planets) under whose area they fell.

The Sin (the Moon) covered eclipses, conjunctions with fixed stars, and first crescents, which’s symbol represents the lunar first quarter, or the “sickle moon”, with its shape also representing the Moon itself, and, of Islam.

The Shamash (the Sun), were the observations of two suns solar haloes, and perihelia (the point in the orbit of a planet or comet at which it is nearest to the Sun).

Ishtar (Venus) listed the stations, risings, and first and last visibilities (what planets we can see with the naked eye). The time a planet becomes visible in the dawn sky (rising shortly before the Sun), to the time it disappears into the dark sky is called an apparition.

Adad (the Weather god), recorded a variety of meteorological phenomena, such as thunder, lightning, earth tremors and cloud formations. These tablets also contain catalogues of stars and constellations as well as schemes for predicting heliacal risings and the settings of the planets, which occurs annually when they briefly become visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise, after a period of less than a year when it had not been visible.

The Ammi‑saduqa also tell the lengths of daylight measured by a water clock, a gnomon, and shadows, as well as the application of mathematics to the variation in the length of daylight over a solar year. Also listed was a complete list of the helical risings and settings of the planet Venus. Star charts taken from this time are inscribed in clay tablets and show three concentric circles, each one divided up by 12 radii, with each of these 36 equally sized divisions containing the names of the constellations. It seems even the Sumerians knew the precession (a change in the orientation of the rotational axis of a rotating body), of the equinoxes (constellations), which is incredible.

To know about the precession of the equinoxes, where each constellation takes a turn at rising behind the rising Sun, (the observable phenomena of the rotation of the heavens), one would have to observe and take measurements, for thousands of years. Consider, the precession of the equinoxes spans a period of approximately, 25,920 years, over which time the constellations appear to slowly rotate around the Earth, (the observable phenomena of the rotation of the heavens), so how long could the Sumerians, and those before them, had studied and observed such events, one needs to ask. If indeed this was the case these ancient astronomers had already figured out one of the theories that Einstein would mathematically prove six thousand years later. That space does indeed perform the central function of time.

The precession of the equinoxes is where every 25,900 years the Earth’s axis of rotation changes. This slow change in the angle of the axis makes it appear that the positions of stars change over time, for example, the North Star today is Polaris, five thousand years ago it was Thuban, two thousand years from now it will be Alrai. The angle change causes the constellations of the zodiac to change relative to the spring equinox (April 21). In this precession the constellations appear to move backwards as time moves forwards, moving to the next constellation every 2,150 years.

Presently the Sun on April 21 rises in the constellation of Pisces. A few hundred years from now it will rise in the constellation of Aquarius, which is to say that every 25,900 years, each constellation will have had its turn rising in the east on April 21

Soon astrology, the idea that the position of the stars and planets could influence the fate of individual humans, by the differences in energy from the universe, began with the organization of the original 18 groups of stars into 12 constellations, where each became associated with a specific deity, for instance Orion was a shepherd with his sheep and his shepherds staff. The origins of much of astrological doctrine and method are found among the ancient Babylonians and their system of celestial omens that began to be compiled around this time. This system of celestial omens later spread either directly or indirectly from the Sumerians then, through the Babylonians and Assyrians to other areas such as India, Middle East, and Greece where it merged with pre‑existing indigenous forms of astrology. Babylonian astrology came to Greece around 2,400 years ago, and then around 2,100 years ago, after the Alexandrian conquests, this Babylonian astrology was mixed with the Egyptian tradition of deity astrology to create a diagram of the heavens showing the positions of the planets. This new form of astrology appears to have originated in Alexandrian Egypt, and then quickly spread back across the ancient world into Europe, the Middle East and India, where it still very much exists today.

As to astronomy, because a chapter further along discusses astrology, by 2,800 years ago, observations had become so organized that most all planetary movements were understood and observed. There are dozens of cuneiform Mesopotamia texts with real observations of eclipses, mainly from the Babylonian Era, that show they had the ability to predict eclipses of the sun and moon. Which gave no doubt that Babylonia was using highly-developed geometry as the basis for astronomical measurements. For example they arranged stars in “strings” that lie along declination circles and thus were able to measure ascensions (risings) or time intervals. They also used the star’s zenith, the highest point it reaches.

As to astronomy, because a chapter further along discusses astrology, by 2,800 years ago, observations had become so organized that most all planetary movements were understood and observed. There are dozens of cuneiform Mesopotamia texts with real observations of eclipses, mainly from the Babylonian Era, that show they had the ability to predict eclipses of the sun and moon. Which gave no doubt that Babylonia was using highly-developed geometry as the basis for astronomical measurements. For example they arranged stars in “strings” that lie along declination circles and thus were able to measure ascensions (risings) or time intervals. They also used the star’s zenith, the highest point it reaches.

In mathematics they came up with the idea of dividing up circles into 360 degrees, splitting up an hour into 60 minutes, and the same with a minute to 60 seconds, by using a sexagesimal system (based on the number 60 and relating to or reckoning by sixtieths). This simplified the task of recording very large and very small numbers. Under the realm of the Babylonian king, Nabonassar, around 2,700 years ago, there was a surge in quality and frequency in recorded observations, including the discovery of a repeating 18‑year cycle of lunar eclipses for example, which they called a saros.

One of many clay tablets unearthed from the Assyrian king Assurbanipal’s era (about 2,600 yrs ago), contained the vast number: 195,955,200,000,000. It is called the Nineveh number and is 60 times 70 to the power of seven. Working it out in seconds, it is a bit more than six million years. The time it takes for the earth to complete its precessional cycle (the regular motion of a spinning object) is just less than 26,000 years. Dividing this number into the Nineveh number, works out to be exactly 240 precessional cycles. Calculating the cycles of the planets and their satellites in seconds, each divides into the Nineveh number exactly. This is amazing mathematics at any time, let alone more than two and a half thousand years ago.

By 2,700 years ago Babylonian astronomy began to conform to present reckonings. A new calendar was then introduced that had 354 days, regulated into 12 months, alternating between 29 and 30 days. The New Year started with the appearance of the first new moon following the spring equinox. But this arrangement lagged behind the solar calendar by about 11 days so it was always falling out of time with the seasons. They solved the problem by noting that 235 lunar months made up exactly 19 solar years, so they decreed that seven extra lunar months would be inter-calculated every 19 lunar years to close the gap. This became known as the Nabunasir Calender.

Around this time the Babylonian astronomers also began to develop a new empirical approach to astronomy. They began studying philosophy dealing with the ideal nature of the universe and began employing an internal logic within their predictive planetary systems. This was an important contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science, and some scholars have referred to this new approach as the first scientific revolution. And was closely related to the fact most of these early astronomers were actually priest-scribes specializing in astrology and other forms of divination. This new approach to astronomy was adopted and further developed in Hellenistic (Greek) astronomy.

Around 300 years later, in the fourth century BC, the Greek, Eudoxus of Cnidus wrote a book on the fixed stars, with his descriptions of many constellations, especially the twelve signs of the zodiac, are suspiciously very similar to Babylonian originals. One hundred years later the Greek, Aristarchus of Samos, used an eclipse cycle of Babylonian origin called the Saros cycle to determine the year’s length. It is clear that by this time, many other Greek astronomers had a complete list of eclipse observations covering many centuries, and mostly all compiled from the earlier mentioned Sumerian’s clay tablets, the Enu-ma Anu Enlil, and from the relevant observations that the Babylonians had routinely made and recorded also.             

Around the same time, back in Babylonia, the astronomer/priest Kidinnu worked out the duration of the solar year to within 4min 33sec, which western astronomers did not achieve until less than 150 years ago. The Babylonians observed Halley’s Comet in 164 BC, and again in 87 BC, and determined that it passes the Earth every seventy-seven years.

During the rise of Islam, to assist in their observations, the Chaldean made use of an early rudimentary instrument called an astrolabe, invented by the Greeks in either the first or second centuries BC, and is often attributed to Hipparchus. (190-120 BC). It was effectively, an analog calculator, capable of working out several different kinds of problems in spherical astronomy. They also began to use an armillary sphere. The name of this device comes ultimately from the Latin armilla (circle or bracelet); since it has a skeleton made of graduated metal circles linking the poles, and represented the equator, the ecliptic, meridians and parallels. Usually a ball represented the Earth as the centre, such a sphere is known as a Ptolemaic, while the later spheres with the Sun at the centre were known as the Copernican. The armillary sphere was used to demonstrate the motion of the stars around the Earth.

While in its simplest form, consisting of a ring fixed in the plane of the equator, the armillary sphere was one of the most ancient of astronomical instruments. Slightly developed, it was crossed by another ring fixed in the plane of the meridian, with the first being an equinoctial, and the second, a solstitial armilla. Shadows were used as indications of the Sun’s positions, in combinations with angular divisions. When several rings or circles were combined representing the great circles of the heavens, the instrument became an armillary sphere.

Brass astrolabes on the other hand, were developed in the later Mesopotamia ages of the medieval Islamic world, chiefly as an aid to navigation but also as a way of finding the qibla, the direction of Mecca. Muslim astronomers produced an improved version of the Greek armillary sphere in the 8th century AD. Abbas Ibn Firnas (d.887) is thought to have produced another instrument with rings in 9th century, which he gifted to Caliph Muhammad I (ruled 852‑886).

The spherical astrolabe, a variation of both the astrolabe and the armillary sphere, was invented during the Middle Ages by astronomers and inventors in the Islamic world. The earliest description of the spherical astrolabe dates back to Al Nayrizi (892‑902 AD). Muslim astronomers also independently invented the celestial globe, which were used primarily for solving problems in celestial astronomy. Today, 126 such instruments remain worldwide, the oldest from the 11th century. The altitude of the Sun, and the right ascension and declination of stars could be calculated with these instruments by inputting the location of the observer on the meridian ring of the globe.

Astrolabe – Pinterest

In the Islamic world, astrolabes were used to find the times of sunrise and the rising of fixed stars, and were also used to help schedule morning prayers (salat). In the 10th century, al Sufi first described more than 1,000 different uses of an astrolabe, in areas as diverse as astronomy, astrology, horoscopes, navigation, surveying, timekeeping, and prayer.

After 700AD, Islam also advised Muslims to find ways of using the stars and on the basis of this advice, Muslims began to develop better observational and navigational instruments, thus most navigational stars today have Arabic names.

Influences of the Qur’an on Islamic astronomy included its “insistence that the universe is ruled by a single set of laws,” which was rooted in the Islamic concept, “the unity of God” (tawhid). There was also more respect for empirical data than was common in the preceding Greek civilization. Muslims were inspired to place a greater emphasis on empirical observation, instead of the ancient Greek philosophers such as the Plato and Aristotle, who expressed a general distrust toward the senses and instead viewed reason alone as being sufficient to understanding nature. The Qur’an’s insistence on observation, reason and contemplation, (see, think, and contemplate), led Muslims to develop an early scientific method based on these principles. For the Qur’an said; “And it is he who ordained the stars for you that you may be guided thereby in the darkness of the land and the sea.” There are also several cosmological verses in the Qur’an which some modern writers have interpreted as foreshadowing the expansion of the universe and possibly even the Big Bang theory. These include the verses, “Don’t those who reject faith see that the heavens and the earth were a single entity then we ripped them apart?” (Qur’an21:30), and “And the heavens we did create with Our Hands, and we do cause it to expand.”(Qur’an 51:47)

Though several texts attributed to Muhammad, show that he was generally opposed to astrology as well as superstition in general. An example of this is when an eclipse occurred during his son Ibrahim ibn Muhammad’s death, and rumours began spreading about this being a personal show of sympathy from God himself. Muhammad is said to have replied: “An eclipse is a phenomenon of nature. It is foolish to attribute such things to the death or birth of a human being.”

In observational astronomy, the first major original, Muslim work of astronomy was the “Zij-al Sindh” by al Khwarizimi in 830 AD. The work contains tables for the movements of the Sun, the moon and the other five planets known at the time. He used Hindu-Arabic numerals in his calculations, while Muhammad ibn Ja‑bir al Harra-ni al Batta-ni (Albatenius) (853‑929), discovered that the direction of the Sun’s eccentric was changing, which in modern astronomy is equivalent to the Earth moving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. His times for the new moon, lengths for the solar year and sidereal year, prediction of eclipses, and work on the phenomenon of parallax, carried astronomers closer and closer to understanding the laws of relativity and which would not happen for another 500 years.

In the 9th century, Ja’far Muhammad ibn Mu sa ‑ ibn Sha‑kir, would make significant contributions to astrophysics and celestial mechanics, he was the first to hypothesize that the heavenly bodies and celestial spheres are subject to the same laws of physics as Earth, unlike the ancients who believed that the celestial spheres followed their own set of physical laws different from that of Earth. In his “Astral Motion and The Force of Attraction,” he would also propose that there is a force of attraction between heavenly bodies, which foreshadows Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathi-r al-Fargha-ni, in 850, gave values for the obliquity of the ecliptic and the processional movements of the sun, when it is at its farthest distance from the earth.

In the 10th century A.D., Abd al Rahman al Sufi (Azophi) carried out observations on the stars and described their positions, magnitudes, brightness, and colour, through drawings of each constellation in his book, the “Book of Fixed Stars,” where he also mentions the “nebula.” He also gave the first descriptions and pictures of what he called, “a little cloud,” which is now known as the Andromeda Galaxy, and along with the Large Magellanic Cloud, are the first galaxies other than the Milky Way to be observed from Earth. He mentions it as lying before the mouth of the Big Fish, an Arabic constellation.

The astronomer, Ibn Yunis, used an astrolabe with a diameter of nearly 1.4 metres, and spent years observing and then recording more than 10,000 entries for the Sun’s position. Around 1000 the Persian astronomer Abu-Rayha-n al-Bi-ru-ni, described the Milky Way as a collection of many nebulous stars, and in 1019 observes and gives a detailed description of the solar eclipse on April 8 and the lunar eclipse on September 17, and then gives the exact latitudes of the stars during the lunar eclipse. He also calculates the distance between the Earth and the Sun in his work, the “Mas’udicus.” Then in 1006, Ali ibn Ridwan, as well as Chinese astronomers, observed SN 1006, the brightest supernova in recorded history, and left a detailed description of the temporary star.

The 11th century would become a landmark time for the Islamic astronomers, who diligently kept studying the celestial realm and furthered knowledge in most all of the sciences. In the beginning of the century, Omar Khayyám would compile many tables, and perform a reformation of the calendar that was more accurate than the Julian calendar, and came close to the Gregorian. An amazing feat was his calculation of the year to be 365.24219858156 days long, which is accurate to the 6th decimal place. Later that year the Arabian astronomer Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) discovered and recorded that the celestial spheres do not consist of solid matter, and that the heavens are less dense than air, in his “Book of Optics.” He also refutes Aristotle’s theory on the Milky Way by making the first attempt at observing and measuring the Milky Way’s parallax. It’s angular displacement due to it being observed from the surface, instead of the centre of the Earth, and the difference of it being observed from the Earth instead of the Sun. He determined that because the Milky Way had no parallax, it had to be very far from the Earth and did not belong to the Earth’s atmosphere. Then in 1054, Arabian, and once again, Chinese astronomers, observe the star SN 1054, which becomes responsible for the creation of the Crab Nebula, the only nebula whose creation has ever been observed.

The hits kept coming, when in 1350, Ibn al-Shatir, anticipated Copernicus by more than a hundred years, and by abandoning the theory of Ptolemy, that all axis are the same length, he provided new calculations of planetary motion, which provided the first provable model of lunar motions which accurately match observations. Around the same time, Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya of Syria, proposes that the Milky Way galaxy to be a great number of tiny stars packed together in the sphere of the fixed stars, and that these stars are larger than the planets.

In the 15th century, Ali Kus-cu provided empirical evidence for the Earth’s rotation on its axis, and rejects the stationary Earth theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

In the 16th century, Taqi al-Din measured the right ascension of the stars at his observatory in Istanbul, using an “observational clock” in which he invented, and described as a mechanical clock with three dials which show the hours, minutes and seconds. And to think, all this combined knowledge that had been achieved up until this time, had been reached through dedicated observing of the universe, with the naked eye, and the use of mathematics.            

Up until the 17th century the Chaldean civilizations had a profound effect on astronomy and cosmology. They had the advantage of being some of the first humans ever, to study the skies and record what they were seeing, as well as having the advantage that their astronomers, scientists, and mathematicians had the freedom and security to advance along in their quest for seeking knowledge. Much unlike the West, where after the Greeks, Christianity would, more often than not, prosecute or murder an individual who was interested in science. Though there were many who would continue on from the Greeks in Europe, in most cases, they had to achieve this in secrecy and were supported privately.

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