The cyclic movement of the sun and the consequent occurrence of the seasons gave us a unit of time called year
ercy Bysshe Shelley’s observation making a connection between time and history is truly fascinating: “History is a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man”. Thus, history is the way to understand the elusive category known to us as time.
My favourite Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a must read for those who aspire to be historians, tells us through the character of General Kutuzov, “But believe me, my dear boy, there is nothing stronger than those two: patience and time.” The general refers to patience and time as his “warriors” and “champions.”
Writing voluminous novels takes both patience and time — but as Tolstoy has proved through his work together they are a powerful recipe for success in every field.
According to archaeological evidence, the Babylonians and Egyptians used to measure time at least 5,000 years ago. They introduced calendars to organise and coordinate communal activities and public events, to schedule the shipment of goods and, in particular, to regulate cycles of planting and harvesting.
Time forms the basis of history as space does of geography or matter of the physical sciences. Until some method of keeping accurate track of it could be found, historical data remained an uncharted land or an unanalysed substance. Nothing could afford a clearer clue to the requisite units of time than the movement of the earth on its axis and the motion of the moon around it.
Therefore, the first chronometer was the universe itself. The ever-recurring movements struck off the years, the months, and the days in the same way as our clocks now strike off the hours, minutes and seconds. Thus, time, space and history hold each other in a tight embrace.
SM Jaffar says, “The days, the months and the years are on a par with the seconds, the minutes and the hours, except that they are created by a colossal clock.” The movement of the moon suggested the division of time into months, each month consisting of 29 or 30 days.
The cyclic movement of the sun and the consequent occurrence of the seasons gave us a unit of time called year. The Sumerians in Mesopotamia are credited with creating the very first calendar, which divided a year into 12 lunar months, each consisting of 29 or 30 days.
The Egyptians broke the period from sunrise to sunset into twelve equal parts, giving us the forerunner of today’s hours. As a result, the Egyptian hour was not a constant length of time, as is the case today; rather, as one-twelfth of the daylight period, it varied with the length of the day, and hence with the seasons.
The division of time into weeks came down to us from the Laws of Moses, according to which the seventh day was Sabbath or the day for rest. The Jewish year had 12 lunar months, to which another month was added, when needed, to adjust it to the sun and the seasons.
The origins of Babylonian lunar calendar go far back — beyond the third millennium. Shotwell, in his Introduction to the History of History, contends that “we find a Babylonian year of twelve lunar months, making up 354 days, with a thirteenth month thrown in once in a while — making that year 384 days — to bring the religious festivals and the business world right again.”
For comparison, the length of the year at the end of the 19th Century was 365.242196 days, today it is 365.242190 days. The Gregorian calendar was introduced as a refinement of the Julian calendar in 1582, and is in worldwide use today.
The discovery that in nineteen years the moon returned to almost its original position with reference to the sun, opened fresh avenues for the interworking of calendar and chronology. It led to the emergence of the sciences of astronomy and mathematics. Here was an epoch in the history of thought, an epoch of fundamental importance for history. From that time to the present, the years have been numbered in regular unbroken succession.
Vikram Samvat, the calendar, has been used by Hindus and Sikhs. One of several regional Hindu calendars in use on the Indian subcontinent, it is based on twelve synodic lunar months and 365 solar days. Emperor Vikramaditya of Ujjain started Vikram Samvat in 57 BC and it is believed that this calendar follows his victory over the Saka.
The lunar year begins with the new moon of the month of Chaitra. The dates of the kings of Assyria were fixed and the list drawn up, beginning with the year 747 BC, by the astronomers of Alexandria, who finally worked out the problem in calendar and chronology.
The Babylonian Assyrian year was rendered into the ‘fixed’ Egyptian year of 365 ¼ days. The Era of Nabonassar was adopted in the Alexandrian and Persian Empire and the track of time has been kept since 747 BC, so that the narrative of events with reference to years or dates (history) came to be called tarikh and ayyam.
The Roman calendar was reformed by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. The Julian calendar was no longer dependent on the observation of the new moon but simply followed an algorithm of introducing a leap day every four years. This created a dissociation of the calendar month from the lunation.
Importantly, the moon and not the sun is generally perceived as the earliest guide toward the calendar. The East in that case took lead and came up with the earlier versions of calendar and chronology. We know that Islam follows the lunar system instead of solar, which Jaffar calls artificial.
A calendar reform in Persia led by Khayyam was announced in 1079, when the length of the year was measured as 365.24219858156 days. Given that the length of the year is changing in the sixth decimal place over a person’s lifetime, this is outstandingly accurate.
For comparison, the length of the year at the end of the 19th Century was 365.242196 days; today it is 365.242190 days. The Gregorian calendar was introduced as a refinement of the Julian calendar in 1582, and is today in worldwide use as the standard calendar for secular purposes.
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org