Time, calendar and history | Political economics

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Ercy Bysshe Shelley’s observation of the link between time and history is truly fascinating: “History is a cyclical poem written by time on the memories of man”. So, history is the way to understand the elusive category we know as time.

My Favorite Leo Tolstoy War and peace, a must read for those who aspire to become historians, tells us through the character of General Kutuzov: “But believe me, my dear boy, there is nothing stronger than these two: patience and time. The general refers to patience and time as his “warriors” and “champions”.

Writing massive novels takes both patience and time – but as Tolstoy proved through his work together, they are a powerful recipe for success in any field.

According to archaeological evidence, the Babylonians and Egyptians were measuring time at least 5,000 years ago. They introduced calendars to organize and coordinate communal activities and public events, to plan the dispatch of goods and, in particular, to regulate planting and harvesting cycles.

Time forms the basis of history like the space of geography or the matter of the physical sciences. Until a method to keep an accurate record of it could be found, historical data remained uncharted territory or unanalyzed stuff. Nothing could provide a clearer clue to the units of time required than the movement of the earth on its axis and the movement of the moon around it.

Therefore, the first stopwatch was the universe itself. The ever-recurring movements crossed out years, months, and days in the same way our clocks now cross out hours, minutes, and seconds. Thus, time, space and history hold each other in a tight embrace.

SM Jaffar says: “Days, months and years are on the same level as seconds, minutes and hours, except that they are created by a colossal clock.” The movement of the moon suggested the division of time into months, each month being composed 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 the year. The Sumerians of 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 divided the period from sunrise to sunset into twelve equal parts, giving us the precursor to today’s hours. As a result, Egyptian time was not a constant length, as it is today; rather, like a twelfth of the daylight period, it varied with the length of the day, and therefore with the seasons.

The division of time into weeks came to us from the laws of Moses, according to which the seventh day was the sabbath or the day of rest. The Jewish year had 12 lunar months, to which another month was added, if necessary, to adjust it to the sun and the seasons.

The origins of the Babylonian lunar calendar date back well beyond the third millennium. Shotwell, in his Introduction to the History of Historyasserts that “we find a Babylonian year of twelve lunar months, or 354 days, with a thirteenth month added from time to time – making this year 384 days – to restore religious festivals and business”.

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 used worldwide today.

The discovery that in nineteen years the moon returned almost to its original position relative to the sun, opened up new avenues for the interworking of calendar and chronology. It led to the emergence of the sciences of astronomy and mathematics. It was an epoch in the history of thought, an epoch of fundamental importance for history. From that time until today, the years have been numbered in regular and unbroken succession.

Vikram Samvat, the calendar, has been used by Hindus and Sikhs. One of several regional Hindu calendars used on the Indian subcontinent, it is based on twelve synodic lunar months and 365 solar days. Emperor Vikramaditya of Ujjain founded Vikram Samvat in 57 BC and this timeline is believed to follow his victory over the Saka.

The lunar year begins with the new moon in the month of Chaitra. The dates of the kings of Assyria were fixed and the list drawn up, from the year 747 BC. J.-C., by the astronomers of Alexandria, who finally solved the problem in calendar and chronology.

The Assyrian Babylonian year was rendered in the “fixed” Egyptian year of 365 ¼ days. The era of Nabonassar was adopted in the Alexandrian and Persian Empire and the trace of time has been preserved since 747 BC. AD, so the account of events with reference to years or dates (history) was called tarikh and ayam.

The Roman calendar was reformed by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. The Julian calendar no longer depended on the sighting 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.

Above all, the moon and not the sun is generally seen as the first guide to the calendar. The East, in this case, took the lead and came up with the earlier versions of the calendar and chronology. We know that Islam follows the lunar system instead of the solar system, which Jaffar calls artificial.

A calendar reform in Persia led by Khayyam was announced in 1079, when the length of the year was measured at 365.24219858156 days. Since the length of the year changes to six decimal places over a person’s lifetime, this is extremely 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 used worldwide as the standard calendar for secular purposes.


The author is a professor at liberal arts faculty to Beacon House National University, Lahore. He can be reached at [email protected]


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