History of Astronomy in Ancient Times

We are drawn to beauty as humans. And nothing is more magnificent than the celestial bodies positioned above us to be seen. Our globe has never been short of attractions, with the stars, sun, moon, and planets for us to enjoy!

Human curiosity with astronomy may be traced back to ancient times. Our affinity with the astronomical objects has developed over the years. The curiosity was so powerful that humans were not satisfied with what they could see with their own eyes. From looking up and staring at the sky, man devised tools like the telescope to magnify and plainly view what was previously unseen. With all of these innovations and discoveries, it appears like the globe conspired to form modern astronomy.

Here are seven ancient cultures’ contributions to the field:

Astronomy in Babylonia

The Babylonians were among the earliest civilizations to record the motions of the sun and moon, dating back to 1800 B.C. They kept a comprehensive record of these motions, including the positions of the celestial planets on a daily, monthly, and annual basis. This knowledge was initially of mythical importance, and it was utilized to warn the monarch of impending disasters.

The Babylonians are supposed to have recorded the earliest occurrences of the famed Halley’s comet, and they were also the first to split the sky into zones.

Newly translated ancient tablets describing math, illustrate that Babylonian astronomers employed advanced geometry to understand the planets and helped describe how the planet Jupiter  can be tracked across the sky.

Tablet Observation of Halley's Comet (Illustration) - World History Encyclopedia

Credit: Amin, O. S. M. Tablet Observation of Halley’s Comet. World History Encyclopedia

Greek Astronomy

When people think about astronomy, the Greeks are the first to spring to mind. They are often regarded as the fathers of ancient astronomy, having developed hypotheses and mathematical formulae in an attempt to explain the world. Eratosthenes is one of the most famous Greek scholars. He has excelled not only in the field of astronomy, but also in geography, mathematics, poetry, and music. He is well-known for a number of astronomical discoveries. His most notable contribution was determining the circumference of the Earth. His calculation was only a few hundred or thousand kilometers off. Given the lack of appropriate technology at the time, it is quite accurate. He is also in charge of estimating the tilt of the Earth’s axis and envisioning leap year.

Pythagoras is another Greek philosopher who is most recognized for his contributions to mathematics but also to astronomy. He proposed that the earth, like other heavenly bodies, had a spherical form. He had this notion after seeing ships pass across the horizon. He was the first to propose that the motions of the planets, sun, moon, and stars could be quantified.

Credit: Wikipedia, image by Lookang
Credit: spark.iop.org (Flask model of the Pythagorean system)

Astronomy in India

The most important contribution of Ancient India in the subject of Astronomy was made by Aryabhatiya. He is credited with steering Indian astronomy away from the mystical and sacred but towards the scientific. Despite the fact that his works are based on the notion that the earth is geocentric, many of them are still useful in current mathematics and astronomy. Aryabhatiya deduced that the Earth rotates on its axis and that the Moon and other planets glow through reflected sunlight.

Astronomy of the Mayan

Mayan astronomers looked to the stars for direction. They were especially interested in the movements of the stars, sun, and other planets. The ancient Mayans were able to monitor and record these motions by inventing shadow-casting instruments. They established the Mayan Calendar to keep track of the passage of time based on these findings.

Astronomy in Egypt

Ancient Egypt, being one of the most accomplished and prosperous nations, made substantial contributions to modern astronomy. The motions and patterns of the sky, like in any ancient society, sparked the invention of tales to explain celestial phenomena. The Egyptians are not exempt to this. They have massive pyramids and temples built according to astronomical locations. The Great Pyramid of Giza is an example of this method. It was constructed to align with the North Star, which at the time was Thuban rather than Polaris.

The Nabta Playa is among Egypt’s most remarkable astronomical sites. It is the location of a circular stone construction that is thought to be a gigantic calendar used to determine the summer solstice. The Egyptian interest in astronomy is not only religious, but also utilitarian. They used celestial body observations to forecast and hence prepare for the flooding of the Nile River. The Egyptians created a calendar system that is similar to the one we use today. It is split into 12 months and has 30 days in each month. The distinction is that they have 10 days per week and three weeks each month.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Nabta Playa: The world’s first astronomical site)

Astronomy in China

The Chinese have one of the most extensive records of astronomical observations. Gan De was a well-known astronomer in Ancient China. He was the first to observe Ganymede, which he characterized at the time as a little reddish “star” orbiting Jupiter. Shi Shen also constructed one of the most detailed and oldest star catalogues, the Shi Star Catalogue. The Chinese took notice of stars that appeared unexpectedly among other fixed stars. It was assumed that what they saw was a supernova. An archaeologist uncovered the Dunhuang Star Atlas in a Buddhist cave in Dunhuang, China. It is considered to be the world’s oldest known preserved star chart, dating back to AD 700.

Astronomy in Islam

During the Post-Islamic civilisation, astronomy was extremely popular. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, also known as Azophi, was a renowned astronomer of his day. His work The Book of Fixed Stars was the first to describe the Andromeda Galaxy. He added various changes and modifications to Ptolemy’s original understanding of constellations.

Abu Mahmud Hamid ibn Khidr al-Khujandi is a skilled astronomer who constructed a massive sextant to calculate the Earth’s axis. It was his own creation, and its vast size allowed for far more precise calculations. His measurement was two minutes off; a degree of precision never before achieved.

It is noteworthy that many stars in the sky, including Aldebaran, Altair, and Deneb, as well as astronomical words like alidade, azimuth, and nadir, are still known by their Arabic names.

Credit: WikiMedia Commons

By Eng. Ahmed Mohamed Bushlaibi, July 7th, 2022