Part One: Ancient Stargazers
Astronomy’s Birthplace: Iraq
(Part 1 of 3)
(Editor Note: What was the most famous star described in the Bible that led the Wise Men to the manger of the Christian Messiah, Jesus? The Loafer’s astronomy columnist Mark Marquette looks at the night skies of the time and the mindset of ancient peoples in a series of three articles that gives one explanation for the Star of Bethlehem.)
The time is 6,000 years ago and the place is a fertile paradise between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Villages of primitive peoples began harnessing fire, clothing themselves in animal pelts and developing a crude, verbal language. And they began keeping track of time by worshipping the movements of the Sun and Moon.
This is the forgotten land called Shinar, the “Cradle of Civilization” and the birthplace of astronomy.
The peoples of antiquity who have populated this land around 3,000 BC have been called Sumerians, Babylonians, Akkadians, Chaldeans and Persians.
In the 21st Century, the peoples populating ancient Shinar are called Iranian or Iraqi, as the famous Fertile Crescent is today a hotbed of war and world politics.
Modern day Iran and Iraq are where mankind first brought the stars down to Earth and planted the seeds for the mystery surrounding the most famous star of all time: Star of Bethlehem.
Surrounding today’s Baghdad is where ancient minds spawned the concept of time as they carefully recorded rhythm of the Sun, Moon and stars.
Ancient stargazers convinced the common people of the times that gods ruled the Sun, Moon and planets as they wandered against a set background of star patterns named for extraordinary animals of the times—both real and imaginary. These early stargazers made the naïve connection of sky phenomenon to the destiny of humans, giving birth to astrology. It seemed logical to people that change in the sky would affect changes to human lives as nobody knew the true nature of the stars.
The Moon changed its appearance day-by-day, repeating every 28 days. Sometimes the Moon covered up stars. Sometimes darkness covered up the bright Moon. And on real special times, the Sun disappeared in the middle of the day, only to return to normal within minutes.
For thousands of years, Bible scholars and stargazers have wondered what was physically in the sky that provoked the writer of the Gospel Matthew to record the short story about Magi traveling from afar, following “star” and paying homage to an infant Jesus in Bethlehem of today’s nation of Israel.
Understanding the concepts of the heavens developed from the land of Shinar is an important mindset to the unraveling of the mystery surrounding the Star of Bethlehem.
Born along side of astronomy was its illegitimate sibling of astrology. The first serious sky watchers became valuable to the royalty of the civilized peoples of ancient Shinar. Soon Kings and Queens hired these soothsayers of the stars, mixing religion and astronomy. Centuries later we learn of Zoroastrian Priests of Persia, a thousand years before Jesus’ time. These special skywatchers were always looking for signs of the future while recording the exact positions of the celestial lights.
The astronomers in those priest/astrologers made their first discovery in keeping accurate time, an important duty for the dawn of civilized cities. The important religious feasts and sacrifices were determined by certain appearances of the Sun and Moon in the sky. Crops were planted and harvested by the appearance of certain stars on the eastern horizon.
As details of the sky’s movements were observed day after day, familiar patterns emerged and mankind became familiar with the exact length of the day, the year and the seasonal cycles the Earth went through.
In an attempt to explain their world in the context of their intellect, the ancient stargazers came up with many concepts that involved supernatural Gods performing the tasks that modern physics explains.
The unlocking of the secrets of celestial motion in the sky and the true nature of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars is a relatively new concept born by the great astronomer scientist Galileo just 400 years ago.
The previous five or six thousand years have had a human mindset of the Earth, not the Sun, being the center of not just the Solar System, but also the entire Universe.
And the influence of the points of light in the sky on the human race led to the concoction of many Gods to explain the eclipses of the Sun and Moon, the close gatherings of the bright planets, and the location of the Moon against the same background of stars.
Centuries of stargazing is placed against a background of Kings, Queens and dynasties, the legends and destiny of these world leaders enhanced by the purported omens in the sky.
And over 2,000 years ago, something in the sky lead a group of “Wise Men” to visit a babe in a manger who filled an ancient prophecy of a Messiah for the Hebrews. What was it?
Today, the 21st century war zone of Iran and Iraq is the ancient Shinar Plains, talked about in the Old Testament Bible, and where peoples of antiquity gave birth to their ideas about the Sun, Moon and stars.
Now considered the cradle of all civilized man, around 4,000 BC this region of the world east of Europe was a lush paradise and inhabited by an intelligent breed of human, the Sumerians.
Where they came from, how they got to Shinar, and where they learned their skilled ways is a mystery. But the Sumerians pioneered irrigation, and turned the land between the two mighty rivers into rich farmland that would be known throughout history as the “Fertile Crescent.” Then, they rebuilt the villages into towns, and created pottery, artwork and music.
It was the ancient Sumerians who developed a numbering system based on 60 units—still used today in the minutes of an hour and degrees in a circle.
So long ago were these intelligent inhabitants of the Shinar Plains, no names existing of their scholars or leaders.
The Sumerian people lived in the lands around today’s Baghdad, and they built temples to the Gods.
And their Gods were the revered deities who controlled the skies above with impact on humans below, which was interpreted by the moving Sun, Moon and stars.
The Sumerians made stargazing the religious duties of special priests, and the science of astronomy was born. The stargazer priest was soon revered throughout ancient history as a sort of psychic. And the maligned, false science of astrology was born.
To many civilizations before and after the Sumerians, the movement of the Sun and Moon were the whim of God. The Earth was the center of the entire visible universe—a concept not debunked until the 17th Century.
Carefully plotted were the fixed star patterns that were imaginatively clumped together to form renderings of heroes, animals and everyday objects in the night sky. Many of today’s modern day constellations have had the same boundaries and names for thousands of years.
Then, there were the five stars that moved around the fixed patterns, today’s naked eye planets. Mysterious meteors streaked briefly across the sky, and occasionally a comet would slowly move through the heavens. Sometimes the full Moon would turn red or disappear. And once in a while the Sun would turn black in the daytime. For thousands of years, civilizations worldwide believed everything in the sky was controlled by a God and had meaning for humans.
Carefully watched were the five wandering stars as they moved around the sky. Today we know them as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, named after Roman gods. They were given different names by many civilizations, but their prophesized impact humanity was a universal belief.
When one or more of these wandering stars brightened and were near each other, the stargazing priests interpreted the “conjunction” as a celestial message from the Gods. The fate of kings and empires could be at stake.
The general population of ancient peoples knew the sky well—the star patterns being the foundation of mythogical stories told from generation to generation.
But it was up to the special stargazing priests to interpret the astrological horoscope of the heavens. Their powerful position helped shape the conquests and failures of history’s ancient kings and empires.
NEXT WEEK: part 2 of 3, The ancient concepts of the night sky.