Ancient Egypt: Birthplace of the Modern Calendar

Ancient Egyptian calendar carved into the stone walls of the Temple of Kom Ombo, dating to about 2nd to 1st century BC

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The way in which we divide the day into hours and minutes, as well as the structure and length of the yearly calendar, owes much to pioneering developments in ancient Egypt.

Since Egyptian life and agriculture depended upon the annual flooding of the Nile, it was important to determine when such floods would begin. The early Egyptians noted that the beginning of akhet (inundation) occurred at the heliacal rising of a star they called Serpet (Sirius). It has been calculated that this sidereal year was only 12 minutes longer than the mean tropical year which influenced the flooding, and this produced a difference of only 25 days over the whole of Ancient Egypt's recorded history.

3 Egyptian Calendars

Ancient Egypt was run according to three different calendars. The first was a lunar calendar based on 12 lunar months, each of which began on the first day in which the old moon crescent was no longer visible in the East at dawn. (This is most unusual since other civilizations of that era are known to have started months with the first setting of the new crescent!) A thirteenth month was intercalated to maintain a link to the heliacal rising of Serpet. This calendar was used for religious festivals.

The second calendar, used for administrative purposes, was based on the observation that there was usually 365 days between the heliacal rising of Serpet. This civil calendar was split into twelve months of 30 days with an additional five epagomenal days attached at the end of the year. These additional five days were considered to be unlucky. Although there is no firm archaeological evidence, a detailed back calculation suggests that the Egyptian civil calendar dates back to circa 2900 BCE.

This 365-day calendar is also known as a wandering calendar, from the Latin name annus vagus since it slowly gets out of synchronization with the solar year. (Other wandering calendars include the Islamic year.)

A third calendar, which dates back at least to the 4th century BCE was used to match the lunar cycle to the civil year. It was based on a period of 25 civil years which was approximately equal 309 lunar months.

The Leap Year in Ancient Egypt

An attempt to reform the calendar to include a leap year was made at the beginning of the Ptolemaic dynasty (Decree of Canopus, 239 BCE), but the priesthood was too conservative to allow such a change. This pre-dates the Julian reform of 46 BCE which Julius Caesar introduced on the advice of the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenese. Reform did, however, come after the defeat of Cleopatra and Anthony by the Roman General (and soon to be Emperor) Augustus in 31 BCE. In the following year, the Roman senate decreed that the Egyptian calendar should include a leap year, although the actual change to the calendar didn't occur until 23 BCE.

Months, Weeks, and Decades

The months of the Egyptian civil calendar were further divided into three sections called "decades", each of 10 days. The Egyptians noted that the heliacal rising of certain stars, such as Sirius and Orion, matched the first day of the 36 successive decades and called these stars decans. During any one night, a sequence of 12 decans would be seen to rise and was used to count the hours. (This division of the night sky, later adjusted to account for the epagomenal days, had close parallels to the Babylonian zodiac. The signs of the zodiac each accounting for three of the decans. This astrological device was exported to India and then to Medieval Europe via Islam.)

Egyptian Clock Time

Early man divided the day into temporal hours whose length depended upon the time of year. A summer hour, with the longer period of daylight, would be longer than that of a winter day. It was the Egyptians who first divided the day (and night) into 24 temporal hours.

The Egyptians measured time during the day using shadow clocks, precursors to the more recognizable sun dials seen today. Records suggest that early shadow clocks were based on the shadow from a bar crossing four marks, representing hourly periods starting two hours into the day. At midday, when the sun was at its highest, the shadow clock would be reversed and hours counted down to dusk. An improved version using a rod (or gnomon) and which indicates the time according to the length and position of the shadow has survived from the second millennia BCE.

Problems with observing the sun and stars may have been the reason the Egyptians invented the water clock, or "clepsydra" (meaning water thief in Greek). The earliest remaining example survives from the Temple of Karnak is dated to the 15th century BCE. Water drips through a small hole in one container to a lower one. Marks on either container can be used to give a record of hours passed. Some Egyptian clepsydras have several sets of marks to be used at different times of the year, to maintain consistency with the seasonal temporal hours. The design of the clepsydra was later adapted and improved by the Greeks.

The Influence of Astronomy on Minutes and Hours

As a result of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, a great wealth of knowledge of astronomy was exported from Babylon into India, Persia, the Mediterranean, and Egypt. The great city of Alexandria with its impressive Library, both founded by the Greek-Macedonian family of Ptolemy, served as an academic center.

Temporal hours were of little use to astronomers, and around 127 CE Hipparchus of Nicea, working in the great city of Alexandria, proposed dividing the day into 24 equinoctial hours. These equinoctial hours, so called because they are based on the equal length of day and night at the equinox, split the day into equal periods. (Despite his conceptual advance, ordinary people continued to use temporal hours for well over a thousand years: the conversion to equinoctial hours in Europe was made when mechanical, weight driven clocks were developed in the 14th century.)

The division of time was further refined by another Alexandrian based philosopher, Claudius Ptolemeus, who divided the equinoctial hour into 60 minutes, inspired by the scale of measurement used in ancient Babylon. Claudius Ptolemaeus also compiled a great catalog of over one thousand stars, in 48 constellations and recorded his concept that the universe revolved around the Earth. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was translated into Arabic (in 827 CE) and later into Latin (in the 12th century CE). These star tables provided the astronomical data used by Gregory XIII for his reform of the Julian calendar in 1582.

Sources

  • Richards, EG. Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • General History of Africa II: Ancient Civilizations of Africa. James Curry Ltd., University of California Press, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1990.