Writtern by Robert W. Lebling
From earliest times, humans have lifted their gazes skyward, where the gyring of hawks and gulls made us first wonder what the world looks like to a bird. Today, though vistas from airliner windows rarely excite more than a glance, there are still views from above that can fascinate us by revealing the sensual beauty of landforms and the kaleidoscopic patterns of towns and cities, all shaped by nature, history and culture and rarely showing any traces of political borders.
One of the earliest written legends to describe the Earth from above comes from the tablets of ancient Mesopotamia. In it, an eagle carries Etana, King of Sumer, up to heaven:
When he bore him aloft one league,
The eagle said to him, to Etana:
“Look, my friend, how the land is now.
Examine the sea, look for its boundaries.
The land is hills....
The sea has become a stream.”
In classical Greek stories, flight was a divine prerogative. Though Hermes, the wing-footed courier, was Olympus’s top-ranking aeronaut, and chariot-driving Apollo captained the daily sun shuttle, all of the Greek deities could take to the air when they wished.
Trespassing fatefully on their prerogative was a legendary duo: the inventor Daedalus and his son Icarus. Their wings of feathers and beeswax were inspired by the eagles that plied the cliffs on the coast of Crete, where they lived in exile. The pair’s aerial escape became a fable about the value of moderation when impulsive Icarus ignored his father’s warning and flew too high, to where the sun melted the wax, and he perished in the sea below.
Legendary or not, Daedalus and Icarus were not the first in their attempt at flight. Around 850 bce, according to the English tale, King Bladud of the Britons, father of King Leir (Shakespeare’s Lear), is said to have used feathered wings to try to fly over the temple of Apollo in London. He crashed, fatally, but as he was also founder of the spa city of Bath, he has been known ever since as “the flying king of Bath.”
In ninth-century Muslim Spain, another inventor, Abbas ibn Firnas, donned wings to fly from a tower, possibly in Córdoba. Moroccan historian al-Maqqari wrote the only known—and unfortunately secondhand—account. Ibn Firnas glided some distance, al-Maqqari related, but then crashed because, unlike birds, he lacked a tail to stabilize his landing.
Perhaps trying to best both Ibn Firnas and Daedalus, Eilmer of Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk of the 11th century, also attempted winged flight from the tower of Malmesbury Abbey in England. Aloft for 15 seconds—likely entirely descending ones—he landed too hard and broke both legs.
In Renaissance Italy, flight was only one of the many ideas that fascinated Leonardo da Vinci, who studied the anatomy of birds and bats and sketched flying machines that included a kite-like glider, a flapping-winged ornithopter and a proto-helicopter.
It was not until 1782 that the dream of seeing as birds do became possible, and it came over Paris, from the basket slung below the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air balloon. During the French Revolution, balloons became useful for collecting intelligence and providing a broad view of battlefields. With the invention of photography in the early 19th century, another Frenchman, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, in 1858 became the first to take a camera aloft. And in 1909, just six years after American bicycle-shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first “heavier than air” craft—the airplane—Wilbur himself flew over Rome with an early movie camera mounted on his Wright Flyer Model A to produce the world’s first in-flight movie.
From World War i to the 1930’s, the conjunction of film and views from above gave rise to the industry of aerial mapping, which has proven essential to cartographers, governments, scientists and industries ever since. One eyes-in-the-sky pioneer was an American named Sherman Mills Fairchild, who both adapted aircraft for mapping and produced specialized cameras for the purpose. In 1934, it was one of his Fairchild 71 monoplanes and K-4 aerial cameras that geologists of the California Arabian Standard Oil Co. (casoc)—forerunner of Aramco and Saudi Aramco—used to produce the first maps of the larger-than-Texas concession area in eastern Saudi Arabia. (See photograph for July/August.)
The next revolution in viewing Earth from above came in 1946, when an American-launched unmanned German V-2 rocket carried a camera up nearly into orbit. Twenty-two years later, astronaut William Anders made what is perhaps the ultimate view from above: As his Apollo 8 spacecraft slipped from behind the barren moon, it was greeted by a cloud-laced, deeply blue, rising planet Earth. It was a sight never imagined in any legend, and it has marked our thinking ever since.
A few years later, in 1972, the us space agency launched Landsat, inaugurating the systematic photography of the Earth by satellite imaging. Improved ever since and now conjoined with the Internet, that technology today allows even personal mobile phones to pull down detailed views of almost anywhere via Google Earth, launched on the Web in 2005.
It would be too easy to say that in the early 21st century our species has reached a kind of pinnacle in its ability to look down as the legendary King Etana and his eagle once did. Our search for new ways of seeing and new points of view never ends. Today’s artists in the sky, whose work fills this year’s calendar, remind us of the infinite terrestrial mosaics that are appreciated best when viewed from above.
Robert Lebling ([email protected]) is a writer, editor and communications specialist. He is author of Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar.
Writtern by Paul Lunde
The Hijri calendar
In 638 ce, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph, ‘Umar, recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used June 16, 632 ce, the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird iii. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 bce. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, 284 ce. Although all were solar calendars, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia, some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 bce. In central Arabia, the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that, before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.
There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10, Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.
This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the hijra, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. The hijra thus occurred on 1 Muharram of the year 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which was named “hijri” after its epoch. (This date corresponds to July 16, 622 ce, on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation ah, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the hijra.”
Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.
The Gregorian calendar
The early calendar of the Roman Empire was lunisolar, containing 355 days divided into 12 months beginning on January 1. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 bce, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar in which one day was added to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until 1582 ce.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, exercised some of the best minds in Christendom. The use of the epoch 1 ce dates from the sixth century, but did not become common until the 10th.
The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox was falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory xiii ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582, would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Catholic countries accepted the new “Gregorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use is now almost universal worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.
Paul Lunde ([email protected]) is currently a senior research associate with the Civilizations in Contact Project at Cambridge University.