Passion of the People – 1.1.7

The Knowledge of the Advanced Civilisations

Beyond the Greek and Roman ancient astronomy, there were other advanced civilisations that shaped the knowledge on the stars. 

Babylonian Astronomy

Dating back to 1800 B.C., the Babylonians were among the first civilization to document the movements of the Sun and the Moon. They maintained a very detailed record of these motions including a daily, monthly, and yearly position of the celestial bodies. This information was initially of mystical value used to warn the king about possible catastrophic events. It is said that the first appearances of the famous Hailey’s comet were documented by the Babylonians and it is also them who first divided the sky into zones.

Indian Astronomy

There are numerous contributions of ancient India in the field of Astronomy but the most notable one was by Aryabhatiya. It is through him that Indian astronomy veered away from the mystical and religious and towards the scientific. Although his works are under the premise that the world is geocentric, many are still of value to modern mathematics and astronomy. Aryabhatiya was able to assume that the Earth is rotating on its axis and that the Moon and other planets shine through reflected light from the Sun.

Mayan Astronomy

Mayan astronomers sought guidance from the sky. They were particularly interested in studying the motion of the stars, sun, and other planets. The ancient Mayans have managed to observe and document these movements through shadow-casting devices they invented. It is through these observations that they developed the Mayan Calendar to keep track of the passage of time.

Egyptian Astronomy

Having one of the most advanced and affluent cultures, ancient Egypt has significant contributions to astronomy of today. Just like in any ancient civilisation, the movements and patterns of the sky ignited the creation of myths to explain astronomical events. The Egyptians are not an exemption to this. They built huge pyramids and temples based on astronomical positions. An example of this practice is The Great Pyramid of Giza. It was built to align with the North Star which at that time was Thuban instead of Polaris.

The Nabta Playa is one of the most intriguing astronomical locations in Egypt. It is where a circular stone structure can be found that is presumed to be a giant calendar to identify the summer solstice.

The Egyptian inclination to astronomy is not purely religious but practical as well. They used the observations of the celestial bodies to predict and therefore prepare for the flooding of the Nile River. The Egyptians developed a calendar system that is close to the one we currently use. It has 30 days in one month and 365 days divided into 12 months. The difference is that they have 10 days for each week with 3 weeks each month.

Chinese Astronomy

The Chinese have one of the most detailed documentation of astronomical observations. Gan De is one of the most notable astronomers in ancient China. He was the first to take notice of Ganymede, which at that time he described as a small reddish “star” around Jupiter. Shi Shen also created one of the most detailed and oldest catalogues of the stars – Star Catalogue of Shi. The Chinese took notice of stars that suddenly appear among other fixed stars. It was believed that what they observed was a supernova.

The Dunhuang Star Atlas was discovered by an archaeologist in a Buddhist cave in Dunhuang, China. It is said to be the earliest known preserved star map in the world which dates back before AD 700.

Persian Astronomy

Astronomy was highly popular during the Post-Islam Persian civilization. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi or commonly known as Azophi is one of the most brilliant astronomers of all time. The Andromeda Galaxy was first described in his book The Book of Fixed Stars. He made some corrections and revisions on the original concept of constellations by Ptolemy. Abu Mahmud Hamid ibn Khidr al-Khujandi is a brilliant astronomer who built a giant sextant with the purpose of calculating the Earth’s axis. It was his own invention and its massive size made it possible to come up with a lot more accurate calculation. His measurement was off by just two minutes; a level of accuracy that had never been attained before.

(This article is based on a blog post from Jason Cook / Telescopic Watch from 2018)

Maya calendar – Image by PublicDomainImagesPixabay
Gizeh piramids with stars – Image by Karin HenselerPixabay

Further Resources

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The Andromeda galaxy (Pixabay)


Ancient Maya – Tools of astronomy

Maya astronomy and calendar (Giulio Magli, Politecnico di Milano)

Staring at Starry Skies: Ancient Babylonian Astronomical Data and Greek Science

Sky-Gazing and Seasonal-Granting: Astronomy in Ancient China

The Dunhuang star chart


Scoperto il più antico calendario Maya del mondo, l’antropologo: “Ecco perché è importante” La Repubblica

Gli Scienziati Hanno Finalmente Compreso l Segreti Del Calendario Maya IL LATO POSITIVO

Piramidi & Allineamento Celeste | Astronomia dell’antico Egitto e Costellazione di Orione – il Faraone Tours

“NUT: Come gli Egizi Leggevano la Via Lattea e Prevedevano il Futuro” L’Anello mancante

Correlazione tra Piramidi di Giza & Orione |Hawass VS Bauval il Faraone Tours

Africa 27: ANTICO EGITTO-16, piramidi di Giza e costellazione di Orione Roberto Busceti – ANTIQUA TV

Sirio e Costruzione delle piramidi di Giza | Astronomia il Faraone Tours

Nabta Playa: Alle origini della Civiltà Egizia il Faraone Tours

Le costellazioni di al-Sufi Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Museo Galileo

Online Resources

Ancient Cultures and How They Shaped Astronomy (Blog post by Jason Cook / Telescopic Watch)

Scienza indiana: periodo classico. Astronomia TRECCANI

La stella di Betlemme: realtà o fantasia? Passione Astronomia

La cometa di Halley sta ritornando verso la Terra, il passaggio si vedrà a occhio nudo nel 2061 – Geopop

Il cielo Maya ScienzaPerTutti

Calendario Maya, trovate le prove più antiche Passione Astronomia

L’astronomia egizia TRECCANI

Le piramidi, porte per le stelle STORICA National Geographic

Nabta Playa Luisa Bovitutti

Calendario civile dell’antico Egitto

La scienza in Cina: dai Qin-Han ai Tang. Il cielo TRECCANI

Un astronomo persiano, un poeta fiorentino e un navigatore genovese Passione Astronomia

L’astronomia di al-Ṣūfi nel Libro delle stelle fisse Passione Astronomia

Further Readings


Astronomia in Cina: dall’antichità al XIV secolo d.C. Riccardo Cavalier

Le prime meridiane a camera oscura Gianni Ferrari

Teaching Material

La storia dell’astronomia cinese

For Kids