Astronomy began in the first agricultural settlements, found in Ancient Sumer almost 10,000 years ago. This is also where we find some of the oldest records of astrology. Later on, the Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean empires, which shared the same regions, continued and improved what the Sumerians had started.

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Tablet 63 of Enuma Anu Enlil, in the Louvre


To the ancient Mesopotamians, astronomy—practiced as astrology (more on this later)—was extremely important. About 2,000 years after they developed the first kind of writing, called cuneiform, the Sumerians began making the first star charts. In fact, the oldest one dates back to 1,200 BCE.

Astronomy was also extremely important to the ancient people because of something called astral theology, which gave power to the heavenly bodies and recognized them as gods and goddesses, with the Sun and Moon as primary deities.

This is where the association between astronomy (the study of heavenly bodies) and astrology (the process of using heavenly bodies to determine future events) first started. The Mesopotamians believed that they could foretell future events simply by looking at the stars.

And really, they were not so far off--everything has a pattern, after all.
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Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa

It was the Babylonians who provided the first real insight. The earliest evidence that the stars followed a specific mathematical cycle, as well as solutions figuring out how the daylight varied throughout the year, was Babylonian. Though much of the gathered data pertained to the king and his subjects, they had enough general information to develop the first calendrical system based on the movements of the stars that they studied so closely. This soon came in handy when used to track the plowing/harvest seasons as well as the dry/wet ones.

Centuries of astrological information are recorded in the Enuma Anu Enlil, a series of 68 or 70 cuneiform tablets which were used to foresee the fate of the nation.

Developments Made

(Old Babylonian Period ideas)

Planetary Theory- The oldest surviving record is Tablet 63 of the Enuma Anu Enlil, called the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa (named for King Ammisaduqa, fourth ruler after Hammurabi). It records the rise and fall of the planet Venus over a period of 21 years, showing that the Mesopotamians were the very first to develop a working understanding of the planets and their movements
Cosmology- Unfortunately, very little is known about what the Sumerians and Babylonians thought of this subject. Perhaps it is because their understanding of planetary theory was fractured and quite separate from cosmology. However, due to literature and mythology, we know that they believed that the earth and sky were one, and that the earth was spherical. They also thought that there were several heavens and earths (probably due to mythology) and thought that the cosmos rotated circularly.

(Neo-Babylonian, Chaldean ideas)
A heliocentric model

Arithmetical predictions- Although there isn't much surviving material on Babylonian planetary theory, their successors, the Chaldeans, seemed to be more interested in ephemerides (from the Greek ephemeris) rather than theory. Mesopotamian astrological models were very arithmetical and experimental, with almost no geometry or speculative philosophy, unlike later Hellenistic models.
Heliocentric astronomy- The only surviving model from the Chaldeans is that of Seleucus of Seleucia. He is known from several ancient writings, but most notably as the only Mesopotamian astronomer to believe that in heliocentrism, or the fact that the earth revolved around the sun. He was said to have proved it through reasoning, and perhaps a trigonometric solution, but it is unknown what arguments he used. It is, however, believed that he based his reasoning on the tides, and their relative strength connected to the moon and sun.

Seleucus of Seleucia, champion of heliocentricism
Seleucus of Seleucia, champion of heliocentricism

The Mesopotamian astronomers were forgotten for a long time, but even so, they were able to pass on their knowledge to the Persians who in turn, passed it onto Islamic scholars. In addition to this, they also were heavy influences to many, many Greek writers, astronomers and geographers. Truly, our lives would not be the same without them.

From the calendar to the rest of Western astronomy, and even the trashy horoscopes we find in tabloids--everyday we catch glimpses of the ancient pioneers who started man's fascination with the starry beyond.

Monologue: From the eyes of Nanna, daughter of Akiya, one of the king's astronomers

The stars are especially beautiful tonight. There’s not a shred of cloud in the inky sky, and the constellations seem close enough to touch— zibbāt sinūnūtu, The Tails; zuqaqīpu, The Scorpion; and even alluttu, The Crayfish.

I don’t even have to see him to know that my father is at his usual spot by the table, stylus in hand, inscribing these very same constellations. He has to have a rigidly organized schedule so that he can spot any anomalies in the planets—and so that he can still squeeze in a few hours of sleep afterwards.

See, my father is one of the king’s astronomers, and his job is very important indeed. He and several other astronomers watch the skies every night and write down what they see, then they all meet in the morning to talk about it. Sometimes, they discuss the harvest forecast or what the gods are planning for the king. Either way, the fortunes are not to be trifled with.

Sometimes, I notice how dark the bags under Father’s eyes are, how often he yawns during the day, and I wonder if he grows tired of his position. Whenever I ask him, he smiles slightly and replies, “Sometimes—but it helps fund schooling for both you and your brother.” Then he ruffles my hair and sends me away, adding, “Besides, if I don’t do it, who will?”

The other astronomers, I want to say, but I don’t, because I know that he’s right about everything else—there are a lot of girls in Sumeria, and while I’m not the smartest, I’m certainly lucky enough to be able to afford proper education. And that’s only because Father is so important.

I know that if he gives up his job, I’ll be at home until I can be married off, and by then, I’ll have to manage my own household, take care of my own family and there will be no more time to dream about planets and stars and what lies beyond the reach of even our most powerful telescopes.

And then where would I be?

From inside the house, my younger brother protests loudly, “Why do I have to study? Nanna doesn’t need to learn this!” The impatience is clear in his voice. I can just barely even hear Father’s reply, but I know his explanation by heart.

My parents plan to train my brother to be an astronomer, so that he can take over when my father retires. Unfortunately, he has other plans, having professed his stern desire to be a soldier many times in the past. When he complains about his studies, I feel a little sorry for him—he’s the sort who runs too fast and laughs too loud but he’s being taught to stay indoors with surrounded by nothing but scrolls and tablets and the endless night sky.

I’m mostly jealous though. Sometimes, I wish my brother and I could switch places, that astronomy would be more than just my dead-end hobby, but I doubt female astronomers are allowed.

“Nanna!” my mother calls over my brother’s whining. “It’s time for dinner. You have school early tomorrow and the sooner you get to bed the better.” Walking past the dinner table, I pass my brother sulking over his tablets.

“Everything is harder if you’re grumpy,” I advise. “So you’d best take a page out of my book and at least smile.” I ruffle his hair as I sit down next to him. He huffs, shrugs my hand off and dips his head, but not before I catch the grin twitching at the corner of his lips.

After dinner, I usher my brother to bed. Outside my window, the stars twinkle their gentle goodnight.

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