by Ted Pedas
March 10, 1991
For several months I have been receiving requests from area men and women serving in the Persian Gulf for information and maps depicting the stars visible in the Middle East.
It comes as no surprise that the starry heavens should have attracted the attention of local people serving in the Middle East. Clear skies and desert life bring out the full splendor of the stars.
Living in tents on the Arabian desert, the troops are far removed from the man-made light pollution that turns night into day and dims the stars. Back home, where many live in cities, they probably looked upward only when a noisy jet or vapor trail appeared.
Away from glare: But once away from the glare of electric lights and under the ideal conditions available in the desert, the sky takes on the same inspiration it exerted upon stargazers in antiquity.
From northern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait the stars appear as they do in Georgia and northern Florida in the United States. Orion and his cortege of winter luminaries and the North Star appear a dozen degrees lower than from Youngstown.
Many stars appear: From southern Saudi Arabia many stars and constellations appear that are never seen from our vantage point of 41 degrees north latitude. These include Centarus, Phoenix, the river Eridanus, Argo and many more.
Ancient people lived much closer to nature than we do today. Knowledge of the skies was essential to their existence.
In the desert the stars have been required and relied upon for guidance as much as they have been upon the trackless ocean. Indeed, Mohammed told his followers in the Koran that God hath given you the stars to be your guides in the dark both by land and by sea.
The stars served as the calendar and clock of peoples of the Euphrates Valley. The sun and moon were the hour and minute hand on the celestial dial.
To read the dial, early humans grouped the stars into recognizable patterns we call constellations. They marked time by watching the predictable procession of the stars.
The appearance and disappearance of a particular star was correlated with the season of the year and reminded observers when to plow, sow, reap, hunt, fish and celebrate special events.
Many of the constellations originated in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrataes rivers in what is today Iraq.
In naming the constellations, the Arabs of the desert imagined there was another world in the sky, and depicted their tents, camels, nests, mangers, boats, thrones, ornaments and rivers in the canopy of stars.
Traced to Arabs: Even many of the star names can be traced to the Arabs.
The Middle Eastern nations of antiquity depended upon the camel as a mode of transportation, and therefore it was natural that they would give this animal a place of honor in the starry firmament.
The people of Mesopotamia used the stars of Phoenix to form the outline of the small circular boats they used to navigate the river. Today we view the constellation as a fabulous bird.
An exquisite circle of stars is formed by Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, Arabs and other Eastern prople called this constellation the Beggar's Bowl. The Big Dipper was depicted as a wagon.
The early Mesopotamians developed many other imaginative figures, myths, legends and star lore. Their astronomical observations and records were bestowed upon later cultures. It was here in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East that the cradle of civilization began.
E-mail: Ted Pedas