Anania Shirakatsi – an Armenian scholar a thousand years ahead of his time

“Memory of the past is the watchtower from which the future is seen” Yeghishe — a 5th-century Armenian historian.

Nine centuries before Copernicus and his Heliocentric system, the outstanding Armenian scholar of the 7th century, mathematician, geographer, and astronomer Anania Shirakatsi wrote about the sphericity of the Earth. Like the ancient Egyptians, he compared it to an egg, where the yolk is the Earth itself, which is spherical, and the white is the surrounding atmosphere. Even before the invention of the telescope, he claimed that the Milky Way is a cluster of stars.

Shirakatsi wrote that the Moon shines with reflected sunlight and compiled a table of eclipses for the entire 19-year lunar cycle.

Shirakatsi not only wrote books, but, like most outstanding thinkers of all time, he also taught. In the 7th century, when most educated people of the time believed that the Earth rests on the backs of giant elephants, whales or turtles, his students learned about the sphericity of the Earth and other celestial bodies.

Surprisingly, even then it was said that our planet is hanging in space, supported by the interaction of two opposing forces balancing each other. That is, Shirakatsi balanced the force of gravity with the wind blowing from below. This was the most reasonable hypothesis before the appearance of Newton and his law of universal gravitation. But in the 7th century, it would be difficult to find a place on earth where a person could get such knowledge that was given in Shirakatsi’s school.

For more than one and a half thousand years, it was believed that the Earth is the center of the Universe, and all celestial bodies, together with the Sun, revolve around the Earth. Only in the 16th century, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus introduced a new system where the Sun is at the center, and all the planets revolve around it.

In 1633, Galileo was put on trial in Rome. The great scientist of the Renaissance era was judged for his adherence to Copernican ideas and the promotion of his Heliocentric system. The elderly Galileo faced execution, which was once carried out on Giordano Bruno: he was burned at the stake 33 years before the trial of Galileo. But he avoided execution by renouncing his scientific views. However, it turns out that a thousand years before this, very similar ideas and similar knowledge were taught in the universities of ancient Armenia.

Armenians regard Shirakatsi as one of the greatest medieval scientists. He is rightfully called the father of exact sciences in Armenia. His most important works are “Cosmography”, “Theory of the Calendar”, “On the Rotation of the Heavens”, and “Arithmetic”. The first known arithmetic textbooks appeared in Europe only in the 15th century. But the very first such textbook in the world was created in the 7th century by Anania Shirakatsi, although few people know about this today.

Until recently, only his works on geography were known, primarily “Ashkharatsuyts” (a monument of geography and cartography of ancient Armenia). Moreover, there is much to be amazed about in these ancient records. For example, 8 centuries before Columbus, it was said that there are people living on the other side of the Earth. Anania also disputed the opinion prevalent among the philosophers of that time that the Moon has its seas. Instead, he taught that the dark spots on the Moon are due to the unevenness of its surface, due to which there are areas that absorb light.

This remarkable thinker of the 7th century also gave a correct explanation of the causes of solar and lunar eclipses. A thousand years before the appearance of western experimental science, Shirakatsi wrote: “Without research it is impossible to penetrate into the essence of things, and without knowing their nature it is impossible to carry out research”. Is this not too many astonishing results for the activity of one, albeit outstanding, thinker?

Yes, and where could a man of the early Middle Ages get such knowledge, which was many centuries ahead of his time, and which Shirakatsi so generously shared?

At the beginning of the 4th century, Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion. This happened in 301, a decade before the 313 Edict of Milan on freedom of religion by Constantine the Great and the Christianization of Rome. Just a century later, in 405, the great Armenian saint and enlightener Mesrop Mashtots created a new alphabet, which his descendants still use to this day.

However, the ascetic activity of Saint Mesrop did not end there. On the contrary, it was just beginning. Soon, new schools were established in all regions of Greater Armenia, whose territory at that time was five times larger than it is today. Those who had been personally taught literacy and sciences by Mesrop Mashtots taught in these schools. Under his leadership, an entire school of translators also grew. At that time, in addition to Biblical texts, all ancient scientific literature began to be translated.

Mashtots himself was fluent in many languages and worked tirelessly all his life. He sent his best students to study in Egypt, in Alexandria. This proved to be timely. When riots organized by religious fanatics soon began in Egypt, the famous Library of Alexandria, which contained hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, was burned down and then seized by the Arabs, who completed its destruction. It turned out that many unique manuscripts had been saved and preserved in Armenia. A large part of them were translated into Old Armenian.

Indeed, this may partially explain the remarkable knowledge that Anania Shirakatsi taught: he himself might have gleaned it from these sources. Most likely, he used Armenian translations of ancient Egyptian sources. Therefore, this could not be coincidental and fits well into the general process of preserving and transmitting knowledge in the era of transition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it is known that our ancestors already knew about the sphericity of the Earth in the Neolithic era, as evidenced by rock paintings found in the territory of an ancient settlement near the city of Metsamor, adjacent to the site where the Nuclear Power Station is currently located.

This settlement dates back to the fifth millennium BC when Ancient Egypt was not even united yet.

It turns out that Shirakatsi could have derived his knowledge not only from translations but also from the ancient astronomical tradition of Armenia, which according to recent research in Karahunj, counts more than 30 thousand years.

Our knowledge about the achievements of the ancient Armenian civilization in the exploration of the cosmos is far from complete, and it seems we have many more unusual and amazing discoveries to make.

by Armen Petrosyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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