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`DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS?'.

Anthony Bryer takes a Byzantine view of time and identity.

WHO CAN FORGET Christmas 1984? Amid carols in the supermarket came a new tune by Bob Geldof, pop singer and philanthropist. It was a heart-rending plea for the relief of famine in Ethiopia. His song shamed shoppers by facing them with a barely imaginable leap to an economic Third World. The Ethiopians had not been invited to the common feast. Memorably, Geldof asked, `Do they know it's Christmas?' Of course they did. The question was whether Bob Geldof knew it was Christmas, which in Ethiopia was to come, of course, on 29 Tahasas, 1700.

Cultural leaps can be even greater than economic ones and cultural imperialism is all the harder to stomach if it is unwitting and the stomach is empty. The Ethiopians had lost everything but their identity, of which a calendar can be quite as vital an identifier as language or kingship -- and they had already lost their ancient Christian emperorship before Geldof questioned their very calendar.

Calendars and kingship, cultural imperialism and celestial cycles, are indeed linked. As the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus put it: `Hereby may the imperial power be exercised with due rhythm and order; may the empire thus represent the harmony and motion of the Universe as it comes from the Creator ...'. In Geldof's calendar Constantine was writing around Anno Domini 950 of the Christogenesis and first Christmas. But by AD 950 Byzantines were taking a longer view and dating (among other calendars) by the Annus Mundi, the Cosmogenesis, or Creation of the Universe, actually in Geldof's calendar on September 1st, 5509 BC (more precisely from sunset the `day' before). This sort of calendar may lock secular empires into place in an unfolding of a divine scheme, but has its perils, for it has an inbuilt End of Time, with a Day of Judgement on the Eighth Day, Millennium, or Era. If you do not care to calculate that awesome date just now, it is revealed at the end of this piece.

To begin at the beginning. As Adam found with the animals, to name is to tame. Time is a fearful beast to domesticate by numbers, then use to dominate others. Like naming the elephant, you can begin at either end, big or small. Medieval people tended to approach the beast circumspectly, from behind, reporting first that `It has a small tail'. This was reassuring. Similarly there is no fear over short periods of time, which in Ireland or Greece may be measured in units of a Guinness, a coffee or rotation of a rosary -- though in Turkey waiting `three cigarettes' (another local unit of time) for a bus can be a vision of eternity.

The big end of Time is a vision of eternity. Like the elephant, it is on a scale so outlandish that one cannot see the end of it. Any attempt to reconcile the motion of lunar months with solar years by throwing planets and stars in the equation of cosmic harmony ends in a conclusion so hypothetical as to be not worth waiting for. The Mayans geared no fewer than ten distinct celestial systems to reach a Grand Cycle of 374,440 years, while the Babylonic Great Year should in theory have reached an unimaginable 432,000 of our own years.

Discrepancies between timetabling simply by Sun or Moon touch us more closely. Like the Ethiopian Church, many cultures have not adjusted the Roman Julian calendar (`Old Style') to the amendments introduced in the Gregorian calendar (`New Style') by Pope Gregory XIII from AD1582. Orthodox and Protestant countries were wary of papal innovation. It may have been scientifically more accurate, but what calendar did they follow in Heaven? Shakespeare and Cervantes found out the answer when they died on the same St George's Day, April 23rd, AD 1616, yet met their Maker eleven days apart -- counting inclusively, Shakespeare already knew about Twelfth Night. Western Communists who discover that the October Revolution in Russia actually took place in November may be more disconcerted.

Folk memory clings longest to Old Calendars. When Greeks left Trebizond in the 1920s, the Turkish republic adopted the New Calendar, leaving local Turks to remember old feasts. Here the Christian Feast of the Assumption, once celebrated on August 15th (OS), may survive in a traditional Muslim village fair now held on August 28th (NS). In the market the most faithful Old Calendarists are said to be the cross-marked fish who shoal traditionally on the Feast of the True Cross and who now appear on September 27th rather than 14th. Similarly the Ethiopians actually celebrated Christmas on January 7th, AD 1985 in Geldof's diary. Today there are easier ways of leaping the dateline without impairing the message. An e-mail to the Old Style Holy Mountain of Athos somehow traverses thirteen days in a microsecond. The real message is that without a calendar we do not know just when and where: we do not know who we are.

Discrepancies which arise from using an exclusive lunar calendar are more serious. The Islamic year dates from the Prophet's hijra from Mecca to Medina on July 15th, AD 622, since when the Annus Hegirae has distanced itself from the Annus Domini by eleven days a year. This eventually meant, among other things, that the Ottoman Empire had to adjust its public debt to the fiscal solar year of Western bankers who financed it -- which did allow the state useful room for manoeuvre by employing one calendar for raising, and the other for expending, revenue. The fourteenth century of Islam began with AH 1300 on October 31st (OS), AD 1882. Such round numbers, centuries and millennia are anxious times. As Sir William Ramsay, who knew Turkey well, reported: `In 1882 a change was very marked, and has been so ever since. There has been a distinct revival of Mohammedan feeling. The prophecies current were no longer about the term of Turkish power, they were that the year 1300 ... was an epoch of Mohammedan power, bringing either new life and strength or utter and complete ruin.'

Yet the arrival of AH 1400 passed quietly enough. By then, it was November 21st (NS), AD 1979 -- although many followers of Islam clung to a much older Iranian and Central Asian calendar and celebrated the Nevruz New Year on March 22nd (NS). In AD 1999-2000, the question arose of how the Third Millennium AD should be marked in Turkey, officially a secular, but actually a Muslim, country? Happily another round number offered an unofficial solution. The millennium coincided with a revival of Turkish interest in the Seventh Centenary of the foundation of the Ottoman state on July 27th, AD 1299 -- the official date was taken from a Byzantine source by Edward Gibbon. Anniversaries have their uses.

I do not know how significant the Ethiopians found it that the famine of AD 1984 fell in their year 1700. It was a new century in a calendar of years starting with the Era of Martyrs under the Roman emperor Diocletian, an inheritance from the Coptic Church and memory of an ancient wrong. Eras of political triumphs can have even greater longevity. Until recently Syrian Christians were dating by an Era which began with the entry of Seleucus Nicator into Babylon in 312 BC -- indeed the Seleucid Era is a good deal handier than the Babylonic Great Year. Eras of Ideology may take shallower root. The French Revolutionary Era ended in AD 1806 with `An XIV', and the Fascist Era of 1922 expired with Mussolini himself. But among months, though July and August were appropriated respectively for Julius and Augustus Caesar, the four from September are still called by number and not name -- a standing temptation to any Great Dictator seeking immortality.

It is a myth that pre-industrial societies were indifferent to time, or relied solely on such casual reckoning as a cigarette or three. Christian liturgical hours also came in threes, but in `real' time the length of the hour changed with the length of the span from sunrise to sunset. Work that out, or observe how in Birmingham today Ramadan time comes as precisely as lighting-up time. In medieval Islam accurate observation of the position of Mecca or the phases of the Moon was a stimulus to science. In medieval Christendom saints- (and therefore name-) days, feasts and fasts were denominators of identity. In Britain, distinct computations of the wandering cycles of Easter and Passover defined the cultural imperialism of the Roman over the Celtic Church at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. To the Armenians, always anxious to be Orthodox in matters of religion without consequently becoming secular subjects of the Orthodox emperor in Constantinople, such questions were vital. They found it frankly difficult to justify their pre-Lenten fast called arajavor until the Byzantines ruled it out of order. That was enough for king, Gagik II to declare in AD 1064 that the Armenians `would keep it until the end, now and forever'.

Such distinctions are practical signifiers within multicultural societies. In Jerusalem you will find six calendars, including the Ethiopian. Or take the case of Afanasii Nikitin, Russian and Orthodox merchant of Tver, who in AD 1466 set off to trade with the Tatars and ended up in India. His account starts with a regular Russian invocation: `For the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me thy sinful servant ...' But the closing prayer in his diary, six years on in 1472, is in a sort of Arabic and ends `In the name of Allah the Merciful and Beneficent, God is great! There is no God but Allah the Creator!' Whatever happened in between, Afanasii came near to losing his identity, along with his calendar -- by stages. `The great feast of Christ's Resurrection is not known to me. I deduce it by signs -- the great Christian feast comes nine or ten days before the Muslim holiday. I have nothing with me, no books ...' With books and with a calculator, I estimate that the nearest that Orthodox Easter came before the Muslim Eid al-Fitr during the period was when Afanasii was probably in Iran, but we are still at least eight days adrift. Anyway, soon Afanasii was travelling under the name of hodja Yusuf Khorasai. Challenged by a Muslim official, he responded: `Sir! You pray and I also pray; you offer five prayers and I offer three prayers. I am a foreigner and you are a native.' The official replied: `In truth you seem not to be a Muslim, but you know not the Christian faith.'

Afanasii/Yusuf began his return from Hyderabad around AD 1471, or AH 875, which I will not compute by the universal calendar of the Gupta Dynasty, which starts on February 26th, AD 320. Back in Russia it was safely AM 6979, and in other calendars active that year it was the Antiochene 1519, the Alexandrian AM 6963, the Seleucid 1782 and of the Martyrs (already mentioned in connection with Bob Geldof) 1187. In the Caucasus it was Georgian AM 7057, or 159 of the Easter cycle. Afanasii certainly passed through Armenia when it was, in me words of a colophonist, `the year 920 of the Haykazean Era in most grievous times, when we lived in anguish at the hands of infidels and unjust tax-collectors, who persecuted and plundered our Armenian nation.' He did not mention that it was also 387 of the Little Armenian Era.

In AD 1472 Afanasii reached Trebizond, where it was Anno Urbis Conditae 1460 of that place in its own forgotten calendar. But he crossed the Black Sea to find a hive of peoples, each clutching a live calendar for dear life. There were Armenians of all Eras. The Karaite Jews of Chufut Kale should have computed that year to AM 5233 but were at calendrical odds with the Jews of Constantinople. There were three great Crimean powers. In Caffa, the Genoese Consul, Antonio Cabella, dated documents to AD 1472. In Gothia it was AM 6980; but prince Alexander, like most Byzantines, probably preferred Indiction 5 in a once-fiscal fifteen-year cycle. In Crim-Tatary it was AH 876, but khan Mengli Giray, like most Mongols, would have been happiest with the Year of the Rabbit in the twelve-year Chinese cycle.

Afanasii Nikitin got back to Russia to find it was AM 6980. In the same year the monk Gennadios died in the Prodromos monastery, now in northern Greece. Greeks owe much to him for, as Gennadios II Scholarios, he had been the Conquering Sultan's chosen Patriarch after the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453. They made a settlement which established the legal and fiscal identity of Orthodox subjects of an Islamic state. It was not yet the end of the world. But Gennadios also put on record his views on the Eighth Day, Era or Millennium of Creation -- then imminent in AM 7000, or AD 1492. One wonders how far the patriarch regarded his negotiations with the sultan simply as a short-term holding operation before the Last Day of the human lease.

Yet when the time came in AD 1492, no one seemed to notice. In Constantinople, Patriarch Maximos IV (who as a monk of Athos himself wrote on the Day of Judgement) was too busy sorting out the status of the Orthodox in Venetian territories. On Athos itself the monks of two monasteries dated a judgement to that very year AM 7000, but it was on a disputed estate. Although the Day of Judgement was depicted even more vividly in churches after AD 1492, most Orthodox quietly abandoned the Annus Mundi for the Annus Domini -- although Russia held out until, in AM 7208, Peter the Great adopted January 1st (still OS), AD 1700.

When their time is up, millenniarists go back to the computer. With diminishing conviction popular Greek almanacs kept postponing the Last Day until AD 1773. Yet the monks of Athos had stipulated AM 7000, or AD 1492, when, as every schoolboy knows, Christopher Columbus `discovered' America -- actually Cuba -- on October 27th, AD 1492. Too simple. Few calendars of years run from January 1st, and the Byzantine Annus Mundi began on September 1st, so Columbus in fact saw Cuba in AM 7001. But count again, inclusively, using Hebrew, Armenian and Byzantine concepts of the Eighth Day of the Week or Era of Creation. Fidel Castro may be eccentric, but is certainly correct in refusing to celebrate the arrival of the Third Millennium in Cuba until AD 2001. In Byzantium too the Eighth Millennium came on time -- on September 1st, AD 1492. Columbus arrived on the Eighth Day after all.

At the End of the World came a New World. Did they know it was a New Day? It took another monk of Athos to recognise that an entirely unpredicted new Era had begun on the Eighth Day. In AM 7050 St Maximos the Greek was the first to tell the Russians of the discovery of America, adding that `today there lives over there a new world and a new human society'.

Anthony Bryer published his first article on `Trebizond' in History Today in February 1960, as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford. Now eight lustra of the Roman purification cycle later, and as Emeritus Professor of Byzantine Studies at the University of Birmingham, he thought it about time he submitted an updated view of time from Trebizond, which arises from a lecture to celebrate the new Centre for Byzantine Studies in The Queen's University of Belfast.
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Title Annotation:Byzantine calendars
Author:Bryer, Anthony
Publication:History Today
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:2594
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