Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Look to the stars, there’s still a lot of wisdom there

Rym Ghazal writes on the importance of astronomy and the old legends surrounding certain stars

A legend goes that a handsome youth by the name of Suhail (or Canopus) seduced and married the maiden Al Jauzah (Orion), and then in a fit of jealousy, murdered her. He then had to flee, chased by Sirius, the dog star, all the way to the south, where he remains to this day. In another version, Suhail tried to woo Al Jauzah, who not only refused his advances, but kicked him all the way to the southern heavens.

And there he stayed, the Canopus star, also known as Al Fahl, “the camel stallion”, in exile, the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina, and the second brightest star in the night time sky after Sirius. In ancient drawings of the stars, Suhail appeared in the keel (Al Qaeda in Arabic) of the constellation of Argo Navis, the Great Ship.

Mankind always looked to the stars to make sense of their appearance and disappearance, tying their location to events on Earth, from births to deaths to disasters like flood and famine, and to changes in weather and harvest and migratory patterns in other creatures. Many believed, and some still do, that the stars hold the secret keys to understanding our world.

While the mythology behind Suhail is scandalous, it remains one of the Arabs’ most beloved stars. To this day, the name has a positive connotation and it is applied to what is brilliant, good, beautiful or handsome.

This week marks this star’s reappearance in the night sky, bringing with it omens of better times, better weather, better harvests and the beginning of a new life cycle as charted by one of the Arabian Gulf’s ancient, almost forgotten, calendars: Al Drour.

While Bedouins of the desert used different stars and calculations from the inhabitants of mountain settlements and those living along the coast, all of them, to some extent, depended on Al Drour, which charted four different seasons based on the heliacal risings and settings of the stars.

The legendary Arab navigator Ahmad Ibn Majid – who may have been born in Julfar, Ras Al Khaimah or Sohar, Oman – referred to it more than 500 years ago. Al Drour is a 365-day calendar, divided into four main sections representing seasons – three of 100 days and one of 60 days. The remaining days are known as Al Khams Al Masrouqa, or the “five stolen days”. There are other stars that are important in the calendar, like the Thuraya, the Pleiades star cluster also known as the Seven Sisters, whose disappearance around the last week of April traditionally heralds one of the year's biggest storms.

While this correlation may have lasted hundreds of years, in recent times our elder astronomers have noted it to be a less reliable predictor, thanks to climate changes. The old calendar, for instance, predicts a break in the very hot weather this coming week, but according to modern forecasters, the weather is expected to remain over 40° Celsius.

It would be great if some of the experts who know its inner workings could “adjust” the Al Drour calendar to reflect the changes they have noted in the past few decades. It is, after all, not uncommon for scientists to build on past works and make revisions to existing formulas and theories.

The UAE is looking towards the skies with projects such as its unmanned mission to Mars slated for a 2021 launch, and the opening this year of the Sharjah Centre for Astronomy and Space Sciences. There is no end to what new discoveries will be unveiled within this field.

Whatever the case, the stars have allowed us to dream and to feel connected to a bigger world.

“We are never ever truly lost, because we always have the stars,” said an old Emirati tribesman, passing on to us one of those pearls of wisdom that we may already know but take for granted.


On Twitter:@Arabianmau

Updated: August 26, 2015 04:00 AM