Eclipses that changed history
The battle of the Halys river: an eclipse brings
warring people to peace.
Sometimes ancient people could interpret positive things out of what were for them unexplained phenomena. According to the famed Greek historian Herodutus, around the late 7th to early 6th century BC a band of Scythian nomads had ended up as mercenaries in the court of the Median King Cyaxeres, who had just conquered modern day Iraq. Seeing them as potential trainers for his army of horse-archers, he used the Scythians to train some of his youths in the use of the horse and bow. The Scythians also employed themselves in hunting and bringing home game to the King. But they were unsuccessful one day. Cyaxeres, who was as short-tempered as he was angry insulted them, upbraiding them for their failure. The Scythians in turn fumed over this. As a form of revenge, they decided to chop up one of the Median youths they were training, and served him to the King as game. The King, none the wiser, proceeded to eat the flesh of one of his own men.
The Scythians fled to Alyattes, the King of Lydia in modern day Turkey, who took them in and refused to hand them over to a vengeful Cyaxeres who had realised what happened. The Median King, ever the hot-head, responded by going to war with the Lydians for the next five years. The two sides inflicted and suffered many defeats on one another, though the fighting seems to have been indecisive. In the sixth year, the two nations armies met again at the river Halys, though by now neither side was that pushed about the war since it was evident the whole thing had stalemated.
As the battle got going, suddenly the day went dark and the sun was covered in an apparent Solar eclipse. The Medians and Lydians, seeing this, were both anxious to make peace, presumably worrying about divine intervention.
Peace was made in the standard traditional way with the Kings forming a marriage alliance and by cutting their respective arms and sucking each other’s blood.
Herodotus tells us that a Greek, Thales the Milesian had predicted the Eclipse. Thales was also among the first philosophers to discuss the possibility of non-mythological causes for natural phenomena – in other words, he helped underpin the development of scientific method.
This is very significant because this is one of the first accounts of a solar eclipse being predicted in advance, though the precise methods which Thales used are unknown. It is possible he borrowed his methods from the Chaldeans or Babylonians, and probably only knew the year, not the exact date it would fall on, partly because of issues with trying to sync it with the Greek calendar. There is some dispute over the exact solar eclipse Herodotus was referring to. Many historians and scientists have suggested that this was the solar eclipses of 21 September 581 or 16 March 581, or was possibly even a lunar eclipse, though 28 May 585 BC seems to be the most precise time.
Ultimately, Alyattes died and was replaced by his son, Croesus, who soon went to war with the Persian Empire who had replaced the Medes.
This time, Thales the Milesian accompanied Croesus on his campaign to the Halys river, and even helped his army cross it. But he could not help Croesus being defeated when Cyrus the Persian leader took him by surprise next spring. He barely avoided being burnt alive, saying to the sympathetic Persian leader:
‘In peace, Sons bury their Fathers, in war Fathers bury their Sons’.
It was up to subsequent generations to relearn this lesson over and over.
Eclipse 2: Lawrence of Arabia
We all know Lawrence of Arabia from David Lean’s famous 1962 film. A famed historical figure, Lawrence helped organise the rebellion of some of the Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire during World War 1. And one such lunar eclipse played a role in the decisive campaign by Lawrence of Arabia around Aqaba, in July 1917.
Lawrence had just helped organise an epic 180-mile trek across the Nefud desert. After this, he had linked up with the feared Auda ibu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat clan, who as legend had it had been married 28 times, wounded thirteen times, slain 75 men with his own hand and did not even bother counting Turks.
Then they set off to attack Aqaba from the landward side. They had had to balance off countless blood feuds of their own troops, bribe local tribes to avoid being harassed, and fight a major battle at the end of this.
They ambushed a Turkish resupply column in a major battle at Abu al Lasan nearby, then marched on to Aqaba, which would cut off the Turks supply lines to Medina and enable them to bring in crucial weapons supplies. But on the way they came across a Turkish military post at a place called Kethira. This post commanded the entire valley nearby – it was a strong place which would be very costly in men to take, but they had to pass through it to get to Aqaba. Lawrence’s troops were low on supplies, and this comes through in his personal account of the events, Seven Pillars of wisdom. Worse, there was a full moon for the next few nights. Convincing the booty-obsessed fractious nomadic Bedouin to fight for any unified purpose for any length of time was always difficult. Getting them to assault a heavily fortified position in the middle of a bright full moon which would make them visible was nigh on impossible. Yet Lawrence noted something in his diary. A total Lunar eclipse was due on the 4th-5th of July 1917. This was a partial ‘Reddened’ eclipse, or ‘Bloodred’ moon.
The Turks were superstitiously banging on pots and firing into the air to ‘Rescue the threatened satellite’ according to Lawrence. Sure enough, Auda’s men overran the encampment without any losses.
The town of Aqaba fell a few days later to much fanfare. He crossed the Sinai desert all the way to Cairo and showed up in British military headquarters, causing a sensation. Lawrence helped the British and Arabs drive the Ottomans out of the rest of the levant by the end of the war.
So why did the Turks react this way, even in the 20th century? Ottoman astronomy had fallen behind its European counterpart centuries before this and had mostly stagnated, though knowledge of Occidental science was slowly spreading. However astrology was alive and well in the empire. The (frequently snobby) European travellers accounts often reported that the Turks could be quite superstitious, with some even believing that eclipses of the moon were caused by a ‘great dragon’ in the Earth’s crust. This was probably the feared Jawzahr of Middle Eastern legend which periodically swallowed the sun or moon much like its Chinese counterpart. It also required prompt banging on drums and pots to scare away. Bearing in mind the psychological state of the isolated Ottoman garrison after a costly defeat by the Arabs this seems the most likely explanation. So superstition had cost yet another people another battle.
Lawrence’s role in the capture of Aqaba is probably seriously exaggerated, and the Eclipse story must be understood in the context of a greater series of embellished facts which grew up around him as the decades went on. Lawrence wanted the western powers to honour their agreements with the Arab people and respect their territorial boundaries, but he was ignored, eventually dying in a motorcycle accident in May 1935. Future generations are sorry he was not listened to.
Eclipses that changed history, My magazine articles for Astronomy Ireland.
Eclipses that changed history