The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Seven Years Younger

Author - John Mellors


At daybreak on 12 September 2007 Ethiopians will celebrate the start of their new Millennium. So why does the Ethiopian New Year start in September? And why is Ethiopia nearly eight years behind much of the world in its celebrations?

First it is necessary to understand how calendars developed. The simple basic unit of time that is easy to count is the day — a single rotation of the earth with respect to the sun. Days were, and in some places still are, either counted from sunrise to sunrise or from sunset to sunset.

The second unit of time that was easy to measure was the lunar cycle or lunar month — the number of days between two new moons. This time period averages out to be about 29.53 days and so lunar months are usually treated as alternating between 29 and 30 days long.

The third unit of time that was used was the solar year. Over the year the angle of the sun at a set time of day appears to move from south to north and back in a cycle that lasts for a solar year. There are four key points in the solar cycle. The two solstices where the hours of daylight are either the longest or shortest of the year, which occur when the sun is directly overhead at midday at either the tropic of Cancer or Capricorn. The two equinoxes where there are an equal numbers of hours of daylight and night, which occur when the sun is directly overhead at the equator at midday. The length of the solar year measures to be about 365.242 days.

Most early calendars were based on the lunar cycle. Twelve lunar months are only about 354 days and so, in order to keep the months occurring in the same season each year, an extra month was added to every second or third year. It was eventually found that 19 solar years were almost exactly equal to 235 lunar months and that the lunar calendar repeated itself over a period of 19 years (called the Metonic cycle).

The calendar adopted in Ancient Egypt was different being based on a solar calendar, or more strictly on the time period between the day of the first sighting of Sirius, the dog star, on the eastern horizon at dawn in one year, and the first sighting of it the next year. This event happened to occur around the time of the annual flooding of the Nile each year and so was a key event for the Egyptians.

The ancient Egyptian civil calendar was a fixed length, comprising twelve 30 day months with five extra days added to the end of the year. This is, of course, nearly six hours too short to match the length of the true solar year. The Egyptians recognised this and the civil year became known as the Annus Vagus or “Wandering Year”. The calendar date of the start of the ancient Egyptian year, around 20 July, only really coincided with the first sighting of Sirius every 1461 years. Despite its shortcomings the calendar lasted for thousands of years, surviving all attempts to update it.

The much younger Roman calendar had a very chequered history and underwent several reforms between its introduction in around 750 BCE (before common era — see footnote) and the introduction of the Julian calendar, which came into force in 45 BCE. The original Roman calendar was similar to lunar based calendars but with a year comprising eleven months of 29 or 31 days with a twelfth month, Februarius, of 28 days and so the total length of a normal year was only 355 days. In order to keep it roughly aligned to the solar year, an extra leap month of 27 days was added occasionally and, when this was done, the length of Februarius was reduced to 23 or 24 days. Unfortunately there was no fixed period for adding the leap year and the calendar regularly ended up out of sequence with the solar year.

A new calendar, based on the Egyptian year, was introduced by Julius Caesar after his military campaigns in Egypt. It was supposedly developed after consultation with the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria. Ten extra days were shared between the twelve months of the old calendar to make the standard year 365 days. Every fourth year an extra ‘leap’ day was added to the month of February which it was hoped would make the year more closely follow the solar year.

The last year of the old calendar, 46 BCE, had to have an extra 90 days added to correct all of the previous errors. Roman years began on 1 January which was the date on which the two Roman consuls were elected annually, the years often being referred to by the names of the consuls in office. The calendar was set so that the spring equinox was on its traditional date of 25 March.

Egypt came under Roman control in 30 BCE following the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra by Octavian. Octavian went on to become Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, ruling the Roman Empire from 27 BCE to 14 CE. In 25 BCE Augustus updated the Egyptian civil calendar by getting an extra day added to the end of the year every four years in order to keep it in step with the Julian calendar. This permanently fixed the first day of the wandering Egyptian calendar to the date that it happened to be in the year of the reform. The Egyptian New Year’s day became 29 August in the Julian Calendar in a normal year or 30 August in the year before Julian Leap Years. Both the Ethiopian and Coptic calendars were based on this reformed Egyptian calendar and their New Year dates are derived from this change by Augustus.

Unfortunately the Julian calendar gives a year length that is about 11 minutes too long to match the solar year exactly and slowly loses synchronisation with it. It was soon found that the observed spring equinox was occurring earlier than the March 25 date fixed for it. As the Christian church uses the spring equinox to calculate the date of Easter each year (Easter being a moveable feast day held on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox) this started to give problems depending on whether astronomical observations or calendar dates were used to fix the equinox. The first Council of Nicaea in 325 CE stipulated that from then on the Easter date should always be calculated from 21 March, which was the rough date of the equinox at the time of the Council. No attempt was made to correct the calendar year length though, and the equinox continued to drift. The error was eventually corrected for the Catholic church by Pope Gregory XIII in the sixteenth century who removed 10 days from the year 1582, to move the spring equinox back to March 21, and gave the calendar three fewer leap years every 400 years in order to correct the drift. This calendar, the Gregorian calendar, has now been adopted by most of the world.

The Gregorian reforms were made to bring the calendar back in line with the Julian calendar at the time of the first Council of Nicaea. As it gains 3 days over the Julian calendar every 400 years it is currently 13 days ahead. The Julian date of 29 August is, from now until 2100, equivalent to the Gregorian date of 11 September. This year, 2007, is a leap year in Ethiopia (as 2007 + 1 is divisible by 4) and so New Year’s day will be on the Julian date of 30 August or the Gregorian date of 12 September.

So that is the explanation of why the Ethiopian New Year now begins in September. The gap of nearly eight years between the Ethiopian calendar and our calendar is more difficult to explain but again goes back to the early history of the Christian church.

The Copts were among the first to start counting their calendar years from a fixed date. They chose the beginning of the reign of Emperor Diocletian in 284 CE. His reign had been particularly difficult for Christians, with many being tortured or martyred and, because of this, the years were named Anno Martyrum or “Year of the Martyrs”. This calendar, still used by the Copts, was adopted by many churches and was one of the dating systems used by the Ethiopian Church. Many were not happy at aligning the calendar with the start of the reign of a cruel Roman emperor and proposed other dates.

In the early third century CE Sextus Julius Africanus attempted to create a detailed chronography going back to the creation of the world. He wrote a history of the world (Chronografiai) in five books covering from creation up to his present day. Unfortunately no original copies of the work exist but the work was extensively quoted in the eighth century by Georgius Syncellus in his chronicle, “Extract of Chronography” (Ekloge chronographias), which contains the history of the world from the Creation to the death of the Roman emperor Diocletian. In the translation by Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI) Julius Africanus is quoted as saying:

For why should I speak of the three myriad years of the Phoenicians, or of the follies of the Chaldeans, their forty-eight myriads? For the Jews, deriving their origin from them as descendants of Abraham, having been taught a modest mind, and one such as becomes men, together with the truth by the spirit of Moses, have handed down to us, by their extant Hebrew histories, the number of 5500 years as the period up to the advent of the Word of salvation, that was announced to the world in the time of the sway of the Caesars.

The ‘extant Hebrew histories’ presumably refers to the Septuagint, or LXX, the oldest of several ancient translations of the Jewish Torah into Greek. The Septuagint was the version of the Old Testament in use in the early Christian Church. The statement that there would be 5500 years between the creation of the world and the announcement of the coming of the Messiah was a popular belief based on a theological interpretation of some of the texts of the Septuagint. Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses, was taken to imply that one day of the Lord was equivalent to one thousand years when it says “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” (King James’ Version). The total life of the world was simply calculated by assuming that, if it took seven days to make, it would last for a total of seven thousand years. As the seventh, and last, day of creation was a rest day then the time to the second coming of Christ, and the final 1000 years of the world, would be 6000 years. The first coming of Christ was announced at the ‘eleventh hour’ and so, it was thought, must have taken place 5500 years after the creation of the world. The calculation was backed up with data from the Septuagint and elsewhere to give a full chronology of the world from the time of Adam.

This simple calculation had fixed the number of ‘years of the world’ up to the Annunciation of Christ. How was the number of years from this point forward calculated? There were no records kept of the year of the birth of Jesus or of his crucifixion.

There is some confusion but it was either Panadorus or Annianus, both Alexandrian monks working in the early fifth century during the bishopric of Theophilus of Alexandria, who first wrote that the creation of the world, the Annunciation and the Resurrection must all have mystically coincided on the same date, 25 March, the original date of the spring equinox. Resurrection and Creation were also both assumed to have taken place on a Sunday and Christ crucified when he was 33 years old, or after 5534 ‘years of the world’. Also if the Last Supper was assumed to have taken place on the Hebrew Passover festival and occurred the day before the Crucifixion then the Thursday before the Resurrection would have had to have coincided with the first spring full moon. By using the Alexandrian Easter tables they calculated that the only suitable year where this could have occurred was 42 CE. This gave a date for the Annunciation of 25 March 8 CE and a date for the creation of the world of 25 March 5493 BCE. The start of the Egyptian year in which the Annunciation occurred would have been on 30 August 7 CE.

This is the basis of the calendar which the Ethiopian church still uses. The Ethiopian ‘Era of the World’ or Amata Alam dates Creation as 5500 years before the Annunciation (5493 BCE). Their ‘Era of the Incarnation’ or Amata Seggawe begins 5500 years after Creation (7 CE) and in September 2007 will celebrate the new millennium.

Why does no other church use the same calendar?

There was a major disagreement between Pope Leo I from Rome and Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria at the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, resulting in a major schism between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the other churches. The Patriarch of Alexandria and his bishops, who were up to that time responsible for calculating the dates of the Easter festival, lost a lot of their influence. In addition the method used for calculating the date of the creation of the world lost considerable favour after 500 CE as this had been the date predicted by it for the second coming of Christ. Other methods for calculating the calendar had to be chosen and the Easter calculations had to be carried out by Rome.

Detail of the crucifixion from an early 16th century Ethiopian icon
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA
Photo - © Anne Parsons

In the early sixth century Dionysius Exiguus was a monk working in Rome for the Vatican translating ecclesiastical canons from Greek into Latin. In 525 CE, he prepared a table of the future dates of Easter working from the old Alexandrian calculations rather than the tables then used by the Church of Rome, which were prepared in 457 by Victorius of Aquitaine and gave slightly different results. The letter he sent to bishop Petronius of Alexandria describing his new tables was dated by him to the year of the consulship of Probus Junior and, in addition, 525 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ”. He said that he had used a new system of numbering years to replace the method of numbering years from the date of the Roman Emperor Diocletian that had been used in the old Easter table because he did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians.

Unfortunately it is not known how he came up with this calculation for his number of 525 years. It is possible that he assumed that the crucifixion took place on the day before the Jewish Passover festival, the day that the lambs were slaughtered for the Passover feast. It may be simply that he based the calendar on the existing Era of Martyrs but counted back 15 Metonic cycles to give a new start date 1 CE for the Annunciation and Birth of Christ.

Whatever Dionysius’ method was, the results were adopted by the Venerable Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which, completed around 731 CE in North East England, gave the history of England up to that time. It is probably this book, widely copied, that popularised this dating system throughout Western Europe.

Footnote: The terms BCE (before common era) and CE (common era) are equivalent to the conventional BC and AD dates.

First Published in News File Summer 2007

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