Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
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The clash of the calendars

Why not celebrate the new year at the Pyramids? Then again, why not stay home? The millennium doesn't actually start until next year, anyway. Pascale Ghazaleh curls up with a good book


New beginnings have always provided fertile ground for disagreement: but why should quibbling over dates become a reason for bloodletting and general savagery? Does it matter, after all, that the new millennium doesn't technically start this year, but on 1 January 2001? Doesn't the new year/century/millennium start when the vast majority says it does? Well --yes. And no, not really. At least, not when the definition of tradition --of history itself --is at stake.

Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti (d. 1825), the greatest known chronicler of late 18th- and early 19th-century Egypt, recounted that Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was the first "setter of dates" of the Islamic era. According to his account, Abu Moussa Al-Ash'ari wrote to Umar Ibn Al-Khattab in distress: "Letters have reached us from the Commander of the Faithful, but we do not know which to obey. We read a document dated [the month of] Sha'ban, but we do not know which of the Sha'bans is meant: is it the month that has passed, or that which is to come?"

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Umar is then said to have gathered the Companions of the Prophet and told them: "Money is flowing in, and what we have apportioned bears no date. How are we to reach a way of regulating this matter?" Al-Hurmuzan --taken as a prisoner of war when the Muslims conquered Persia, and converted to Islam at Umar's hands --then replied: "The Persians have a system of tabulation known as mah ruz, and they base it on the victories of their kings." According to Al-Hurmuzan, "the word was thereafter Arabised as 'murakh', of which the root is 'tarikh' (history)."

Umar then requested that the assembled notables "create a history for the people, that they may carry out their transactions by it, and that their dealings be accurately timed." Some of those who had gathered were Jewish converts to Islam, and they told him: "We have a system of tabulation like him, which is based on Alexander [the Great]." The others, however, were not satisfied, finding this system too lengthy; one group suggested that the Persian history be followed. Others argued: "Their dates are not based on any specific beginning; whenever one of them became king, their history began again, and they discounted what had gone before." The assembly eventually agreed that Islamic history would begin with the Prophet's Flight, because none of those present disagreed on the date of that event, whereas that of the Prophet's birth, and when exactly he had received the first Divine message, aroused some controversy."

The question of beginnings --of when, let alone the far more difficult matter of what and why --unfurls here between two diametrically opposed, inextricably linked poles: setting a date is both purely arbitrary, almost a matter of personal whim, and absolutely crucial. Perhaps the most compelling part of El-Gabarti's story is the fact that it was very prosaic concerns, related to the administration of the lands conquered by the Muslims, that made it necessary to pinpoint the beginning of an entire era: to choose a chronology that would affect all that followed.

While El-Gabarti's account of the Beginning of History does not end here, then, this brief outline suffices to illustrate the full potential of the calendar. Beyond its purely practical uses --without the orderly progression of chronology, without the inexorable march of seconds and hours, days and weeks and months and years, where would we be? The question alone is terrifying enough to justify fully the Y2K panic that has led to the stockpiling of canned food and toilet paper --the ability to determine when a new era begins (and therefore to define just what constitutes a new era) is one of the most strategic citadels a ruler can hope to conquer. The conquest, however, is not always definitive: time has a way of catching up with even the most orderly of classifications. In 1582, for instance, the Christian calendar established by the Council of Nicaea had reached a 10-day advance over the solar year. Pope Gregory XIII therefore decided that 15 October would follow 4 October that year, doing away with 10 days with a stroke of the quill.

1 January 2000, or 24 Ramadan 1420 (give or take a day or two): what's in a date? Well, quite a bit, when one considers the symbols being adopted for the occasion. The official celebrations, of course, will revolve around the Pyramid of Cheops. This makes very good sense, considering that the Pharaohs themselves were dab hands at numerical symbolism. But will the new Hijri year witness a similar amount of hoopla? What about the Coptic new year, for that matter? After all, the Coptic calendar continued to be used for administrative and agricultural purposes (tax collection, planting, irrigation, harvesting...) until well into the nineteenth century. It is used until today in informal, but usually accurate, meteorological predictions (Amshir, for instance, is known as the coldest month of the year --the Coptic year, that is).

So when does history begin? What constitutes the watershed --the Flood, as it were? What event is important enough to wipe out all that has preceded it?

As historian Ghislaine Alleaume has remarked, "commemoration implies one form or another of a minimum degree of agreement on the construction of the object to be celebrated... This agreement is necessarily precarious and in motion, since memory, always carried by living groups, is also always in a permanent state of evolution." She was writing about the French Expedition, and the difficulties inherent in its Franco-Egyptian commemoration; but the remark applies to the celebration of almost any event that seems to require the mobilisation of large numbers of people. In this context, refusing to celebrate is tantamount to committing high treason --or at least, denying the version of events that is being presented for universal approval.

Witness, for instance, El-Gabarti's deadpan description of festivities organised by the French troops during the month of Rabi' Al-Thani 1213 (22 September 1798):

"Saturday, the eleventh of that month, was their appointed feast day. That morning, they fired several cannons and they placed upon every wooden pole one of their coloured bandiera. They beat their drums and their soldiers assembled in the Birka... The soldiers began their military exercises displaying their war manoeuvres with guns and cannons. After they finished, the soldiers assembled in rows around the pole and a document was read to them in their language... It stated briefly: 'We inform the soldiers that we arrived in Egypt, captured it and killed the Mamluks who inhabited it and by God's will after the end of the feast, we will set out against the rest and kill them and you shall return to your country. In your place others will come to inhabit this country.'... In the evening they had a display of fire crackers, rockets, fireworks... and several cannonades, which lasted two hours... The gate which was opposite to Bab Al-Hawa remained as did also the big pole underneath which a group of soldiers kept watch day and night because of its significance as an emblem, a symbol of the existence of their state, and a distinguished mark of their country --may God hasten its end." The celebrations, El-Gabarti seems to imply, were less a feast than a show of force. That year, even Moulid Al-Nabi was a desultory affair, and almost passed unmarked; at the last moment, the French insisted that Cairo's inhabitants observe the event in the customary way. The occupiers imposed their will; but the city went through the motions with little enthusiasm.

To celebrate or not to celebrate? And what should be celebrated? Chinese New Year, or the anniversary of the Long March? Nawruz, or the Islamic Revolution? In the global melting-pot fantasy, these would be individual choices: why not celebrate all of them? But the stakes are far higher than that. With millennium madness about to reach its peak, however, this may not be the right time for such confusing decisions. It may just be possible to stay at home and watch TV on 31 December. It may even be possible to call that an act of resistance.

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