When recently there was news of militants destroying a 2000-year old temple in Syria, in a city from the Roman days, sights of the temple came back to mind, particularly a ceiling that I had once come across.  This writing is not about the shortsightedness of destroying a remnant of a long-past civilization; rather, it is about a science, an idea… the possible significance of the Zodiac.

I met Rita during these travels – a British national who decided to abandon her high school education and instead roam the Middle Eastern countries from Turkey through Egypt by foot and by bus. Together, we explored this same ancient city, its main street, the tombs by its border, a government hall, and a palace.  At one point, we went to its other end, to a separated structure.  I did not realize what it was at first, until Rita offered, “This is the Temple of Bel!”  

Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria

Even with that, questions do come to mind.  For instance, how did people 2,000 or so years ago pray or worship–or whom they worshiped? It is impossible to know with certainty how they lived, or why they flourished, in a desert no less; whether it was their spiritual beliefs that guided them into such a magnificent force of their time, or advances in industry and discovery, or simply being at the intersection of trade routes at the right time, when a competing civilization some few hundred miles to the south had withered away.

Rita and I walked into the structure, and stood on a vast stone floor; beautiful tall yellow pillars surrounded us, and reflected the light of the early-morning sun.  To our left was something of a chamber, a wall, and some more pillars, but a distinct space from the rest of the structure.  I was struck that the whole structure thus far was without a ceiling; so different from the common modern approach to life, of wanting a roof over my head. 

To the left-most of this distinct chamber, the northern section of the temple, was another distinct space. Rita and I walked over to this part, and entered a room of sorts.  It was round and relatively small, such that it could perhaps fit 5 or so standing persons.  This tiny space was covered by a ceiling; and so, I looked up.  It surprised me when I saw sculptures of the zodiacs.  A whale or a fish, a scorpion, a lion. How could this be?  I asked. What impressed me was that this people used the same depictions and symbols to apparently represent the same 12 constellations to which we allude today.  

This was a civilization that existed at the height of the Roman empire, between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, some 2000 or so years ago.  More of import was that they appreciated the same twelve constellations as some, albeit quite few, do in our society today.  

After some research, it became clear to me that the constellations were in fact significant to our ancestors.  To most of our ancestors, including the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Hebrews, those of the Hindu tradition, and the Chinese, among others.  All had twelve signs and twelve months.  Possibly a calendaring system which the Egyptians first devised according to the Nile’s annual rising, dividing the year into twelve months of thirty days each and adding five days to the year – hence 365 days.  Later civilizations seemed to have adopted the system – the Romans, who in turn are reputed to have used the same zodiacs, but to serve those in power.  

From another perspective, the texts of today’s existing religions, including Judaism and Christianity, indisputably discuss the zodiacs.  The bible discusses the constellations in multiple texts. It cites Abraham looking to the skies; it connects Jacob’s sons – The Twelve Tribes of Israel – to the twelve constellations; it tells of Daniel’s abilities with the stars; and highlights the four axial constellations of Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius, Taurus – Lion, Eagle, Man, and Bull.  The New Testament has four canonical books, and connects their authors to the same four axial constellations, in turn stemming from Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures.  

Digital reconstruction of the Temple of Bel from the New Palmyra project

In short, our ancestors appear to have used the constellations to guide them; at the minimum, the ancients appeared to appreciate the zodiacs more than the majority of us today do.  Whether it was civilizations who left buildings and inscriptions behind, or biblical figures who recognized the constellations, it is clear that our ancestors looked up to the skies, studied the stars, and perhaps understood the universe in a way we do not today.

It appears that there came an age when we struggled with how to interpret and use this knowledge. The church of Europe’s medieval age, at least in part, opted to dismiss the zodiacs and what the zodiacs offered.  The church may have considered such teaching as contrary to its teachings, possibly arguing that the church preached of G-d, while the stars alluded to powers from elsewhere. But it was not only the church that seemed to diverge from the zodiacs. 

Around the 1700s, it appears that we could not reconcile the emerging scientific method with that of the uncertain interpretation of the stars, in spite of having numerous preceding scientists having had solid foundation and teaching in the motions and locations of the stars.  And, over the years, we seem to have severed our connection, understanding of, and respect for the part that the stars may play in our world.

Today, most of us claim to believe or at least to support science, data, and proof that we can touch and see and understand; at the same time, the majority of us refuse to consider evidence that points to the stars as a possible science, as possibly useful knowledge and technique. For instance, we refuse to consider commonalities between persons born under the same sign as anything more than too broad and random.  We also seem to dismiss history, along with evidence from ancient civilizations, that point to the zodiacs as more significant than mere ancient pre-occupations. 

The general consensus is that such studies are ludicrous, and that planets cannot possibly affect one’s birth.  Such conclusion, however, is actually based on lack of knowledge, and not data.  We do not know whether planets, or constellations have any part in our lives.  Contrary to everything that is science, the assertion that the stars do no play any role in our lives is not data-driven; but rather, it is emotionally driven by us not understanding the universe, and being unwilling to explore something this large.

The Temple’s fortified gate and its exterior walls survived the destruction

From buildings as well as texts, it is clear that most of our ancestors put effort into recognizing and using their knowledge of the constellations.  Then, could our ancestors truly have been so off as to have misplaced as much trust and effort?  Or, is it possible that they in fact understood the world better than we do today, in spite of our advances in science?  

When we do take a moment to think about the zodiacs, many of us at the minimum would admit that there are in fact at least some commonalities among individuals born under a given sign, albeit broad and general. Scorpios are usually observant, quiet, and speak in code.  Virgos are usually neat freaks. Geminis do have something of dual personalities. Taurians are stubborn to a fault, unapologetic, and prone to emotional explosions. And on and on.  Even though such commonalities are broad, they are nonetheless patterns.  From that perspective, arguably scientifically-based observations, how can science – scientists – ignore and reject such patterns as merely random?  We cannot have it both ways, on the one hand claim to believe in patterns and evidence, but then ignore commonalities we cannot explain. 

More so, we should not be so quick as to dismiss the evidence of a science that has lasted probably 5,000 years, such that by the time a desert civilization built its temple the science was possibly well established and likely a part of that society’s decision-making process?

Rita told me she was frustrated with her education, that she felt it was inadequate.  What if she had it right?  That our education system is so focused on clear physical observations that it has become all too superficial. Could there be so much more to our world that we reject and refuse to understand?  

Today, we accept and expect that science, medicine, and technology have the answers.  However, from the objective observation of the status of our world, and of our status as beings, science is nowhere near enough to solving our problems.  Just for that, perhaps we should try to appreciate what our ancestors learned.  We invent and develop machines that damage our planet; medicines that alter and/or hide our personalities; and even our happiness we measure by odd and arguably superficial metrics.

It’s not that our ancestors were perfect. They had their wars.  They killed each other and fought for supremacy or some other cause.  This civilization in the middle of that desert, at one period grew enough such that its leader, a queen, decided that she had no choice but to compete with the Roman Empire.  She faced Rome’s armies, and at one point, as a last resort, declared her son the emperor of Rome.  She lost.  Neither the temple or the constellations saved her.  But it is not about winning wars; rather, it is about the stars possibly being a science, a science we are largely dismissing and rejecting, when we really should work to understand, at least, what our ancestors learned and how they applied their knowledge.

About the Author

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Issa Al-Aweel advocates through lawyering and writing. All the while, searching the world for its forgotten workings, knowing it’s just an eye’s blink away. His adventures have trespassed on engineering, computer work, medical research, visiting ruins, discovering nature… under the guise of attempts to focus.

2 thoughts on “The Zodiac, a Science? Ancient Knowledge about the Stars

  1. Issa, thank you so much for writing this. More people should have the knowledge about what they dismiss without understanding.

    1. Cosmology/Astrology was widely practiced across all cultures in the world. They all had different systems based on how they perceived the stars and their rotation–but they all believed in some form of using the skies to tell time.

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