A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2010 Aug 26, 20:16 -0700
A week ago, I wrote:
"One "Mecca Time" that would make some sense would be Local Apparent Time in Mecca, which could certainly be claimed to have some traditional religious value. Indeed, to a considerable extent, muslim prayer times are determined by LAT and there are plenty of software tools, specialized wristwatches, etc. which will work this out. So there's nothing new here. Mecca Time in this sense is already in use and has been for centuries. It is in use alongside standard time. Applying LAT more broadly to commerce, train schedules, airline schedules, etc. was possible historically in a quieter world, but today it would cause obvious problems. Does anyone know when Saudi Arabia switched to Arabian Standard Time for normal public time?"
I've been trying to get some sort of answer to my question here, and I've learned some fascinating things. First of all, I was wrong about the use of Local Apparent Time as the traditional time in Arabia. They do indeed use a sun-based time, and until very recently it was widely displayed on clocks and watches, but it's distinct from Local Apparent Time and much older. Until the end of the 1960s (from what I can tell, it was a gradual transition), the time known widely as "Arab Time" or "Arabic Time" was in use in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (and in other muslim countries though much less frequently). Articles in US newspapers in the 1960s occasionally appeared noting the strange time-keeping system there with some bemusement, even mockery. Like the time system used throughout much of the ancient world, the day began at sunset. Originally the night lasted twelve hours so that our midight occurred at 6:00. In latitudes of any significant distance from the equator, and for dates away from the equinoxes, these were "unequal hours." However it appears that Arab Time during the 20th century was based on equal hours running at a constant rate for almost a full 24 hours. Clocks were reset right at sunset, and I've found no evidence that they were reset again at sunrise, in the past hundred years at least. So 6:00 did not correspond exactly to midnight and noon, except near the equator or near the solstices.
Those media reports a couple of weeks ago suggesting that they want this "Mecca Time" to restore the old system of defining the beginning of the day almost certainly is referring to a day that begins at sunset. Unlike standard times today, where the night is split between two calendar days, under "Arab Time" if today is Thursday August 26, then as soon as the Sun sets, it becomes Thursday, August 27. The entire night belongs to the following day on the calendar. Of course in celestial navigation, the idea that the day begins at midnight is also surprisingly new. The astronomical day, which was the rule through the last day of 1924, began the day at noon. The half day of ".5" tagged on the end of astronomical julian day numbers is a legacy of the old definition of the day. The distinct nautical day or "sea day" also began at noon. The recent media reports were based on the muddled notions of some folks in Arabia with a very limited understanding of time-keeping systems, and the people doing the reporting were equally clueless. The notion that this old style of Arab time-reckoning would compete with "GMT" is absurd. It could, however, compete with "standard time" in general in a setting like Mecca where the universe revolves around religion.
As recently as the Ottoman period, right through the First World War, this "Arab Time" was in use across most of the Near East from Romania, through Istanbul and Anatolia, Iraq, Palestine, Arabia, and as far as Zanzibar, just from the cases for which I've found some documentary evidence. For example, the Ottoman train guards all carried two watches, one set to some standard time and the other set to the Arab Time for some location along the line. British commentators noted that it hardly mattered in any case since the trains were never within an hour of their schedule no matter what time was being kept. Even in the Ottoman Navy, Arabic Time was sometimes kept by ships in port: "The uneducated declared science spoiled the sailor, and some of them made it a point of conscience to set their chronometers in harbour to Arabic time."
From "The People of Palestine" published in 1907: "In Palestine villages the time of day is reckoned with reference to sunset, which is called twelve o'clock. If the sun should set at six o'clock, European time, then seven o'clock in the evening, as we should say, would be called the first hour of the night by the Arabs, and seven o'clock the next morning by our watches would be the first hour of the day according to Arab time."
Even some Europeans in the 19th century grew to like the Arab style of time-keeping --from its lack of exact definition more than from any internal logic. In "My Winter on the Nile" in 1876, Englishman Charles Warner wrote:
"One sees here what an exaggerated importance we are accustomed to attach to the exact measurement of time. We constantly compare our watches, and are anxious that they should not gain or lose a second. A person feels his own importance somehow increased if he owns an accurate watch. [...] When two men meet, one of the most frequent interchanges of courtesies is to compare watches; certainly, if the question of time is raised, as it is sure to be shortly among a knot of men with us, every one pulls out his watch, and comparison is made.
We are, in fact, the slaves of time and of fixed times. We think it a great loss and misfortune to be without the correct time [...] Here in Egypt we see how unnatural and unnecessary this anxiety is. Why should we care to know the exact time ? It is 12 o'clock, Arab time, at sunset, and that shifts every evening, in order to wean us from the rigidity of iron habits. Time is flexible, it waits on our moods and we are not slaves to its accuracy. Watches here never agree, and no one cares whether they do or not."
It seems to me, from the above description, that a comparable expression in the modern world of western tourism would be "beach time".
Zanzibar offers an interesting case of "Arab Time" in a public setting, rather similar to the recent article about a clock tower in Mecca. When the Sultan of Zanzibar built a clock tower for his palace (some time around 1883 --I've lost the reference), there was "much rejoicing" when it was announced that it would be set to Arab Time rather than the time kept by the British who were already dominant in Zanzibar's affairs. From an article published in 1896: "The Sultan [...] resides in a lofty and well-built palace, facing the sea; this edifice is lighted at night by electric lamps, there is a clock tower in front of it, which keeps Arabic time, the hours of the day are counted from 6 AM to 6 PM the former being 1 o'clock and the latter 12."
This palace was shot to pieces in the brief assault on August 27, 1896 during the Anglo-Zanzibar "War" which is sometimes counted as the shortest war in history. It lasted from about 9:00am to 9:40am and of course the recorded times are standard times, as recorded by the British, who won the "war" easily. The original clock tower was apparently destroyed and another replaced it (it is still there in the old town even today in 2010), but I don't know if standard time then replaced Arab Time on its display after the war. It seems like it would be appropriate.
You might think that something as archaic and exotic as this "Arab Time" would have no place in the modern world, and it doesn't --except in a few places where the modern world is intentionally kept at bay. For example, in the monasteries in the autonomous region of Mount Athos in northern Greece, this same ancient system of time-keeping, though not called "Arab Time" of course, is the time commonly kept. Sunset is 12:00 and it marks the beginning of the new day. Clocks are reset every few days as the time of sunset changes. In Mecca itself, something similar might actually be done even today. And why not? A pilgrimage to a holy place is a visit to another universe, for those who believe... I maintain that the news stories on this topic two weeks ago were absurd, both with respect to their sources in Saudi Arabia and also the interpretations in the western media that reported on it. But behind every tall tale there's an explanation, a bit of history that might lend some sense to the lunacy. Arab Time was a historical reality with standardized rules, but it bears little resemblance to a modern time-keeping standard. "Mecca Time", as described in those news stories, could never in any meaningful way replace or challenge UTC (or GMT) --not a chance. But the old Arab Time might still make a comeback in the other-worldly universe of Mecca.
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