5 Cultures Whose Calendars Would Break Your Concept of Time

#2. The Islamic Watch-and-See Calendar

Sam Robinson/Photodisc/Getty, Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty

Calendars evolve over time, just like everything else, and as we've demonstrated, the defective ones have a tendency to go extinct. However, sometimes a calendar functions just well enough to survive to the present day regardless of its flaws, kind of like those electric hand dryers in public restrooms. For instance, there's the traditional Hijri calendar used by Muslims around the world. An example of how convoluted it is: In August of 2013, the Saudi Arabian Supreme Court had to be brought in to figure out when a month begins.

Viktor Vasnetsov
They ruled that the month had stolen a day and had to be cut short.

Why? Well, the Islamic calendar operates on the principle of moon sighting, a method of starting the new calendar month on the first night of a new crescent moon. This may not sound like such a big deal -- casual astronomers have been able to forecast the lunar cycle for thousands of years, after all. However, tradition mandates that the first crescent must be officially sighted in the night sky by human eyes. Is it too cloudy? Well, too bad! Heavy smog? Sorry, your payday will have to wait until it clears up.

Bad weather is just the beginning of the problem. Different locations on Earth see the moon at a different angle, and in some places obstacles such as mountains may obstruct the view something fierce. Since Muslim nations have so far been unwilling to set a standard moon sighting rule that people around the world can use, even the timing of important celebrations such as the fasting month of Ramadan can easily become controversial and confusing.

Noblevmy/Wikimedia
Moon gazers often end Ramadan the day the Sheikh happens to crave noontime shawarma.

But at least they're all trying to adhere to the same calendar, which we certainly couldn't say about ...

#1. The Freestyle Calendars of Ancient Greece

Tony Freeth/National Geographic

We like to think of the ancient Greeks as a wise, intellectual people advancing daily the world's understanding of philosophy and art. Yet the best and brightest minds of ancient Greece failed at the subject of timekeeping so hard that they could barely even use their own calendars.

The problem was the very thing that we all take for granted about the modern calendar -- which is that everyone is using it (because over time Christianity has browbeaten pretty much everyone into accepting its holidays and month divisions). The dozens of city-states of ancient Greece had a much more free-wheeling, Hades-may-care attitude toward their calendars, and as a result, pretty much every city had its own way of keeping time, and they all refused to accept anyone else's.

Raphael
It's basically one calendar per god. That's why atheists always forget your birthday.

You can imagine how this worked (or, rather, didn't): months had different names in different cities, leap years worked on different schedules, and so on -- basically, striding a few blocks away from where you lived meant you were suddenly in a completely different week, month, or year. Now imagine trying to maintain records between cities, and you can see how every bureaucratic transaction would turn into a ridiculous "Who's on first?" routine. If somebody had invented time travel back then, it would have been impossible to tell.

Even staying within the borders of just one city didn't make things any easier -- Athens alone kept three separate calendars, each of which was entirely different from the others and adorably screwed in its own unique way. Whenever things got so out of sync that the sun couldn't keep up anymore, the city archon would just throw in a few randomly assigned leap days.

Brayden Howie/Photos.com
Babies born those days were killed, for they could never be warriors.

With all this chaos, Greek historians eventually said "screw it" and started using the Olympic Games (the one constant event everyone more or less kept track of) as a rough frame of time reference. As such, Greek historians' texts tend to read in the vein of "Romulus, the first ruler of the city, began his reign in the first year of the seventh Olympiad." It's kind of like trying to remember your significant other's birthday using the Super Bowl as your only frame of reference. So be grateful that you merely have to recite some rhyme you learned in kindergarten in order to remember whether this month has 30 or 31 days.


Mr. Yee writes the Internet's awesomest daily fortune cookie. His original T-shirts are also appropriate for every day of the year.

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Related Reading: Speaking of calendars, did you know Daylight Savings Time is killing people? And while that Soviet calendar was a productivity bust, people can accomplish a LOT in one day. Like planting six million trees. Curious about why the 21st century is making you miserable? We've got the answer.

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