БƗƗҚ.10 // While Alyattes is Battling Cyaxares

Walking around Cambridge

I was tired of sharing my birthday with Rudy Giuliani, and so I recently poked around the Wikipedia entry for May 28 to learn what else happened on that day and boy do I have a story for you. Here’s how the “Events” section of the Wikipedia page for May 28 begins:

585 BC – A solar eclipse occurs, as predicted by the Greek philosopher and scientist Thales, while Alyattes is battling Cyaxares in the Battle of Halys, leading to a truce. This is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates can be calculated.

The battle is fairly unremarkable: The Lydians, who occupied much of Anatolia, fought the Medes, an ancient Iranian Empire, along the Halys River (now known as the Kızılırmak River) in modern day Turkey. There was a solar eclipse, which both sides took to be an omen, and they called a truce: somebody’s daughter married somebody’s son and the border was drawn at the river.

The natural world plays a vital role in helping humans approximate the dates of ancient history. Records of astronomical events (comets, eclipses, novae, etc.) can be retroactively verified with incredible precision, and natural disasters (volcanos, floods, blights, etc.) allow historians to triangulate records from civilizations across the globe who were not in contact with one another but nevertheless experienced, and documented, the same event.

Map of solar eclipse 03379. The eclipse became visible over the Halys River in the late afternoon. (Source: NASA)

The solar eclipse that occurred on May 28, 585BC is not the first astronomical event recorded by humans. It is, however, the first time that recorded history converged with an independently verifiable natural event, and this is why the Battle of Halys is remarkable: it is the earliest historical event whose date is precisely known to us today. And it wins by some margin: for instance, the next oldest known event to occur on May 28 happened in 621 AD, more than 1,200 years later. 

The reason that the Battle of Halys was so well documented (it’s included in Herodotus’ Histories), is not just because an eclipse occurred, but because this eclipse was predicted in advance. As the battle unfolded, early astronomers were waiting to see if Thales’ prediction would come true. When it did, it became the first eclipse to have been successfully predicted in advance, a fact that led Isaac Asimov to declare May 28, 585BC the birth date of science. I’m sad to not be around for it, but I hope that some of our grandchildren will celebrate the millionth day anniversary of this incredible day. It’s just around the corner on April 18, 2154.

Sunset on the Kizilirmak River, 2016. (Source: sedat yıldız)

I have been going for a lot of walks through the neighborhood recently, and I’ve grown quite comfortable with a previously complicated knot of backstreets along the Cambridge/Somerville line. On these walks, I often encounter the new construction that is going up at 109 Prospect Street, which has remained stalled since the pandemic began. There is a foundation and a six story elevator shaft, but not much else.

The view from 22 Bolton Street. (My photo)

The top of the elevator shaft stands out amongst the Mansard roofs and pointed gables of East Cambridge, and so it has served as a beacon of sorts on my walks. I have grown happily accustomed to seeing it, in no small part because I know that I’m working with borrowed time. In the fourth most expensive real estate market in the US, it’s rare for an elevator shaft to remain exposed for so long, and soon enough the state of emergency will be lifted and construction will resume and nobody will ever see the elevator shaft again. I can’t help but feel sad about this: it would make a perfectly good monument or observation deck or minaret as is, but the luxury condos are coming, and when they engulf my tower I’ll be left alone with my map, my memories, and a quiet resentment towards the tenants who happily stroll in and out of their new home.

Vantage points of the 109 Prospect Street elevator shaft, as gathered by myself over the past few months (numbers = steps between street segments).

Thanks for reading,

— Grif