Shirakatsí, Anania

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(also known as Ananias of Shirak)

(b. Shirakavan [now Ani], Armenia, ca. 620; d. shortly after 685)

mathematics, geography, philosophy, astronomy.

A representative of the progressive Armenian scholars of the seventh century and a follower of the best traditions of Hellenistic science and culture, Shirakatsí lived during the period when Armenia had lost her political independence; the western part being ruled by Byzantium and the eastern by Persia. He received his basic education at a local monastery school. After several journeys in search of a teacher of mathematics, which he considered the “mother of all sciences,” Shirakatsí reached Trebizond and entered the school of the Greek scientist Tychicus, who taught the children of many Byzantine nobles. During the next eight years he studied mathematics, cosmography, philosophy, and several other sciences, before returning to his native region of Shirak, where he opened a school. In addition to teaching, he conducted scientific research and wrote works on astronomy, mathematics, geography, history, and other sciences. He possessed truly encyclopedic knowledge and the ability to reach the essence of matters.

Shirakatsí produced his most important scientific work from the 650’s through the 670’s. In 667–669 he was concerned with the reform of the Armenian calendar, anticipating the modern desire for an “immovable” calendar.

Shirakatsí’s scientific works are known through manuscripts of the eleventh through seventeenth centuries that are scattered in the Soviet Union, Italy, Great Britain, Austria, Israel, and perhaps other countries. His advanced philosophical and cosmological views brought him to the attention of official circles, and he was persecuted by both lay and ecclesiastical authorities.

Like the scientists of antiquity, Shirakatsí believed that the world consists of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The world, in which he included plants, animals, and man, is a “definite composition of intermixed elements.”

All things in nature move and are subject to change. Old substances decompose in due course, and new forms arise in their place. Creation, wrote Shirakatsí, is the basis of destruction; and destruction in its turn is the basis of creation; “as a consequence of this harmless contradiction, the world acquires its eternal existence.”

On the form of the earth, Shirakatsí wrote: “The earth seems to me to have an egg-shaped form: as the yolk in spherical form is in the middle, the white around it, and a shell surrounds it all, so the earth is in the center like the yolk, the air around it like the white, and the sky surrounds it all like the shell.” In the early Middle Ages such ideas were very daring.

In connection with the spherical form of the earth, Shirakatsí spoke of the mountains and canyons “on the other side” of the earth. He wrote about the antipodes, of animals and people “like a fly, moving on an apple equally well on all sides. When it is night on one side of the earth, the sun lights the other half of the earth’s sphere.”

Shirakatsí, believed that the earth is in equilibrium in space because the force of gravity, which pulls it down, is opposed by the force of the wind, which tries to raise it.

Criticizing numerous legends that explained the Milky Way, Shirakatsí gave an explanation that was correct and bold for the time: “The Milky Way is a mass of thickly clustered and weakly shining stars.”

The moon, in Shirakatsí’s opinion, does not emit its own light but reflects that of the sun. He associated the phases of the moon, which proceed from changes in the mutual positions of the sun and moon, with this reflection of the sun’s light.

Shirakatsí gave a correct explanation for solar and lunar eclipses and composed a special table for calculating their occurrence, using the nineteen-year “lunar cycle.”

In his Geometry of Astronomy Shirakatsí tried to determine the distance from the earth to the sun, the moon, and the planets, and to estimate the true dimensions of the sun. Such a problem was of course beyond the observational techniques of his time.

Shirakatsí’s works on the calendar were of great importance. He studied and compared the calendar systems of fourteen nations, among them the Agvancians (ancient inhabitants of Azerbaidjan), who did not leave any written records, and the Cappadocians.

Of special interest is his Tables of the Lunar Cycle, the authorship of which was established in the mid-twentieth century. The Yerevan Matenadaran, a repository of ancient manuscripts and books, possesses ten records that contain this work, which was based on his own observations. He wrote in his foreword:

I. Anania Shirakatsí, have faithfully studied the course and changes in the appearance of the moon through all the days of its passage and, noting them, have fixed this information in tables, wishing to lighten the work of those who are interested. And I have drawn first the newborn moon, and then the full moon, on what day it takes place, at what time—in the night or in the day, at what hour and what minute.

Shirakatsí considered not only the days of the various phases of the moon but also the hours, which had not been done in any previous calendar. A comparison of his lunar tables with modern data shows the former’s great precision.

Shirakatsí’s textbook of arithmetic is one of the oldest known Armenian textbooks. Its mathematical tables—of multiplication and of arithmetical and geometrical progression—also are the oldest.


I. Original Works. Shirakatsí’s writings include Ananiayi Sirakunwoy mnatsordk’ panic’ (“Collected Works of Anania Shirakatsí”), K. P. Patkanian, ed. (St. Petersburg, 1877), in classical Armenian; his autobiography in English, in F. C. Conybeare, “Ananias of Sirak,” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 11 (1897), 572–584, also translated into French by H. Berberian in Revue des Etudes Arméniennes, n.s. 1 (1964), 189; T’uabanut’iwn (“Arithmetic”), A. G. Abrahamean, ed. (Erevan, 1939); Tiezeragitut’iwn ew Tomar (“Cosmography and Chronology”), A. G. Abrahamean, ed. (Erevan, 1940), also in Armenian; Tablitsy lunnogo kruga (“Tables of the Motions of the Moon”), A. G. Abrahamean, ed. (Erevan, 1962), in Russian and Armenian; and a collection of Shirakatsí’s other works, Anania Širakac’u matenadrut’iwn (“The Works of Anania Shirakatsí”), A. G. Abrahamean, ed. (Erevan, 1944), in Armenian.

II. Secondary Literature. See A. G. Abrahamean and G. B. Petrosian, Ananias Shirakatsy (Erevan, 1970), in Russian: F. C. Conybeare, “Ananias of Shirak, ‘On Christmas,’” in Expositor (London), 5th ser., 4 (1896), 321–337; R. H. Hewsen, “Science in VIIth Century Armenia; Ananias of Širak,” in Isis, 59 (1968), 32–45; I. A. Orbely, “Voprosy i reshenia” Ananii Shirakatsí (“The Problems and Solutions of Anania Shirakatsí”) (Petrograd, 1918); W. Petri, “Anania Shirakazi—ein armenischer Kosmograph des 7. Jahrhunderts,” in Zeitschrift der Deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 114 , no. 2 (1964), 269–288, also in Mitteilungen der Sternwarte München, 1 , no. 14 (1964), 269–288; G. Ter-Mkrtchian, “Anania SDhirakatsy,” in Ararat (1896), 96–104, 143–152, 199–208, 292–296, 336–344; and B. E. Tumanian and R. A. Abramian, “Ob astronomicheskikh rabotakh Ananii Shirakatsí” (“On the Astronomical Works of Anania Shirakatsí”), in Istoriko-astronomicheskie issledovaniya, no. 2 (1956), 239–246.

P. G. Kulikovsky