Astrolabe, one of His Highness the Aga Khan’s favorite artifacts at the Museum

This astrolabe may have been made in Toledo, Spain, then a major centre of scientific translation. The inscriptions on the astrolabe bear the names of constellations in both Arabic and Latin, with additional inscriptions in Arabic. Later, Hebrew was added to one of the plates. Muslim scientists worked together with Christian and Jewish counterparts to translate and transmit scientific knowledge to Europe. (image Aga Khan Museum)
This astrolabe may have been made in Toledo, Spain, then a major centre of scientific translation. The inscriptions on the astrolabe bear the names of constellations in both Arabic and Latin, with additional inscriptions in Arabic. Later, Hebrew was added to one of the plates. Muslim scientists worked together with Christian and Jewish counterparts to translate and transmit scientific knowledge to Europe. (image Aga Khan Museum)

Astrolabes are amongst the most sophisticated scientific instruments ever made. “The word astrolabe is a Greek-Arabic hybrid that literally means “star-holder,” an apt description for a device that indicates the positions of the stars, sun, moon and planets. Essentially, it is a map of the heavens, depicting the apparent movements of celestial bodies in terms of celestial latitudes and longitudes, combined with slide rule-like features that allow calculation.”*

Invented by the Greeks in about the second or third century BC, the astrolabe was further advanced by the Arabs in the eighth to eleventh centuries CE. The Arab treatises on the astrolabe published in the ninth century indicate their familiarity with the instrument, which was inherently valuable in Islam because of its ability to determine the astronomically defined prayer times and to find the direction to Mecca. Many of the astrolabes became elegant works of art, with stylistic differences in the various Muslim regions.

The astrolabe was introduced to Europe through North Africa and Spain (al-Andalus) as early as the eleventh century although its use was not widespread until the thirteenth century, with peak usage in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Latin names were engraved alongside the Arabic words on the astrolabes; it seems likely that the use of Arabic star names in Europe was influenced by the importing of these instruments.

There were two main types: the mariner’s astrolabe used for navigation – to determine the altitudes of the sun and starts; the planispheric astrolabe, the most common instrument, was used for astrological purposes. Initially consisting of six parts including the latitude plate which was made for specific latitudes, Ibrahim al-Zarqali (d. 1987), known as Azarchel in the West, introduced a universal plate capable of calculations at any latitude, thereby rendering the astrolabe usable in any part of the world – it did not need electricity, batteries or WiFi! The compact versatile nature of the astrolabe made it the most treasured instrument for astronomers.The use of the astrolabe declined in the late seventeenth century with the invention of the pendulum clock and the telescope.

The Aga Khan Museum has in its collection a planispheric astrolabe dated 1300s, bearing the names of constellations in both Arabic and Latin.

References:
*Richard Covington, The Astrolabe: A User’s Guide, Saudi Aramco World
Robert A. Agler, Measuring the Heavens: Astronomical Instruments before the Telescope, The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Research by Nimira Dewji


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2 thoughts

  1. BOTH CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS AND VASCO DA GAMA USED ARAB MUSLIM NAVIGATORS, EXPERTS IN THE USE OF THE ASTROLABE, TO DISCOVER THE NEW WORLD AND INDIA AROUND AFRICA’S CAPE OF GOOD HOPE.

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  2. TODAY WE HAVE NATAL PROVINCE IN SOUTH AFRICA AND SANTO DOMINGO IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC BECAUSE OF THIS. THE ARABS WERE MASTERS AT USING IT. NOT TO MENTION GOA IN INDIA AND MACAU IN CHINA.

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