Some context: For my MA thesis, I wanted to explore the significance of the ancient Egyptian sistrum in the context of a certain museum exhibition. But when I approached my potential adviser about working on “this musical instrument”, he stopped me: “These objects have been silent for centuries; now they are behind glass and people look at them like sculptures. Can you really say they are still sound-makers, let alone musical instruments?”
Lately I have similar questions about astrolabes. We call them “astronomical instruments”, “timekeepers”, “calculators”, “navigation aids” – but they have been supplanted by more accurate devices for all of these functions since the 1700s (give or take a century, depending on geographical/cultural region). Yet they still exist in our present world, and people still engage with them. How do we best characterise how they fit into our world now?
Hundreds of antique astrolabes go through auction houses and sit in museums and private collections, where people engage them as relics of the past. They attract considerable interest for their role in the history of science and other kinds of exploration. But some people are attracted to astrolabes for their intricate beauty. Even if the objects attain some mystique for being old scientific instruments – even if someone who understands the mathematics and astronomy might marvel at how this knowledge was applied in such a clever and beautiful way – there can be another kind of engagement that is about inspiration, personal resonance, aesthetic response. In other words, an artistic one.
This doesn’t just extend to looking at astrolabes, either. Going beyond museums, we find that there are people who still make working instruments:
The astrolabe pictured above was made in 2013 by Jacopo Koushan of Tabriz, Iran. On this page are several more astrolabes, both Western and Eastern, made within the last few decades. The calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya is also known to have made several. And these are just a few examples.
But as far as I know, none of these modern astrolabes were made to actually aid astronomy, navigation, timekeeping, or any other scientific practice (unless you count instruments made for educational demonstrations). Modern astrolabists seem to be artists, or at least creative in their hobbies; even the ones who are scientists or engineers by profession have not created their astrolabes for their work. Nobody makes them nowadays because they need a tool to extract objective information about the world (i.e. anything we would think of as “doing science”).
There are also plenty of astrolabes for sale, most of which don’t work (though some do). Some of these are handmade; many are mass-produced. I’ve seen them in the souqs of Arabian Gulf countries, at the Istanbul Grand Bazaar, at historical re-enactment events, in museum gift shops, and even in home furnishing stores. The fact that these sell, even though most of them are useless for calculations, only drives home the point that there is a modern interest in astrolabes that has nothing to do with their scientific functions.
What’s more, it isn’t just a recent phenomenon that there are people who value astrolabes for their beauty rather than scientific functionality. Gingerich, King and Saliba quote an 1875 Iranian text which says: “so much did they love to have one [an astrolabe] in their sight, although many could not understand one iota of it”. And this line is mentioned in an article about forged astrolabes – instruments that not only don’t work, but are falsely claimed to have been made by a specific person (in this case, the 17th century astrolabist Abd Al-Aimma). Which tells us that value was attached to the name itself, even by people who wanted an instrument they were never going to use for calculation – much like the signature of a famous artist can add tremendous value and desirability to an incomprehensible sketch.
As important as they are to historians of science, astrolabes also offer much to explore in their decoration and symbolism, their original social/ cultural/ political contexts, and the people who made them. I want to ask these historical questions, but also to probe further: Why do astrolabes captivate so many of us in the present? What can we learn about ourselves from our continued fascination with them?
Gingerich, Owen, David King and George Saliba. “The ‘Abd al-A’imma Astrolabe Forgeries.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 3 (1972): 188-198.