Academic/Museums, Astrolabe research

Concerning “Mariam” Al-Asturlabiya

Al-‘Ijliya is the only woman astrolabist known from the premodern Islamic world, and we know about her from these lines in a 10th century AD encyclopedia:

Names of the makers [of astronomical instruments]:
[…]
al-‘Ijli al-Asturlabi, an apprentice of Betulus[Nastulus?];
al-‘Ijliya, his daughter, a pupil of Betulus[Nastulus?] who was with [i.e. worked for] Sayf Al-Dawla.
The Fihrist of Al-Nadim, Vol 2, Ch 7, Section 2; trans. Bayard Dodge

No birth or death dates or places; no comment on what she looked like or the quality of her work. No mention of a personal name. My understanding is that this is all recorded history has to say about her; she is not mentioned in any other texts, nor can any surviving objects be attributed to her.

We can extrapolate a few things, though. We can trace her family origins from the name “Al-‘Ijliy(a)”, which implies she was from the Banu ‘Ijli of the larger Banu Bakr tribe. Given the full list of instrument makers (of which I have only quoted the last two entries), we can trace the lineage of her teachers; it seems she was taught by a well respected astronomical instrument-maker, who himself had a line of renowned teachers before him. And we know that Sayf Al-Dawla, for whom she worked, was an emir who reigned in Aleppo from 945-967 AD.

Unfortunately, there are many unsupported details widely circulating about her: that her name was Mariam “Al-Asturlabiya” Al-‘Ijliya; that she was born in 945 and died in 967 AD; that she invented the astrolabe, or at least made such beautiful astrolabes that she had regular royal commissions.

First of all, I have no idea why so many people think her name was Mariam. (If anyone can shed light on this, please do!)

The most glaring error is the claim that she invented the astrolabe. There is a mountain of evidence that she did not – for example, the known existence of at least three astrolabe treatises (by Theon of Alexandria, John Philoponus, Severus Sebokht) written centuries before she was born. And they use the term ‘astrolabe’. (I mention this last point since I’ve encountered the notion that her name was was ‘Al-Asturlabiya’ and the astrolabe was named after her. Let me clarify: Al-Asturlabi (feminine form Al-Asturlabiya) simply means “the astrolabist”.)

To the claim that her work was especially “beautiful” or “intricate” or “ingenious”: we have no idea. We have no surviving instruments attributed to her, nor descriptions thereof. The closest we get is some work attributed to her teacher, Nastulus*: this astrolabe and this mathematical instrument. Considering that surviving 9th/10th century astrolabes are very stylistically similar (cf. this Syrian instrument by a different astrolabist), I would suppose that Al-Ijliya’s astrolabes looked something like these. Sparse, functional, undecorated. Probably offering a similar range of functions. It is certainly unlikely that she produced anything like these especially ornate instruments. (Those are centuries younger, and none of them from Syria.)

Regarding her work for Sayf Al-Dawla: we don’t know how she came to do so. There is a tendency to assume that her work must have been exemplary if she worked for an emir, but we don’t know this. The fact that her father was in the same trade and/or that she had a famous teacher may have had something to do with it. We also don’t know how long she worked for him, or for that matter how long she lived (the dates of Sayf Al-Dawla’s reign are often mistakenly given for her birth/death dates).

So why do we envision the sole recorded woman astrolabist as a young woman (cf. this cartoon illustration and costumed actor) excelling at her craft and making lovely things? I ask this as someone who finds the romantic vision of her compelling – I’m just painfully aware how much of it is wishful thinking. We know so little about her.

It also makes me pause that the narrative which has arisen around her is one focused on beauty. This doesn’t happen with any other astrolabist – not even the ones whose surviving instruments are styled with poetry, gems, ornate natural imagery, and other such romantic things.

*Assuming you accept, as I and many scholars do, that ‘Betulus’ and ‘Nastulus’ are different readings of the same name.

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