Astrolabe Research Resources

This is a curated list of some astrolabe resources I’ve found especially useful. Since my work is primarily on later-period eastern Islamic instruments (Safavid/Mughal), the list is focused on those.

Collections of astrolabes worldwide

Museum of the History of Science (Oxford, UK)

They have the largest collection of astrolabes in the world, comprehensively representing both eastern and western instruments – and the entire astrolabe catalogue is published online in an easily searchable database, with technical details and large, clear pictures of every instrument (and every separate part thereof).

National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, UK)

Some of my favourite astrolabes are in this collection. While some information is available on the Royal Museums Greenwich website, I heartily recommend the published catalogue Astrolabes at Greenwich: A Catalogue of the Astrolabes in the National Maritime Museum for its clear photos, very detailed descriptions, and great analysis.

The Nasser D. Khalili Collection

My understanding is that the Khalili collections aren’t housed in a museum, though occasionally parts of it are loaned to exhibitions in various museums worldwide. Luckily there are many catalogues, and one volume covers the astronomical instruments with beautiful photos and fantastic essays (Science, Tools & Magic: (Part One) Body and Spirit, Mapping the Universe).

Adler Planetarium (Chicago, USA)

Adler has a huge astrolabe collection (~90 instruments), and I really like the physical display at the planetarium – especially since they allow you to see the front and back of many instruments. The full catalogue is published in two volumes: Western Astrolabes and Eastern Astrolabes.

Museum of Islamic Art (Doha, Qatar)

This the collection I’ve worked with directly and know best, with 60+ instruments on display from all over the Islamic world. There is unfortunately no published catalogue (yet?), but a few instruments are highlighted on their website.

The Time Museum (formerly in Rockford, IL, USA)

Sadly the museum has closed down, but its published catalogues (including one devoted to astrolabes and related instruments) remain. Some of the instruments formerly in this collection are now in Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art.

Other publications

Al Biruni’s ‘Elements in the Art of Astrology’ (Ramsay Wright, English trans.)

While Al Biruni (12th century) has written an entire astrolabe treatise, I find the astrolabe chapter of this text more accessible. It’s short and clear, going over the parts of an astrolabe and walking through several sample problems that astrolabes can be used to solve.

‘The Astrolabe’ by James E. Morrison

This is a modern astrolabe treatise – great if you’re looking for a detailed understanding of how astrolabes work, and it even has resources for anyone who wants to make a modern working instrument. It covers not only the expected planispheric astrolabe, but astrolabe quadrants and several types of universal astrolabe as well. It’s focused on Western astrolabes, but covers Islamic astrolabes in some depth.

‘Fihi Ma Fihi’ (‘It is what’s in it’) by Jalaluddin Rumi

Discourse Two of this collection of 12th century philosophical essays builds up into an astrolabe metaphor, which sheds some light on the elevated status of the astrolabe in Rumi’s society. A complete (abridged) translation of the whole text is available, but I also like this more literal, unabridged translation of just Discourse Two.

Various publications by David A. King

King is perhaps the scholarly expert on medieval Islamic astronomical instruments; he has published extensively, and many of his works are available as free downloads from his page.

Books on Islamic gardens

There are a great many books on the subject, and no particular one leaps out. They are relevant to the extent that they discuss Islamic gardens modelled on concepts of Heaven – which (as I propose in my own work) is the symbolic inverse of the many Islamic astrolabes that use garden symbolism/decoration in representing the heavens.