A Sprouting Seed

It should not surprise you that all my work on astrolabes has incurred the desire to make one. So when I found that a local silversmith was offering a jewellery-making class, I signed up right away, thinking this could be the first step in learning the requisite skills. So one late December day, I designed and made (with guidance) this brass and silver pendant. I chose the motif of a sprouting seedling because Persianate astrolabes frequently have retes in the form of leafy plants; my hope is that this experience is the seed that will someday grow into making a full astrolabe.

Below the cut are some in-progress photos from that initial session.
Continue reading “A Sprouting Seed”

Concerning “Mariam” Al-Asturlabiya

Al-‘Ijliya is the only woman astrolabist from the premodern Islamic world that history has recorded. My understanding is that everything we know about her comes from the following lines in the Fihrist (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

There are no birth or death dates or places, no comment on what she looked like or the quality of her work, and no mention of a personal name. She is not mentioned in any other texts, nor can any surviving objects be attributed to her. At best, we can extrapolate a few things. Her family origins have been traced 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; and most notoriously 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 reach out to me!)

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. Furthermore, all three use the term ‘astrolabe’, which is noteworthy because I’ve encountered people who think that ‘Al-Asturlabiya’ was part of her name and that the astrolabe was named after her. (“Al-asturlabi”, which has feminine form “al-asturlabiya”, simply means “the astrolabist”.)

Regarding 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 the known surviving 9th/10th century astrolabes are stylistically similar (compare this Syrian instrument by a different astrolabist), I would assume that Al-Ijliya’s astrolabes were similarly sparse, undecorated, and offered a similar range of functions. It is certainly unlikely that she produced anything like these especially ornate instruments, which are centuries more recent, and none of them from Syria.

Regarding her work for Sayf Al-Dawla: we don’t know how she came to his court. 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 played a role. 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? Why is the narrative which has arisen around her focused on beauty? No other astrolabist is romanticized this way – not even the ones whose surviving instruments are replete 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.

Present Astrolabes

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:

Astrolabe by Jacopo Koushan, 2013.
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.

The Many Faces of a Muhandis

I always understood the Arabic word هندسة (handasa) to mean ‘geometry’, because I first came across it in an Al-Biruni text where he more or less defines it as such:

Al-Biruni defines al-handasaAl-handasah: Geometry is the science of dimensions and their relations to each other and the knowledge of the properties of the forms and figures found in solids. By it the science of numbers is transferred from the particular to the universal, and astronomy removed from conjecture and opinion to a basis of truth. (trans. R. Ramsay Wright)

Now while Wright renders handasa as “geometry” – and Al-Biruni’s definition certainly matches up with how we define the English word – if you look up handasa in an Arabic-English dictionary, it is rendered as “engineering”. And if you look up the Arabic for “geometry”, you get علم الهندسة (ilm al-handasa, “the science/knowledge of handasa“).)

What inspired this little investigation was a recent reminder that the Arabic word for engineer is مهندس (muhandis)/ fem. مهندسة (muhandisa), which is an agentive form based on the same root as handasa (teaching : teacher :: handasa : muhandis). Which implies that one could also render muhandis as “geometrician” – a master of geometrical knowledge rather than one who puts that knowledge into practice. (According to Merriam-Webster, the word “geometrician” – along with synonyms “geometer” and “geometrist” – actually exist in English, and the first two were in use in the 15th century.)

The fact remains that while fluency in geometry remains necessary for most (non-computer) engineering, English has kept the mathematical knowledge conceptually separate from the ability to apply it. Etymologically, “geometry” is about measuring the world while “engineering” is about ingenious uses of knowledge. Even then, “engineering” only covers certain uses. Artists are not considered engineers – even if their work makes considerable and/or inventive use of geometry (or any other kind of mathematics) – unless they have, in addition to their artwork, demonstrated a use of mathematics for non-aesthetic functions. (We don’t consider Da Vinci an engineer for his innovations in rendering light and perspective in painting, but for his schematics of flying machines and tank prototypes.)

This goes to show that engineering is not the only application implied by geometry. Which brings me to wonder: if geometry is “the science of handasa” – the “theory behind it” or the “knowledge that informs it” – then what, exactly, is handasa? I think it is (or at least was) more than what is encompassed by the modern English definition of “engineering”. Especially when you consider that Islamic art is so heavily centred on geometry. Perhaps it has something to do with why aesthetics were given considerable weight in the design of Islamicate astrolabes, well past the point that is necessary for carrying out the calculation functions.

I don’t have enough sensitivity to the language to speak for modern Arabic thought, and in any case I’m certain that recent developments (advances in science and technology, Western cultural influences, etc) have had an effect on how people think of these concepts and use these words. But there are implications that, historically, engineering and art (or at least some things that we would call “art” but not consider “engineering”) were indeed considered different shades of the same idea. I’m not sure how far into the Islamicate world this extended, but I think a case for it could be made in Persia (where Al-Biruni was from, even though he wrote in Arabic).

Persian literature abounds with examples. Consider this description by 12th century Nizami) in his Khosrow and Shirin:
[…] the painter recalled one Farhad, a youth of great skill and cleverness, who had studied with Shapur in China, under the same drawing master [as himself]. Now Farhad had mastered the works of Euclid on geometry and the treatise of Ptolemy on the stars, but his accomplishments in engineering and sculpture were even greater. So deftly did he carve as to make even the most obdurate stone sing with joy as he chipped it with his chisel.

This is not even a direct translation, but an abridged adaptation of the original text. I expect the original goes into greater detail, something like these lines of the 14th-century poet Jami (describing a similar character in his Yusuf and Zulaykha):

From his hand’s every finger, a hundred arts and more!
Accomplished in every architect’s rule,
A guide in astronomy’s laws
His figuration made easy the Almagest’s toil
And his doubt might cause Euclid to fear;
If his grip lacked a compass,
He traced his work with two fingers;
When he wished a line’s mark, of a sudden,
From his innermost nature, drew he straight – and without ruled paper!
He might leap as far as the satin-dark arch
And fix corbelations upon Saturn’s own vault!
When his hand took a turn to the chisel,
The very stone turned softer than rawest wet brick;
When he set his mind on to design,
Lovely traces in thousands sprang up there in tendrils

(trans. Michael Barry, from Figural Art in Medieval Islam)

Both of these characters are described primarily as skilled artists and astronomers, with an emphasis on the wondrous beauty of their work – yet within their respective stories, their role is to accomplish feats of engineering: the latter designs a fantastical palace, while Farhad devises a road through a mountain and (pictured below) a plumbing system to supply a palace with milk.
Khosrow inspects Farhad's milk plumbing system(image from Wikipedia)

So what did it really mean to be a muhandis back then? And what does all of this tell us about the significance of and relationships between geometry, art, and engineering in that world?

Mathematical Relationships

Diagram from Al-Biruni manuscript.
Al-Biruni (10th/11th century) illustrates diameters and radii, chords and sagittas.

The fact that my work on astrolabes emphasises their artistic, symbolic, spiritual and sociopolitical aspects leads some people to assume that I have little regard for the mathematics, astronomy, geography and engineering behind them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even as I am interested in astrolabes as art, to properly explore this requires me to learn how astrolabes work. I have found, for instance, that the significance of some astrolabe decoration pertains to the role of particular components in carrying out the scientific functions. Also, a great part of the beauty of astrolabes lies in the elegant solution they offer to the problem of representing the universe (a) in a portable device, (b) in such a way that mathematical relationships between the celestial bodies represented are preserved accurately.

Right now I am working my way through a manuscript of Al-Biruni – two-thirds of which is straight-up mathematics and astronomy – and so far astrolabes aren’t even on my mind as I read. I’m just enjoying the revisitation of geometry (which comprises the first major section of the book); it’s fascinating to see how the presentation of concepts is so different from how I learned it at school. I’m even learning some things I was never taught before. And I’m really looking forward to how he presents astronomy later on!

It says something about how we categorise and value things, that my interest in the artistic and symbolic should imply a disinterest in maths and science. It speaks to the way that modern culture has set up art, science and spirituality in opposition to each other. But this opposition wasn’t always the case – and my interest in astrolabes, especially as they were conceived in the premodern Islamic world, is precisely because they demonstrate that these things can work together. With beautiful results.

Inspired by… Astrolabes (part 1/2)

As the featured artist in the MIA Library’s Inspired by Books series, there is now a display of some of my work in the library. It includes the original drawings The Astronomer Under and Mycelium Sun, as well as the notebook marginalia (surrounded by various quotations and thoughts about astrolabes) below. (ETA: Here is the other half of the two-page spread.) If you’re in Qatar, go check it out!

Part of my weekly Marginalia series.

Images from ‘Rumi & Astrolabes’

For those who attended my Rumi and Astrolabes talk, here are most of the images I used. The photos I took myself are posted directly, and I’ve provided links to the photos that don’t belong to me. (For a few images, I’m afraid I couldn’t find versions to link to that weren’t behind paywalls. But most of them are here.)

Let’s start with the photos I took at the MIA Qatar. Most of these were chosen to demonstrate design features of the rete and mater, but I also included the splayed out astrolabe so you could see the separate parts – and the wooden astrolabe simply because it’s a rare example of one:

About a third of my images came from the online astrolabe catalogue of Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. (To find the Islamic astrolabes quickly, sort the list by language and look for the Arabic and Persian ones.) I encourage you to explore the database; there are many wonderful pieces in there.

Here are a few particular astrolabes I highlighed during the talk because they were special in one way or another:

Here is an astrolabe with attached prayer beads.

This is an unusual calligraphic rete with a dedication to a noble patron. Here is a more typical calligraphic rete with a religious inscription (there is a similar one at the MIA).

This astrolabe has a rather wonderful Persian poem inscribed around the edge of the rete, and the instrument as a whole includes a celestial map plate. (This is possibly my favourite astrolabe out of all the ones I’ve seen – be assured I intend to write more about it!)

Finally, here is the (fake, as we discussed) astrolabe I passed around:

my astrolabe

The White Vizier’s Astrolabe

Revisiting the Kings & Pawns exhibition today, I discovered this delightful little cartoon of a chess game.

And it made my day that, at 4:15, the white vizier pulls out what looks like an astrolabe!
The white vizier's astrolabe from the short film 'The Rook'.Its rete seems to be made up of astrological symbols(?), and he only uses it as a surface for casting his dice. But still!

EDIT: The object he is holding may not be an astrolabe after all, but an astrological geomantic plate (such as this one from the Khalili collections).