A lot of people have wondered if my ink drawings have been influenced by mehendi. I can’t say it’s ever been deliberate, though perhaps it’s been floating around on an unconscious level since mehendi has always been a regular feature of celebrations in my maternal family. I was never particularly fond of wearing it when I was younger, but my aunt got married this year, and mehendi was of course a part of it, and somehow this sparked a new interest for me.

It’s fascinating to watch mehendi artists, especially the ones who freestyle (i.e. don’t copy predesigned images). On a conceptual level, the way they construct their designs very much resembles the way I build up the more abstract parts of my drawings (counterbalancing curves, filling bounded spaces with repeated motifs, etc):

The medium makes a difference, though. I find that drawing with a pen or brush is very different to drawing with a henna cone; this video belies that it takes some skill just to get the henna paste out of the cone in smooth, even lines, and that certain kinds of strokes are more difficult to render than others. There are also different mixtures of henna paste at different consistencies, which changes how easy it is to apply certain strokes or recover from mistakes: I found it easier to lay down curves and more difficult to draw lines in the thicker paste used at my aunt’s wedding, and the reverse for the thinner paste I’ve been working with at home. My skills definitely need work, but I’m having fun playing around.

Beginnings & Endings

My latest drawing is in two parts that can be arranged in two configurations:

rete together_sm

This was a commission from someone who felt my drawings reminded her of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and asked me to do something inspired by the last part of Little Gidding. A recurring theme there is that endings become beginnings as well as beginnings leading to endings. So I decided to do the drawing in two halves, titled ‘Endings’ and ‘Beginnings’ respectively, where each leads into the other.

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.

Tone and Suggestion

Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty has brought me back to thinking about poetics: the notion that what the language formally means is only part of the message carried by a linguistic utterance. Indeed, a great deal goes on in what is suggested rather than what is explictly said.

In particular, I’ve been reflecting on something that tends to be called “the tone argument” online. Generally it looks like this: Person A speaks, and Person B criticises their tone instead of responding to the content of what Person A said. (“Your ideas would get more purchase if you were calmer/gentler/more professional.”)

I think there are some situations where this is an appropriate response, e.g. if you sought a critique of something and you got a scathing reply. But there are other situations where criticising the tone derails communication. If you cry out that something is hurting you, it does not help if someone criticises your tone while ignoring your pain.

With a critique, it’s because the point is to help a person improve something they’ve made. (As I see it, if you think the thing is so awful that no amount of work can save it, there’s no point in offering a critique.) The message needs to be: I’m bringing up these flaws because, if you address them, it will strengthen your work. A supportive tone can get this across, but a harsh tone might change it to: These flaws make your work worthless, and there is nothing you can do to fix them – which is not helpful.

On the other hand, when someone lashes out against an experience of social injustice (for instance), part of what they’re saying is this thing makes me angry. They need you to understand that feelings of being threatened, disrespected, made insecure, and all the other awful things that are tied up in anger have been provoked – and that the thing causing these feelings is a problem that needs to be addressed. To tell them to divest the anger from the statement is to ignore that their anger is important. It says, My desire not to feel provoked as I’m reading holds more weight than the suffering you are facing.

In both cases, the tone is part of the message. Communication breaks down when this is not understood.

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?


I think “societal expectations” or “arbitrary ideals” might have been a better title. “Stereotypes” implies a cultural image you can’t shake off – which may have been what was on my mind at the time – but now when I look at this, what comes to mind are the impossible ideals that we long to attain even as we know nobody can live up to them.

Part of my Marginalia series.

Tree Dancers

These sketches were early attempts to work out the composition of elements (moon, tree, dancer) and Luthien’s pose for my digital painting Tinuviel. They share a page with notes from an undergraduate linguistic anthropology class, but I don’t think I drew this during a lecture.

Part of my weekly Marginalia series.

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.

“Civilised” Sheep and “Natural” Goats

From a linguistic anthropology class. The professor did fieldwork in Georgia (in the Caucasus), and as I recall he was making a point about animal associations in Georgian culture. Something about sheep being “closer to civilised” in their domestication while goats in the mountains remain “closer to nature”.

Part of my weekly Marginalia series.