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?

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 and Stars

Drawn under my notes during a lecture about the Al-Sufi star manual (one manuscript of which is in the MIA’s collection), given last Wednesday by Harvard University’s David Roxburgh. It helped me to better understand some of the links between star manuals and celestial globes and the way that images lend functionality to both. There wasn’t much about how this links up with astrolabes, but it did give me some more context for thinking about astronomical practices of the time.

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

Nature’s Property

State of Nature
I spent most of today at a conference, workshopping a fascinating academic book that draws on anthropology to critique some political philosophy ideas around private property and the “state of nature”. Here is some of the marginalia around my notes. (Strange to think this was just drawn a few hours ago!)

This is part of my weekly Marginalia series, explained here.

Celestial Map Plate

Here’s something unusual: an astrolabe plate engraved with constellation images instead of the usual lines and labels.

(Image here: Constellation plate)

It is part of this lovely astrolabe in the Greenwich collection – and I’ve never seen another plate like it. Indeed, its existence is a bit puzzling considering the rete is already a star map. Unless, perhaps, the astrolabist was trying to add celestial globe functionality?

Here’s the thing: each of the labelled pointers on the rete (rendered as leaves and blossoms on this and many other Islamic astrolabes) indicates a star. But in order to use the rete, you need to already know how to recognise the stars it represents in the night sky. You can’t just look back and forth between the rete and night sky thinking that the arrangement of stars on the former will match up with the latter. This is partly because retes tend to show only 15-30 stars, but also because of the stereographic projection that makes it possible to map the sky onto an astrolabe. While this preserves certain mathematical relationships between the stars so that that astronomical calculations can still be done, it severely distorts the visual layout of the stars. (To give you an idea, compare these stereographically projected photos to how we actually see the world.)

That’s where celestial globes and star manuals come in: they actually show the stars laid out as they appear, with memory-aiding illustrations. Star manuals let you learn individual constellations in detail whereas celestial globes show you how the constellations relate to each other in the sky. But celestial globes are bulky – harder to carry around. So I can see why someone might make a plate giving their astrolabe the same functions.

All this said: I don’t know if that’s actually what’s going on here. I have just discovered this object and I have to do more work on it (among other things, I need to find a larger picture so I can try to read the inscriptions). But it is certainly a fascinating – and beautiful – find!

EDIT: I’ve learned considerably more about such plates since; there are two other astrolabes that have them, by the same astrolabist. All this will be the subject of another post.

Astrolabe with “eye”

The day after posting my little “eye of the astrolabe” sketch, I found this at the UCL Qatar library. Doesn’t that decorated pin look like an eye in the middle!

Safavid astrolabe with "eye" on central pin.
Safavid astrolabe dated 1666 AD. Bernard O’Kane, The World of Islamic Art (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2008), p.41.).

EDIT: Looking at it now, I think this is this astrolabe in the V&A collection – just assembled with the alidade in front, the horse at the back, and with a different plate right behind the rete.