The wonder and beauty of the Astrolabe

If you look closely, you can see astrological signs inscribed on this astrolabe’s face

I have been waiting a long time to get to this post, and I approach it with a certain amount of glee, for I have always loved astrolabes.

In fact, it was with the astrolabe that my interest in astrology began. My fascination with them stems from the elegance of converting a map of the heavens into what is essentially a clockwork mechanism, so that the astronomer/astrologer could observe the movement of the spheres simply by adjusting components, observing the location of both visible and occluded planets. Once those components were adjusted, no matter whether it was day or night, the user could determine his location based on the position of the stars and planets. This was an incredible technological advance, and not an insignificant one for those who existed for millennia without electrical light or the wristwatch.

The reason we are on astrolabes at this point is very simple: it is probable, although not certain, that the Persians created the earliest fully functional astrolabes. بو إسحاق إبراهيم بن حبيب بن سليمان بن سمورة بن جندب الفزاري) or Ibrahim al-Fazari (either Persian or Arabian, historians are not sure), is said to have been the inventor of the first true astrolabe (although its history goes back to the Greeks, as I shall discuss below). The oldest known astrolabe still in existence was made by a man named either Nastulus or Bastulus, depending on who is doing the interpreting in which language, Persian or Greek.

Oldest known astrolabe still in existence (927/8 AD).

Earliest records of the creation of the astrolabe are ambiguous, but indicate that the Greeks were using some version of the astrolabe as early as 190 B.C. The astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes is credited with adapting an element of the klepsydra, a water-clock widely used in Greece, into a device that relied on the movements of the planets; Hipparchus therefore applied geometry and knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes to the earliest astronomical devices, such as the gnomon, the armillary sphere, and the equatorial ring. All of these devices predate the true astrolabe of Persian creation.

Science promised by the Greeks flowered under the Persians. One of the most brilliant polymaths of all time, Taqi al-Din, was born in 1521 in Damascus, Syria, and was educated in Cairo, Egypt. He became a qadi (judge in Islamic law), Islamic theologian, muwaqqit (religious timekeeper) at a mosque and teacher at a madrasah for some time, while publishing a number of scientific books.

In 1571, he moved to Istanbul to become the official astronomer for Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire. When Selim II died, Murad III became the new sultan, and Taqi al-Din convinced Murad to fund the building of a new observatory on the basis that it would help in making accurate astrological predictions.

Workers at the observatory of Taqi al-Din at Istanbul in 1577 (AH 985). Two observers are working with an astrolabe. A universal astrolabe of the saphea form is on the table in front of the man with the dividers and paper.
Workers at the observatory of Taqi al-Din at Istanbul in 1577 (AH 985). Two observers are working with an astrolabe. A universal astrolabe of the saphea form is on the table in front of the man with the dividers and paper.

Astrologers of the time had incredible political clout, but their power came with a price. Taqi al-Din could request that the Sultan build this incredible new observatory, one that would house and educate astronomers, mathematicians, scientists and astrologers from all across the Muslim world, but Taqi would have to provide the Sultan with accurate predictions, the job of all court astronomers. Unfortunately for Taqi, predictions have always been the most difficult astrological feat of legerdemain to pull off, and the penalty for being wrong was usually steep.

The project began in 1575, and was completed in 1577, at nearly the same time as Tycho Brahe‘s observatory at Uraniborg. This would become known as the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din, an observatory built to rival Ulugh Beg‘s Samarkand observatory. At the new observatory, Taqi al-Din updated the old Zij astronomical tables, particularly Ulugh Beg’s Zij-i-Sultani, describing the motions of the planets, sun, moon and stars.

Within months of the observatory’s completion, however, Taqi al-Din observed the Great Comet of 1577 and, thinking the comet was an omen, predicted an Ottoman military victory. This prediction was incorrect, and because of this, the Sultan saw no other use for the observatory and decided to destroy it in order to reserve his funds for his war efforts. The observatory was razed in 1580.

There will be another blog entry at some future date about the astrolabe and its importance; there’s far too much still to say, and this is only the beginning.

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3 thoughts on “The wonder and beauty of the Astrolabe”

    1. Thanks for the link! By the way, I love Andrew Wyeth, and in fact, I just inherited a lithograph of a Pennsylvania landscape. The colors are wonderful, all hushed tones of dull oranges, greys, white. A rolling landscape set in Autumn. Just lovely. He was a great painter, certainly one of America’s best.

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