The astrolabe also known as the “star-taker” is an ancient tool that was used to determine the position of the sun and the stars. The earliest forms of the astrolabe were originally invented during the Hellenistic era1 in 150 BC in Greece and was eventually integrated into the Islamic world and gained credibility as an instrument of great importance. The astrolabe displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a relic from the 13th century also known as the Rasulid period2 in Islamic history. ‘Umar ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari invented this modified version of the astrolabe and was later crowned the king of Yemen. The Astrolabe of Umar ibn Yusuf held a prominent role in the Medieval Islamic world3 through its cultural significance and development in astronomy, astrology and other forms of education. The astrolabe not only influenced the Islamic world but influenced the development of ideas in other parts of the world.
The astrolabe of Umar ibn Yusuf was originally procured in Yemen and is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Edward Moore’s collection (Gallery 454) in New York. The astrolabe is classified as a metal object with a very traditional Islamic design in gold work and is dated A.H. 690/A.D. 1291. The astrolabe has a spherical shape and it is comprised of four spherical plates that assemble it. The diameter of the astrolabe is around 8 inches. The astrolabe is engraved, chased and pierced, made with brass and is inlaid with silver. The overall color of the astrolabe is golden. The inscriptions on the astrolabe are engraved in Arabic and were made and signed by Umar ibn Yusuf himself. The inscriptions are intricate and carefully engraved on the astrolabe along the sphere in a circular form. The inscriptions are single Arabic letters and numbers placed in a circular format that aligns with the center point of the object. Some inscriptions act as scales and help in time conversion, while the others act as calendars to show the day and time of month. The lines on the astrolabe are mostly diagonal and straight but there are some curved lines around the middle of this object. The lines that intersect the center of the astrolabe to the edge were meant to display the cities that helped determine the direction of Makkah4 and also helped determine certain observations. The use of this Islamic astrolabe was chiefly helping in the navigation of finding the direction of Makkah and determining the correct prayer times for Muslims. It was also used to determine the sunset and sunrise of a day, the positioning of the stars, and the navigation of astronomical forms.
This astrolabe unlike many others is well documented and we can see clear inscriptions that directly attribute it to Umar Ibn Yusuf’s work. He was known for inventing and preserving such artifacts and left scientific treatises on the construction of the astrolabe. Another Astrolabe by Umar Ibn Yusuf is preserved and displayed in Cairo and shares similar details and inscriptions that certify him as the maker. Another Astrolabe by Muhammad Zman al-Munajjim al-Asurlabi sits near the Astrolabe of Umar Ibn Yusuf in the Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They share similar details with one another like shape, size, and material. Muhammed Zman’s Astrolabe is image based and portrays more details of the planets and other astronomical forms unlike the Astrolabe by Umar Ibn Yusuf that is kept more simple and is inscription based. This information and detail can tell the audience that the Astrolabe of Umar Ibn Yusuf mainly aided navigational purposes of finding the position of Makkah than the placement of planets.
The astrolabe is contracted with four main parts that enable it to work. First the disk that is also referred to as the “mater”. The mater is marked specifically indication hours and degrees. The mater can hold up to several “tympans” that are also known as plates. The “rete” that represents the sky and acts as a star chart shows the stars and the zodiac constellations. The alidade or the rule was used for making observations by enabling accurate sights. The rete and tympana are designed in a way that they fit into the mater. There are many steps in making observations. To use an astrolabe you adjust the movable components to a particular time and date, for example; you must hold it up and angle it precisely to when the rule crosses the degree scale when observing the stars.
The main audience for the astrolabe was the Muslim community. At first the Islamic world was unsure of the credibility of such technologies until many rulers started supporting scientific research and started recognizing its benefits. This instrument played a vital role in the lives of the Muslims as it determined the accurate direction of the Qibla5, so they could pray five times a day. It was very important for Muslims to posses this object as they lived very nomadic lives and needed to locate the exact direction of the Qibla in Makkah. Over the course of time the astrolabe was highly developed and improved in the Islamic world and held a valuable role in the Islamic Golden Age. The Muslims were the ones that introduced the angular scales to the astrolabe. The person who was credited for developing the first Islamic Astrolabe was an 8th century mathematician known as Muhammad Al-Fazari. The first geared mechanical astrolabe was made in Isfahan by Abi Bakr in 1235. The first universal astrolabe that could be used at any latitude was invented by the Islamic scholar Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Zarqali. Later Islamic scholar and scientist, al-Sufi stated 10,000 ways of using the astrolabe from astronomy and horoscopes to time management and prayer.
The astrolabe was introduced to Europe through Islamic Spain in the 13th century and helped shape European production. In the middle ages both Muslims and Christians benefited from the astrolabe as it helped them navigate sea routes. The astrolabe became a dominant astronomical and navigational instrument in history and was used by astronomers, navigators, and astrologers. The first known European Astrolabe was made and developed in the 15th century by the Moorish inventor Rabbi Abraham Zacuto in Lisbon. Soon more identical Astrolabes were developed and made in further years and as centuries past. In 15th century France the French inventor and instrument maker, influenced by the astrolabe started developing them and selling astrolabes along with sundials and other influenced objects. Astrolabes influenced the first astronomical mechanical clocks such as the “Clock at Prague”6. Later many Swiss watch makers also adopted ideas from the astrolabe and used them in their watch making and a Dutch watchmaker, Christaan van der Klauuw still manufactures astrolabe based watches to this day.
Various phenomenons were derived and developed from the invention of the astrolabe. It is still highly valued and recognized today for its sophisticated beauty, distinct capabilities and influence over teachings of astronomy as a whole. It is also highly appreciated for its cultural significance and strongly influenced and helped develop many ideas in the modern world. The astrolabe can almost act as a “smart phone” of the 13th century as it was pocket sized and used for multiple reasons from predicting the positions of the stars and the sun, casting horoscopes, revealing given times, among various other observations. Astrolabes personify beauty as much as they contribute to their function as their appearance is ideal in helping us determine how they were used and identify the artist. Today the Astrolabe can be viewed as a symbol of scientific greatness from the Islamic world.
1 - Hellenistic Era: Period in Ancient Greece, between the death of Alexander the Great in 325 BC and emerging of the Roman Empire. It is also called a the period of transition.
2 – Rasulid Period: This was a dynasty of Sunni Muslims that ruled Yemen from 1229 to 1454.
3 – Medieval Islamic World/ Islamic Golden Age: This was when the Muslim world was united caliphs and was prospering scientifically and culturally.
4 – Makkah: Holy city for Muslims in Islam – Every year Muslims perform a pilgrimage to this city.
5 – Qibla: Is a word that Muslims use to describe the holy Kabbah (Holiest Islamic monument in Makkah) and the direction Muslims face while praying.
6 – Clock in Prague, Czech Republic that was influenced by the astrolabe.
- Cessna, Abby. “Astrolabe.” Universe Today. N.p., 27 Sept. 2009. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
- Ekhtiar, Maryam. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. Print.
- “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Astronomy and Astrology in the Medieval Islamic World. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.
- Morgan, David O., and A.J.S Reid. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.
- Morrison, James E. “The ASTROLABE.” Astrolabe History. N.p., 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.
- Sedif. “Sedef’s Corner.” : Patronage and Secular Subject Matter in Islamic Art. N.p., 13 Nov. 2011. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.
- Winterburn, Emily. “Using an Astrolabe.” Muslim Heritage. N.p., 2005. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.
Astrolabe of ‘Umar ibn Yusuf – The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Guest Artist Bio
Iman Mazhar is a studio artist and fine art enthusiast based in New York. Iman graduated from Parsons the New School for Design, where she successfully completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honors. Iman’s core focus is in visual design, gallery management, and museum development.
As an avid art enthusiast, Iman has pursued the arts both academically and professionally. She has worked on various curatorial projects and has been involved with many prestigious art organizations such as, AICON Gallery, Swiss Institute, Milk Gallery, The What’s Up Exhibition Series (LVH Art), and Louise Stefanii Fine Art. Iman is currently intimately involved with the development of the first Islamic Art Museum of New York, designed by Pritzker prize winner, Jean Nouvel. She is involved with all aspects of the Museum due to her background and knowledge surrounding Islamic Art and Culture.
As a practicing studio artist, Iman’s work explores themes such as orientalism, identity, politics and current affairs. Her work aims to create awareness and hopes to build bridges between communities. She takes inspiration from her background, personal experiences, and philosophic texts.
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