Pedro M. P. Raposo
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The astrolabe
From “mathematical jewel” to cultural connector

The planispheric astrolabe is one of the most exquisite and alluring scientific instruments ever produced. At once an analog astronomical computer and an observing instrument that is finely decorated, the astrolabe enjoyed its heyday in the premodern Mediterranean, in areas under the influence of Islamic cultures. Knowledge of the instrument eventually reached Europe through the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula, giving rise to its widespread use, which peaked during the sixteenth century. Long regarded as a key witness to the mathematical science of plotting courses on land as on sea, in recent years the astrolabe has been increasingly approached as an artifact that bridges cultures and testifies to the movements of people, knowledge, and goods across early modern Europe. The chapter presents a brief historiography of the astrolabe in order to reflect on its public exhibition over recent decades. This reflection is based on the daily curatorial practices of a major collection at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Such displays of the astrolabe help to makes early modern patterns of migrations conceivable – and visible today.

Introduction: a “mathematical jewel”

On March 21, 1930, readers of the Belvidere Daily Republican, a local newspaper from Belvidere, Illinois, were presented with a short note titled “400 Years Old.” Prominently illustrating the note was a photograph of the astronomer Philip Fox (1878–1944) staging an observation with a large antique astronomical instrument (Figure 1.1). The caption read “Professor Fox, chief of the Adler Planetarium at Chicago, using an astrolabe, an instrument to tell latitude, longitude, and time of the day from the sun, which was made in England in the year 1500 and is still workable. It has been acquired for the collection of astronomical and navigational instruments of the planetarium” (Belvidere Daily Republican, March 21, 1930). 1

Figure 1.1 Philip Fox holding an astrolabe in the Belvidere Daily Republican, March 21, 1930. Adler Planetarium Collections.

The instrument, a planispheric astrolabe, 2 was part of a lot containing roughly 500 instruments, which benefactor Max Adler (1866–1952) and Philip Fox had secured for the Adler Planetarium from Anton W. M. Mensing (1866–1936), a Dutch antiques dealer based in Amsterdam. Though sold and shipped from the Netherlands, the so-called Mensing collection included scientific instruments originating in places as varied as the already mentioned England plus Germany, Italy, France, and other European countries, as well as North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. The bulk of the collection as such had previously traveled from France. It was amassed by the Paris-based collector and dealer Raoul Heillbroner, then sequestered by the French government during the Great War (Heilbronner was German, and thus regarded as foe), and finally purchased by Mensing, for most of it to end up in Chicago.

The acquisition of the Mensing collection established the core of the holdings of the Adler Planetarium, which opened to the public on May 12, 1930, becoming the first institution of its kind in the Western Hemisphere (Raposo, 2019; Taub, 2005). The Mensing collection was used to seal the character of the Planetarium as a proper museum of astronomy, which was further stressed in its original designation, “Adler Planetarium and Astronomical Museum.”  3 In Fox's own words, the Planetarium was “in reality an Astronomical Museum in which the Planetarium instrument [a Zeiss Mk II planetarium projector] is the principal exhibit” (Fox, 1935: 6).

The choice of an astrolabe for the photograph printed in the Belvidere Daily Republican was an apt one. The instrument had long been symbolic of astronomy and of the mastery of this science, due, to a significant extent, to its complexity, comprehensiveness, and versatility.

In its most common form, the astrolabe is at once an analog computer and an observing instrument. Its main components are the mater or main body, the throne, the rete (which is a map of the sky), the rule, the alidade, and several plates (each individual plate also being called a tympan), as well as a pin that serves as the axis of the instrument, and the so-called horse, which keeps the various parts together (van Cleempoel, 2005; Webster and Webster, 1998; Turner, 1985) (Figures 1.2 and 1.3 ).

Figures 1.2 Front of an astrolabe by Muhammad ibn al-Fattuhal-Khama’iri, Seville, Spain, Adler Planetarium Collections, M-35.

Figure 1.3 Back of an astrolabe by Georg Hartmann, Nuremberg, Germany, 1540, Adler Planetarium Collections, M-22.

The rete, the plates, the rule, and the horse are to be found on what is normally referred to as the front side of the instrument, which is used for calculations. The front side consists essentially of a projection of the celestial sphere through the method of stereographic projection, resulting in a functional model of the sky. Each instrument typically comes with a set of interchangeable plates containing coordinate grids projected for different latitudes (with each side of an individual plate normally corresponding to a different latitude). Since the plates are interchangeable, the instrument can in principle be used for an array of latitudes.

The astrolabe could be employed in a number of different operations (Evans, 1998), such as finding the time for observations of the sun or the stars, calculating the time of sunrise or sunset for a given date, or, in the case of certain instruments from the Islamic world, finding daily times of prayer and the qibla (the direction to Mecca), which further made the astrolabe particularly relevant for Islamic culture. The instrument was also used in connection with astrology and medicine (Schmidl, 2018), and applied to surveying work. Users of the astrolabe would have included astronomers, astrologers, religious officials, civil servants, physicians, and surveyors (Schechner, 1998).

The back of the astrolabe was typically used to observe the altitude of the sun or a given star above the horizon. It included a moving alidade with sights for that purpose. It additionally contained features that provided elements for calculations (such as the position of the sun in the ecliptic for a given date, thus sparing the user from consulting a table) or that were suited for particular operations (for example, a shadow square, which could be used by a surveyor to determine the height of a building or the depth of a well).

The astrolabe has a long history whose details are not totally clear, and which remains a rich and compelling research topic that has been approached in recent years from a number of different angles (King, 2018, 2004–2005, 1987; Rodriguez-Arribas, Burnett, and Ackermann, 2017; Bennett and Strano, 2014; Eagleton, 2007; Newberry et al., 2006; van Cleempoel, 2005; Webster and Webster, 1998; Schechner, 2008, 1998; Turner, 1985). But one thing is for sure: its history is one of far-reaching movements of knowledge, people, and objects. The basic underlying concepts of the astrolabe seemed to have emerged by the second century BC in Ancient Greece. The earliest known treatises on the construction and use of the instrument date from the third century AD. It likely started to be regularly made and used in the Middle East from the seventh century onwards, with the oldest surviving instrument dating from the ninth century. Knowledge of the instrument traveled from the Middle East through North Africa into Europe via Al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula). A European tradition of astrolabe-making started to take shape beginning in the thirteenth century. By the mid-sixteenth century, the astrolabe was losing ground in western Europe to newer, simpler, and more specialized instruments. At the same time, knowledge of the instrument had traveled further east into the area under the influence of the Mughal Empire, with Lahore (in modern Pakistan) emerging as a center of fine instrument making (Sarma, 2020; Newberry et al., 2006). Astrolabes continued to be produced and used in areas under the influence of Islam well into the nineteenth century.

From the late nineteenth century onwards, the astrolabe was increasingly regarded in western Europe as a symbol of the scientific prowess of ages past. Concomitantly, it became an emblem for the connoisseurship of those very few able fully to grasp the subtleties of this complex apparatus, and, importantly, literally to put their hands on surviving examples. The photograph published in the Belvidere Daily Republican placed Fox in that selective group. It was also a statement of the character of the new planetarium led by Fox as a proper museum, one centered on a newfangled machine (the Zeiss opto-mechanical projector) capable of recreating the heavens and its motions indoors, but which was also home to a splendid collection of scientific relics “400 years old” or more. And the instrument chosen for the photograph was not just any historical example of the astrolabe. It was an exceptionally large instrument materializing a concept for a universal astrolabe (that is, an astrolabe that can in principle be used at any latitude without the need to change latitude plates) presented by the mathematician John Blagrave (1561–1611) under the suggestive designation of “Mathematical Jewel” (Webster and Webster, 1998). Fox used this expression in his guide of the Adler Planetarium and its collections to refer to the astrolabe in more general terms: “The Arabs certainly appreciated it, preserved, and perfected it, a Mathematical Jewel” (Fox, 1935: 35).

Curating and displaying the astrolabe

With the acquisition of the Mensing collection, the Adler Planetarium joined a group of emerging science museums that to this day house the largest collections of astrolabes in the world, all of which started to evolve significantly around the same time in the 1930s. The other members of this group include, in the United States, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and on the other side of the Atlantic, the National Maritime Museum (now part of the Royal Museums, Greenwich), the History of Science Museum in Oxford, and the Museo Galileo in Florence. Adding to these institutions, the British Museum also houses a significant collection of astrolabes.

By the late nineteenth century, astrolabes were increasingly coming into the hands of Western dealers and collectors. The examples originating from the Islamic world exerted a particular appeal on philologists, since deciphering their predominantly Arabic inscriptions required linguistic and philological skills that were the province of a select few. Adding to its fundamental geometrical complexity and its artistic qualities, this further contributed to accentuating the perceived “exotic” character of the astrolabe, making it symbolic of a sort of scientific orientalism.

Even to learned enthusiasts such as Philip Fox, there were barriers to fully deciphering the details of such pieces, as he admitted in his guide to the Adler Planetarium (Fox, 1935). A detailed description of all the astrolabes and related instruments from the Islamic world in the Adler's collections was only published several decades later (Pingree, 2009). The catalog, simply titled Eastern Astrolabes, was prepared by the historian of ancient mathematics David Pingree (1933–2005). Pingree's catalog was decades in the making, and constituted the second in a planned series of volumes covering the entirety of the Adler's collection of scientific instruments. The first volume, co-authored by Roderick Webster and Marjorie Webster and published in 1998, is titled Western Astrolabes (Webster and Webster, 1998). That the first two volumes in the series were dedicated to astrolabes is telling of the high status that these instruments held in the perceived hierarchy of the strengths and worth of the collections of the Adler Planetarium.

The separation of Western and Eastern astrolabes echoes a curatorial approach established in the first major modern study dedicated to the instrument: The Astrolabes of the World, authored by the Oxford scholar Robert Gunther (1869–1940) and published in 1932 (Gunther, 1932). This seminal work covered the roughly 300 historical astrolabes that were known at the time to be in museum and private collections. Gunther's main organization criterion was, in his own words, “topographical,” meaning geographical. The Astrolabes of the World is thus presented in two volumes, respectively covering Eastern and Western instruments. This division is understandable taking into account the differences in style, particular features, and above all language that are usually evident between the two groups, whose efficient study and cataloging also requires distinctive skill sets, as already pointed out. But Gunther's approach also contributed to the establishment of a conceptual East–West divide that would influence the scholarship and curation of the astrolabe for decades to come.

This distinction was not so evident in the early museum displays of the Adler Planetarium, in which both Western and Eastern astrolabes gained a prominent place from day one. Several astrolabes of different origins were presented in a cabinet together with other historical items (Figure 1.4) bearing some connection, even if remote, with the astrolabe, in order to emphasize the relations between this encompassing instrument and an array of other astronomical and mathematical devices. Detached from the original contexts of their production, use, and circulation, which were not mentioned in the display, here the instruments served mainly to illustrate a genealogical succession of observing and measuring devices used in astronomy and related sciences, in accordance with a positivist concept of a universal science progressing linearly towards ever greater exactness and overarching truths. This was further reinforced by the placement of the astrolabe cabinet close to a model of a modern astronomical observatory. Additionally, two transparencies of astronomical photographs taken with some of the largest telescopes available at the time separated the astrolabe cabinet from an armillary sphere 4 display. Although that aspect would probably escape most visitors, the juxtaposition of astrolabes with several other devices also served to emphasize the versatility of the astrolabe, which could, in principle, be used for operations similar to those for which the other (simpler and more specialized) instruments were eventually designed and produced.

Figure 1.4 The original astrolabe display at the Adler Planetarium (cabinet on the left). Note the Blagrave astrolabe featuring prominently. Fox (1935), Adler Planetarium Library.

The comprehensiveness of the astrolabe as a material compendium of astronomical knowledge and as a multi-purpose instrument is a central element of its persisting allure, which Gunther summarized thus: “[the astrolabe] is the result of a combination of many discoveries and inventions. It is a product of the human mind acting simultaneously in several directions, which, aided by the mechanical skill of generations of instrument makers, has created a new organ by means of which previously laborious operations have been simplified and new paths have been cleared for future progress” (Gunther, 1932: vi).

The versatility of the astrolabe is often used nowadays to introduce the instrument to non-expert audiences, by comparing it to a tablet or a smartphone on the grounds of the multitude of different apps that typically populate such devices, adding to the fact that these modern technologies are also used for obtaining basic utilitarian information such as the time of day (Poppick, 2017). The analogy is obviously anachronistic and problematic, one of its many flipsides being that an artifact as complex, exquisite, and certainly expensive as the astrolabe would be accessible only to a very few. But the same analogy is also telling of how the astrolabe resonates with modern notions and expectations regarding the power of science and technology to understand and predict natural phenomena, yield devices capable of solving a vast array of problems at once, and bring at least some degree of order and harmony into daily life. It equally speaks to an enduring fascination with the ability of peoples from ages past to conceive and produce complex devices.

Though that fascination may rely on a well-informed appreciation of history, it can also be tied to misconceptions about the past (particularly the Middle Ages) and prejudices about the willingness and disposition of non-Western peoples to engage with techno-scientific endeavors. And this can easily lead to regard realizations such as the astrolabe as an exceptional accomplishment in a general picture of backwardness. Gunther seems to have espoused such views in his seminal catalog, as he noted that the functions of the astrolabe included “keeping alive through barbarous ages the fundamental truths of Astronomy” (Gunther, 1932, vol. I: vi). Philip Fox's remark “the Arabs certainly appreciated it, preserved, and perfected it” (Fox, 1935: 35) is ambiguous; if on the one hand he extolls the contribution of Arab peoples to the development of the instrument, on the other hand he seems to single that out as an exception.

In recent decades the historiography of science has increasingly addressed and recognized the importance of Islamic peoples and cultures, especially in the Middle East, in preserving and expanding on the knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and other fields during the Middle Ages and beyond, thus helping set the foundations for the emergence of modern science. This contradicts deeply ingrained misconceptions about the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual backwardness, as well as narratives of modern science as an essentially Western endeavor. The proper inclusion of the contributions of peoples from the Islamic world in such narratives becomes even more important when one takes into account the debates around the presentation of Islamic culture, and particularly Islamic art in museums (Norton-Wright, 2019; Bier, 2017; Junod et al., 2013). These debates and the lines of inquiry they have fostered, which are closely related to the idea of decolonizing the museum, have developed in the last two decades in response to growing misrepresentations of Muslims in Western media prompted by 9/11 and additionally fueled by news of the alleged migrant crisis, with a particularly strong expression in the Mediterranean region.

While there is a general consensus around the idea that museums can play a relevant role in counteracting negative representations of Islam by carefully presenting the art and culture of Muslims, the proper ways of doing so are a contentious matter. A particularly relevant point in such discussions is that an overarching definition of Islamic art is probably untenable, and certain to remain a contentious matter, as it would have to encompass a great variety of aesthetic sensibilities corresponding to distinct cultural and geographical contexts. In a similar vein, these lines of inquiry have also evinced the importance of integrating different Islamic voices into museum displays and narratives, in order to avoid artificial identitary constructions centered on the often misguiding idea of “community.” The latter might, in fact, reinforce deeply engrained notions of the “other,” instead of highlighting what people of different origins, faiths, and cultures have in common (Shatanawi, 2012).

As far as science and technology are concerned, another problematic issue is how to properly present contributions from the Islamic world without slipping into the exaggerations and distortions of narratives suggesting that modern science, and by association contemporary techno-scientific societies at large, are fundamentally shaped by inventions and discoveries originally emanating from the Islamic world. This was particularly evident in the popular travelling exhibit “1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization” and its accompanying book (Al-Hassani, 2012). 5 They extolled science and technology in the Islamic world and their purported impact on contemporary life by favoring profiles of geniuses, a recurrent use of superlatives (such as “the first,” “the greatest,” etc.), and stories of groundbreaking discoveries and inventions neatly located in space and time, and ascribed to particular individuals (mostly men). These are precisely the sort of tropes on which positivist, Western-centric narratives of science have thrived in the first place, and which continue to pervade public discourses about science and technology.

The exhibition and the book motivated a scholarly response in the shape of an edited volume, suggestively titled 1001 Distortions (Brentjes, Edis, and Richter-Bernburg, 2016), which, interestingly, comes with a cover showing a distorted astrolabe. Seeking to address the more general issue of how to present the history of science in non-Western cultures, the volume brings together various contributions that pinpoint the historiographic shortcomings of “1001 Inventions.” It also presents various takes on the issue of how to better place the contributions of the Islamic world into global narratives of science and technology, while acknowledging that certain claims relating to the history of science and technology have been used to belittle the intellectual and cultural acumen of Muslims. The history of science and technology therefore constitutes another arena where prejudice against Muslims must be tackled, although not at the cost of historical rigor.

The volume includes one chapter dedicated to the astrolabe (Schmidl, 2016), which, however, remains predominantly descriptive in its scope and content. As an instrument whose basic concept and design circulated through, and was adapted and expanded upon in varied geographical and cultural spaces, the astrolabe provides a case in point as regards the narrative balance between the specific contexts of its production and use, and a broader picture of knowledge evolving through processes of displacement and circulation (Raposo et al., 2014; Golinski, [1998] 2005; Livingstone, 2003; Latour, 1988). These two complementary dimensions of scientific knowledge reflect important developments in the historiography of science over the last three decades or so. On the one hand, the so-called “material,” “spatial,” and geographical” turns led to favoring nuanced historical narratives highlighting the material culture of science and the particular geographical and spatial contexts of knowledge production, often at the cost of losing the bigger picture by opting instead for the narrrower confines of a so-called micro-history. On the other hand, a growing focus on circulation has sought to take advantage of the contextual richness provided by such historiographical angles, while placing the emphasis on the movement of ideas, people, and knowledge between different spaces as an integral part of knowledge production itself.

In 1998 the Adler Planetarium opened an exhibition titled “The Universe in Your Hands,” which after some minor changes and updates over the years has remained one the Planetarium's permanent displays of scientific instruments, now under the title “Astronomy in Culture.” The exhibition offers a compromise between antiquarianism and some elements akin to the newer historiographic angles outlined above. As far as astrolabes are concerned, the more traditional, “antiquarian” approach is evident in a display that presents examples of both Western and Islamic astrolabes selected mainly on the grounds of their perceived value as the “jewels” of the collection, and thematically displayed by “materials,” “decorations,” the “rete,” and “great makers.”

A more nuanced take on the instrument comes across in a display that recreates the layout of a medieval classroom, in which astrolabes and other instruments are placed in the broader context of medieval science and learning. Even more significant is a display with a map that highlights the contributions of scholars and instrument makers from the Islamic world, placing particular examples of astrolabes in the respective places where they were made (Figure 1.5). The display is intended to show how the movement of knowledge about the astrolabe, and more generally how astronomy through regions under the influence of Islam, contributed to the development of this discipline and to paving the ground for the emergence of modern science. The display sits next to an interactive module that explains how to find the qibla using an astrolabe.

Figure 1.5 Display in the “Astronomy in Culture” exhibition at the Adler Planetarium.

It must be noted that addressing the functionality of scientific instruments in museum displays is a complex issue, and the astrolabe presents a particularly challenging case given its intricacy and the many steps that are usually required to efficiently perform even a simple operation such as finding the time from observations of the sun or stars. In this regard, the effectiveness of this and other interactive components of the exhibition have proved to be limited. But there are deeper conceptual issues that must also be noted here. Though the map display shown in figure 1.5 evinces the area around the Mediterranean as a wide space of circulation, the directions of the movements of knowledge, people, and instruments associated with the astrolabe are not made explicit. Moreover, the use of “The World of Islamic Astronomy” as a title for the display denotes an enduring influence of the East–West divide, with astronomy and its geographical space of circulation in the Islamic world being presented as standing apart from modern Western science. Additionally, at least three major traditions in astrolabe making can be identified in the Islamic world, each with its own geographical settings: the Maghribi astrolabes, produced in Northwestern Africa and Al-Andalus (that is, the part of the Iberian Peninsula that was under the influence of Islam); the Mashriqi instruments, made in the Middle West, West Asia, and South Asia, in areas that are nowadays part of countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria; and the instruments originating from regions that were under the Mughal empire and are now part of India and Pakistan. Not only the display with the map is focused solely on the Maghrib and the Mashriq, reflecting a chronological focus on the Middle Ages, as the cultural nuances of these different geographical areas during that period are overlooked. At best, very attentive visitors will notice some differences between the instruments corresponding to those different areas and make sense of their chronological order if they read the labels.

Some attempts are made in adjoining displays to establish connections between Islamic astrolabes and the adoption of the instrument into medieval Europe, and more generally between the contributions of astronomers from the Islamic world and modern science, but the divide clearly prevails. It is further reinforced by the “antiquarian” astrolabe display mentioned above, where, despite the inclusion of astrolabes of varied origins, only two European instrument makers are highlighted under “Great Makers”: the French Jean Fusoris (c. 1365–1436) and the German Georg Hartmann (1489–1564). The medieval classroom space also fails to highlight how the astronomy and mathematics taught in European medieval universities was in significant debt to contributions from scholars and texts from the Islamic world.

New pathways for presenting the astrolabe in a museum context

While this chapter was being written, discussions were under way at the Adler Planetarium towards the renewal of these displays, which is certain not only to address the aforementioned issues on the grounds of relevant scholarship in history of science, but also to be informed by recent developments and debates on the presentation of these instruments, and more generally of Islamic art in culture in art museums. Two cases in point are the exhibitions “In Transit: Arts & Migration Around Europe” (Duke University/Nasher Museum of Art, 2018), and “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa” (Northwestern University/Block Museum of Art, 2019), 6 both featuring astrolabes loaned from the Adler's collections.

The instruments presented in “Caravans …” are a universal astrolabe made in the thirteenth century in North Africa or Spain, plus an instrument by Muhammad ibn al-Fattuhal-Khama’iri dating to 1236–1237 and made in Seville, Spain. Both instruments are thus part of the Maghribi tradition. “Caravans …” places them in the context of the medieval Saharan trade and its significance as regards the movement of people, culture, and religious beliefs through West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to sixteenth centuries. The exhibition as a whole ultimately aims to explore the global impact of these movements (Berzock, 2019). “Caravans …” has several points of resonance with “In Transit,” but the latter entailed a bolder move, using art to reframe the purported global refugee crisis – with the use of the word “crisis” in this context resonating with ideas of invasion and an associated, impending catastrophe. “In Transit” engaged with the issues surrounding the displacement of refugees, while focusing on two major zones of migration: “Northern Europe, from the region around Calais, Flanders and the Low Countries, and Southern Europe, from Islamic Spain to the African Maghreb” (, accessed October, 24 2020). Two astrolabes from the collections of the Adler Planetarium were also put on display: the aforementioned Maghribi astrolabe by Muhammad ibn al-Fattuhal-Khama’iri featured in “Caravans …,” and an astrolabe comprising printed parts (the plates and back of the mater) assembled with wooden components (mater, throne, and rete), and completed with metal implements. The printed parts were originally engraved and printed by Philippe Danfrie in Paris in 1584 (on the basis of a previous version from 1578, which was corrected to reflect the new Gregorian calendar) and reissued in 1622 by Jehan Moreau (Karr-Schmidt, 2011; Webster and Webster, 1998).

The two instruments were used to illustrate the circulation of the basic concept and design of the astrolabe between North Africa and Europe, thus accentuating how past migrations promoted the circulation and growth of knowledge. There is no evidence to support the often mentioned but misguided idea that planispheric astrolabes were used for navigation (King, 2018). 7 But besides the movements of knowledge that are a crucial part of its history, the astrolabe does entail other aspects resonant with the processes of placement, displacement, and relocation that lie at the heart of human migrations, since it is fitted to be adapted to different latitudes, or in the case of universal astrolabes, to be used at any latitude.

It is also interesting to note the differences in materials between the two astrolabes presented in “In Transit.” While the fine Al-Andalus astrolabe is made of brass, as was typical, the French integrates paper, wooden, and metal components. Printed astrolabes, of which very few assembled examples survive, started to be produced in Europe in the sixteenth century during the rise of Western print culture, as a way of exploring new niche markets for an instrument that was traditionally accessible and affordable only to a very few (Karr-Schmidt, 2011). Our historical understanding of the astrolabe as a material artifact is constrained by the extant instruments, which are mostly brass devices. This comes as no surprise, since those were naturally more likely to survive than any counterparts made of feebler materials, which would also be perceived as being less valuable. European printed astrolabes are not necessarily the only alternatives to metal instruments that ever existed. Nevertheless, they hint at the creative power of displacement and relocation, showing how the old astrolabe gained new material forms through its encounter with the emergent European print culture.

As could be expected from an exhibit project where art is used to approach a contemporary subject, the aesthetics of the astrolabe was a central element for its inclusion in “In Transit”. But here the astrolabe's exquisite aesthetic appeal acquires new meanings. Particularly relevant in this regard was the placement of the Al-Andalus astrolabe next to the “New World Climax” prints of Barthélémy Toguo (Figure 1.6), and between the pages of the late fourteenth-century Catalan Atlas of Abraham Cresques. While Toguo's prints highlight the humanity of migrants from Western Africa seeking entry and legal status upon arriving in Europe, the atlas plots the world from the Mediterranean south to the north of the European continent, that is, the geographical space at the core of the origins, development, and circulation of the astrolabe. Viewers are thus invited to think of the astrolabe as part of a long human chain of cultural, scientific, and artistic developments that links diverse peoples, places, and cultures, but along which barriers continually arise.

Figure 1.6 Astrolabe by Muhammad ibn al-Fattuhal-Khama’iri, Seville, Spain, 1236–37, Adler Planetarium Collections M-35; sitting across three woodcuts from the series “New World Climax” by Barthélémy Toguo (2011), in the “In Transit” installation at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, 2018. Photo: Christopher Helms, with permission from Duke University/Nasher Museum of Art.

The astrolabe thus emerges as a cultural connector. In that regard, the lead image chosen by the History of Science Museum to present the Oxford-Multaka project on its website is very telling. This project aims to “use museum and collections as a ‘meeting point’ [‘Multaka’ in Arabic] for bringing people together” (, accessed October 24, 2020). It engages volunteers with researching and presenting the collection of Islamic scientific instruments at the History of Science Museum and the textiles collection from the Arab World at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The image, in which a volunteer holds a cardboard replica of an astrolabe while in interaction with an audience in a museum gallery (presumably next to displays containing actual instruments), is representative not only of the aims of the project, but also of how the astrolabe can be efficiently reframed as a centerpiece in cultural dialogues and exchanges, beyond the confines of traditional scholarship and curatorial practice.

Also during the writing of this chapter – and in the context of a global pandemic that forced many institutions, including the Adler Planetarium, to temporarily close its doors to the public – the Adler undertook a first exploratory project towards newer approaches to presenting the objects in its collections that relate to astronomy in the Islamic world. In April 2021, the digital exhibition “Science, Faith, and the Heavens” was launched on the Google Arts & Culture platform (Figure 1.7).

Figure 1.7 Opening page of the Adler Planetarium's digital exhibition on Google Arts & Culture platform, “Science, Faith, and the Heavens,” launched in April 2017 (Adler Planetarium/Google Arts & Culture). The exhibition is accessible through (accessed July 31, 2021).

Counting on the guest curation of an expert on astronomical instruments and practices in the Islamic world, and combining images of Adler artifacts with those of objects, manuscripts, and other items from additional collections, the exhibit seeks to capture how the practice of astronomy, as well as its visual and material cultures, connected with religion, aesthetics, and broader cultural features in different historical and geographical contexts falling under the encompassing concept of an Islamic world. The exhibition is equally intended to convey a notion of how the movement of people and knowledge shaped astronomy in this space. It also counted on several guests with varied backgrounds, including scholars, students, and museum guides and volunteers, who were invited to contribute with their own thoughts and impressions as to the significance of this cultural legacy, and one personal favorite historical item they found representative of it. The exhibition was thus intended to give room to a multitude of voices as opposed to a single, overarching curatorial direction. It will not come as a surprise that astrolabes feature prominently in the exhibit and were picked up by several of the featured guests as their favorite objects.

Concluding remarks

Between the photo of Philip Fox proudly simulating an astronomical observation with the “Mathematical Jewel” and the image of the Multaka project volunteer holding a cardboard astrolabe, or the featured guests of the “Science, Faith, and the Heavens” exhibition citing particular examples as their favorite object and explaining why there is a long path of changing curatorial attitudes and conceptions about the role for museums and their collections in broader society. An exquisite and arcane scientific relic, the astrolabe is thus reframed as a conversation piece for intercultural dialogue. This by no means implies that it will cease to be regarded as a “mathematical jewel.” In fact, it is the combined allure of its aesthetic appeal and technical complexity that keeps on attracting the attention of scholars as well as museum curators, stakeholders, and audiences. Together with a long history representative of how the movement of people, ideas, and objects shapes the development of knowledge, aesthetics, culture, and ultimately the whole world, those qualities of the astrolabe put it in a good stead to function as a cultural connector.

The astrolabe entails a remarkable potential to attract and intrigue varied audiences coming from different cultural backgrounds. But it is also a multi-layered device (literally and figuratively) whose multitude of dimensions and meanings is difficult, if not impossible, to efficiently address in a single display, exhibition, or museum program. A focus on aesthetics will divert attention from the rich technical and scientific content of the instrument. On the other hand, the complexity of the latter might also put many visitors off. In this regard, the smartphone analogy becomes acceptable if used, not as a technical metaphor establishing misleading, anachronistic parallels between devices of a very different nature and scope, but as a starting point to explore how people from all walks of life and provenances have sought to understand celestial cycles, develop tools to make sense of time and space, and overall to seek to bring order and harmony into their lives. The astrolabe is not the smartphone of the Middle Ages, nor are our tablets the astrolabes of our age. But all these devices speak of science (in the broad sense of pursuing a systematic understanding of natural phenomena) and technology as fundamental human pursuits that are by no means exclusive to the modern era or to a particular group of people.

Such an approach provides a way of highlighting commonalities between diverse peoples and their cultures, but in order to be effective, it must not be forgotten that each astrolabe corresponds to a specific historical context, and that the same instrument may well have crossed varied cultural spaces before landing in a museum or private collection. There is no such thing as “the” Eastern or “the” Western astrolabe, convenient as such categories might be as top-level organizers for scholarship and curatorial work on the instrument. The astrolabe can only function effectively as a cultural connector if used to highlight the various cultures and historical periods that intertwine during its long history, beyond reductionist dualisms such as East–West.

The astrolabe can be an effective point of entry into past cultures of knowledge, on which it can help shed light. But one must not be blinded by the astrolabe. Instead of being singled out as treasures from the past, astrolabes will be better presented in the context of the other devices, technologies, scientific ideas, spiritual practices, and artistic sensibilities espoused by the people who produced and might have used this particular instrument. This will be essential to circumventing any idea that the astrolabe was an exceptional realization among a supposed backdrop of backwardness. Similary, exaggeration must be avoided. And just as museums with relevant Islamic art collections are recognizing the importance of collecting works by contemporary Muslim artists, it is important that narratives of science centered on the astrolabe and their connection with the Islamic world acknowledge that the contributions of Muslims are not only to be found in a distant past. Together with people of all provenances, they have continued to make modern science and technology thrive as part of vast international networks of researchers and scholars empowered by the movement of people across institutions, countries, and continents. Anachronisms and direct parallels with the scientific and technological practices of ages past are certainly also to be avoided here, but so are any notions pretending that the role of Muslims in making science and technology advance is confined to the past.

While its history lends itself to grand narratives of movement and displacement as engines of scientific and technical knowledge, the astrolabe is, after all, just a detail – even if a highly significant and particurlaly alluring one – in a much broader picture of how those movements have shaped the techno-scientific societies of the modern world.


I would like to thank Helen Solterer and Ellen Raimond for sharing their insights on the “In Transit” project and installation, and Taha Yasin Arslan, Vincent Joos, James Amelang, Saskia Ziolkowski, and the anonymous readers from Manchester University Press for their comments on earlier versions of this chapter.


1 It must be noted that the description is not accurate in its reference to the instrument being used to determine longitude, though latitude could in principle be found using an astrolabe (even if the device was not designed for that particular purpose). However, determining the time from the stars or the sun was definitely among the primary functions of this versatile instrument. See below for further technical information.
2 Astrolabes can take the form of planispheric, spherical, and linear instruments. Additionally, there is the mariner's astrolabe, an instrument bearing similarities to the planispheric astrolabe but much simpler, which was used from the late fifteenth century onwards for the purpose of determining latitude at sea. There is also the so-called Danjon astrolabe, a modern device conceived by the French astronomer André-Louis Danjon (1890–1967) for the study of latitude variations. In the remainder of this chapter, unless otherwise stated, the word “astrolabe” is used to refer specifically to the planispheric astrolabe.
3 It was later renamed Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, and is now simply Adler Planetarium.
4 An armillary sphere is formed by a framework of rings representing imaginary celestial circles that help make sense of the celestial motions. The astrolabe is, to a great extent, an armillary sphere projected onto a plane.
5 The organization behind the exhibit and the book is called 1001 Inventions, and uses the motto “Discover a Golden Age – Inspire a Better Future” (, accessed July 31, 2021).
6 The exhibition is a travelling show, having also been presented at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. It was installed at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC as this chapter was being written.
7 As mentioned in note 2, a similar but much simpler instrument called a mariner's astrolabe was used in oceanic navigation during the late fifteenth and the mid-sixteenth centuries, which possibly contributes to the confusion.


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