Name of Object:

Geomantic Instrument


London, England, United Kingdom

Holding Museum:

The British Museum

About The British Museum, London

Date of Object:

Hegira 639 / AD 1241–2

Artist(s) / Craftsperson(s):

Muhammad Ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili.

Museum Inventory Number:


Material(s) / Technique(s):

Engraved brass inlaid with silver and gold.


Height 28.8 cm, length 33.7 cm, depth 2.2 cm

Period / Dynasty:



Egypt or Syria.


A rectangular object of a brass alloy consisting of three pieces: a front plate with dials, a back plate, and the frame enclosing them. The front plate has 19 small engraved circles around a knob with a window above, exposing a small section of the dial behind the plate. A larger semi-circular dial sits just off-centre and a further four sliding arcs sit on the far right of the front plate. Above and between these dials are inscriptions inlaid with either silver or gold wire. There is a triangular projection of arabesques from which the instrument would have been suspended. This projection resembles the ring (kursi or throne) at the top of an astrolabe, and from which it is suspended. The back plate is decorated profusely with bands of inscriptions and arabesques. Geomancy is the art of divination. Therefore, this geomantic instrument would have been used to predict the future. Each of the dials has a series of inscriptions radiating from the central button, when the button is turned the dial beneath the plate rotates revealing a different configuration of silver points (numbering between four and seven) in the window, which in turn correspond to the inscription to which the arrow on the button is pointing. These points represent constellations. Inscriptions in kufic script above 16 of the 19 dials list the positions or 'houses' of the geomantic science, such as 'House of property and wages' or 'House of enemies and envious people'. Depending on the configuration of points in the windows an indication ranging from ill luck to good fortune can be predicted. The practice of interpreting these signs derived from the Arabic tradition of divination that was done by making marks in the sand.

View Short Description

A brass geomantic instrument of rectangular shape with a complex arrangement of dials. This way of predicting the future, by interpreting the signs that appear in the windows beside the dials, derived from the Arabic tradition of divination achieved by making marks in the sand.

How date and origin were established:

It is inscribed with the date 639 / AD 1241–2.

How Object was obtained:

Purchased in 1888.

How provenance was established:

The craftsman's nisba is 'al-Mawsili', indicating that he was from Mosul. There were also artisans working in Cairo, Damascus and elsewhere during the 7th / 13th century, and although al-Mawsili was from Mosul he may have migrated to another city. There is another metalwork object (in the Aron Collection) also signed by al-Mawsili. This states that it was made in Damascus; it is possible that this geomantic instrument may also have been made in that city.

Selected bibliography:

Allan, J., Metalwork of the Islamic World – The Aron Collection, London, 1986, p.66, cat. no. 1.

L'Orient de Saladin au temps des Ayyoubides, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2001, p.210, cat. no. 222.

Savage-Smith, E., and Smith, M., "Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth Century Divinatory Device: Another Look", in Magic and Divination in Early Islam, (ed. Savage-Smith, E.), Aldershot, 2004, pp.211–76.

Savage-Smith, E., and Smith, M., "Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth Century Divinatory Device", in Studies in Near Eastern Culture and Society, 2, California, 1980.

Citation of this web page:

Emily Shovelton "Geomantic Instrument" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2018.;ISL;uk;Mus01;18;en

Prepared by: Emily ShoveltonEmily Shovelton

Emily Shovelton is a historian of Islamic art. She studied history of art at Edinburgh University before completing an MA in Islamic and Indian art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Since graduating she has worked on a number of projects at the British Museum. Other recent work includes editing and writing for a digital database of architectural photographs at the British Library. She is currently working on a Ph.D. on “Sultanate Painting in 15th-century India and its relationship to Persian, Mamluk and Indian Painting”, to be completed at SOAS in 2006. A paper on Sultanate painting given at the Conference of European Association of South Asian Archaeologists, held in the British Museum in July 2005, is due to be published next year.

Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez

MWNF Working Number: UK1 21


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