London, England, United Kingdom
The British Museum
Hegira 683 / AD 1240–41
Engraved brass with silver and copper inlay.
Height 26.45 cm, width 19.02 cm
Syria or the Jazira.
A round, brass astrolabe with a circular frame and an arabesque cartouche at the top from which a ring (the throne) would have been attached and the instrument suspended when in use. The astrolabe is an instrument used from at least the AH 2nd / AD 8th century. It is a multi-functional device that is employed in several ways: timekeeping by day and night; surveying and determining the distance and height of objects; measuring latitude and reading horoscopes. To use the astrolabe the appropriate disc is selected and inserted into the frame (mater) and set to a specific date and time according to the geographic location of the user. A plate (rete) with open-work zodiac signs in the inner circle, and other constellations in the outer circle, revolves over this giving an accurate astronomical reading.
In the inscription on the back of the astrolabe is the name of the craftsman Abd al-Karim, accompanied by the names al-Malik, al-Mu’izz and Shihab al-Din. As there is no single ruler bearing this title before the year AH 638 / AD 1241, this is probably a list of three different individuals. It has been suggested that these names can be identified as: al-Malik al-Ashraf Musa I, one of the most powerful Ayyubid rulers of the early AH 7th / AD 13th century, and al-Mu’izz, a younger brother of al-Malik. The third name may be another younger brother of al-Malik al-Ashraf: al-Malik al-Muzaffar Shihab al-Din Ghazi who ruled the city of Mayyafariqin from AH 617–45 / AD 1220/1–47. These three Ayyubid brothers probably employed the craftsman, while the patron of this astrolabe is identified as Shihab al-Din.
To use this astrolabe, the appropriate disc is inserted into the circular frame. Zodiac signs on the outer circle and constellations on the inner circle are revolved to give an astronomical reading. The readings have many uses, from telling the time of day for prayer times to reading horoscopes.
Previously the date was read as 633 (1236). However, Ward (2004) has recently made a more accurate reading of 638 (1240–1).
Acquired in 1855.
Until recently the inscription was interpreted as al-Misri (from Cairo, Egypt). However, Ward (2004) believes it to refer to a ‘city’ and not specifically to Cairo. The inscription then refers to three Ayyubid brothers who ruled over parts of northern Syria and the Jazira in the first half of the 7th / 13th century. It is now thought that this astrolabe was produced in Mayyafariqin, a city known for its metalworking industry, which was under the rule of Shihab al-Din in around 637 / 1240.
Ward, R., "The Inscription of the Astrolabe by 'Abd al-Karim in the British Museum", Muqarnas, XXI, 2004, pp.345–57.
Emily Shovelton "Astrolabe" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;uk;Mus01;48;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 67