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Collection Highlight: The Astrolabe

14 February 2024

By Loubna Zeidan

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) includes numerous artistic and historical pieces representing the evolution of art and technology in the Islamic world. Included among these unique pieces is an exceptional astrolabe created more than a thousand years ago.

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What is an astrolabe?

The astrolabe was a personal astronomical instrument invented in ancient Greece between 150 and 220 BCE. The origin of the word goes back to the Greek word "astrolabos," which means "star taker". In the 8th century, Arab mathematicians and craftsmen further developed this tool, adding creative flourishes to design and decoration, and including the Arabic names of stars. Throughout the 11th century, an astrolabe was the must-have object for those wealthy and educated enough to own one. It was a personal computer, clock, and compass all in one, with dozens of different uses – the smartphone of its day.

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The astrolabe's versatility made it a crucial instrument in various fields, ranging from navigation and astronomy to religious practices and education. Photo: Brass Planispheric Astrolabe, Nasrid, Spain (Granada), 704 AH (1304-5 CE), by Abu Ja’far Ahmad bin Husayn bin Baso. MW.394.2007.

The astrolabe was used for a number of calculations: for telling time by observing the position of the stars and sun, for determining the direction of prayer towards Mecca, and for reading horoscopes.

How Does It Work?

The astrolabe seamlessly merges aesthetic beauty with exceptional craftsmanship and precision in engraving, making it a captivating piece of art and a true masterpiece.

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Mater: (Latin for mother) is the main body of the astrolabe. The edge of the mater is called the limb, on which the degree scale and scale of hours are engraved. The hollowed-out part of the mater is called the womb and contains the latitude plates. Photo: Astrolabe Signed by Hamid ibn al-Khidr al-Khujandi (d. 390 AH / 1000 CE). Iran or Iraq, Rayy or Baghdad, Buyid period, dated 374 AH (984-5 CE). Cast and engraved brass with black compound. SI.5.1999

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Rete: This star map carries pointers for 33 stars. These decorative markers use birds' heads and abstract and vegetal motifs. Each pointer is engraved with the name of the star it indicates. An off-center circle, marked with the zodiac's names, shows the sun's movement throughout the year.

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Plate: Additional plates or discs can be inserted into the astrolabe for specific purposes, such as latitude plates or plates with additional scales.

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Alidade: A rotating arm with a sight on one end used for measuring angles and reading values on the astrolabe.

The Ancient Masterpiece at MIA

The Museum of Islamic Art includes in its collection of astrolabes one of the oldest examples, which dates back to the 10th century.

This astrolabe is signed along the edge of the lower left quadrant of the back: sana'ahu (or sana'at) Hamid ibn al-Khidr al-Khujandi in 374 AH (984-5 CE). While there is no indication of where the astrolabe was made or for whom, Al-Khujandi was an eminent constructor of astrological instruments, astronomer, and mathematician associated with Rayy (near Tehran). Among the objects Al-Khujandi constructed for his patron, the Buyid ruler of Iran, Fakhr al-Dawla (r. 366-387 AH/r. 977-997 CE), was a large sextant used for observing the Earth’s tilt.

Golden astrolabe

Astrolabe Signed by Hamid ibn al-Khidr al-Khujandi (d. 390 AH / 1000 CE). Iran or Iraq, Rayy or Baghdad, Buyid period, dated 374 AH (984-5 CE). Cast and engraved brass with black compound. SI.5.1999

This object comes from a collection formed by Kuwaiti-based art collector Jasim al-Homaizi. The astrolabe has a remarkable provenance, as it was in the collection of the famous Martine-Marie-Pol, Comtesse de Béhague (1870-1939) until her death, then passed to Jean-Louis, Marquis de Ganay (1922-2013) until 1970. The astrolabe was acquired by Parisian art dealer Alain Brieux (1922-1985) and remained in Paris until it was sold to Jasim Al-Homaizi. Al-Homaizi started collecting Islamic art in the 1960s, focusing primarily on artworks from the 9th-16th century. His collection underwent considerable looting and loss during the Gulf War, when he was forced to bury, hide and leave his collection in Kuwait; remarkably, 44 of his buried masterpieces survived, with others later retrieved through the official help of the UN Security Council. Among his masterpieces is his metalwork collection, particularly astrolabes from the medieval period, which he mostly acquired from the private collection of Alain Brieux.

This particular astrolabe has always been considered an exceptional piece; it was one of two objects Al-Homaizi personally smuggled out of Kuwait when forced to flee the country during the war. The Museum of Islamic Art formally acquired the piece, along with other metalwork masterpieces, in 1999.

Loubna Zeidan is a Senior Editorial Specialist with Qatar Museums.

See It In Person

Explore this fascinating astrolabe in Gallery 5 at the Museum of Islamic Art! Plan your visit today to see this intricate piece up close, along with other amazing highlights from our permanent collection.

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