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Iranian astrolabe18th-century Iranian astrolabe – constituent parts

Iranian astrolabe

This astrolabe – shown here laid out in its constituent parts – was made in Isfahan in Iran by Hajji ‘Ali in 1793 (1208 AH) reviving an earlier tradition of beautiful craftsmanship (reflected not only in scientific instruments but in the art and architecture of Iran during the Safavid period of Iranian history).

An astrolabe is made up of a number of plates, each designed to be used in a particular latitude, with a marked grid to help the user find the direction of Mecca from a range of different locations. This makes it an ideal travelling instrument for devout Muslims. As the Islamic world expanded, calculations for the times of sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, prayer times and the direction of Mecca needed to be made, as they were no longer the same for everyone. The convenient and portable astrolabe made this possible.

In the top right hand corner of the main, central, disc (the mater) of the instrument shown here, you will see the grid that helped the user find the direction of Mecca. Also included on this densely decorated mater is a grid for working out trigonmetrical problems, a shadow square for finding the height of buildings, and various tables to allow the user to make astrological calculations and predictions.

Islam has never encouraged astrology, any more than Christianity has, but it was nonetheless a popular and an important driving force behind improvements in early astronomy, both in the Islamic world and in Europe, making measurements and predictions (about future positions of celestial bodies) more precise.