John North on the Astronomer’s Symbols in the Islamic World

“Throughout history omens and signs have been carefully sought as a means of foretelling, or even forestalling, those superhuman powers that seem to govern the Universe. It is not surprising that the heavenly bodies were among the objects to which most attention was paid. The science of the stars was not at first pursued for its own sake, but so potentially strong is the human feeling for system and order that in time astronomy did acquire a measure of self-sufficiency.”


Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology by John North (2008, University of Chicago Press)

At nearly 900 pages, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology (2008) by British historian of science John North (1934–2008; for a long time professor emeritus at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands) must be the most definitive study of humankind’s love affair with the stars. It is believed that this fascination of ours goes back to some 36,000 years – we know this through archaeological findings – bones carved with moon-shaped marks representing the lunar days of the month. North traces the development of astronomy and cosmology from these very first paleolithic steps “towards a mathematics of the heavens” through the major civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and India and China to Copernicus and Newton to contemporary discussions on black holes and dark energy.

The study is too massive to review or summarise – even difficult to engage with. For this reason, inspired by the cover of the book, I have selected a small part that explains how astronomy was taken as a scientific, political and religious act all at once in the Islamic world during the 1500-1600s. Discussion includes the Ottoman empire (Turkey) and the Safavid dynasty (Iran). North writes:

The Istanbul Observatory [established 1577] is interesting because it was so close in time to the great observatory set up by Tycho Brahe at Uraniborg on the Baltic island of Hven. As in the Samarqand Observatory and the eighteenth-century observatories set up at Delhi, Jaipur, Madras, and Benaras by Jai Singh II, yet again much use was made of large-scale masonry instruments. More attention was given now to the foundations of these truly monumental instruments, and to their gradation, but their usefulness was limited to a very few types of observation, chiefly of the Sun’s position…

Instruments for fundamental research were of course always relatively rare. Astrolabes, armillaries, and globes became the symbols of the astronomer, and standard parts of the instrument-maker’s repertoire. As in the manufacture of other instruments, Ḥarrān became an important centre and some of the finest astrolabes came from Iran, even as late as the seventeenth century. The fine astrolabe made for the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas II [ruled from 1642 to 1666], tells us much about the dual purpose of such instruments, which could be as important in the search for patronage as in the search for cosmic truth.


Abbas II and his Court, Wikimedia Commons


The Shah is described on the front as “The supreme prince, the sultan, the most just, the most great, lord of the centers of command, remover of the causes of tyranny and rebellion, king of the kings of the age.” On the back, the message is marginally more devout: “May God Almighty perpetuate his kingdom and his empire and cause his justice and his benefits to spread over the worlds while the spheres revolve and the planets continue in their courses.”

To learn more about the global heritage of astronomy, check out this UNESCO portal supported by the International Astronomical Union.


Featured Image: Work in the Istanbul observatory of Taqi ad-Din, Wikimedia Commons

Preview Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology by John North

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