Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Planispheric Astrolabe

Muhammad Zaman al-Munajjim al-Asturlabi (active 1643–89)
Object Name:
dated A.H. 1065/ A.D. 1654–55
Attributed to Iran, Mashhad
Brass and steel; cast and hammered, pierced and engraved
H. 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm) W. 6 3/4 in. (17.1 cm) D. 2 1/4 in. (5.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1963
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 453
Astrolabes of this size were not precise enough for astronomical observations, but served well for telling time, and astrologers could use them to determine the position of a planet relative to the different astrological houses. The intricate calligraphic faceplate of this example is typical of Safavid‑period astrolabes; it reads: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate" (bismallah al‑Rahman al‑Rahim).
Common to both Islamic lands and Europe during medieval times, portable scientific instruments such as this served as analog computing devices for astronomical, astrological, and topographical calculations, and even to tell time.[1] The surviving European astrolabes from the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods that resemble this example suggest that ideas concerning science, astronomy, and mathematics were transmitted with some frequency from the Islamic world to Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and that the passage of ideas assumed an east-to-west pattern.[2] Planispheric astrolabes were generally employed for solving three main interests of Islamic astronomy: charting astrological bodies, finding the direction of the qibla, and determining the times of prayer. Numerous astrolabes from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Iran survive. In his detailed account of Safavid astrology and astronomy, the seventeenth-century French traveler Jean Chardin noted that Iranians valued their astrolabes as much as their jewelry.[3]
This astrolabe, like other examples of its type, has a main case (in Latin, mater; Arabic, umm) bearing Arabic letters along the rim that divide it into equal hours. Five plates engraved with lines for different terrestrial latitudes are fitted within the hollowed center of the case, and over it is a rotatable star-map (in Latin, rete; Arabic ‘anqabut). The rete on the inner circle, inscribed with the twelve signs of the zodiac, is in the form of the Muslim invocation of faith, the bismallah; the outer segment bears an undulating vegetal design. The design elements of the rete serve as pointers representing a selection of fixed bright stars, the names of which are inscribed near the ends. The plates are held in place in the center with a horse-shaped pin. The back of the astrolabe is engraved with various astronomical lines and includes the names of Basra, Isfahan, Sabzavar, Tus, Qandahar, and Kashmir. A triangular, undecorated kursi with a suspension ring near the top of the instrument is attached to the mater. In order for the astronomer to take an observation, he had to suspend the astrolabe either from a strap attached to the ring or from his thumb passed through it.[4]
The name of the maker and the date of this piece are also inscribed on the back. Muhammad Zaman, who worked in Mashhad in the second half of the seventeenth century, is known to have made five other astrolabes, three of which are dated between 1641 and 1678.[5] Chardin also reported that while there were professional instrument- makers in Iran, devices made by scientists themselves were more accurate, and he added that an astronomer was not considered sufficiently learned unless his skill at instrument-making surpassed that of a craftsman.[6] On this example, Muhammad Zaman identifies himself as both an astrologer and an astrolabist.
Qamar Adamjee in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Maddison, Francis, and Emilie Savage-Smith. Science, Tools and Magic. Pt. 1, Body and Spirit, Mapping the Universe. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, edited by Julian Raby, vol. 12. [London], 1997, p. 186.
2. Saliba, George. Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. Transformations. Cambridge, Mass., 2007, pp. 221–26; Saliba, George. "The World of Islam and Renaissance Science and Technology." In The Arts of Fire: Islamic Influence on Glass and Ceramic of the Italian Renaissance, edited by Catherine Hess, pp. 55–73. Los Angeles, 2004; and Saliba, George. "Greek Astronomy and the Medieval Arab Tradition." American Scientist 90, no. 4 ( July–August 2002), pp. 360–67, esp. p. 360.
3. Jean Chardin, a jeweler by profession, visited Turkey, Iran, and India in 1664–70 and 1671–77. Winter, H. J. J. "Persian Science in Safavid Times" In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 6, The Timurid and Safavid Periods, edited by Peter Jackson and Laurence Lockhart, pp. 581–609. London and New York, 1986, p. 595.
4. For more technical details, see King, David A. In Synchrony with the Heavens: Studies in Astronomical Timekeeping and Instrumentation in Medieval Islamic Civilization. Vol. 2, Instruments of Mass Calculation: Studies X – XVIII. Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science, 55. Leiden, 2005; and Maddison and Savage-Smith 1997 (see footnote 1).
5. Mayer, L[eo] A[ry]. Islamic Astrolabists and Their Works. Geneva, 1956, pp. 78–79.
6. Maddison and Savage-Smith 1997 (see footnote 1), p. 189.
Signature: Muhammad Zaman al-Munajjim al-Asturlabi AH 1065 (AD 1654–55).

Inscription: On rete on inner circle, in Arabic in nasta‘liq script:
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

On back:
صنعه محمد زمان المنجم الاصطرلابى 10۶۵
Made by Muhammad Zaman the astrologer the astrolabe-maker A.H. 1065
[A.D. 1654–55]
I. G. Sargis, New York(until 1963; sold to MMA)
Bloomington. Indiana University. "Islamic Art Across the World," June 18, 1970–October 1, 1970, no. 283.

Hempstead, NY. The Emily Lowe Gallery. "Inscription as Art in the World of Islam," April 14, 1996–May 24, 1996, p. 36.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1, 2009–October 26, 2009, no catalogue.

Tokyo. Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. "Earth, Sea, Sky. Nature in Western Art: Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 6, 2012–January 4, 2013, no. 105.

Beijing. National Museum of China. "Earth, Sea, Sky. Nature in Western Art: Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art," February 8, 2013–May 9, 2013, no. 105.

Mayer, Leo Aryeh. Islamic Architects and Their Works. Geneva: Albert Kundig, 1956.

Bowie, Theodore Robert. "An Exhibition Prepared by Theodore Bowie." In Islamic Art Across the World. Vol. no. 1970/3. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Art Museum, 1970. no. 283.

Rahim Habibeh. "at the Emily Lowe Gallery." In Inscription as Art in the World of Islam-Unity in Diversity. Hempstead, NY: Hofstra Museum, Hofstra University, 1996. p. 36, ill. (b/w).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 165, p. 240, ill. p. 240 (color).

Saliba, George. Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011. pp. 224-225.

Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 96-97, ill. pl. 16 (color).

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. "Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 2012. no. 105, pp. 169, 251-2, ill. (color, b/w).

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