1 Yemeni Astrolabe

Astrolabe of ‘Umar ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari
astrolabe 1

astrolabe 2

Date: dated A.H. 690/ A.D. 1291
Geography: Yemen / Culture: Islamic
Medium: Brass; cast and hammered, pierced, chased, inlaid with silver
Dimensions: Case (a): Max. W. 7 5/8 in. (19.4 cm) Diam. 6 1/8 in. (15.6 cm) D. 1/4 in. (0.6 cm) Bar with attached nail (b): Max. H. 1 7/8 in. (4.8 cm) Max. W. 1 1/8 in. (2.9 cm) L. 5 in. (12.7 cm) Net (c): Diam. 5 in. (12.7 cm) Plates (d-g): Diam. 5 in. (12.7 cm) Pin (h): L. 1 3/4 in. (4.4 cm) W. 1/2 in. (1.3 cm)
Classification: Metal
Credit Line: Edward C. Moore
Collection, Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891
Accession Number: 91.1.535a–h
On view in Gallery 454

This multifunctional astrolabe is one of the most extraordinary objects within the Islamic Art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is both common in its use and efficiency of various functions and unique in its creation and provenance.

This Yemeni astrolabe was created by a man referred to as ‘Umar ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari who later went on to become a Rasulid sultan known as al-Ashraf (Carboni, 2011). Perhaps for this reason, the astrolabe is quite well documented considering its age and relatively obscure geographic origin. It is crafted from brass and inlaid with silver, which is a typical style for Islamic-produced metalwork from this time period and later.

According to Carboni, before becoming a Rasulid sultan, al-Ashraf also spent time writing treatises about the “construction of astrolabes, sundials, and magnetic compasses” (2011: 159). Al-Ashraf’s close relationship with those who praised his treatises and construction work suggests that he possibly had collaborators in the construction of this particular astrolabe (Carboni, 2011).

In the vitrine within the Islamic art gallery, the astrolabe is displayed with three of four plates separated and on individual stands to show the intricate detailing on each part of this instrument. Only three of the four plates are original (King, 2005). Taking the astrolabe apart to allow people to view the different elements underscores both the astrolabe as an art object and the astrolabe as an instrument that can be used to determine sunrise and sunset for any day of the year, the times of the rising and setting of stars, or the altitudes and compass bearings of celestial bodies (Saunders, 1971).

According to King, al-Ashraf’s astrolabe has a feature quite unique to Islamic works from this time: “Inside a scale bearing the names of the zodiacal signs on the circle of the ecliptic is a scale divided into … 28 lunar mansions” (King, 2005: 627). This is further indication that this astrolabe is indeed from Yemen, since “traditional folk astronomy, in which the lunar mansions were a prominent feature, flourished alongside the more sophisticated tradition of mathematical astronomy” (King, 2005: 627).

The back of al-Ashraf’s astrolabe has a plethora of information, including two altitude scales, markings below the horizon for 12 seasonal hours, twelfth divisions of the length of the day and night, and terrestrial latitude to determine seasons (King, 2005: 630).

A note about provenance
This astrolabe was one item among approximately 1700 bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1891 by Edward C. Moore. Another object in this exhibition catalogue, the timekeeper’s lidded box from Syria, was also among the Moore collection. In the collection overview, Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, al-Ashraf’s astrolabe is highlighted as an important piece of art in part because of its known origin.

(2012). The making of a collection: Islamic art at the Metropolitan. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/islamic-art/edward-moore

(2014). Rasulid dynasty. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/491842/Rasulid-dynasty

Berggren, J. L. (2007). REVIEW: David A. King: In synchrony with the heavens: Studies in astronomical timekeeping and instrumentation in Medieval Islamic civilization. Volumes 1 and 2. Isis, 98(2), 378–379.

Carboni, S. (2011). Art of Egypt and Syria (10th to 16th centuries). In Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (pp. 158–159). New Haven: Yale University Press.
This is an entry in a much larger book about the Islamic art collection as a whole. Carboni does a good job of packing the most essential information into only one page of text, which is accompanied by the same high-resolution photo that is available on the Met website. This book helps situate the astrolabe within the Edward C. Moore collection, as well as within the Islamic art collection at the Met as a whole.

Dallal, A. (2010). Islam, science, and the challenge of history (p. 239). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dimand, M. S. (1931). Unpublished metalwork of the Rasulid sultans of Yemen. Metropolitan Museum Studies, 3(2), 229–237.

Gibbs, S., & Saliba, G. (1984). Planispheric astrolabes from the National Museum of American History. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Ginsburg, J. (1930). Exhibit of early astronomical and mathematical instruments: The astrolabe. The Industrial Museum of New York, 1–16.

Iqbal, M. (2002). Islam and science (p. 349). Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

King, D. A. (1983). The astronomy of the Mamluks. Isis, 74(4), 531–555.

King, D. A. (1984). The astronomy of the Mamluks: A brief overview. Muqarnas, 2, 73–84.

King, D. A. (1985). The Medieval Yemeni astrolabe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Zeitschrift Für Geschichte Der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften, 2, 99–122.

King, D. A. (2005). An astrolabe made by the Yemeni Sultan al-Ashraf. In In synchrony with the heavens: Studies in astronomical timekeeping and instrumentation in Medieval civilization (Volume Two, Instruments of mass calculation) (pp. 617–657). Leiden: Brill.
This source is essential to doing research on this astrolabe! It is similar to the journal article published in 1985 in Zeitschrift Für Geschichte Der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften, but it is easier to come across if you’re in the United States. King delves deep into the history of this particular object, the man who made it (and went on to become a sultan), and the significance of knowing this much about one object from 1291.

Mayer, L. A. (1956). Islamic astrolabists and their works. Geneva: Albert Kundig.
This brief work has little to say about the specific astrolabe at hand, though the creator of this object is listed among the well-known Islamic astrolabists of this time. It stands to reason that ‘Umar ibn Yusuf’s inclusion on the list is a testament to his importance and his achievement.

Morrison, J. E. (2007). The astrolabe. Rehoboth Beach, DE: Janus.

Saunders, H. N. (1971). The astrolabe (p. 35). Cornwall: Brunswick Press Ltd.

Saunders, H. N. (1984). All the astrolabes (p. 101). Oxford: Senecio Publishing Company Ltd.

Schmidl, P. G. (1997). Two early Arabic sources on the magnetic compass. Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 1.

Schmidl, P. G. (2007). Ashraf: al-Malik al-Ashraf (Mumahhid al-Dīn)ʿUmar ibn Yūsuf ibn ʿUmar ibn ʿAlī ibn Rasūl. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, 66–67.

Selin, H. (2008). Astrolabe. In Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Sezgin, F. (2008). Astronomy, geography and navigation in Islamic civilization. Istanbul: Boyut.

The Edward C. Moore Collection. (1892). The Collector, 3(13), 199–201.

The Filaha Texts Project. (n.d.). Al-Malik al-Ashraf. Retrieved from http://www.filaha.org/

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