Astrolabe with Arabic, Hebrew writing sheds new light on interfaith science

The beautiful thing about creative and intellectual pursuits is how they can build bridges where cultural, religious, ethnic, or political differences often destroy them. It’s a dynamic with countless historical examples, including an astrolabe showing evidence of an unexpected collaboration between historic faith communities.

NPR reports that an astrolabe bearing both Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions was recently discovered. Believed to date back to the 11th century, the astrolabe provides evidence of interfaith communities learning from and expanding on the intellectual achievements of their peers in a historic era not popularly regarded as a golden age of religious tolerance. Based on the astrolabe’s inscriptions, Federica Gigante, the historian at the University of Cambridge who made the discovery, believes the device changes hands from Muslim to Jewish to Christian communities, each learning from and expanding on the knowledge of their religiously distinct peers.

“We can read all of this from the object itself,” Gigante told NPR. “It is a testimony of a period of shared existence between Muslim[s] and Jews and Christians who kept on building on each other’s knowledge and advancement.”

Essentially a 2D star chart, an astrolabe is an ancient instrument modeling the placement of visible heavenly bodies and is capable of timekeeping, star and planet identification, navigation assistance, and much more. Think of it as a precursor to the sextant, a navigation tool likely developed in the early 18th century — the difference being that astrolabes are far older technology. The earliest known example was developed by Apollonius of Perga between 220-150 BCE during the Hellenistic period of Greek dominance in the Mediterranean world between the death of Alexander the Great and the rise of the Roman Empire. 

It makes sense that all three of the world’s great monotheistic faiths would be drawn to this technology. After all, all three rely on accurate timekeeping for religious rituals, holidays, festivals, and more. Indeed, the astrolabe’s Arabic inscriptions indicate that it was used to track the timing of faithful observers’ five daily prayers.   

As Gigante inspected the artifact in more detail, however, she made a fascinating discovery: markings that appeared to be written in a different language from the Arabic engravings. 

“Suddenly as I moved it around, I could notice some scratches that looked like really intentional markings,” she told NPR. “It was only then that I realized that actually these scratches made up letters that weren’t even Arabic. They were Hebrew.”

According to NPR, “it’s evidence that the object passed from Muslim to Jewish hands — and that the two groups were living and working alongside one another.”

The device’s 11th-century origins coincide with a particularly exciting time for Islamic advancements in science, mathematics, philosophy, and more (for another example of the era’s intersection with language-related technology, read the May issue of MultiLingual magazine to learn how 9th-century Islamic scientist al-Kindi planted the roots of machine translation). For modern scholars, it reveals an exciting and forgotten dimension of an era where religious communities learned from one another as much as they warred with each other. It’s strange to imagine that the very same century of the astrolabe’s creation also marked the launch of the First Crusade in 1095 CE. But interfaith dialogues like this device represent were an essential ingredient in the creation of the modern world.  

“These objects remind us that we have a very strong, shared scientific cultural heritage, for one thing. And for another: that interactions between Jews and Christians and Muslims were defined by respect for each other’s intellectual traditions and the authority of those traditions,” Margaret Gaida, a historian of science at Caltech, told NPR. “The contributions of the Islamic world to the field of astronomy are immense. And also of the Jewish astronomers working during this time. Many of those texts were then translated into Latin, eventually leading to Copernicus and the scientific revolution.”

Cameron Rasmusson
Cameron Rasmusson is a writer and journalist. His first job out of the University of Montana School of Journalism took him to Sandpoint, Idaho as a staff writer for the Bonner County Daily Bee. Since 2010, he's honed his skills as a writer and reporter, joining the MultiLingual staff in 2021.


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