Astrolabe Catalogue

astrolabe, inventory number 41106 from Persia (?), 1350/1 (A.H. 751)
thumbnail for astrolabe (front), inventory number 41106 from Persia (?), 1350/1 (A.H. 751)
thumbnail for astrolabe (back), inventory number 41106 from Persia (?), 1350/1 (A.H. 751)
thumbnail for astrolabe (rete front), inventory number 41106 from Persia (?), 1350/1 (A.H. 751)
Date1350/1 (A.H. 751)
PlacePersia (?)
Inventory no.41106
AcquisitionPurchased from Malcolm Gardner in 1955

Astrolabes made of silver or gold are very rare, and the notion that astrolabes were ever traditionally made of precious metals, or heavily bedecked in jewels, is largely legendary. It obtained currency from the famous reference in one of the stories of the Arabian Nights, where a barber/physician/astrologer uses a silver astrolabe. It was also encouraged by the frequent use of terms and phrases extolling the instrument’s preciousness: in the west they were often referred to as ‘jewels’, and in the Islamic world sacred texts were engraved on them. The preciousness referred to was of course in part a metaphor for the knowledge of science and of God’s creation that they embodied.

In the 1950s the Museum eagerly purchased this medieval-style instrument when it came on to the market, feeling that a silver astrolabe was a natural desideratum for a great astrolabe collection. Among the purposes of such a collection, of course, is to learn new things about the objects through the very act of assembling and juxtaposing so many specimens. This has lead to the realization that even the finest astrolabes, such as those made for princes, were almost invariably made of brass. In Europe they were sometimes gilded. And the most expensive Islamic examples were decorated by silver or gold damascening (an inlay process which takes its name from Damascus, where the craft was practised).

In fact the ‘barber’s astrolabe’ in the Arabian Nights was of the latter kind, the common English translation being incorrect. These conclusions, and other judgements about style and quality of workmanship, makes it likely that this silver astrolabe, the only one in the collection, is a modern fake, made in the mistaken belief that silver was a traditional material for astrolabes.

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Throne, Ring and Shackle

The throne is of the indo-persian, pierced type made of silver attached with integrated base made of silver and has a simple, round cross-section ring made of silver and omega type shackle made of silver . More information


The mater and limb are of one-piece construction. The post that holds the plates stationary is located in the lower portion of the womb. Scales on the limb: degree scale. More information


Many of the scales on the back of this instrument defy easy interpretation. Although they visually resemble scales typically found on the backs of Islamic astrolabes, the symbols used and their arrangement are unusual. The two inner-most scales in the lower half of the instrument remain a mystery. The back contains 9 scales of the following types: Altitude; Sine/Cosine; Shadow square; Terms; Cotangent; Zodiacal signs; Faces; Lunar Mansions. The back is inscribed: with a miscellaneous marked as في سعد الهجري ذنل (In good fortune, 751 Hijra). The date on this could be 711. More information

Rete, Pin & Wedge

The rete contains 21 stars. The rete contains zoomorphs: the pointer for vega is shaped like a bird The zodiac on the rete is labelled: حمل , ثور , جوزا , شرطان , اسد , سنبله , ميزان , عقرب , قوس , جدى , دلو , حوت.

The rete contains 1 scale of the following type: Ecliptic.
The rete is attached using a pin & wedge. More information


There are 3 plates with latitudes ranging from 20°0' to 32°0' . More information

Rules & Alidades

Type Details
AlidadeDouble-ended. The scales on the alidade are irregularly graduated and poorly engraved to the point of being useless.
More information


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