Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Royal Museum, National Museums of Scotland
Hegira 417 / AD 1026–7
Muhammad ibn al-Saffar.
Cast brass, incised.
Diameter 15.5 cm
Umayyads of al-Andalus
An astrolabe that has a hollowed-out central disc; a sort of base plate (a mater), that is formed by riveting the back plate to the raised edge (the limb), which is inscribed in kufic script. The jointed ring (or throne), from which the instrument is suspended perpendicular to the ground to give a reading, is not all original. The rête (the pierced front plate showing the positions of the stars) is a replacement made in the 13th century. The astrolabe can be taken apart by unscrewing the central knob (horse) to reveal seven plates. Engraved on the plates in simpler kufic script to that seen on the limb, are seven names of places: Mecca, Medina, Saragossa, Samarra, Cairo, Toledo and Constantinople, along with the latitude and the hours in the longest day. The plates are engraved with azimuths as well as almucantarsand there are lines indicating times of prayer. The interior of the mater is engraved with the markings of 66 degrees, it is a plate of ecliptic co-ordinates, while the back bears four scales of altitude and two ecliptic and calendrical scales. The maker’s signature is on the back of the mater.
The astrolabe is a device known from at least the AH 2nd / AD 8th century, and it represents the notion of heaven with all its stars, based on the assumption that earth is at the centre of a spherical universe. The astrolabe had many purposes. It served as an astronomical calculating device allowing the observation of solar and stellar altitudes. It was also used for navigational purposes. Time-keeping was another important function of the astrolabe in the Muslim sphere, for it was exploited in particular to calculate the precise timing of the five daily prayers.
Spain was invaded by the Muslims in the AH 2nd / AD 8th century and subsequently a vibrant civilisation evolved, one that collected, incorporated and disseminated the ideas of ancient as well as contemporaneous Arab scientists and scholars. This European-made and dated astrolabe is the earliest known, produced in AH 417 / AD 1026–7 by Muhammad ibn al-Saffar. Interestingly, Ibn al-Saffar, brother of Muhammad ibn al-Saffar, was the author of the first known treatise from Islamic Spain on the astrolabe. Two contemporary astrolabes survive from this period; both signed by Muhammad ibn al-Saffar, this one is the earlier of the two. In Europe production and use of the astrolabe had waned by the 18th century, but in the Islamic world they were made and used into the 20th century.
The Muslim world inherited the astrolabe from Antiquity. It was an essential astronomical calculation device used for observing the stars, navigation and time keeping. In the AH 2nd / AD 8th century, following the Muslim conquest of Spain, it was introduced to Europe.
On the back of the astrolabe the inscription in kufic script states: ‘Work of Muhammad bin [ibn] al-Saffar in Córdoba in the year 17 and 400’ (417 / 1026–7).
A gift to the Royal Museum, NMS, from James H. Farr, F.I.M.I., Edinburgh, in 1959.
The inscription on the back of the astrolabe gives the place of origin as Córdoba.
NMS Object Record File, containing material directly reproduced from the following references:
King, D. A., ‘Some Medieval Astronomical Instruments and their Secrets’, in Mazzolini, R. G. (ed.), Non-Verbal Communication in Science prior to 1900, Florence 1993, pp.29–52.
Maddison, F., and Turner, A., Science and Technology in Islam, exhibition catalogue, London 1976, pp.104–6.
Phillips, P., The Collectors’ Encyclopeadia of Antiques, London 1973, p.604, fig. a.
Plenderleith, R. W., ‘Discovery of an Old Astrolabe’ in The Scottish Geographical Magazine, Vol. 76, No. 1, 1960: 25.
Ulrike Al-Khamis "Astrolabe" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2017. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;uk;Mus03;1;en
Prepared by: Ulrike Al-KhamisUlrike Al-Khamis
Ulrike Al-Khamis is Principal Curator for the Middle East and South Asia at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. She began her academic career in Germany before completing her BA (1st class Hons) in Islamic Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1987. The same year she moved to Edinburgh, where she completed her Ph.D. thesis on “Early Islamic Bronze and Brass Ewers from the 7th to the 13th Century AD” in 1994. From 1994 to 1999 she worked as Curator of Muslim Art and Culture for Glasgow Museums and, in 1997, was one of the main instigators of the first ever Scottish Festival of Muslim Culture, SALAAM. Since 1999 she has been based at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, where she has curated several exhibitions and continues to publish aspects of the collections. In addition to her museum work she has contributed regularly to the teaching of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Edinburgh.
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: UK3 01
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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