Toledo astrolabe, artist unknown, Spain, c. 1300s

Astrolabes have been referred to as the following:

  • mirrors of the sun
  • star-takers
  • personal computers

These nicknames illustrate some of the historical and contemporary interpretation of their functions.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1341-1400) famously wrote A Treatise on the Astrolabe, which served as an instruction manual.

 

It was dedicated to his son, and is considered to be the oldest piece of scientific writing in the English language.

This astrolabe is on display at the Aga Khan Museum. 

Astrolabes were historically used to capture the movements of the sun and stars, but little is known about their intricacies.

In the Iberian Peninsula of the fourteenth century, Muslim scientists worked together with Christian and Jewish counterparts to translate and transmit scientific knowledge to Europe. 

This astrolabe may have been made in Toledo, Spain, then a major centre of scientific translation. The inscriptions on the astrolabe bear the names of constellations in both Arabic and Latin, with additional inscriptions in Arabic. Later, Hebrew was added to one of the plates. 

The plates inside the astrolabe include projections for different geographical latitudes and represent different phases of use, confirming that the practical life of this astrolabe extended beyond the place and time of its initial manufacture. 

One of the functions of the astrolabe in Muslim civilizations was to determine the direction toward Mecca (the qibla) and to establish the times of prayer.

Images and text sourced from The Astrolabe, East and West (MHS) and the Aga Khan Museum.