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Decorative Astrolabes and Compass



Close to 20 astrolabes, all virtually identical in appearance, are known from the hand of Hâjjî ‘Alî, who seems to be identical with ‘Alî ibn Sâdiq Qummî. They date from the period around 1780-1800, although he was surely active for more than twenty years. All are beautifully worked, and we can gain an insight into how prolific he must have been since three of his pieces have batch numbers on the back: “13”, “15” and “20”. It is by no means clear why he numbered only 20 at least of his productions, and others not at all. This piece has the batch-number “4” (written as ‘amal râbi’, “fourth production”, at the bottom of the back). A signature ‘amal Hâjjî ‘Alî 1203 seems to have been gouged out of the cartouche below the shadow squares. The initial ‘ayn and the final yâ’ as well as a 3 are all that is still discernible. A cartouche with the words ‘am(al) (‘Abd al-A) imma has been added on the lower rim but is very worn. No doubt this was added in a milieu in which the astrolabes of ‘Abd al-Aimma were more valuable than those of Hâjjî ‘Alî. The new inscription is not in the style of ‘Abd al-Aimma (who used sana’ahu rather than ‘amal). There is no question that this is a work by Hâjjî ‘Alî.

The throne is elegantly decorated à jour. Flowers decorate the scales and available space all over the front and back of the mater. The rete is missing; the modern replacement, not shown here, is unworthy of Hâjjî ‘Alî’s astrolabe. Likewise the alidade is not original. The mater is engraved with a gazetteer for 34 localities (bilâd), with their longitude (tûl), latitude (‘ard) and local direction of Mecca called qibla (inhirâf). This information is a small subset of a large corpus of geographical data for some 250 localities that was in circulation amongst the astronomers in Iran from the 15th century onwards. There were two versions, one in which the qibla directions are very accurately computed, and another, the one used here, in which the qiblas do not always correspond to the geographical data. The information presented here contains numerous additional errors (it may be compared with the more sensible data on the splendid astrolabe of Shah Husayn – see Gunther, Astrolabes, introduction, pp. 24-26, and King, World-Maps, passim):

Locality Long. Lat. Qibla
Outer ring:

1 Mecca 77;10 21;40 –
2 Medina 75;20 22; 0 27;10
3 Baghdad 82; 0 33;25 12;15
4 Basra 84; 0 30; 0 37;39
5 Shiraz 88; 0 29;36 13;18
6 Shushtar 84;30 31;30 35;24
7 Jurbadaqan 84;30 34;15 38; 0
8 Isfahan 86;40 32;25 40;29
9 Kashan 86; 0 34; 0 34;31
10 Qum 85; 0 34;45 31;54
11 Rayy 86;20 35; 0 36;26
12 Qazwin 85; 0 36; 0 27;34
13 Sawa 85; 0 35; 0 39;36
14 Hamadan 83; 0 35;10 22;36
15 Simnan 88; 0 36; 0 36;17
16 Damghan 88;35 36;20 38;15
17 Bistam 89;30 36;10 39;33
18 Shirwan 89;30 36;10 39;13
19 Nishapur 92;30 36;21 46;25
20 Meshed




This unsigned and undated Maghribi astrolabe, previously unrecorded, is typical of the standard astrolabes that were made in the Maghrib during the period up to the 19th century. The engraving is accurate and the calligraphy rather elegant. The instrument is probably from c. 1800.
The numbers are marked in alphanumerical notation according to the Maghribi convention. The throne is raised and without decoration. The shackle and the suspensory apparatus are original. The outer rim of the mater bears a 360° scale divided into 5°-intervals, subdivided into single
degrees. The 5°-arguments are labelled thrice up to 100°, then up to 60°. The surface of the mater is carefully engraved with an extravagant foliate design.
The rete is typically Maghribi in style, with counter-changes along the horizontal bar and starpointers of different, but all standard, design. The ecliptic scale is labelled with the names of the zodiacal signs and is divided into 6°-intervals. The following 5+5+6+6 = 22 stars are represented
in each quadrant of the ecliptic beginning with the vernal equinox (on the left), each pointer bearing standard star-names, mainly in abbreviated form:
1st quadrant: batn qaytûs – dabarân – ghûl – qadam al-jawzâ’ – ‘ayyûq
2nd: ‘abûr – ghumaysâ’ – jahba (?) – al-dubb – al-ghurâb
3rd: a’zal – râmih – fakka – ‘unuq al-hayya – qalb al-‘aqrab – ra’s al-hawwâ’
4th: wâqi’ – al-tâ’ir – dulfîn – dhanab al-jady – mankib – dhanab qaytûs

There are three plates with astrolabic markings for the following latitudes and associated localities: 21°40′ – Mecca; 30° – Cairo, Sijilmasa; 31°30′ – Marrakesh; 33°30′ – no localities mentioned; 34° – Meknes; 35° – Tangiers. On each side, there are altitude circles for each 6° and azimuth circles foreach 10, as well as curves for the seasonal hours below the horizon. On all plates, there are curves highlighted with fishbone markings representing the times of the two daylight prayers, the zuhr and the ‘asr, whose times are defined in terms of shadow-lengths. On the second and third plates, there are highlighted curves at 18° below the horizon for the prayers at daybreak (fajr) and nightfall (shafaq). The orthography of the name Sijilmâsa – a city destroyed centuries before this astrolabe was made, and included only because of tradition – is curious: it is
written as two words, sijil mâsa. The plate for Mecca is badly scratched.
There is another plate with unlabelled and incomplete markings for latitude 36° (not stated). Here the altitude circles are for each 5° and there are no azimuth circles. On the back of one of these plates there is a set of universal markings of the kind associated with Ibn Bâso ca. 1300. These
are for performing the operations of spherical astronomy for all latitudes. Such markings are common on Western Islamic astrolabes.
The back bears the usual scales found on late Maghribi astrolabes. On the upper outer rim, there are two altitude scales. Within these, there is a solar scale with each 30° marked with the names of the zodiac. Then within this there is a calendar scale with the months labelled in the Western
Islamic (= European) convention, as follows (showing only consonants and long vowels):

ynyr – fbrâ’r – mârs – ‘brîl – mâyh – yûnyh
yûlyh – ‘gh-sh-t – sh-tnbr – ‘ktûbr – nûnbr – djnbr

The equinox corresponds to March 14, by which one could date the piece to ca. 1300, but this should not be taken too seriously. (In late Islamic instrumentation, blind tradition prevailed.) Below the horizontal diameter, there is a double shadow-square, with each scale marked in digits (base
12),labelled for each 3 digits and subdivided for each 1 digit. The horizontal scale is labelled mabsût and the vertical ones mankûs, indicating that they display the cotangents and tangents, respectively, of the solar altitude. The alidade is unmarked and, along with the pin and wedge, is original.




Circular form with hinged lid and suspension loop, incised with inscriptions and zodiacal signs, the interior with needle and vacant recess for compass; the bazuband engraved with Shia inscriptions.


“Made for Shihab al-Din al-Husayni al-Najafi al-Mar’ashi by Farajullah Isfahani in muharram 1363 (December 1943 – January 1944)”.
Two other instruments by Farajullah are known: a qibla dial in a private collection dated A.H. 1354/A.D. 1935-36, and a compass sold in these rooms, 1 April 2009, lot 105, dated A.H. 1340/A.D. 1921-22.




The larger astrolabe:
The throne is unusual for an Islamic astrolabe of any kind. The rete has several star-pointers unnamed, and amongst the star-names, some that are in the incorrect positions (e.g., fakka, shâmî, fard and wâqi’). Even the name of one of the zodiacal signs is misspelled: w-l-w for dalw. Nevertheless the design of the rete is reminiscent of those of earlier Iranian astrolabes, with a distinctive pair of “crab’s claws” attached to the inside of the upper part of the ecliptic.

The plates, on the other hand, are fairly carefully constructed and could be part of a functional astrolabe. They serve latitudes 21° [Mecca], 33° [Baghdad], 34° [Samarra ?], 36° [Tehran] and 45° [Constantinople] (no place-names are marked). Altitude circles are drawn for each 6° and azimuth circles for each 10° above the horizon for latitudes 33°, 34° and 36°; those drawn below the horizon on the plate for latitude 45° are incorrectly constructed (they are not perpendicular to the altitude circles). There is also a plate of 20 horizons, accurately drawn.
The mater is engraved with an incomplete gazetteer with longitudes and latitudes for about 55 localities. Some of the names are misspelled, some of the data confused (degrees and minutes reversed). The back of the instrument is functional. It has a trigonometric quadrant in the upper left, with horizontals and quarter-circles for each 5°. On the upper right is a solar quadrant with curves for the zuhr and ‘asr prayer, that is, mid-day and mid-afternoon, for latitude 36°. This could be taken as evidence that the instrument was intended for use in Tehran, although 36° is also the latitude of the middle of the 4th climate – the centre of the seven climates of Antiquity – and so was used as a general latitude for pedagogic purposes. Below the horizontal diameter is a double shadow quadrant (sullamî) to bases 7 feet (aqdâm on the left) and 12 digits (asâbi’ on the right). The alidade is appropriately fitted with a sexagesimal scale for use with the trigonometric quadrant.
In brief, this is a curious piece, with the rete far less carefully executed that the rest. The hypothesis that the rete is a replacement is unlikely because the instrument is so late. If this is of one piece, then it is a decorative astrolabe, that is, one not intended for serious use.

The smaller astrolabe:
This is another curious piece. The rete is coarsely worked, with very few star-names engraved on the star-pointers. There are five plates, all properly executed. Two have the pegs and are still functional, two have the pegs broken off, and the fifth plate, which has a cut-out at the bottom, does not belong. The mater is without serious markings and the back is unfinished.

The throne is large and somewhat ungainly. The rete is a coarse attempt to render a foliated design. The mater bears no markings other than a series of concentric circles. There is a hole at the inside of the bottom to receive the pegs of the plates. Of the five plates, one bears a series of 30 horizons on one side and markings for latitude 39°.

The latter has altitude circles for each 3° and azimuth circles for each 10° above the horizon. Another plate has a cut-out at the bottom, and was hence intended for another astrolabe (that is, one with a peg at the bottom of the inside of the mater). It bears markings for 12° on one side and 36° on the other. There are altitude circles for each 6° on both sides. The former has altitude circles for each 10° above and below the horizon and the latter only below the horizon. The two plates with a peg serve latitudes 32°, 34°, 36° and 38°. There are altitude circles for each 3° and azimuth circles for each 10° above the horizon.

The back is unfinished and crudely worked. There is a trigonometric quadrant in the upper left, a solar quadrant in the upper right, and a particularly badly constructed double shadow-square below the horizon. Again, it is not clear how this piece came to its present state.



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