Arabic in the Sky: Astronomy a thousand years ago

Astronomy pioneers in Muslim civilisation built powerful observatories, and named galaxies, stars and features on the moon.


Wax model of Maryam al-Ijliya al-Astrulabiya at the 1001 Inventions exhibition at the Jordan Museum, AmmanOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

The night sky inspires poetry, music, philosophy and science, and it was no different in the Muslim world a millennium ago.

Armillary sphere replica at 1001 Inventions exhibition at the Jordan Museum, AmmanOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Scholars in Muslim civilisation made considerable advances in the study of astronomy.

They made important discoveries, developed instruments observatories and planetariums, leaving a legacy of accurate observations and astronomical tables.

Children discovering lunar formations in the moon game interactive at a 1001 Inventions exhibitionOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Eminent astronomers and scientists from that time are remembered today through their legacy.

Some have their names given to craters on the Moon, and the Arabic names they used for the stars are still in use today with 165 stars still bearing Arabic names.

Andromeda galaxy as it appears in Al-Sufi's 'Fixed Stars Catalogue'Original Source: Book of FIxed Stars, Al-Sufi

The 10th-century Persian astronomer AbdulRahman al-Sufi was the first astronomer to mention the Andromeda galaxy - the Milky Way's next-door neighbour.

He named it 'little cloud'.

Artistic representation of the celestial dome of Qusayr Amra in Jordan.1001 Inventions

The names of the stars that are still known by their Arabic names include:

Leo's Denebola, which comes from the Arabic word dhanab, meaning 'the lion's tail', and Orion's Rigel, meaning 'the foot'.

And there are many more.

The brightest star in Taurus is the orange-coloured Aldebaran, named after the Arabic phrase for 'the follower'.

Illustration dipicting Taqi al-Din's sextant in the Istanbul ObservatoryOriginal Source: Alat-i Rasadiya li Zij-i Shahinshahiya (Astronimical Observational Instruments)

In search of ever-more-accurate calculations and observations of the heavens, scholars in Muslim civilisation created huge observational instruments.

Observatories in Damascus and Maragha were equipped with large-scale instruments.

Taqi al-Din's (1526 - 1585) Istanbul Observatory, shown in this illustration also had leading equipment.

16th-century Turkish manuscript shows Taqi al-Din and other astronomers at the Istanbul ObservatoryOriginal Source: from the Book of the Kings

It was Caliph Al-Ma'mum who began the Muslim tradition of building observatories for studying the stars and planets when he founded facilities in Al-Shammasiyah quarter in Baghdad, and on Mount Qasiyun in Damascus.

Other rulers later established large observatories like Malikshah, in Isfahan; Maragha, in East Azerbijan; Ulugh Beg, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan; and Taqi al-Din, in Istanbul depicted in this 16th-century Turkish manuscript from the Book of the Kings.

This 15th-century Persian manuscript depicts Nasir al-Din al-Tusi's observatory in Maragha.1001 Inventions

The foundations of the 13th-century Maragha Observatory are still visible today, and it is part of UNESCO's Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative.

Many astronomers were reportedly linked to the Maragha Observatory including Jamal al-Din who, according to Chinese records, became famous in China and became known as Cha-ma-lu-ting after he visited the Imperial Court in Beijing in 1267 and brought with him several astronomical instruments.

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Producers: Ahmed Salim, Shaza Shannan

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