Unearthing the astrolabe linking Islamic and Jewish scholars

Rare eleventh-century astrolabe discovery reveals Islamic–Jewish scientific exchange
The image is a stock photo of an astrolabe. — Pixabay
The image is a stock photo of an astrolabe. — Pixabay

In a groundbreaking discovery, Dr Federica Gigante from Cambridge University's History Faculty unveils an eleventh-century Islamic astrolabe, adorned with Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions, marking one of the oldest of its kind ever found and shedding light on centuries of scientific exchange across cultures. 

Discovered in a museum in Verona, Italy, this rare astronomical instrument, revealed today in the journal Nuncius, represents a tangible symbol of collaboration among Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars spanning Spain, North Africa, and Italy.

Dr Gigante stumbled upon this remarkable artefact by chance while browsing the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo's website. Initially dismissed as potentially fake by the museum, further examination revealed the astrolabe's unique significance, becoming the prized centrepiece of their collection.

The astrolabe, a multifunctional tool similar to the world's first smartphone, intricately detailed with Arabic inscriptions, bears faint Hebrew engravings, indicative of its journey across cultural landscapes. 

Through meticulous analysis, Dr Gigante traced its origins to eleventh-century Andalusia, particularly Al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled region of Spain. The dual inscriptions for Cordoba and Toledo affirm its provenance, possibly crafted during Toledo's vibrant period of interfaith exchange.

Adding to its complexity, the astrolabe boasts corrections and translations in both Hebrew and Western numerals, possibly made by subsequent users, reflecting the instrument's evolution over time. Dr Gigante's findings suggest a rich tapestry of cultural adaptation and intellectual exchange, making the Verona astrolabe a tangible testament to medieval cosmopolitanism.

Moreover, the presence of a "rete," a sky map on the astrolabe, offers insights into the celestial knowledge of its time, affirming its astronomical accuracy and historical significance. Dr Gigante's research not only unveils a remarkable artefact but also underscores the interconnectedness of diverse civilisations in shaping scientific progress.

This discovery challenges traditional narratives of cultural isolation, emphasising the intertwined histories of Islamic, Jewish, and European civilizations. As Dr Gigante aptly concludes, "This object is Islamic, Jewish, and European; they can't be separated."