British Museum blog

Looking for a time machine: astrolabes in medieval Jewish society


Josefina Rodríguez Arribas, researcher

Astrolabes are the medieval equivalent of the kind of handheld technology we’re all very accustomed to in the twenty-first century. They were instruments you could use to find your way, tell the time, track the movements of the sun and stars, and were – still are – complex, and incredibly impressive.

As the researcher working on a project with the British Museum and the Warburg Institute to study these fascinating objects, my recent trip to Israel was not the first time I’ve been there in search of medieval astronomy and astrology. However it was the first time I have returned with a database of about 140 Hebrew manuscripts dealing with astrolabes: a treasure trove of texts describing and explaining how to build or use these instruments in their almost two thousand years of history. In other words, texts written mostly in Hebrew and a few in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic with Hebrew script) between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries by Jews from around the world (astrolabes remained in use until the nineteenth century in Islamic countries).

These manuscripts are not all physically in Israel – most of them are in libraries and private collections around the world, as are the few surviving Jewish instruments. However, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem hosts the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, in which we can look for and read microfilms of practically all the Hebrew manuscripts in the public and private collections of the world.

Comparing manuscripts

Comparing manuscripts

An amazing resource, and very convenient. I can sit in the manuscripts reading room, in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem, and let my eyes go from a Sephardic script of the thirteenth century to an Askenazi of the fifteenth or a Byzantine of the sixteenth century, all of them explaining how an astrolabe works.

These texts were written and copied by Jews spread over three continents, in countries and cities so close or so distant as Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, Yemen, Lisbon, Baghdad, Mantua, Benevento, Syracuse, Senegal, and more. Most of them were also copied many times throughout the centuries, some in years as decisive for the history of the world or the history of the Jews as the year 1453 (the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands) or the year 1492 (edict of expulsion of Jews from Spain), when many codices and manuscripts were destroyed or lost for many reasons.

These handwritten texts are like a time machine encapsulating in their parchment, paper, ink, writing, binding, and list of owners, information about the authors and the readers, the Jewish communities where they were produced and the patrons who paid for them. So the transcription, translation, and study of these texts is going to provide us with decisive information about the degree of scientific knowledge and familiarity with certain scientific instruments of many Jewish communities from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and even later.

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  1. thanbo says:

    Are the IMHM mss., which you show yourself reading on a computer screen, available in major Jewish libraries (JTS, YU), or only in J’lem?

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    • J. Rodriguez says:

      These manuscripts are in libraries all around the world and a few of them are in public and private libraries in Israel. In the IMHM one can examine the microfilms of these manuscripts in situ. What I am looking at on the screen of my computer is a digital copy of one of these microfilms that I ordered from the IMHM. I hope this answers your question.

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      • thanbo says:

        IOW, no. If you want access to these mss, it’s just like it always was – either you go to the IMHM, or you buy a copy. There isn’t digital access to the database from major research libraries. It’s just that IMHM serves as a clearinghouse, so you don’t have to directly interact with ms. owners in other countries.

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    • J. Rodriguez says:

      Thanbo, the names are for something and we should pay attention to them: this Institute is called the Institute of ‘Microfilmed’ Hebrew Manuscripts (IMHM) not the Instituted of ‘Digitized’ Hebrew Manuscripts, and a microfilm (a reel) is certainly not a digital format.

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  2. lja says:

    Are you going to prepare an exhibition about this?

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    • J. Rodriguez says:

      That would be great! We have several events in mind for this research and we are working to get the best of it. What I can say now is that there will certainly be some public event related to the project ‘Astrolabes in the Medieval Jewish Society’ in the near future.

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  3. Simon Shane says:

    With Prof. Ackerman’s departure has the project run out of steam and is that the reason for the BM’s exit from it?

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    • This project on medieval Jewish astrolabes has always been a collaborative project led by Charles Burnett at the Warburg Institute. Although Silke Ackermann has taken up a new job in Germany, which means she can no longer be directly involved with the project, Medieval Jewish Astrolabes has far from run out of steam and new research is still being carried out for the project by Josefina Rodriguez Arribas at the Warburg Institute.

      Dr J D Hill, Research Manager, British Museum

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