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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We love this strong image taken by @nickyhofland. These powerful figures of King Senwosret III stand in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4). He reigned from 1874 to 1855 BC. These representations of him are interesting because they aren’t idealised – you can see expressive lines and furrows on his face. This contrasts to earlier kings who appear youthful throughout their reign. The king also has peculiarly large ears in these statues, which perhaps symbolised his readiness to listen. If you’d like your photos to be regrammed, tag #mybritishmuseum

#regram #AncientEgypt #statue #sculpture #Egypt #history #BritishMuseum This striking mosaic was made around 500 years ago in Mexico. It’s a pectoral – a type of jewellery designed to be worn on the chest. Double-headed serpents (known as maquizcoatl) were considered to be the bearers of bad omens and were associated with figures of authority who may have worn this type of jewellery as part of a ritual process. The object is expertly decorated with tiny pieces of turquoise that create textures and shapes on the serpent’s ‘skin’. The eye sockets could have been inlaid with dark gemstones giving the impression of flickering eyes. 
#turquoise #Aztec #Mixtec #serpent #jewellery #Mexico #🇲🇽 Eagle costumes were worn by prestigious warriors in Mixtec and Aztec culture, and the handle of this knife, made around 500 years ago in Mexico, represents a crouching eagle warrior. In mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning. This object is decorated with turquoise, malachite, and four types of shell, with a flint blade. Highly decorated knives like this one were probably used in ceremonies or symbolically rather than for practical tasks – the construction of this knife suggests it wouldn’t be sturdy enough to be used for cutting.

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#Aztec #Mixtec #turquoise #mask #Mexico #🇲🇽 The Mysteries of Osiris was the most important religious event of the year in ancient Egypt. It reenacted the murder and rebirth of Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld. The festival took place between the 12th and 30th of the month of Khoiak (mid-October to mid-November). Spectacular objects, recently discovered after a thousand years at the bottom of the sea, allow us to see ritual equipment and offerings associated with the Mysteries. 
Don’t miss your chance to see the underwater treasures of Egypt’s lost worlds in our #SunkenCities exhibition, closing 27 November 2016. Follow the link in our bio for more info.

A statuette of Osiris and a model of a processional barge for this god, shown in their place of excavation at Thonis-Heracleion. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
#Egypt #ancientEgypt #Osiris The ancient Egyptians believed that the gods travelled through the night sky by boat. This chest ornament, known as a pectoral, was discovered in the grave of a pharaoh. It shows an ancient Egyptian boat called a barque carrying the sun god, Amun-Ra, sailing under a star-filled sky. During festivals, this divine journey was recreated with a procession of boats carrying statues. Some of the most important finds discovered in the lost ancient city of Thonis-Heracleion were a ritual boat and models of sacred barques.

Discover more stories of ancient Egyptian myth and belief in our #SunkenCities exhibition, closing 27 November 2016. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets.

Gold pectoral. Tanis, Egypt, 943–922 BC. On loan from Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
#Egypt #ancientEgypt #gold #sungod #pharaoh
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