Another day, another new archaeological artefact. Not a very exciting prospect? Only if you weren’t paying attention during history classes back in grade 5.
After the interesting revelations made during my first visit to Lahore Museum – during which I was shown two coins of Sophytes, a Greek satrap of the Salt Range who lived some 2300 years ago – my expectations from this second visit were sky high. And to my pleasant surprise, I wasn’t disappointed.
The visit was shorter than the last – perhaps because the introductions were over, now. I met Ms. Sumaira Samad, the Museum’s Director and she told me that she had decided to show me a very unique piece that day – and she lived up to her word. She redirected me to the office of Mr. Ehtisham and asked me to take a look at the “astrolabe” – a centuries old scientific instrument. Mrs. Samad further informed me that the astrolabe was one of the few scientific instruments that was produced within Lahore and was exported to Europe.
The most interesting aspect of Mr. Ehtisham’s office was the variety of scientific instruments
Like I said, I wasn’t disappointed.
Excited to view this old scientific instrument that I could confidently call “indigenous”, I went out of the Director’s office and walked a few paces down to Mr. Ehtisham’s office. The plaque outside his office read, “Research Officer”. I entered.
There was nobody at the chair, and I was asked to sit down and wait for a while.
Although fairly bureaucratically straight-forward and under decorated, the most interesting aspect of Mr. Ehtisham’s office was the variety of scientific instruments placed in its shelves, and the science lab flanking it. Some serious research going on over here, I thought to myself. I wonder what they use the lab for, carbon dating?
I had been waiting for about 10 minutes when Mr. Ehtisham arrived and I introduced myself to him. The first disappointment of the day: the astrolabe, itself, wasn’t available for viewing. Sophytes 1 – Astrolabe 0. The Research Officer further explained that the Museum’s Islamic Gallery – the gallery that held artefacts from Islamic History – was under renovation so the replica wasn’t available for viewing, either. Great. Sophytes 2 – Astrolabe 0.
To make up for the lack of the artefact, itself, Mr. Ehtisham did, fortunately, present me with two good quality photographs of the article housed within Lahore Museum (albeit unavailable) and a booklet titled Astrolabe and Astrolabe-Makers of Lahore by Dr. Saifur Rahman Dar.
Glancing at the cover of the booklet provided me with the day’s first moment of clarity: I know this thing. I have seen it before.
Years ago, my mathematics teacher had carried something similar: a round plate with years, months and date inscribed on its rim. He used to say he could tell me the day I was born if I could tell him the date and the year. That was just one, simplified kind of astrolabe.
The astrolabe was further developed during the Muslim Golden Age
Upon reading Dr. Saifur Rahman Dar’s work, I was introduced to the many types and functions performed by the astrolabe. But first, a bit of history.
The first, most basic form of the astrolabe was invented – like so much more – by the Greeks in the Hellenistic period (starting circa 3rd century B.C.). It was created by combining the planisphere and dioptra and was continued to be used later by the Romans, too. This initial version of the astrolabe was produced to solve many mathematical problems associated with the sphere – something that led to its ultimate use: astronomical calculations.
The astrolabe was further developed during the Muslim Golden Age by Muslim astronomers who added straight, angled scales and a circle to the already existing structure. This new, developed version allowed sailors to navigate on the seas and for travellers to spot the Qibla – the Ka’abah in the direction of which Muslims kneel while praying. This was the planispheric astrolabe. Soon, Muslim astronomers developed another kind of astrolabe – the spherical astrolabe.
“Work of Master Allah-Dad dated 975 A.H (1567 AD)”
The spherical astrolabe was – as is evident from its name – a sphere with several hoops going around it. It was more or less a metallic reconstruction of the heavenly bodies that was used to determine the position of each of them during any given time in the future or in the past. Even after all these years and so many scientific inventions, looking at the spherical astrolabe makes you feel like you are looking at a marvel of mathematics, astronomy and, above all, engineering. It’s a beautiful device – confusing, yes, but positively captivating.
But Lahore? Somebody said something about Lahore!
Throwing a glance at the index of Dr. Saifur Rahman Dar’s booklet, I spotted the section named, “Astrolabes and Astrolabe-Makers of Lahore”, page number 180. I quickly flipped through the booklet to the said page, and found detailed descriptions of the many astrolabes produced by Lahore’s indigenous craftsmen, there. Dr. Dar states that Lahore was one of the most important global centers for the production of astrolabes, with 54% of all the astrolabes being produced in India coming from L. Interestingly, each of the astrolabes described by Dr. Dar had an inscription on them, of which the author presented translations:
“Work of Master Allah-Dad, the astrolabe-maker of Lahore, dated 975 A.H (1567 AD)”
“The work of Ziaud Din Muhammad, son of Qayim Muhammad son of Mulla ‘Isa son of Shaikh Allah Dad, Royal Asturlabe-maker of Lahore, dated 1059 A.H.”