The discovery of a rare astrolabe demonstrates that Arabs, Christians, and Jews have exchanged scientific information for centuries

A researcher from the University of Cambridge (UK) has found a very rare astrolabe with both Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions, which demonstrates the exchange of scientific information between Arabs, Jews and Christians over hundreds of years

An astonishing archaeological find has recently come to light, demonstrating centuries of scientific collaboration between Arab, Christian, and Jewish communities. A researcher from the University of Cambridge, UK, has uncovered an extremely rare astrolabe adorned with both Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions. This discovery stands as a remarkable testament to the exchange of scientific knowledge across different cultures for hundreds of years.

What is an astrolabe?

According to the Galileo Museum, the term “astrolabe” refers to a variety of instruments, ranging from large armillary instruments used to determine the positions of stars, like the armillary astrolabe of Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century A.D., to smaller devices designed for astronomical calculation or navigation. Essentially, an astrolabe is a two-dimensional model of the celestial sphere, enabling the calculation of the Sun and stars’ positions for a given latitude, day, and time of year, thus serving as a fully-fledged astronomical tool.

A remarkable find

The newly identified Islamic astrolabe from the 11th century, bearing both Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions, is among the oldest examples ever found and one of the few known in the world. Its discovery underscores the rare and vital evidence of how Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Spain, North Africa, and Italy exchanged scientific information for centuries.

This item had been previously found and is currently housed in a museum in Verona, but its significant characteristics went unnoticed until now.

“When I visited the museum and closely examined the astrolabe, I noticed not only the beautifully engraved Arabic inscriptions but also faint Hebrew inscriptions,” says Federica Gigante, the researcher behind the discovery. “I could only see them in the slanting light coming in through a window. I thought I was dreaming, but the inscriptions became more and more visible. It was very exciting.”

Gigante further explains that the astrolabe underwent numerous modifications, additions, and adjustments as it changed hands over time.

Astrolabe That Connected Cultures


At least three different users felt compelled to add translations and corrections to this object, two using Hebrew and one using a Western language. The artifact has been identified as Andalusian, and its engraving style and the arrangement of scales on the back link it to instruments made in Al-Andalus, the area of Spain ruled by Muslims in the 11th century.

One side of the plate states in Arabic “for the latitude of Cordoba, 38° 30′,” while the other side says “for the latitude of Toledo, 40°,” suggesting it may have been made in Toledo during a period when the city was a thriving hub of coexistence and cultural exchange among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Moreover, the astrolabe features Muslim prayer verses arranged to ensure users kept to their daily prayer schedules. An additional plate bears inscriptions for typical North African latitudes, hinting it might have been used in Morocco or Egypt.

However, the most captivating discovery was the Hebrew inscriptions, likely added by more than one individual.

These additions and Hebrew translations suggest that at some point, the object left Spain or North Africa and circulated among the Jewish diaspora community in Italy, where Arabic was not understood, and Hebrew was instead used.

The scientist believes these translations reflect the recommendations prescribed by Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167), a Spanish Jew, in the oldest surviving treatise on the astrolabe in Hebrew, written in 1146 in Verona, exactly where the astrolabe is found today.

Sources: Eurekalert / Nuncius

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