Constellations in the 10th Century Islamic World
In its time, Islamic cartography and cosmography influenced the entire world. A 10th-century book illustrates the constellations only then imagined...
Constellations are perhaps among the most splendid daughters of the human imagination. In conceiving them for what they really are, groups of stars arranged to create patterns and forms in the fantasies of someone thousands of years ago. And in all of the attempts to capture them, to delineate them, they might well be called works of art.
Constellations have varied according to the times and places where they’ve been named, and thus, created. Where someone once saw the shape of an animal or a mythological being, someone else in some other part of the world, may have seen an outline altogether different. One culture most enraptured with the stars and their arrays was the medieval Islamic world. It’s gift to humanity has been a tremendous number of treatises and maps which inspire awe even today in their beauty and symbolism.
Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, once known in the West as Azophi, was born in what is today the abandoned city of Rayy, in the province of Tehran, Iran, on December 7, 903 CE. He died 83 years later after having lived and worked in the court of the Persian emir, Adud ad-Daula. In his lifetime, he translated and wrote commentaries on volumes of astronomy, astrology, alchemy, and mathematics, especially those from the Greek world.
In 964, Al-Sufi wrote what was to be his most famous book, his masterpiece: The Book of Fixed Stars, which is based on The Almagest, Claudius Ptolemy’s most important treatise on the stars. Al-Sufi’s book provides corrections to data that Ptolemy had recorded of many stars. He also checked their brightness and sizes and made the first mentions of the galaxies known today as the Large Magellanic Cloud and Andromeda. He also made countless translations of astrological treatises from the Hellenistic culture. A wise man, to say the least, he devoted his life to observing, describing, and cataloging the characteristics of the stars. He even wrote a treatise on the astrolabe.
Written originally in Arabic, The Book of Fixed Stars was later translated into Persian and Latin. It presents the 48 constellations known as “fixed stars” and which, in medieval conceptions of the universe, were distributed in eight of the nine spheres surrounding the Earth. In Al-Sufi’s book each constellation appears twice, like mirror images. One describes their appearances from earth, and the other, how each is viewed from the sky.
As simple as it is sophisticated, and always mesmerizing, the constellations described and illustrated by Al-Sufi shine not just for their beauty. They’re also potent graphic works which remind us of the scope and power of the human imagination, perhaps still the most powerful tool we have.
Images: Public domain
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