10th Century Astronomical Text of Abd-al Rahman al-Sufi Unveiled

The “suwar al-kawakib” or the Book of Fixed Stars is a 10th century astronomical Arabic text, authored by the famed scholar Abd-al Rahman al-Sufi in the year 964 AD. It was produced by the powerful Greco-Arabic translation movement, which emanated in Baghdad and sought to translate secular Greek classical texts and the works of Hellenistic scholars into Arabic.

The syncretic traditions of Western Asia were once culturally aligned owing to the dominance of Islam over the medieval world and the access to the Silk Road . Now, this has prompted Uzbekistan to present the “first true-to-the-original facsimile copy of the manuscript of Images of the Fixed Stars” reports Euronews

Uzbekistan was at the heart of the ancient Silk Road. Its central location in the Eurasian trans-continent allowed it to become one of the first civilizations to develop and grow.

With the goal of preserving this rich cultural heritage, Project: Cultural Legacy of Uzbekistan in the World Collections was launched to identify, catalogue, and showcase all art objects reflecting the country’s cultural heritage scattered around the world. 350 scientists from all over the world were brought together at this keynote event of Uzbekistan’s Cultural Heritage Week. 

Ulugh Beg and Abd-Al Rahman’s Contribution to Astronomy

The conversion of this work from a manuscript to a book was commissioned by the Timurid Sultan and Dynast, Ulugh Beg, in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. He was a renowned astronomer and mathematician, having done great work in the field of trigonometry and spherical geometry, and was a patron of the arts and other intellectual activities.

He would go on to commission and build the great Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand. This is, to this day, one of the finest observatories of its kind in the world. 

Ulugh Beg Observatory, Samarkand (Videobuzzing / Adobe Stock)

Ulugh Beg Observatory, Samarkand ( Videobuzzing / Adobe Stock)

Abd-al Rahman al-Sufi made his observations from Isfahan in Iran, dedicating the Book of Fixed Stars to Adud al-Dawla, his patron and a Buyid Emir. Al-Sufi was responsible for innovations in charting the stars, updating Ptolemy’s stellar longitudes from 137 AD to 964 AD by adding 12 degrees and 42 minutes on Ptolemy’s longitudinal values to allow for precision.

For this, he used the production of dual illustrations for each of Ptolemy’s constellations. One illustration was portrayed on a celestial globe, while the other was viewed directly in the night sky. 

This book was not his only contribution to the field of astronomy and science. He contributed to the building of an important observatory in the city of Shiraz, and played a role in the design of many astronomical instruments such as astrolabes and celestial globes.

He identified more than 100 new stars, along with the first known descriptions and illustrations of the Andromeda galaxy, and the first recorded mention of the Large Magellanic Cloud, reports Paudal. He was able to improve on a lot of Ptolemy’s observations through empirical data and conclusions, and his influence in astronomy reverberated right up to the 19th century. 

The Book of Fixed Stars: Art and Science 

The book is often hailed as a masterpiece of Central Asian art. It can also be taken as proof that the later Renaissance movement in Europe was in part a by-product of the cultural exchange that had emerged with transcontinental trade and exchange with Asia, particularly those regions connected to the ancient Silk Route.

It contains 74 tiny and fascinating miniatures of constellations, executed with exquisite panache and style. And it is one of the oldest surviving treatises of a time when illustrated manuscripts were coming into focus.

Constellation detail from the Book of Fixed Stars (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain)

Constellation detail from the Book of Fixed Stars (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain )

Scientifically, it combines the principles of ancient Arab astronomy, with knowledge of the stars transmitted by the Greeks. Abd-al Rahman al-Sufi took Ptolemy’s entire catalogue and merged them with the ones mentioned in Arabic literature. 

The effect of this resonates right into the modern world. So much so, that Uzbekistan today plans to tap into culturally and scientifically rich historical works like this one and help spur advanced scientific technologies and discoveries, to help preserve historical exhibits and manuscripts.

Top image: Detail from the Book of Fixed Stars. Source: Paudal.

By Sahir Pandey

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