Bloomberg of all places reported last month on two Persian astrolabes coming up for auction at Sotheby’s. Why I don’t really know. The article itself is brief, really just a paragraph or two, and seems to be a string of staccato like factoids: before sextants there were astrolabes; Columbus might have taken one with him across the Atlantic; they had religious uses too; they tended to be made of brass; they are expensive.
Some of these factoids might imply something more than the historical record will support, like “people across the medieval world.” If by people you mean more than one, yes. If by people you mean something like popular and common, then no. Why include Columbus at all? Yes, Muslims could use some astrolabes to determine the direction of Mecca, but not all. And what about the other religious uses, such as prayer times? And what practical uses can you list (beyond the “altitude of a star above the horizon” comment)? The point of the article seems to be “Wow. Look at this expensive gadget.” And the real key seems to be the cost.
Now that the auction has ended, we know that the less expensive of the two sold for slightly more than the estimates. This lovely, small astrolabe with five plates dates from the 17th-century and was made for Mirza Razi al-Din Muhammad al-Husayni al-Musawi, who apparently was a Safavid theologian and teacher in Isfahan. See the full description at Sotheby’s site: Lot 67. If only I had £151,200 (not, Bloomberg remarks, the cost of a mansion—nonetheless, I would qualify, the cost of a mid-priced house).
The other astrolabe, the expensive one, comes from 14th-century Tudela in Iberia. It shows traditions not uncommon in these Andalusian, including the Christian months transliterated into Arabic script, as well as a range of astrological scales on the back. The rete is, however, a bit more unusual in its decoration. Again, the full description is at Sotheby’s: Lot 66. This is the instrument that caught Bloomberg’s eye, probably because it was estimated to sell for £600,000-£800,000. In the end, somebody got a bargain at £741,000. Ok. Bargain might be an overstatement.
In both cases, I do wonder who is purchasing astrolabes, and why. Where are they being displayed? And for what purposes? Who gets to see them? And how do they reinforce and project the authority and importance of their new owners, who almost certainly do not use them to calculate the altitude of a star or the direction of Mecca.