Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Astrolabe of ‘Umar ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari

‘Umar ibn Yusuf ibn ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari
Object Name:
dated A.H. 690/ A.D. 1291
Made in Yemen
Brass; cast and hammered, pierced, chased, inlaid with silver
Case (a): Max. W. 7 5/8 in. (19.4 cm) Diam. 6 1/8 in. (15.6 cm) D. 1/4 in. (0.6 cm) Bar with attached nail (b): Max. H. 1 7/8 in. (4.8 cm) Max. W. 1 1/8 in. (2.9 cm) L. 5 in. (12.7 cm) Net (c): Diam. 5 in. (12.7 cm) Plates (d-g): Diam. 5 in. (12.7 cm) Pin (h): L. 1 3/4 in. (4.4 cm) W. 1/2 in. (1.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Edward C. Moore Collection, Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 454
For an object produced during the medieval period, this astrolabe is unusually well documented. Its inscription attributes it to a Rasulid prince, 'Umar ibn Yusuf, a few years before he ascended to the throne (r. 1295–96). 'Umar compiled a number of scientific treatises, including one on the construction of astrolabes, an autographed version of which, preserved in Cairo, contains certifications by his teachers as to his competence as a maker of such devices and a description of this very piece.
Invented in antiquity and refined in various regions of the Islamic world during the medieval period, the astrolabe was used to locate the qibla direction, establish correct prayer times, predict positions of heavenly bodies, and determine horoscopes, among other purposes.[2] The present piece is an extraordinarily well-documented example. Its inscription attributes it to a Rasulid prince of Yemen, ‘Umar ibn Yusuf, and dates it a few years before ‘Umar ascended to the throne under the regnal name al-Ashraf (1295–96). ‘Umar is known to have compiled a number of treatises on subjects related to the sciences, including a text on the construction of astrolabes, sundials, and magnetic compasses.[3] One of the extant manuscripts of this treatise (possibly an autograph version) contains not only illustrations and tables that correspond to this astrolabe but also a certification by ‘Umar’s teachers attesting to his competence as a maker of such devices and describing several of his works, one of which can be identified with this very piece.[4] On the basis of that description and the particular wording at the end of the inscription, it has been proposed that the astrolabe was created by the prince in collaboration with an unnamed metalworker.[5]

In most respects, ‘Umar’s instrument follows the form typical of other astrolabes from the medieval Islamic world. Made of brass, it consists of a rotating rule; an openwork rete, or "star-net," with an ecliptic ring and star pointers; a case, or mater, housing four plates; a rotating sighting bar, or alidade, on the back of the case; and a pin (modern). The back of the case bears the previously mentioned inscription along with several registers of astrological symbols and notations. From the top there protrudes a decoratively pierced suspension bracket of arabesque design attached to two rings. Inscribed around the outer edge of the rete are the names of the twenty-eight lunar mansions. One of the four plates is not original and appears to have been reused from another astrolabe. The others, all original, bear the latitudes for four specific locations in Yemen as well as for Mecca and Medina.[6]

Ellen Kenney in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


2. An explanation of astrolabes and their uses is found in Maddison, Francis, and Emilie Savage-Smith. Science, Tools and Magic. Pt. 1, Body and Spirit, Mapping the Universe. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, edited by Julian Raby, vol. 12. [London], 1997, pp. 168–282.

3. Copies of this text survive in Cairo, Tehran, and Berlin (nos. TR 105, MUI 150, and Ahlwardt 5811 [Sprenger 1870], respectively). On the particular interest in astronomy demonstrated in Yemen, see King, David A. Mathematical Astronomy in Medieval Yemen: A Biobibliographical Survey. Catalogs (American Research Center in Egypt), 4. Malibu, 1983.

4. Cairo TR 105. These evaluations are based on ‘Umar’s completion of six astrolabes and two magnetic compasses, as well as other instruments (King, David A. "The Medieval Yemeni Astrolabe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City." Zeitschrift für Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften 2 (1985), p. 101; 4 (1987–88), pp. 268–69 [errata].

5. The Museum’s astrolabe is the only instrument that has been securely attributed to this ruler.

6. Aden, Ta‘izz, Sana‘a, and North Yemen (King 1985 [see footnote 4], p. 104).
Signature: Made and signed by the Rasulid prince al-Ashraf `Umar ibn Yusuf, later Sultan of Yemen (r.1295-96).

Inscription: Inscription in Arabic in naskhi script on back of case:

هذا الاصطرلاب عمل عمر بن یوسف بن عمر بن علي بن رسول المظفري مُباشرةً وإملاً سنة ح ٦٩

This astrolabe is the work of ‘Umar ibn Yusuf ibn
‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari directly [by himself]
and by his instruction in the year A.H. 690 [1291 A.D.]
Edward C. Moore (American, New York 1827–1891 New York), New York (until d. 1891; bequeathed to MMA)
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the M.M.A.," June 15, 1981–August 8, 1981, no. 56.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks," November 21, 1981–January 10, 1982, suppl. #12.

Museum Fünf Kontinente. "3000 Jahre Kunst und Kultur des Gluecklichen Arabien," April 29, 1987–April 5, 1988.

Mexico City. Colegio de San Ildefonso. "Arte islamico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York," September 30, 1994–January 8, 1995, no. 81.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Five-Petaled Rosette: Mamluk Art for the Sultans of Yemen," June 22, 1995–December 31, 1995, no catalogue.

Paris. Institut du Monde Arabe. "The Golden Age of Islamic Sciences," October 25, 2005–March 19, 2006, no. 26.

"Specimens of Mohammedan Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum Studies vol. 1, no. 1 (November 1928). p. 107, ill. fig. 8 (b/w).

"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 56, pp. 146-147, ill. p. 147 (color).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daniel S. Walker, Arturo Ponce Guadián, Sussan Babaie, Stefano Carboni, Aimee Froom, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Tomoko Masuya, Annie Christine Daskalakis-Matthews, Abdallah Kahil, and Rochelle Kessler. "Colegio de San Ildefonso, Septiembre de 1994-Enero de 1995." In Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994. no. 81, pp. 206-207, ill. p. 207 (b/w).

L'Age d'Or des Sciences Arabes. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe, 2005. no. 26, pp. 98-99, ill. fig. 26 (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 107, pp. 158-159, ill. p. 158 (color).

King, David A. Islamic Astronomy and Geography. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2012. p. 156, ill. fig. 9.6.

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