Someone should make a game about: astrolabes

The first time I got an iPod, I couldn’t figure out how to unlock it. I sat there, staring furiously at the screen for a good few minutes, trying to figure out what the damn thing meant by ‘Slide to Unlock.’ Then my mum came along and told me to slide the little block from left to right to unlock it (duh). I imagine this is how someone must’ve felt when confronted by an astrolabe for the first time.

The astrolabe is, quite simply, wizardry. I sort of have a tendency to look back on European history and go “ugh, old people,” especially after so many years of secondary school history, but the astrolabe takes in a boatload of astrology problems like triangulating stars, planets, and latitudes, and provides a simple solution to each one. It’s sort of like an ancient Swiss army knife, if the Swiss army knife could help you identify the stars and your current position in relation to Mecca.

The astrolabe proved my historical ignorance in five minutes flat, because I never could’ve imagined something like this actually existed in the ancient world. You can use the device to tell the time, work out your current position in relation to the stars overhead, do a handy little bit of surveying, and even work out your Horoscope. But perhaps most importantly, it’s an ancient Sat-Nav, because the Islamic world would use it to point their way to Mecca using the stars in the Islamic Golden Age.

It’s deeply surprising that the Ancient Greeks were the original civilisation to construct a device the size of a pocket watch that could do all this. The English poet Goeffrey Chaucer once gifted an astrolabe to his ten-year-old son, despite believing it would be slightly beyond his mental grasp, and I think I can count myself firmly in that camp alongside Lewis Chaucer as being pretty confounded by the astrological device.

“I’ve got the whole world in my hands,” beams historian Neil MacGregor, as he describes the astrolabe in his BBC series A History of the World in 100 Objects. “In fact not just the world, but the cosmos.” MacGregor lauds it as a “portable model of the heavens,” and it’s tough for me to wrap my head around all the things the miniature device is capable of in the 21st century, let alone how it must’ve been constructed and produced as an item bestowing societal prowess in the Islamic Golden Age and Ancient Greece.

Sadly though, the astrolabe sort of fell by the wayside, as convenient as it was, becoming an increasingly rare but less sought-after device. As time went on, individual items were introduced that could perform each of the astrolabe’s features: the atlas replicated the astrolabe’s geographical pinpointing, and the compass was a portable navigator, for example. It’s a crying shame that the astrolabe fell so far out of the larger historical awareness of modern society, because it’s maybe the single most fascinating and mystifying historical object that I’ve ever encountered.

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