Lot 169
  • 169

An exceptional Safavid silver-inlaid brass astrolabe, signed by Muhammad Khalîl and decorated by Muhammad Bâqir, Isfahan, Persia, late 17th century

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
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  • signed by Muhammad Khalîl and decorated by Muhammad Bâqir


Good overall condition, a small piece missing to the top left of the rete, some discolouration to the brass, as viewed.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The name of the maker of this splendid astrolabe has been preserved for us on a small bar which is all that remains of the upper left of the circumference of the rete: "made by (sana'ahu) Muhammad Khalîl ibn Hasan 'Alî". The inscription is at the end of a statement in Persian about the uses of the astrolabe that originally spanned most of the circumference. In a cartouche on the back is the statement that the piece is "decorated by (namaqahu) Muhammad Bâqir". Both these men are well-known members of the prolific school of instrument-making that flourished in 17th-century Isfahan. The former is known by some two dozen astrolabes, and the latter by several astrolabes which he decorated for the former and also for 'Abd al-'Alî (maker of the famous astrolabe for Shâh Husayn II now in the British Museum).

The throne is engraved with the well-known "Throne Verse" from the Qur'ân, in which the relationship of God to heaven and earth is expounded.

The rete is remarkable, even though the right half of the fronds outside the ecliptic ring have survived. Altogether there remain pointers for about 25 stars. Within the ecliptic ring the basmala, that is, the formula bi-smi llâhi r-rahmâni r-rahîm, "in the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate, is engraved in mirror script, called muthannâ in Arabic. The letters "bi-sm", "Allâh", and two "ar-r"s are written in the centre, and the letters "hmân" and "hîm" are written on the right and left, respectively. Only two other astrolabes are documented with this feature, one a contemporaneous piece by the Meshed Muhammad Zamân that is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the other by the less-known contemporary 'Alî Qâ'inî, present location unknown. Mirror script does not seem to be properly documented in modern works on Islamic calligraphy (see King, Synchrony, II, pp. 398-400).

It has been argued that the basmala decoration on Islamic astrolabes influenced the distinctive and remarkably similar rete design of 16th-century Flanders (see ibid.), but each of these three Islamic astrolabes is from the 17th century. Nevertheless, the star-pointers within the ecliptic ring on this and the Meshed piece have been deliberately and indeed brilliantly positioned at the appropriate ends of the individual letters.

The mater is engraved with the longitudes and latitudes of some 90 localities. The spaces for the values of the qibla have not been filled. Such gazetteers were common on Safavid instruments.

The plates are engraved with altitude circles for each 1°, grouped for each 5°, and serve the following latitudes (given with the corresponding lengths of maximum daylight): 27°, 30°, 32°, 33°, 34°, 36°, 37° and 39°. The plate for 32° would serve Isfahan.

The back is decorated with the standard markings of a Safavid astrolabe: the trigonometric quadrant in the upper left, the solar quadrant in the upper right, and the double shadow square and various astrological tables in the lower half. Of particular interest is that the inscriptions on the horizontal shadow scale are written in a sort of mirror script: the words zill-i aqdâm-i mustawî are written backwards on the left, symmetrically to the words zill-i asâbi'-i mustawî on the right.

The alidade is a replacement without the scales to serve the markings in the upper left and right of the back.

We are grateful to Professor David King for his assistance in cataloguing this and the following two lots.

bibliographical notes
Apart from Morley, "Astrolabe of Shah Husayn II" (1856), the best source for detailed descriptions of some 17th-century Isfahan astrolabes is Charette, "Greenwich Astrolabes". On the Isfahan school see King, World-Maps, pp. 262-263. On Muhammad Khalîl and Muhammad Bâqir see Mayer, Islamic Astrolabists, pp. 54-57 and 64. On the mirror engraving on the New York astrolabe of Muhammad Zamân and its possible relationship to the design of 16th-century Flemish astrolabe retes see King, Synchrony, II, pp. 398-400. On Safavid geographical gazetteers see King, World-Maps, pp. 170-186.