Dial from an astronomical instrument, 17th century, copper engraved, punched and gilded, Iran. Currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum (1577-1904)
Presumed to have originally been part of an astrological clock, this dial was once the base upon which three dials were affixed in order for the instrument to operate. Astrological clocks were devices used to track and determine the movements of objects within the heavens such as the position of the moon, sun, and constellations of the zodiac, and thus essential inventions of Islamic science. Unlike scientific instruments in traditional western culture, this dial is intricately decorated with a variety of figures representing a range from mythology to astrology in connection to the original intended scientific purpose.
Starting at the position of twelve o’clock, there is an engraving of Saturn with his multiple arms, a personification and figure of this planet of early Islamic belief. At six o’clock is the Zodiac Man, a concept dating back to the Middle Ages in Europe, which divides up the parts of the body into regions just as was believed the Earth was divided in a similar way, each of which governed by a different zodiac sign. This inclusion of the Zodiac Man in conjunction with the date of its creation in the 17th century alludes to the fact that it had to have been created after further spread and contact with ideas of European origin. Despite this, the dial and instrument itself is still distinctly Islamic in origin as it clearly displays this combined use of science and belief simultaneously.
The two sets of figures on either side of the dial, at three and nine o’clock, show two men using scientific instruments, one of which appears to be an astrolabe. This strong connection between astronomy and daily life can be traced back to some of the founding principles of Islam, which necessitate the ability to find the exact direction of Mecca from anywhere in the world, as well as more simply to keep track of the solar cycle for the time of the five daily prayers.
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