Did you know?: Astronomy along the Silk Roads

Planet Earth and Moon Rotating in Space© De Volodymyr Goinyk/ Shutterstock

We invite you to join us each week for Did you know? articles which adhere to preselected themes. Knowledge and appreciation of these subjects helps to preserve, diffuse, and promote elements of our common heritage of the Silk Roads.

The Silk Roads are behind major cultural and trade exchanges between different parts of the world. Throughout their long history, all of this blending between different civilizations and people resulted in the sharing of various knowledge. These knowledge included philosophy, mathematics, geography, cartography, astrology and astronomy. Astronomy emerged along the Silk Roads thanks to a great interest of many scholars and actors regarding this field. 

In Central Asia (and in the Muslim world), astronomy was deeply influenced by the Greeks and the Indians. 

Indeed, in Ancient Iran, scholars translated from Greek astronomy writings. Thereby, from these translations, Muslim scholars also translated these reports into Arabic. In fact, the earliest translation of the Ptolemy Almagest was written into Arabic by al-Tabari in the ninth century. The Ptolemy Almagest is a summary of the most advanced knowledge dating from the Antiquity in astronomy, written by Claudius Ptolemy an Alexandrian geographer and astronomer.  

As for the Indian influence, it is perceptible in some astronomical treaties dating from the fifth century during Sassanian period (2nd to 7th centuries CE) in ancient Iran. In addition, Indian astronomy led to the development of this discipline later in the Muslim world. In the eighth century when Baghdad became the scientific centre of the region, scholars from the Indian Peninsula came in this vibrant city. In this way, translations into Arabic of various Indian astronomical manuals were produced. Eventually, all of these scientific productions reached Europe in the fifteenth century. Moreover, works of scholars such as al-Farghani were used as the main astronomy teaching materials in European Universities for centuries.

Besides Baghdad, Samarkand also became a major centre for sciences and astronomy in the fifteenth century, notably during the rule of Ulugh Beg who was himself an astronomer. Ulugh Beg and other astronomers compiled precise tables. Therefore, due to this major innovation, European scholars started studying these charts from the sixteenth century. Then, Ulugh Beg began the construction of an observatory where he improved the Fakhri sextant, a first astronomic measuring tool invented by a Persian astronomer around the eleventh century. While developing the Fakhri's Sextant, he constructed a meridional arc; as a result, Ulugh Beg found the latitude of Samarkand.

Remarkable advances in astronomy were produced in the tenth-eleventh century by the scholar Al-Biruni. In his works, Al-Biruni reviewed the development of Astronomy in the Muslim world. By evaluating the previous works of the astronomers of this region, he identified two different groups of Muslim astronomers: followers of the Hellenistic and followers of the Indian traditions. Even though he acknowledged the Indian movement, he disagrees on some thesis, such as their theory of planetary motion, the distance separating the earth from the planets, and the dimension of earth. Al-Biruni considered himself like a follower of the Hellenistic tradition on astronomy. 

This shared knowledge that was developed thanks to the scientific interactions between different regions along the Silk Roads, led to the development of new innovative instruments and a better understanding of the universe as a basis for the modern astronomy.


See also:

The Perception of Astrology

Mapping and Compilation of the World Maps along the Silk Roads

Muslim presence in the Korean Peninsula

Muslim Monopoly along the Silk Roads

The Interconnections between Portuguese and Malay languages

Oman region, a Hub on the Maritime Trade Routes

Interactions between Indian Subcontinent and Western Land during Roman Empire

Trade Routes in Himalayan India

Pakistan and the Silk Roads

The Anatolian Silk Roads

The Silk Routes of the Mongols

The Southern Silk Roads

The Great Silk Roads

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