Jewish-Islamic scientific exchange took place 1,000 years ago

Archaeologists have identified evidence of a Jewish-Islamic scientific collaboration having taken place a thousand years ago, thanks to an archaic star chart once thought to be a forgery.  

It’s now been described by researchers as the most important artefact in the collection of the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo in Verona, Italy.  

A chance discovery of a photo of the ‘astrolabe’ on the museum’s website by Cambridge University science historian Federica Gigante led to a more detailed analysis of the brass-coloured instrument.  

“When I visited the museum and studied the astrolabe up close, I noticed that not only was it covered in beautifully engraved Arabic inscriptions but that I could see faint inscriptions in Hebrew. I could only make them out in the raking light entering from a window. I thought I might be dreaming but I kept seeing more and more,” says Gigante. 

“This isn’t just an incredibly rare object. It’s a powerful record of scientific exchange between Arabs, Jews and Christians over hundreds of years.” 

It’s more remarkable, considering the Veronese museum thought the instrument might be a fake, according to Gigante. 

A journey through time and space

Gigante specialises in the history of Islamic trade with Italy in the Early Modern Period. She found the design and inscriptions match those of other artefacts from 11th-century Al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled region of modern-day Spain and Portugal, and bears inscriptions suggesting it was manufactured in the ancient city Toledo, near Madrid. 

Studies of the Arabic inscriptions show references to Isḥāq and Yūnus – or Isaac and Jonah – suggesting the movement of the instrument through Sephardi Jewish communities within Arabic-speaking parts of Spain.  

It also likely made its way through parts of North Africa before arriving at its final destination in Verona.  

An ancient astrolabe rests on blue cloth
Credit: Federica Gigante

As it moved to Italy, it collected Hebrew inscriptions, likely thanks to language barriers that existed among Verona’s large Jewish communities.  

“These Hebrew additions and translations suggest that at a certain point, the object left Spain or North Africa and circulated amongst the Jewish diaspora in Italy, where Arabic was not understood, and Hebrew was used instead,” Gigante says. 

Latin numerals were also inscribed as potential ‘corrections’ for the Arabic latitude coordinates, however were found to be less accurate than the originals.  

“The Verona astrolabe underwent many modifications, additions, and adaptations as it changed hands,” says Gigante. “At least three separate users felt the need to add translations and corrections to this object, two using Hebrew and one using a Western language. 

“It may be that a later user of the instrument thought the original Arabic value was wrong and amended it. But the correct, modern value for the latitude of Medinaceli is 41°15′, indicating that the Arabic value was more accurate than either amendment.” 

Gigante’s analysis is published in the journal Nuncius.

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