By Charisma Wafee
I had the privilege of being a part of what can be easily called the most informative session about a lost scientific art. First invented in classical Greece back in 225 BC, the astrolabe has been used by various civilizations to calculate time with respect to the position of the sun, stars, and constellations. During mid-eighth century, the remarkable art of astrolabe-making was introduced to the Islamic world. It was of equal cultural and religious importance due to its usage for determining prayer times and to locate the direction of Mecca (the Qibla). Astrolabe-crafting was adapted from the Islamic world by the West and the East: complex astrolabes were made in Persia from where the art diffused to the surrounding regions, including the then India. Some of the most famous astrolabes, including the royal astrolabe-maker: Allah Dad’s astrolabes were produced in Lahore. Most of these astrolabes, if not lost, are now present in museums all over the world and are still being researched upon.
Some researchers have devoted their lives in order to trace back the history of these astrolabes. One researcher, Dr. Jan Pieter Hogendijk of Utrecht University, Netherlands visited Pakistan along with his team to conduct workshops in different cities of Pakistan. His team included two more mathematicians, Willem Frederik De Graaf and Tom John Ester Reijngoudt. They visited Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi and met with various science and astronomy enthusiasts. The workshop in Lahore was organized by the Lahore Astronomical Society and Khwarizmi Science Society; it took place on the 27, 28, and 29th February 2018 at Ali Institute of Education and Zeds Astronomical Observatory. As a participant with no background in physics or mathematics, I found it rather difficult to understand the complex astronomical computers and their functioning. But on the third day of the workshop, I could confidently say that I had a better idea about this lost art. The workshop constituted of the teams of Lahore Astronomical Society and the Khwarizmi Science Society; the guests, Mr. Khalid Marwat who came all the way from Karachi to share his knowledge of astrolabes; and around forty participants. The guest scientists were greatly influenced by the diverse and passionate group of participants, ranging from school children and their teachers to religious scholars. Everybody seemed to be exhilarated at the thought of diving into an aspect of our own history, which is still unknown to many citizens of Lahore.
The session held on Day 1 comprised of an introductory lecture by Dr. Jan Pieter in which he introduced the participants to the rich history of astrolabe making and the pioneers in this field who belonged to Lahore and the surrounding areas. Pictorial representations of some of the most ancient and elaborate astrolabes were shown to the audience, followed by a few exercises that included reading an astrolabe model and determining the length of the daytime at one’s birthday. Since the participants’ birth dates were a part of the exercise, it was an overall exhilarating experience for all.
The second session started off with another lecture that focused on various parts of the astrolabe, followed by exercises that included positioning the sun on that day and finding the Qibla at Ali Institute of Education. Ending on a thorough question and answer session, the engaging activity lasted for four hours after which certificates were distributed among the participants and organizers.
The third and the most interesting session was held at the Zeds Astronomical Observatory in which the selected participants were taught how to create an accurate astrolabe of their own by cardboard. The members of the Lahore Astronomical Society also gave the guests a tour of the Walled City and a taste of local food. The sessions turned out to be very informative to the participants and they assured us and the guest scientists that they will educate others about the lost art of astrolabe making. As a science communicator who did not know much about the astrolabe, it was one of the most exciting times of my life that did not only awaken the nerd in me but also inspired me to research, learn, and un-learn—for no matter how big the boundaries are, science outreach is always possible if one has the zest and courage to make a difference.