Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ottoman Map of the Universe

Chris Gratien, Georgetown University

Here is a map of the night sky from an astronomy book entitled Ahval-ı Sema ve Mahiyeti published in Istanbul c. 1910. HT to Seçil Yılmaz for sending this our way.

As an historian of Ottoman Anatolia, this map is a little bit outside my region, but I'll offer some comments for the curious readers who may wish download the full-sized version in order to zoom in and rotate at home. To start, I'll acknowledge that this not exactly a map of the universe as claimed above but more precisely the stars as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. You'll notice that the months of the Ottoman solar calendar are marked along the edges to correspond to the rotation of the starscape throughout the year with the North Star or "Polar Star" placed at the center. I can't comment fully on the similarities and differences between this map and other astrological maps from Europe and elsewhere during the early twentieth century or whether or not similarities were the result of a general shared understanding of the night sky or more recent convergences in the sciences that occurred during the nineteenth century. However, the names of the stars, which are for the most part entirely comprehensible to Arabic speakers, reflect the extent to which Ottoman star names were based on Arabic astrological precedent. Thus Ursa Major or "the Big Bear" (of which the "Big Dipper" is a section section) appears as "dibb-i ekber", i.e. "the Big Bear." The shared understanding of this particular constellation goes back thousands of years, as this constellation was also know as a bear in ancient Greece and elsewhere. Yet, the knowledgeable astronomer may find on this map the possible sources for the English names of many stars, some of which were imported from Arabic. I can point to the famous example of Rigel, the name of which comes from "rijel al-jabbar (رجل الجبار)" or the "foot of the giant" in Arabic and does indeed appear on this map as such.