Harking back: Amazing history of Lahore’s famous astrolabe makersPakistan
Of late there is a growing interest among academic circles in the skill of the astrolabe makers of Lahore. What interests them in particular is not only the metallurgy and the manufacturing techniques, but the scientific accuracy of their instruments, especially those used in Mughal days inside the walled city of Lahore. This column was triggered by a request from Dr Nadhra of LUMS to attend a presentation by the curator of Louvre Paris on their latest acquisition of a ‘Shahnama’ astrolabe. She is researching the rare one in the Lahore Museum. Sadly, for logistical reasons I missed that lecture. But then I had many years ago visited the famous astrolabe makers of Kot Abdul Malik and wrote a piece in this column.
One of the finest collection of astrolabes in the world is with the Louvre Museum of Paris, which has just opened the Louvre Abu Dhabi in an attempt to show the Muslim world their immense cultural and educational treasures. On display is a number of astrolabes made during Mughal days in Lahore, and considered among the finest in the world. It might amaze many that the descendants of those famous astrolabe makers still work away in their small workshop in Kot Abdul Malik. But as we remain essentially not interested enough in their craft, they silently work away exporting their amazing creations.
The Lahore Museum Mughal-era astrolabe is a rarity as it goes. But before we get into explaining the story of Lahore’s astrolabes, let us look into what they are. It is technically called a ‘planispheric astrolabe’ which represents the amazing conversion of spherical geometry to be able to reach any location on Earth relative to the sun and the stars on a celestial sphere. It was in a way the very first scientific instrument and paved the way forward in the days before telescopic astronomy took root.
One of the oldest astrolabes in the world is said to be the invention of Ali ibn Khalaf, the Andalusian astronomer, and his invention lies today in the Old Castilian collection of astronomical instruments of Spain’s King Alfonso X. New evidence gathered by researchers in the Alder Planetarium of Chicago amazingly shows that astrolabes were then being manufactured in Lahore. That was enough for me to latch on to finding more details of this amazing invention. What amazed researchers was that the brass technology used in the Ali ibn Khalaf astrolabe was not then available in Spain. The question then is ‘where did it come from?’ The ‘thermal annealing’ technology to manufacture the exceptionally high quality of the brass used was known only in the Indian
sub-continent, more so among the astrolabe makers of Lahore. The thinness achieved of 1.5mm was not possible in Europe then. At such thinness brass sheets tend to welt. In the case of the Lahore brass this did not happen. It was this assumption that set a team of German scientists to determine the brass microstructure using the latest technologies.
At the Alder Planetarium in Chicago they pride themselves for having 40 different astrolabes collected from all over the world. Of these eight were from Lahore or a nearby place. Considerable research has been done on the Lahore astrolabe makers, especially the work of R.B. Johnson stands out. He writes: “Just how the Lahore astrolabe makers achieved such brass purity yet achieving rigid stability amazes”.
In the Mughal days after Babar flattened the city, people from nearby villages were virtually forced to relocate in Lahore, and it was in the days of Humayun that a famous family of astrolabe makers and brass smelters from a village near the present Kot Abdul Malik on the Lahore-Sheikhupura Road moved to inside Lohari Gate. Their lane is still called ‘Gali Loharan’. Here they smelted brass using a secret family formula. The most outstanding astrolabe maker was Ziauddin Muhammad, quoted in Western research papers as “Diya al Din Muhammad”.
According to a story in a German research magazine last year, the metallurgical composition of Lahore brass, using X-Ray and Laser investigative methods, have placed them as among the finest ever produced. It seems that brass was ‘slow hammered’ into sheets and heated at a very high temperature. It goes without saying that in those days the Lahore brass-making industry products equaled the quality that most advanced industrial technologies produce today.
In the days of Emperor Humayun, the family head was Allahdad, who engraved his name into products as Allahdad al Humayuni. His son Isa ibn Allahdad improved his astrolabes and one account has him traveling to Turkey
on the invitation of Suleiman the Magnificent who had asked Ibrahim Suri, the then ruler of Lahore, to send him over. Here we see an amazing twist to this story. Isa ibn Allahdad produced his product there and labelled it ‘Isa ibn Allahdad Turki’. This can still be seen in the Topkapi Museum collection.
It seems Allahdad Muhamad returned and continued his work with the help of Isa’s grandson Ziauddin Muhammad. The astrolabes of Ziauddin achieved great fame and were sought by almost every European seafarer then setting off to explore trading openings in the East. In a way it would not be wrong to suggest that most European colonists who sailed to the sub-continent were guided by the astrolabes made in Lahore. Among the most beautiful astrolabes ever made with floral designs is a Ziauddin Muhammad 1663 version with both northern and southern latitudes made in their Lahore workshop.
This same family of astrolabe manufacturers also made ‘celestial globes’, which must have been a very demanding and difficult craft given that brass was being used. Three of these globes by Ziauddin Muhammad of Lahore are also in the Alder Planetarium in Chicago. There is one in the British Museum and another one in the Berlin Museum. The outstanding quality of these brass globes is that they are seamless, which given the high quality of the ore used brought forward the need for a detailed metallurgical analysis. It was seen to contain small quantities of zinc and tin, which means that their knowledge of metallurgy was very high.
Given all these and more detailed technical data, a team of British researchers is planning to visit Lahore’s brass market, as well as spend time with the astrolabe manufacturers of Kot Abdul Malik. Given Lahore’s metalworking reputation, it is interesting that it took another 250 years before the West acquired similar technologies. But it goes without saying that the foundations on which modern metal technology exists today was available in Lahore before the first colonialists headed our way.
In the meanwhile the only followers of that great tradition continued to work away in nearby Kot Abdul Malik, exporting their beautiful astrolabes and globes to the world. The business remains within the famous family of Allahdad Muhammad al Humayun.
Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2017