Evolution of Astronomy along the Silk Roads

21 December 2018

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© Flickr / Jeffrey Sullivan

The Silk Roads are behind major cultural and trade exchanges between different parts of the world. Throughout their long history, contacts between different civilizations and people resulted in the sharing of various knowledge. These knowledge included philosophy, mathematics, geography, cartography, astrology and astronomy.

The emergence of astronomy along the Silk Roads is the result of a great interest of many scholars of these regions. In Central Asia and in the Muslim world, astronomy was deeply influenced by the Greeks and the Indians.

In ancient Iran, scholars translated astronomy writings from Greek; and from first these translations Muslim scholars translated them into Arabic. In fact, the earliest translation of the Ptolemy Almagest was written into Arabic in the 9th century. This work is a summary of the most advanced knowledge dating from the Antiquity in astronomy, written by Claudius Ptolemy an Alexandrian geographer and astronomer.

Regarding Indian astronomy, its influence is perceptible in some of ancient Iran’s astronomical treaties of the 5th century. Also, in the 8th century when Baghdad became the scientific centre of the region, scholars from the Indian Subcontinent came to this vibrant city, and translations into Arabic of various Indian astronomical manuals were produced. Eventually, many of these scientific productions reached Europe in the 15th century. Thereby, they were used as the main astronomy teaching materials in European Universities for centuries.

General Diagram of Two Metagalaxies / First Historical Archives of China
© UNESCO / General Diagram of Two Metagalaxies / First Historical Archives of China

Besides Baghdad, Samarkand became a major centre for sciences and astronomy in the 15th century, notably during the rule of Ulugh Beg who was himself an astronomer. Ulugh Beg and other astronomers compiled precise tables; due to this major innovation, European scholars started studying these charts from the 16th century. Also, Ulugh Beg began the construction of an observatory where he improved the Fakhri sextant – the first astronomic measuring tool. While developing it he constructed a meridional arc, therefore founding the latitude of Samarkand.

Furthermore, remarkable advances in astronomy were produced in the 10th-11th century by the scholar Al-Biruni. In his works, he 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 tradition, and followers of the Indian tradition. 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.

 

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The Silk Roads have connected civilizations and brought peoples and cultures into contact with each other from across the world for thousands of years, permitting not only an exchange of goods but an interaction of ideas and cultures that has shaped our world today. In the light of this enduring legacy, the UNESCO Silk Roads Project revives and extends these historic networks in a digital space, bringing people together in an ongoing dialogue about the Silk Roads in order to foster a mutual understanding of the diverse and often inter-related cultures that have sprung up around them.