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An astrolabe (Greek: ἁστρολάβον astrolabon, "star-taker")[1] is a historical astronomical instrument used by astronomers, navigators, and astrologers. Its many uses include locating and predicting the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars; determining local time given local latitude and vice-versa; surveying; triangulation; and to cast horoscopes. They were used in Classical Antiquity and through the Islamic Golden Age and the European Middle Ages and Renaissance for all these purposes. In the Islamic world, they were also used to calculate the Qibla and to find the times for Salah, prayers.

There is often confusion between the astrolabe and the mariner's astrolabe. While the astrolabe could be useful for determining latitude on land, it was an awkward instrument for use on the heaving deck of a ship or in wind. The mariner's astrolabe was developed to address these issues.



An early astrolabe was invented in the Hellenistic world in 150 BC and is often attributed to Hipparchus. A marriage of the planisphere and dioptra, the astrolabe was effectively an analog calculator capable of working out several different kinds of problems in spherical astronomy. Theon of Alexandria wrote a detailed treatise on the astrolabe, and Lewis (2001) argues that Ptolemy used an astrolabe to make the astronomical observations recorded in the Tetrabiblos.[2]

Astrolabes continued in use in the Greek-speaking world throughout the Byzantine period. About 550 AD the Christian philosopher John Philoponus wrote a treatise on the astrolabe in Greek, which is the earliest extant Greek treatise on the instrument.[3] In addition, Severus Sebokht, a bishop who lived in Mesopotamia, also wrote a treatise on the astrolabe in Syriac in the mid-7th century.[4] Severus Sebokht refers in the introduction of his treatise to the astrolabe as being made of brass, indicating that metal astrolabes were known in the Christan East well before they were developed in the Islamic world or the Latin West.[5]

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