About this site | Join our Book Club | About the Author  
Culture of IRAN
Enter Your Email Address: 
Culture of Iran
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN
Home » Art & Culture » Astrology & Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia
Culture of Iran Culture of Iran
Astrology & Astronomy in Iran and Ancient Mesopotamia
A Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

The famous Iranian mathematician, Nasir al-Din Tusi, founded the observatory at Maragha in 1259, one-year after the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols. He was born in Tus, Khurasan in 1201 and studied all subjects popular at the time. In 1262, he improved the observatory by building a twelve-foot wall quadrant made from copper. He used many instruments including astrolabes, representations of constellation, epicycles and shapes of spheres for various calculations.

The main theoretical work done at the observatory involved simplifying the Ptolemy’s model and bringing it into line with the Aristotelian model, which postulated uniform circular orbits for the planets. Although they were often misguided, they made very important contributions; Ibn Shatir (early 14th century) used the information and came up with models for the movement of the Moon and of Mercury that are strikingly similar to those of Copernicus. Tusi invented new instruments for observing the stars accurately. He also invented an ingenious mechanical device (torquetum) for computing star positions and discovered how a special pair of circles (called a Tusi couple) can draw a straight line. Tusi was one of the greatest scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, theologians and physicians of his time. He was a prolific writer. He wrote many treatises on such varied subjects as Algebra, Arithmetic, Trigonometry, Geometry, Logic, Metaphysics, Medicine, Ethics, and theology. Ilkhanid ruler Hulagu Khan appointed him as one of his ministers. Tusi produced a very accurate table of planetary movements and a star catalogue, and he published it under the title "Zij-Ilkhani" which was dedicated to the Khan and was in use until the 15th century. The tables were developed from observations over a twelve-year period and were primarily based on original observations.

Tusi also pointed out several serious shortcomings in Ptolemy’s models. His critique of Ptolemy’s theories convinced future astronomers of the need to develop an alternative model ending in Copernicus discoveries. Tusi pioneered spherical trigonometry and one of his most important mathematical contributions was the treatment of trigonometry as a new mathematical discipline and revived the philosophy of Avicenna. He wrote his works in Arabic and Persian, sixty-four treatises have survived. These were translated into Latin and other European languages in the Middle Ages. Among Tusi’s well-known Iranian students are Nizam Araj, who wrote a commentary on the Almagest, and Qutb ad-Din Shirazi who gave the first satisfactory mathematical explanation of the rainbow.

Despite great emphasis on astronomy, astrology also had a strong presence. Some scholars denied any scientific base for it. Biruni himself despite numerous works on the subject did not believe in it. Other writers ridiculed fortunetellers and magicians during this period and superstition and blind fate are criticized by the likes of Biruni, Ibn Sina and Ibn Khaldun (1406 AD). The later makes a clear distinction between prophecy; a divine act bestowed upon chosen saints and prophets as compared to fortune telling a fake and deceitful act. The astrologers from the time of Caliph al-Mansur when Baghdad was first built used it extensively. In fact the site and the time was chosen by advice from Iranian court astrologer Nawbakht with help from Fazari and Tabari. These astrologers recommended 30th of July 762 as a blessed time to lay the foundation for Baghdad. Mansur accepted the verdict and it was Nawbakht who also consulted the charts and advised him of the future revolt by Ibrahim ibn-Abdullah (762-63 AD). Astrology made its gradual appearance in the public life of Arab rulers as a result of the infiltration of Sasanian cultural patterns" and all the subsequent rulers in the area used it in both its scientific and popular forms.

The Islamic principle of pre-destiny boasted the practice. Muslims believed that all their lives and actions were written down from the beginning of creation in the sacred tablet called ‘Lowh e Mahfuz’. Only Allah knew every ones’ destiny but the astrologers could gain some insight by learning the subject. Star charts became very popular and people consulted the charts for everything from choosing the appropriate time (saad) for a wedding to bad omen times called nahs and fortune telling. Such practices were very common in Iran until the beginning of the 20th century. Legend has it that the great astronomer Tusi consulted the stars and advised the ruler, Rukn al-Din Khurshah, that in order to save the Ismailis, he should surrender his castles in Rudbar, Alamut and other areas to the invading Mongols. If true, the stars saved him for a little while around 1257, but shortly after, the ruler and the rest of the Ismaili community and their castles and provinces were virtually reduced to ashes by Hulagu the Mongol ruler. Had they stayed in their castles they might not have vanished with such ease!

By the end of the 11th century AD, the Golden Age of Islam was over for many reasons including political/economic stagnation and foreign attacks. The great families who supported the translation movement and promoted advancement of science and philosophy in Persian, Byzantine and other territories were eradicated. The Muslim schools were fully established and were dominated by the fundamentalists where political ideology emphasized fate over reason. The Hellenistic cultures of Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land with its’ Greek and Syriac elements and the Byzantine (Turkey) did not survive. They lost their language and their culture of scientific tradition and enquiry.

Persian culture partially survived but empirical knowledge and scientific traditions were lost. Astronomy like other branches of empirical science was virtually vanished and like medicine was only revived in the 20th century Iran. The astrologers on the other hand, dominated every aspect of life including love and sexuality. With the coming of monotheistic religions i.e. Judo-Christianity and Islam the ancient goddesses of love, sexuality and fertility were totally eliminated. Their temples were closed down and communal acts and festivities to ease tension were banned. People particularly women turned to fortunetellers and soothsayers for comfort. Christianity had banned such practices but Islamic ideas of pre-destiny encouraged it.

Astrologers by consulting charts and stars prescribed remedies, charms, and talisman and made haphazard recommendations. Most were not educated as the ancient or classical astrologers used to be and incorporated everything including magic and were basically charlatans. Exclusion of women from public life during the Islamic period, polygamy and women’s’ inferior legal status created unemployment, psychological disorders (for both males and females), insecurity and as a result there was great demand for astrologers and fortunetellers by women. In fact one of the few employment opportunities left to women at this time was fortune telling. However such women were rarely literate and could not use star charts like their trained male counterparts. As a result they had lower status and were paid less. By the 19th century very few astrologers were properly trained with no observatories. The very few that existed remained at the service of the courts. There are many documents and star charts from the 18th and 19th century Iran. They belong to the old aristocratic families of the time.

The practice of writing a chart for the male newborns of the grand families was common until the end of the 19th century. Astronomy was revived in the 20th century and had become an important scientific discipline. However the lack of research facilities and progressive institutions has hindered its growth. The country has no international standing other than many brilliant Iranian individuals working in first class facilities in Europe and North America.

It is interesting to note that since the Islamic revolution fortune telling and astrology that was ridiculed in the earlier part of the 20th century has made a comeback in Iran. Along with mystical cults, believing in supernatural and seeking help from divinity has become popular particularly amongst women including educated ones. Insecure, emotionally drained, legally, socially and economically inferior once again women are seeking comfort with fortunetellers and astrologers. Western astrology is also incorporated and horoscopes, taro cards, Chinese and Indian astrology and their practitioners are read widely and their principles are followed. Internationally such trends are enjoying a comeback as well but their popularity in Iran no doubt to a large extent is a result of the tragic events of the last two decades.
  « previous page
Culture of Iran Culture of Iran
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN
Copyrights 2006 Cultureofiran.com Site By:
Culture of IRAN   Culture of IRAN