An exquisite Ottoman instrument
By Amal afqar al-nās Bayrām Ibn Ilyās , 1800

[Qibla indicator].

Planetaria, calendars, and dials
  • Author: Amal afqar al-nās Bayrām Ibn Ilyās
  • Publication place: Turkey, Ottoman dynasty
  • Publication date: eighteenth-early nineteenth century
  • Physical description: Painted and gilded wood contained within a circular box, with a base and a lid. The outside shows a scroll of flowers, on a green background. The inner face of the lid is painted with a medallion, showing a view of the Masjid al-Haram sanctuary in Mecca. All around we can see a garland of flowers. The Ka'aba is also depicted in the centre of the base. It is surrounded by four stylized mihrabs, indicating the places of prayer for the four schools of Islamic law (Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali and Sharafi). The four cardinal directions are given in red. The trapezoidal feature between the Ka'ba and the small compass in the upper part of the instrument is a sundial that enables the user to find the time of the 'asr prayer in the afternoon. Around the compass are inscribed the names of different winds as well as the word "qibla". The outermost circle around the rim is divided into 72 cartouches giving the names of cities and regions in the Islamic world, all written in black with the exception of "Qustantinia" (Istanbul), in red.
  • Dimensions: Diameter: 205mm
  • Inventory reference: 20149


When Muslims pray, they turn towards Mecca. The Islamic term for this direction is qibla. Islamic astronomers created Qibla Finders to indicate the direction prayer. They were objects of function as well as beauty.

This portable astronomical instrument is made for finding the direction of Mecca. The wooden instrument is decorated with a technique known as “Edirnekari”. Signature in black: “‘Amal afqar al-nās Bayrām Ibn Ilyās” and date in red: 990 AH (1582 / 1583 AD). The oldest model known which bears the signature is the ivory qibla indicator from the British Museum (1921,0625.1). This signature and the accompanying date were reproduced on several qibla indicators made over the following centuries.

In spite of ample documentation, it is not generally known that in historical Islamic civilisation, astronomy was practised at two different levels. The first was what we now call “folk astronomy”, based on what one can see in the sky, without observation, theory or calculation. The second was what we now call “mathematical astronomy”, involving serious observation programmes, theories about and models for the motions of the sun, moon and planets, and extensive tables for computing celestial positions. In the first two centuries of Islam, only the former tradition was known; the Qur’ān, the Prophetic Hadīth, and pre-Islamic folk astronomy combined to produce a distinctive Islamic folk astronomy such as one finds in the كتب الأنواء , kutub al-anwā’, books on the seasons and associated heavenly phenomena, and the كتب الهيئة السنية , kutub al-hay’a al-sunniyya, books on sacred cosmology. Thereafter, until the introduction of modern astronomy, the former tradition prevailed amongst the scholars of the sacred law and experts on folk astronomy, and the latter tradition prevailed amongst a small, but highly significant and remarkably active and impressively creative group of Muslim astronomers.

Both of these traditions had their influence on the determination of the qibla, the sacred direction toward the sacred Kaaba in Mecca. That edifice is itself related to the heavens: its rectangular base is aligned primarily to the rising point of the star Canopus (سهيل , Suhayl), the brightest star in the southern sky, its minor axis points toward summer sunrise (مطلع الشتاء) and winter sunset مغرب الصيف)), and its corners (labelled الشامي ، العراقي ، اليمني ، الغربي, Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Western) point roughly toward the cardinal directions. The legal scholars and the specialists on folk astronomy developed their own ways of facing the Kaaba using astronomical alignments. They developed a set of schemes for finding the qibla without any calculation. The astronomers, after the middle of the 8th century, began calculating the direction of the qibla using (medieval) geographical co-ordinates and mathematical procedures, either trigonometric or geometric or rule-of-thumb. They prepared lists of qiblas of hundreds of localities between al-Andalus and China, and even highly sophisticated cartographic grids with which one could find the qibla for the whole world without any calculation at all. All of these qibla-values were based on medieval longitudes and latitudes, which were, of course, less accurate than the modern ones.


  1. J.M. Rogers, L'empire des sultans, l'art ottoman de la collection de Nasser D. Khalili, Art Services Intl, 2000, p. 110-111
  2. N. Ölçer et al., Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Istanbul, 2002, p.290–91
  3. V. Porter, Hajj. Journey to the Heart of Islam, London, 2012, p.66-67
  4. D. A. King, World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca – Innovation and Tradition in Islamic Science, Leiden, 1999, p. 116-1.

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