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Astronomy in the Great Mosque of Damascus: Towards

15 March 2022 - 15 March 2022

5:00PM - 6:00PM

7 Owengate, Durham, DH1 3HB

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Astronomy in the Great Mosque of Damascus: Towards a Social History of Mamluk Astronomy WHSVC Conservatory, Palace Green Library, 5–6 p.m.

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Astronomy in the Great Mosque of Damascus

Between the late thirteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Syria and Egypt’s Mamluk rulers instituted a range of practical reforms within those countries' religious institutions. Among them was the gradual introduction of the muwaqqit, or timekeeper, in the dominion’s major mosques. In this paper I  focus on the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, one of the oldest continually used religious sites in the history of Islam. As an institution it has housed some of the Islamic world’s most prominent theologians and religious thinkers. The mosque has also produced one of Islam’s greatest technical astronomers, the muwaqqit Ibn al-Shatir (1304-75). I examine how the shifting political and social conditions of Mamluk Damascus came to bear on the astronomical practices of Ibn al-Shatir and his fellow timekeepers. I do so by taking a wider view of the Umayyad Mosque as an institution of technical and religious learning, and as a political symbol of Sunni Islam in a period of high political turmoil. My central contention is that the prevailing mosque hierarchies in the fourteenth century imparted a distinctively practical or folk-astronomical flavour to the writings of technical astronomers in the period. I conclude with some comments on the historiography of astronomy in the Islamic world, highlighting exactly why social histories of science in the Muslim world are generally lacking.