The Destruction of the Istanbul Observatory: the Copernician Revolution in the Ottoman Empire

14 September, 2017

Published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in July, 2017, Destroying the Observatory and Observing the Destruction: the Istanbul Observatory gives glimpses into how the encounter with the West and the Copernican model impacted Muslim societies in the Middle East. Samer Akkach's book uncovers a curious incident in early modern Istanbul, highlighting the collision between religious orthodoxy and the Copernican worldview. The book narrates the 1580, the newly completed astronomical observatory in the Ottoman capital was destroyed, together with all of its instruments and the collections within it. Akkach highlights these events in his book as a means to understanding the historical and religious underpinnings of the destruction of the Istanbul Observatory. Akkach's reading offers a new historical understanding of the events and its repercussions on the scientific world. It also provides an understanding of the relationship which tied clerics to astronomers in the Ottoman realm. Akkach's work (480 pp.) is divided into two sections, the first of which attempts to interpret the destruction of the observatory from within a theoretical framework.

Through the first section, the author shows the decision to destroy the observatory as a turning point, and a victory for irredentism, in the battle between traditional forms of knowledge and empirical sciences in which Europe had cemented its lead by that time. In the first of six chapters within this first section, Akkach gives a sequential history of Arab-Islamic astronomical science, beginning with the Abbasid Caliph Al Mamun and through the destruction of the Istanbul Observatory. The second chapter is given over to a biographical sketch of the Istanbul Astronomer Taqieddine, and his relationship with the Damascene astronomer Abu Bakr Al Sahyouni, which Akkach weaves with a number of anecdotes. The third chapter posits that the growing links between the Ottoman-Arab and European worlds was predicated on the person of Taqieddine, whose patronage by Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-1595) mirrored Frederick II of Denmark's support for Tycho Brahe's contemporaneous observatory at Uraniborg. The fourth chapter is where the author delves into the growing religious controversies over the observatory, with a plague and other calamities in the Ottoman realm giving rise to popular anxieties over the observatory, and growing superstitions that the structure brought down the wrath of God. In the following chapter, the author explains how Muslim clerics successfully offered a religious alternative to the empirical science which the observatory in Istanbul typified. The sixth and final chapter within this section deals with the religious and scientific legacy of the destruction of Taqieddine's observatory.

The second section of Akkach's book is given over to studying how the transition to modernity impacted religious cosmogony, and particularly the impacts of the spread of a mathematically based religious astronomy. The seventh chapter is given over to exploring the role of the Ottoman Sultanate's Grand Mufti, Chamsaldine Bin Ahmad Bin Bader, and the rise of a religiously sanctioned astronomy at the hands of conservative, orthodox theologians who had the upper hand over empirical knowledge in the period which followed the destruction of the Istanbul Observatory. Akkach then shows in the eighth chapters that religious clerics in the pre-modern era were able to use religious texts to promote the idea of a geocentric universe.  The following chapter is given over to the entry of the modern era, in which Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the solar system increasingly created social frictions, while the tenth chapter explores the resurgence of scientific exchange between Europe and the Ottoman realms in the two centuries which followed the destruction of the Istanbul Observatory. This growing exchange led to increased openness within the Sultanate to modern Western systems of knowledge, and paved the way for a large-scale translation of Western works into the languages of the Ottoman Empire in later centuries. The eleventh chapter explores the influence of the European Renaissance on Arab intellectual thinking, and shows how the spread of enlightenment thinking to the former Ottoman lands became a new meeting point for Eastern and Western cultures. Finally, the closing chapter of Akkach's book presents some of the challenges to the Arab historiographic reading of the rise of Western science, and the intellectual shifts concomitant to the new Eurocentrism. 

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