The Sky is the Limit

“It is He Who makes the stars (as beacons) for you, That you may guide yourselves, With their help, Through the dark spaces of Land and sea, We details our signs, For people who know” Surāh 6 (Al-An’Ânam): 97

In the Times of Oman, in June a picture on the front page showed how people in the north of Oman saw the planet Venus crossing the face of the sun. The spectacle was visible with magnification. This celestial phenomenon that will not be visible from Earth for another 105 years, brought me to the Museum of the Land of the Frankincense in Salalah in the south. Because in the Maritime Hall there, one can see how the movements of planets and stars were followed for navigation by sea. Astronomical developments in the Islamic world took place mainly during the Islamic Golden Age, particularly between the eighth to the fifteenth century.

Frankincense was a major export commodity from the ports of Sumhuram, Al Baleed and Raysut in the south, while copper was exported from Sohar in the north to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Indus valley, Mesopotamia and China. From these countries gold, spices, ivory, ceramics, wood and silk were brought back. The exchange of materials formed the basis of the early trade routes which connected Oman with the rest of the world. Along with trade, political and diplomatic relationships between Oman and other nations were also developed. Chinese documents show that the first Arab sailors to reach China in 750 AD were from Oman. To navigate the silk and the frankincense route along the Arabian Peninsula the stars played an important role.

Century old Desert travelers and sailors originally used their fingers at arm’s length to measure the angle of the height of a star above the horizon. The ‘Kamal’ a piece of wood attached to a cord with knots, was directly derived from this ancient method. By sliding the wood until the bottom part of the piece of wood lay exactly on the horizon and the upper part on a known star, for example the Pole star, latitude could be estimated. Moreover, through their experiences, navigators were able to mark certain knots to conform the latitude of their usual ports of call. The Kamal was widely used in the Indian Ocean. The Kamal in the Maritime Hall is a replica, the original is kept in the Musée de la Marine in Paris.


According to some sources, ‘the first sea astrolabe’ was produced in Bagdhad by Al Fazâri in approximately 1450AD. Astrolabes were used for measuring the elevation of known stars to calculate latitude and the time of the day. Navigators such as Ibn Majid, used astrolabes, but these complex instruments were usually only used by navigators with a good scientific background. The astrolabe is a triumph of Arab celestial navigational science. Vasco de Gama, the great Portuguese navigator was impressed by the astrolabes and maps possessed by the Arab navigators he met there. The Maritime Hall houses two marvelous reproductions from the 11th and 13th century. The originals are kept in the National Museum of Nuremberg, Germany.

Source: The Museum of the Land of Frankincense, the Maritime Hall on the Al-Baleed archeological site along the coast of Salalah. Open daily from 8 am till 2pm and from 4pm till 8pm. Thursday and Friday open from 4pm till 8pm.

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