Islamic Astronomy in Medieval China

A portrait of Khubilai Khanm First Emperor of the Yuan DynastyIslamic Astronomy in Medieval China

By Ortrun Huber

Insight LMU, Issue 2 (2010)

Abstract: The idea of a “scientific community” is generally thought to have arisen in Europe during the 17th century, but active transmission of scientific knowledge across cultural borders − and whole continents − began long before the dawn of the modern era. Indeed, contacts between the Far East, Central Asia and Europe were already well established in the Middle Ages. In a project financed by the LMU excellent strategy, mathematician Dr. Benno van Dalen is investigating the links forged between Muslim astronomers and their Chinese colleagues during the 13th century.

Introduction: When Marco Polo made obeisance to Kublai Khan at the Mongol court in Peking in the year 1275, he had travelled a distance of more than 12,000 kilometers from his native Venice. The mounted messengers that served as the Great Khan’s postal service had kept the Emperor informed of the Venetian’s progress, and he received his guest cordially and bestowed many honors upon him. Kublai Khan was the grandson of the famous Genghis Khan, who initiated the Mongol conquest of China. Kublai Khan had acceded to the Chinese throne in 1260, founding the Yuan dynasty. He now ruled over an area that encompassed virtually all of Eurasia. During the reign of the Yuan dynasty China had a population of over 60 million, many of whom were enjoying an age of peace and prosperity. Profits from trade in spices, porcelain and other exotic goods were more than enough to supply the needs of the state’s coffers.


As business flourished, diverse cultural contacts were initiated between East and West. Kublai Khan recruited his bureaucrats and state officials, artists and scholars from all the lands and cultures represented among his dominions. Marco Polo, who would serve the Great Khan for nearly 20 years, was one of the beneficiaries of this policy, but it also attracted tens of thousands of Muslims to China. “The highly developed system of communications connecting the far-flung parts of the Khan’s realm greatly facilitated scientific exchanges between Chinese and Muslim scholars, including many astronomers“, says Dr. Benno van Dalen, a mathematician and historian of science at the Institute for the History of Science at LMU Munich. In 1271, Kublai Khan founded the Bureau of Islamic Astronomy in Peking, which operated alongside the long-established Chinese Astronomical Bureau. The founding Director of the the Islamic Observatory in Peking was Zhamaluding (Jamal al-Din), a Persian astronomer who was later entrusted with overseeing the activities of both Astronomical Offices. “Unfortunately, none of the original records of the work of the Muslim astronomers in Peking has survived. However, their contents can be reconstructed on the basis of extant, albeit unpublished, Persian and Arabic manuscripts and from Chinese documents“, says Benno van Dalen.

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