Astrolabes and Astrobabes

Kublai Khan was an enlightened leader, one who permitted many freedoms and promoted many arts.

Emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of the legendary Mongol Yuan Dynasty, had a particular interest in astronomy during his reign over Asia. It would be more apt to say, actually, that he was interested in the results and determinations of astrology–with the astronomy being the means to making its requisite observations.

Sorcery and superstition were not foreign to the Mongols. Various forms of shamanism and weather-conjuring were practiced by them during the Middle Ages. However, once the Mongol Empire reached its widest extent unto East and West Asia and encroached into Europe, new technologies were adopted: the astrolabe being one.

An astrolabe is a mechanical device, or machine, used to determine the position of celestial bodies such as the stars, moon, and planets and our Earth’s place among them. Invented by the Ancient Greeks and further developed by medieval Muslim scholars in the Middle East, the astrolabe has been put to use in the science of pure astronomy, navigation, time-keeping, and religious practice. The Chinese, not long after the Greeks, developed their own variation of the astrolabe: a three dimensional, spherical model called an “armillary sphere.” And these were found to be furnished in Kublai Khan’s new capital city of Khanbaliq (modern: Beijing, China).

Khanbaliq was a cosmpolitan metropolis centered around Kublai Khan’s grand winter palace. Its population count was extremely high. Around this time, closer to 1400 CE, an estimated 600,000 people lived around the palace’s surrounding neighborhoods within various districts full of all sorts of tradesmen, guild halls and factories, silk mills, shops, hotels, and foreign merchant houses.

During Marco Polo’s stay there, there was an old observatory situated on a terraced tower along an elevated portion of Kublai’s palace walls. The record of a Jesuit missionary who later visited the site attests to such a device still being there in in 1670 CE. His description of it matches the written records of Kublai Khan’s Chief Astronomer Ko Sheu-king. Both describe the same object: a series of large orbs and concentric rings overlapping each other held up by frame being six feet wide; made of brass and metal of such high quality that it does not rust nor suffer by being outdoors all the time under weather and the elements of nature; adorned by sculptures of four fire-breathing dragons each dawning horns, long metallic strands of hair, and tufted beards, arising out of sculpted clouds with four lion-cubs sculpted at each corner of the base of the stand.

Kublai’s Chief Astronomer Ko Sheu-king’s written records contain a purchase order for such an astrolabe to be built in 1279 CE. When the Jesuit missionaries visited the spot in the 17th century, they noted that the devices were misaligned by several coordinates–being set some few degrees lower in latitude than where they should be in Beijing. This was presumably because, while they ordered by Ko Sheu-king in Khanbaliq (Beijing), they were built elsewhere and so were aligned with the coordinates of another location on Earth before being shipped to Kublai’s residence.

Varying remarks by scholars and historians have been made about the Mongol’s practice of astronomy, that they made no considerable advance in the science of it. The practice pre-dates China’s Han Dynasty (2nd century CE) and remains part of modern Chinese culture today. Suffice it to say that written records dating back to the 13th century show a Mongol intent inclined toward developing a zodiac calendar rather than a school of astronomy. Marco Polo himself reported that the purpose of astronomy in Kublai’s world was to not simply track the planets, stars, and the moon, but to study their relationships with the happenings on Earth and to predict future weathers, wars, diseases, famines, peacetimes, and boons, as well as days of luck and unluck. The practice of publishing an annual lunar calendar of lucky or unlucky days served as a way for the government to help, control, and regulate society. Marco Polo observed first hand that folk would not get married or do business on certain unlucky days according to these calendars.

Kublai Khan was a mighty patron of this art, so much so that he funded 5,000 astrologers every year with an annual maintenance of equipment, food, clothing, and housing to practice in Khanbaliq (Beijing). Also in this city lived some 20,000 women operating as prostitutes.

Layout of the City of Khanbaliq/Peking/Beijing
Layout of the City of Khanbaliq/Peking/Beijing


  • Nature (1889-1890) Vol.41 (VOLUME XLI) Nov. 21, 1889. p.6
  • Polo, Marco, Yule, Cordier. The Travels of Marco Polo. Dover Publications, 1993, 433-438.

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