Some Scientific Instruments During the Ottoman Sultanate


Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma’ruf al-Shami al-Asadi (1526–1585) was a renowned Turkish polymath: a scientist, astronomer, engineer, and inventor. He authored more than 90 books on a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, clocks, engineering, mathematics, mechanics, optics and natural philosophy. Only 24 of those works have survived. One of his books, Al-Turuq al-samiyya fi al-alat al-ruhaniyya (The Sublime Methods of Spiritual Machines) (1551), described the workings of a rudimentary steam engine and steam turbine, predating the more famous discovery of steam power by Giovanni Branca in 1629. Taqi al-Din is also known for the invention of a six-cylinder ‘Monobloc‘ pump in 1559, the invention of a variety of accurate clocks (including the first mechanical alarm clock, the first spring-powered astronomical clock, the first watch measured in minutes and the first clocks measured in minutes and seconds from 1556 to 1580, the possible invention of an early telescope 574. He describes this instrument that makes objects located far away appear closer to the observer. He invented a framed sextant similar to what Tycho Brahe used later. The first Turkish book on automatic machines written around 1556 was Al-Kawākib al-durriyya fī wadh’ al-bankāmāt al-dawriyya (The Brightest Stars for the Construction of Mechanical Clocks). He wrote the last major Arabic work on optics in 3 volumes, which contains experimental investigations on vision: Kitab Nūr hadaqat al-ibsār wa-nūr haqīqat al-anzār (Book of the Light of the Pupil of Vision and the Light of the Truth of the Sights),

The Istanbul Observatory was built during the reign of Sultan Murad III (1574-95). In addition to observatory itself, there were residential quarters, offices for astronomers and a library. It was equipped with best instruments of the time. This was comparable to Tycho Brahe’s (1546-1601) Uranienborg Observatory built in 1576. There were striking similarities between the instruments used by its director Taqi al-Din and Tycho Brahe. Taqi al-Din prepared his Zij Sidrat Muntaha al-Afkar here. It was demolished in 1580.

Nasuh al-Matraki wrote a book on descriptive geography Beyaney Menazil Sefar Irakeyn (description of places on the way to Iraq). Another book on descriptive geography was Tarikh-i-Hind Gharbi (history of western India) whose author is unknown. The book is divided into three parts, the third part covers the travels of Columbus, Balboa, Magellan, Cortes and Pizarro from 1492-1552. It demonstrates that Ottomans were aware of discoveries made by Europeans. From 15th century onward the Ottomans adopted European technologies especially those that related to firearms, cartography and mining. Apparently, cartography was organized as a profession in the Ottoman Empire, for example, in the seventeenth century fifteen individuals were occupied with the art of surveying, in eight locations in Istanbul and nearby areas.

Shamsuddin Itaki wrote a book on human anatomy titled Risala Teshrehay Abdan (1632) thus bringing European anatomy in Turkish medical literature.

Turkish aviators

As far as the earliest attempt at flying is concerned, Hezarfen Ahmed Celebi was the first aviator to have made a successful flight with artificial wings between, 1630-1632. Hazarfun means expert in 1000 thousand sciences, a polymath. One of the three airports in Istanbul carries the name “Hezarfen Airfield”.

Another aviator, according to Evliya Çelebi, was Ahmed’s brother Lagari Hasan Çelebi who launched himself in the air in a seven-winged rocket, which was composed of a large cage with a conical top filled with gunpowder. The flight was accomplished as a part of celebrations performed for the birth of Sultan Murad IV’s daughter in 1633. Awliyah (Evliya) reported that Lagari made a soft landing in the Bosporus by using the wings attached to his body as a parachute after the gunpowder was consumed, foreshadowing the sea-landing methods of astronauts with parachutes after their voyages into outer space. Lagari’s flight was estimated to have lasted about twenty seconds and the maximum height reached was around 300 metres. This was the first known example of a manned rocket and an artificially-powered aircraft.

The Jewish scholars, who had immigrated to Ottoman lands, were instrumental in bringing European advances in astronomy and medicine. With the arrival of new European diseases and physicians in the Ottoman Empire, new medical treatments were introduced. Medical doctrines of Paracelsus were reproduced in Ottoman medical literature under the name of Tibbey Jadid (new medicine) and Tibbey Kimyaee (chemical medicine). In his work Nuzhatul Abdan, Salih bin Nasrullah (d1669) by quoting European physicians described new medicines given in various European sources and composition of their remedies. In his Kitab Qawaniney Ettibaey Feylesofan, al-Izniki (18th century) presented information on old and new medicines. The author of Jawhar al-Fareed was Omar Shifaee (1742) which was a Turkish translation of a European book containing remedies taken from Latin physicians.

Katip Jalebee (Kâtip Çelebi 1658, pseudonym of Mustafa Abdullah) better known by the name of Haji Khalifa was a well-known Turkish bibliographer. He wrote books in Arabic and Turkish on various subjects. He wrote Tarikhey Constantiniye wa Kaysira (History of Constantinople and the Emperor) which was also called Rauniqay Sultana (splendor of sultanate). He translated with the help of a European convert to Islam, Chronic of Johanna Carion into Turkish which was first published in German in 1632. He translated Atlas Minor of Gerard Mercator under the title Lawamey al-Noor fee Zulmat Atlas Minur (flashes of light in the darkness of Atlas Minor). His book Mizan al-Haqq fee Ikhtiyar al-Ahaqq (balance of truth and the choice of truest) is a collection of short essays on Islamic law, ethics, and theology. He was often critical of narrow-minded Islamic religious scholars. It has been published under the title The Balance of Truth.

His most important work was the Kashf al-zunûn an- asâmî al-kutub wa-al-funûn (Removal of Doubt from the Names of Books and the Sciences) , a bibliographical encyclopaedia in alphabetical order which lists around 15,000 Arabic, Persian and Turkish books published up to  1650. His book Jihan-Numa (the Cihan-nüma) is an atlas with a Turkish text, which for the first time makes use of recently published European atlases and other source materials.

The first work of astronomy translated from a European language into Turkish was the astronomical tables of Noel Duret (1650). Astronomer Ibrahim Efendi translated Duret’s book Ephemerides Celestium in 1660 under the title Aflak fee Ghayat al-Idrak. This was the first book in Turkish which mentioned Copernicus and his heliocentric system. It is noteworthy that Copernicus waited for more than 30 years before his book was published in 1543. Fearing the wrath of Catholic Church, a disclaimer was attached that “it was merely a hypothesis”. After the publication, his book was placed on Index of Prohibited Books, thus delaying its influence for more than hundred years.

Abu Bakr Behram Efendi al-Damishqi (1691) was a teacher in a madrasah, later a Kazi in Aleppo. He translated Janszoon Blaeu’s 11 volumes Atlas Major, titled Nusratul Islam wa-surur fee Tahrir Atlas Mayor (victory of Islam and joy of editing Atlas Major). Tahrir in the title means it was a free translation as he abbreviated many passages of original text. The nine-volume translation is available at Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul.

Osman Abdulmennan translated Bernard Varenius (d1676) work Geographia Generalis from Latin calling it Tarjuma-ey Kitab Goghraphia. The translation is organized into an introduction, six chapters and a conclusion. He explained that it is reasonable for the Earth to rotate around the Sun, than the Sun to rotate around the Earth. This shows Ottoman scholars were accepting new scientific concepts and techniques from Europe with an open mind. The religious scholars (Ulema) were not hostile to such concepts like heliocentricity as they did not find a conflict between Western science and religion, or they never understood the theory with all its implications. In his book Kitab al-Nabat he gave Bosnian equivalents of plant names which may be an indication of his Bosnian heritage.

Ibrahim Muteferrika (1745) was a Hungarian Unitarian priest who had converted to Islam. He was the first Muslim to run a printing press with movable Arabic type. Among the works published by Müteferrika was Katip Jalibi’s world atlas Jihan-nüma (The Mirror of the World). In the supplement of the book, Müteferrika discussed the Copernican theory of astronomy in detail with scientific arguments for and against it. In this regard, he is considered one of the first persons to have properly introduced heliocentric theory to the Ottoman scientists. He was also a geographer, astronomer and philosopher. He translated German cartographer, Andreas Cellarius (d1665) Atlas coelestis (1708) from Latin and printed it under the title Majmua’tul Haiy’a- Kadim wal-Jadid (1733).

Military Training

After the defeat of Ottoman army at Vienna in 1683, the rulers were convinced that in order to master the techniques of modern warfare, they needed to pay attention to military technology transfer. New technology like printing presses and pumping equipment for the firemen were imported from Europe. Military officers were trained in European warfare and equipped with the same type of weapons used by European armies. The Corps of Bombardiers were organized in 1735 with the help of a French general Claud Bonneval (1747) who had converted to Islam and took the name of Humbarachi Ahmed Pasha. The teaching staffs of the Corps were made up of Turkish as well as French and Scottish teachers. Mehmed Said Efendi was an instructor in geometry, Ibrahim Hodja taught mathematics, Selim Agha taught fortification and mechanics.

The founding of Hendes Khaney (house of geometry) in 1775 was a major step in military training. The goal of Hendes Khaney was to provide naval fleet with officers properly trained in geometry and geography. This was the first institution where mathematics and the art of fortification were taught based on European theories and methods. The teacher in Hendes Khaney was called Hodja (professor). Later on the college was also called Mudendis Khaney where 10 students at a time were trained.

Up until the end of 18th century, classical books on science and foreign texts were used in teaching science subjects. A new Muhendis Khaney Jadid was established in 1793 where members of Corps of Bombardiers were taught geometry, trigonometry, surveying, shipbuilding, navigation, & geography.

Ottoman ambassador to France, Mehmed Jelebi visited the Paris observatory in 1721. He had detailed discussions with its director Cassini, and checked out modern astronomical instruments. Halifzadeh Ismail Efendi translated the work by French astronomer Clairaut (d1765) Terjuma Zijey Kilaro in 1768 and another work by Jean Cassini (d1756) Tarjuma Zijey Kasini in 1772. Logarithms were introduced in Ottoman scholarly circles through the translations of astronomical tables. From now on Cassini’s astronomical tables were used in making calendars instead of Ulugh Beg’s tables.

Ibrahim Hakki Erzrumi wrote two books Urwatul Islam and Haya’at al-Islam (1777). The second book is on Islamic folk astronomy, and is based on religious sources. In his magnum opus Marifatnama (1757) there was a section on Islamic astronomy. Two chapters are devoted to old and new astronomy. He proves that the world is spherical, gives detailed information on Sun, Moon, planets and new theories of new astronomy.

Physicians were trained at Tibbey Medressi (medical schools), or in Daru Shifa (hospitals). There were non-Muslim citizens who had studied medicine in Europe or some Jewish physicians from Spain who had taken asylum in Istanbul. Many military organizations and state institutions had private physicians and surgeons. Modern science and technology were introduced in a school Tersane School of Medicine which opened in 1806. Hussain Rifki Tamani (d.1817) was a chief instructor at Muhendis Khaney Behri Humayun ( Imperial Naval Engineering College) for 11 years (1806-1817). He was one of the pioneers in the introduction of modern science in Ottoman Empire. He wrote several books on mathematics: Usule Hendse (1797), Imtihan al-Muhendsin, Mejmuatul Muhendisin. His student Ishaq Efendi edited his lecture notes on astronomy and published them in 1831 under the title al-Madkhal fil Goghrafya.

Ishaq Efendi was the author of Majmua Uloom Riyaziya which was published around 1834. In this four volume work, he explained new scientific theories and laws of Descartes and Newton. For many years this book was the main source for learning about European advances in various sciences.

Sanizade Mehmed Ataullah Efendi (1826) presented modern medicine and anatomy to Turkish readers in his five volumes Hams-i-Shanizade. He also wrote a work on anatomy Mira’at al-Abdan fee Tashreehey Adha al-Insan (1820) in which surgical diagrams of European origin were printed. He was instrumental in introducing modern medical knowledge in Turkey.

Mustafa Behjet Efendi was Imperial Chief Physician who may be considered the founder of modern medical education in Turkey. In 1831 a school for training surgeons Jirrahat Khaney Ameerey (Royal College of surgery) was established next to Topkapi Palace. Jemaleddin Efendi, superintendent of Imperial school of Medical Sciences, set up a special class (Mumtaz sinaf) where emphasis was placed on teaching of Turkish, Arabic and Persian languages. In the Mekteb Tibbey Mulkiye (civilian school of medicine) Turkish was the language of instruction.

Mirza Muhammed Hani Sani (Kudsi of Baku d.1846) wrote a book Asrar al-Malakut. After giving a short history of astronomy, he stated that Copernican theory was the most successful and the most correct one. He stated that the conception of the universe according to new astronomy is supported by Quranic verses.

Darul Funun Osmani

In 1830 four Turkish students were sent to France to study military sciences. Their expenses were paid by Imperial Treasury (khazine). In 1839, 36 students were sent to London, Paris and Vienna to learn European technology. An Ottoman school Mektebi Osmani was opened in Paris in 1857 to educate Turkish students in arts and sciences. The number of students sent to Europe gradually increased during 19th century.

Darul Funun (House of Sciences) was a university type, unique institution of higher learning. The objective was to train future employees and enlightened civil servants (munevver bandegan) who would serve the State. A 125 room building to house Darul Funun was completed in 1865. The internal organization was modelled after French universities. Both Islamic and Roman law were taught in the department of Law. Registration began in 1869. Tahsin Efendi was appointed its first principal. Later Darul Funun Sultani opened for classes in 1874. After studying for four years students had to defend a scholarly thesis and thus graduate with the title of Doctor. Students who did not write a dissertation were appointed junior teachers, lawyers and engine drivers. In 1895 prime minister Said Pasha petitioned Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) that a Darul funun Shahane (Imperial school of arts) be established, modeled after European and US universities, with five faculties so that students could receive academic education.

Learned societies similar to European societies were started in the mid 19th century. The first of its kind was Anjumaney Danish which was similar to Academie Francaise. The Constantinople Learned Society was founded in 1852 followed by Constantinople Medical Society. The Jamiatey Ilmiyee Osmaniayee was founded by Munif Pasha whose monthly magazine Majmooa’ey Funun was the first of its kind in Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans closely followed European developments in microbiology and vaccination.

When Pasteur discovered the rabies vaccine in 1885, a delegation of Turkish physicians was sent to Paris to learn more about this breakthrough. Compare this to Protestant and Catholic reaction who derided vaccination as “a diabolical operation intended to thwart God”.  In Boston, clergymen and devout physicians had formed an Anti-vaccination society, declaring that “the law of God prohibits the practice.”

Rasad Khaney Ameerey (the Imperial Observatory) was built in the second half of 19th century. It was built on European models and its director was a Frenchman M. Coumbary. More than an observatory, it functioned as a meteorology station to send weather reports to major cities.

A number of science history books written by Western scholars end with developments in Islamic countries up to the 13th century. The rebirth that took place in the Ottoman Turkey is completely neglected. This article is an attempt to record the contributions made by Turkish scholars and scientists. (


  1. Ihsanoglu, E: Science, Technology and Learning in the Ottoman Empire, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, VT, USA, 2004
  2. Sayili, Aydin: The observatory in Islam, New York : Arno Press, 1981
  3. Virk, Zakaria: Muslim Contributions to Sciences (Urdu), Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, UP, India, 2005
  4. Erickson, Geroge: Time Travelling with Science and Saints, Prometheus Books, NY, 2003
  5. White, Andrew: History of Warfare of Science with theology, USA, 1978.

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