Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Astrolabe

The astrolabe is an ancient astronomical computer designed for solving problems relating to time and the position of the celestial bodies in the sky.

Brass astrolabes were developed in the medieval Islamic world chiefly as an aid to navigation and as a way to locating the direction of Mecca for daily prayers. But they were also used for a variety of other purposes in the fields of astronomy, astrology, surveying, timekeeping and meteorology. Over 1,200 examples survive today.

The knowledge that gave rise to the creation of the astrolabe is said to have originated from the Greek astronomer Hipparchus who lived in the 2nd century BC - a man who may have also constructed the first rudimentary astrolabe.

An eighth century Persian mathematician, Mohammed al-Fazari, is credited with building the first astrolabe in the Islamic world. Another mathematician-astronomer, from Syria, Muhammed ibn Jaber al-Harrani al Battani (known to the West as “Albatenius”), contributed in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, by way of his scholarship, to the development and evolution of the astrolabe.

This particular piece shown above is a “planispheric astrolabe” and dates back to around 1500 AD. It is made of a four-metal alloy comprised of copper, lead, zinc and tin. It is 15 cm in diameter, and 2 cm thick.

Such astonishing masterpieces of instrumental art are an example of the great contributions that Arab and Islamic scientists made to the world by resuscitating the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans (and their forebears) before developing it, and handing it off to an intellectually impoverished Europe that was fresh out of the Dark Ages.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Munzer's Book Shop

For most international visitors to East Jerusalem, Munzer's Book Shop at the American Colony Hotel is an oasis away from the frenetic activity, gossip and wheeling-and-dealing of Middle East politics. This narrow shop, tucked away in a classic Jerusalem style room of rough hewn stone with a domed roof, is a place where people come to browse books specialized in Middle East history, literature and politics. People also come to chat with Munzer Fahmy, the owner of this institution. Talks with him can range rapidly over current politics, visitors to the hotel, and the books themselves.

Munzer, a Jerusalemite from the Old City, and partly of Egyptian stock, got the idea to open up the bookstore through a circuitous road. After learning about the book business in the Netherlands, Munzer attended a book fair in Tel Aviv where he realized that people were disappointed by the predictable and shallow selection being presented. He decided to put on his first book fair at the Zionist Organization of America in Tel Aviv.

Success spurred him to try his luck in his home town, and so he moved his enterpreneurship to the Hyatt Regency in Jerusalem. Someone there suggested to him that his next book fair should be at the elegant Pasha Room of the American Colony Hotel - the nexus of hobnobbing for journalist and diplomats. And so he did. And at that event, another individual in the relay proposed that he open up a shop in the American Colony - another idea which he successfully acted on. And so it was.
The shop has been open since 1998 and beyond the Middle Eastern materials on sale, one can find everything from the latest South African literature to the poetic verses of an Afghan Sufi. The book store is the perfect addendum to the hotel: a conversation there about Jerusalem can lead to the purchase of a book on the city.

The shop's success and popularity goes on, and after much seeking, Munzer  continues to enjoy meeting and speaking with all comers to his shop.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

'Black Cloud' Over Cairo

The UN released a report earlier this week stating that a large number of urban areas in Asia and Africa today are blanketed by a toxic cloud of pollution caused by automobile and industrial emissions, slash-and-burn agriculture, coal burning and cooking fires.

The cloud, which varies in its intensity and area of coverage, has blotted-out the sun in certain places, altered weather patterns and negatively impacted the health of millions of people.

This is no news to Cairenes who, in addition to having to bear some of the worst air pollution in the world, have had to suffer the dreaded "black cloud" which for over ten years has descended upon the city for a number of weeks, every autumn.

This so-called "black cloud", a discernible spike in pollution, is attributed to Egyptian farmers in the Nile Delta region who practice the burning of rice straw after the harvest. Anyone who has travelled through the Delta at this time of year can attest to the large pillars of smoke that can be seen pluming upwards across the horizon from all directions. The smoke collects and then drifts towards the capital where meteorological conditions in autumn trap the pollution in the lower atmosphere.

Despite the undeniable contribution that rice straw burning makes to Cairo's severe pollution, the black cloud is much more than just a perennial agricultural phenomenon. Smog from traffic, industrial pollution, and the burning of garbage - another widespread practice in Egypt - make up the lion's share of that black cloud. It is a year-round condition, which only becomes more discernible and intolerable as autumn rolls around.

The good news is that some progress has been made in convincing farmers to stop burning rice straw. Delta farmers have begun selling their rice straw to factories that can turn it into animal feed or biofuels. As a result, the "black cloud days" - a seasonal tally of the worst daily spikes in pollution - have dropped in number over the last few years.

The not so encouraging news is that this effort, as laudable as it is, is only a tiny step in what has to be a more willful and comprehensive effort to reverse Cairo's air pollution.

Unless Egypt can get its worst polluting vehicles off the streets, clean up its industries, better manage its population, and instill a new awareness of the environment, the dreaded black cloud will never go away. Instead it will only thicken and expand, impacting the lives of countless millions of people for whom a breath of clean air has become an unimaginable luxury.

All text in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


This painting, entitled "Chogan" or "Polo" was created by Mahmoud Farschian, a world-renowned Iranian-American master of Persian painting and miniatures. His distinct style, which has given rise to its own school of painting, combines Persian classical form with the contemporary fantasy genre. His works appear in numerous galleries and private collections around the world. This piece was completed in 1973.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Friday in Jerusalem

Children at play in an alleyway in the Old City.

Photo in this post copyright John Zada and John Bell 2008