In Nnedi Okorafor’s Nebula Award-winning novella Binti, the eponymous main character is a young woman who is an expert at crafting Astrolabes, a device that was used to discern the position of the stars and planets around us in ancient times, useful for everything from astronomy to time keeping to horoscopes.
It just so happens, there was a woman living in 10th century Syria who was well known for creating these incredible devices.
Mariam “Al-Astrolabiya” Al-Ijiliya lived in Aleppo, Syria, daughter of a man who apprenticed with a famous astrolabe maker named Bitolus before she became his student as well. Her designs were so innovative and complex that she was employed by Sayf al-Dawla—the ruler of Aleppo—from 944 to 967. Astrolabes could be used to determine time of day, as well as location, and were often used in Muslim society to determine Qibla, prayer times, and the days to start Ramadan and Eid.
Recently on Twitter, Okorafor cited this woman as an inspiration for her protagonist Binti, saying that she learned of Al-Ijliya at a book festival in the Unites Arab Emirates. Her name was woven into Binti’s longer name as a nod to her influence. Binti’s father also makes astrolabes, giving her another similarity to her near-namesake.
There is very little known about Al-Ijliya’s life aside from her work, and none of her astrolabes have ever been discovered, as she does not appear to have signed her instruments. Nevertheless, it is exciting to know that her legacy lives on in a character like Binti, and hopefully more will come to know her story as a result!