David A. King


Statement of academic interests:

Over the past 30 years I have contributed substantially to the documen­tation of the history of science in medieval Islamic civilization, unearthing countless sources that were previously unknown, and publishing analyses and overviews thereof. In particular, I have provided the first documentation of what I call “Astronomy in the service of Islam”. This refers to the ways in which Muslims over the centuries determined the sacred direction towards the sacred Kaaba in Mecca and regulated their times of prayer, defined in terms of the position of the sun relative to the local horizon, within a calendar regulated by the moon. My research was not restricted to technical scientific texts, but also included texts relating to simple folk science and the sacred law. In this way, I have also documented Muslim concerns in folk astronomy and the notion of a sacred folk geography with the world centred on the Kaaba. This research led to the first understanding of the often surprising orientations of medieval mosques.

I have also been the first to use medieval Islamic and European scientific instruments as historical sources. Examples are the documentation of the development of highly sophisticated Islamic maps preserving direction and distance to Mecca at the centre; the history of a forgotten medieval European number notation used mainly in monasteries and also attested on a 14th-century astrolabe from Picardy; and a detailed investigation of an astrolabe with inscriptions in Hebrew, Latin and Arabic.

My interests in medieval Christianity have resulted in the first serious account in English of a much-misunderstood medieval virgin saint. Most recently I have worked on the complex relationship between a Latin epi­gram on an astrolabe by Regiomontanus, the leading astronomer of the 15th century, and the enigmatic “Flagellation of Christ” by Piero della Francesca, the leading mathematician-artist of that century.

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Curriculum vitae


  • Born England, 1941; British subject; married since 1969 to Patricia Cannavaro, US citizen; two sons, Maximilian and Adrian

Most recent employment:

  • Professor of History of Science and Director of the Institute for the History of Science, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main (from 1985 to retirement in 2007)

Previous employment:

  • Professor (1984-87) and Associate Professor (79-84), Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, New York University
  • Director, Smithsonian Institution Project in Medieval Islamic Astro­nomy, American Research Center in Egypt (72-79)
  • Teacher of secondary school mathematics for the Sudan Government Ministry of Education (Atbara, 1964-66 and El-Fasher, Darfur, 1966-67) and Toronto Board of Education (1967-68)


  • Ph.D. (Near Eastern Languages and Literatures), Yale University, 1972, dissertation: “The Astronomical Works of Ibn Yûnus” (available from ProQuest.com as no. 7229740)
  • Dip. Ed. (Education), Jesus College, Oxford University, 1964
  • B.A. and M.A. (Mathematics), Jesus College, Cambridge University, 1963 and 1967
  • Studies at High Wycombe Royal Grammar School, 1952-1959

Main professional activities:

  • Treasurer and Board Member of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science, Division of the History of Science (1989-97)
  • Member of the Boards of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association (1985-87) and the Islamic Art Foundation (1985 to present)
  • Full Member of the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences
  • Member of the American Oriental Society, the Union Européene d’Arabisants et d’Islamisants, and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für die Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik
  • Member of the editorial board of various journals (including Islamic Art, Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, and Suhayl – Journal for the History of the Exact and Natural Sciences in Islamic Civilisation).
  • Consultant to numerous museums and exhibitions
  • Consultant to Christie’s and Sotheby’s for medieval manuscripts and astronomical instruments


Publications: for a list complete to 2011 see here.


Main publications in book form:

  • Mathematical Astronomy in Medieval Yemen, Malibu, Ca., 1983. (Based on about 100 manuscripts.)
  • A Catalogue of the Scientific Manuscripts in the Egyptian National Library (in Arabic), 2 vols., Cairo, 1981-86. (Describes some 2,500 manuscripts.)
  • A Survey of the Scientific Manuscripts in the Egyptian National Library (in English), Winona Lake, Ind., 1986. (Arranged as a supplement to the standard bio-bibliographical works on the history of Islamic science.)
  • Islamic Mathematical Astronomy, London: Variorum, 1986, 2nd edn., Aldershot: Variorum, 1993. (Reprints of 18 articles.)
  • Islamic Astronomical Instruments, London: Variorum, 1987. (Reprints of 22 articles.)
  • Astronomy in the Service of Islam, Aldershot: Variorum, 1993. (Reprints of 14 articles.)
  • From Deferent to Equant: A Volume of Studies in the History of Science in the Ancient and Medieval Near East in Honor of E. S. Kennedy (co-editor with George Saliba), Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 500 (1987), 569 pp. (Contains 35 contributions by the leading scholars in the field.)
  • World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca – Examples of Innovation and Tradition in Islamic Science, Leiden: Brill Academic Publications, 1999. (Describes some newly-rediscovered maps from 17th-century Iran that preserve direction and distance to the centre, showing that they are copies of much earlier maps.)
  • The Ciphers of the Monks – A Forgotten Number Notation of the Middle Ages, (Boethius – Texte und Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der Mathematik und der Naturwissenschaften, Menso Folkerts, ed., Band 44, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2001, 506 pp. (Describes a medieval astrolabe and various manuscripts and early printed works featuring an ingenious number notation mostly used in Cistercian monasteries. The notation has its origins in ancient Greece and its history can be traced into the 20th century.)
  • In Synchrony with the Heavens: Studies in Astronomical Timekeeping and Instrumentation in Medieval Islamic Civilization, vol. 1: The Call of the Muezzin (Studies I-IX), Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2004, ca. 1050 pages, and vol. 2: Instruments of Mass Calculation (Studies X-XVIII), Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005, ca. 1150 pages. (The first volume deals with astronomical timekeeping by the sun and stars and the regulation of the astronomically-defined times of Muslim prayer for over a millennium. It is based on over 500 Arabic manuscripts unearthed by the author in libraries around the world that had never been studied before. The earliest sources are from 8th- and 9th-century Baghdad, the later ones from all over the Islamic world. The second volume deals with the astronomical instruments used by Muslim astronomers for over a millennium, most of which have not been published previously. It includes the first detailed descriptions of all of the instruments from 8th-, 9th and 10th-century Baghdad, and much new information based on several hundred instruments preserved in museums and private collections around the world. For more details see here.)
  • Astrolabes and Angels, Epigrams and Enigmas – From Regio­montanus’ Acrostic for Cardinal Bessarion to Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ, (Boethius – Texte und Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der Mathematik und der Naturwissenschaften, Menso Folkerts, ed., Band 56, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2007, xi+348 pp. (A detailed study of a Latin epigram with two levels of hidden messages. The first – an acrostic with eight vertical axes – was specifically intended by Regiomontanus to give pleasure to his new patron, Cardinal Bessarion. The second – found in eight spaces across the epigram – was probably derived by the two men together: it provides the scenario for a very remarkable painting. Eight persons and one classical god – whose double or multiple identities are suggested by the letters of the epigram – feature in the enigmatic Flagellation of Christ by Piero della Francesca, a mathematician-artist well known to Bessarion. Some 40-odd identifications of the three men on the right of this painting have been suggested over the past 150 years, none based on any kind of documentary evidence. This new interpretation of the painting confirms several of these earlier proposals, even in cases where their identifications were mutually exclusive. For more information see here.)
  • Astrolabes from Medieval Europe, Aldershot & Burlington VT: Ashgate-Variorum, 2011. (Reprints of 12 articles.)
  • Islamic Astronomy and Geography, Aldershot & Burlington VT: Ashgate-Variorum, to appear in 2012. (Reprints of 12 articles.)
  • Several articles in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the Histoire de la science arabe, and Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers.
  • Also, entries in catalogues of several exhibitions of Islamic scientific manuscripts and instruments, including Granada & Madrid (1992), Nuremberg (1992-93), Schweinfurt (1994), Paris IMA (1993-94) and Paris Louvre (1998).
  • Articles of particular significance:
  • “Islamic Astronomy”, in Astronomy before the Telescope, Christopher Walker, ed., London: British Museum Press, 1996, pp. 143-174, repr. in Islamic Astronomy and Geography (see above), I. (The most recent overview.)
  • “Astronomical Instruments between East and West”, in Kommuni­kation zwischen Orient und Okzident, Harry Kühnel, ed., Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1994, pp. 143-198, repr. in Astrolabes from Medieval Europe (see above), I. (The first statement of the potential of Islamic and European instruments as historical sources.)
  • “Astronomical handbooks and tables from the Islamic world (750-1900): An interim report” (co-author with Julio Samsó, with a contribution from Bernard R. Goldstein), SuhaylInternational Journal for the History of the Exact and Natural Sciences in Islamic Civilisation (Barcelona) 2 (2001), pp. 9-105. (Available on the internet.)
  • “An astrolabe from 14th-century Christian Spain with inscriptions in Latin, Hebrew and Arabic – A unique testimonial to an intercultural encounter”, SuhaylInternational Journal for the History of the Exact and Natural Sciences in Islamic Civilisation (Barcelona) 3 (2002/03), pp. 9-156, with aw new version in In Synchrony with the Heavens (see above), XV. (Available on the Internet.)
  • “The Cult of St. Wilgefortis in Flanders, Holland, England and France”, in Am Kreuz – Eine Frau: Anfänge – Abhängigkeiten – Aktualisierungen, Sigrid Glockzin-Bever and Martin Kraatz, eds., in Ästhetik – Theologie – Liturgik (Münster: LIT Verlag), 26 (2003), pp. 55-97. (The first account in English of the cult of a medieval Flemish virgin saint that was widespread for centuries but has been much misunderstood in modern times. An extended version with more illustrations has been submitted to Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture.)

Works completed and/or in progress:

The Sacred Geography of Islam, to be submitted to Brill Academic Publications, Leiden. (Based mainly on newly-discovered sources relating to folk astronomy and Islamic law.)

  The Universal Astrolabe of Ibn al-Sarraj – A Medieval Mathematical Jewel (with François Charette), to be submitted to Brill Academic Publications, Leiden. (Describes an astrolabe from early 14th-century Aleppo, which is the most sophisticated astrolabe ever made.)

A critical catalogue of virtually all existing astrolabes, quadrants and sundials (Islamic to 1900 and European to 1550) including detailed descriptions of about 750 instruments – see “Medieval Astronomical Instruments: A Catalogue in Preparation”, Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 31 (1991), pp. 17-20, and: •LINK•