The desert sky we see here in Tucson, Arizona, is the same desert sky that Arabs have observed for millennia. Two Deserts, One Sky is intended to bring the richness and depth of astronomy in ancient Arab cultures to modern awareness. This project for the first time presents ancient Arab astronomical traditions within their own cultural contexts instead of fragmented within the confines of Greek-oriented modern astronomy. (See Celestial Complexes, below.) From explaining the meaning and usage of star names in ancient star calendars to examining their continuing impact on modern-day astronomy around the globe, this project is designed to build bridges of understanding and foster greater appreciation for the vast heritage of Arab astronomy.
From the very outset of our journey, I must emphasize the multivalent nature of the materials that we are about to explore. The many star names and asterisms recorded in the writings of 9th to 12th century CE scholars must not be viewed through the lens of cultural unity or consensus. Even though these authors often refer to “the Arabs” as if they were a homogenous collective, in fact scores of diverse Arab tribes interacted with each other in the Arabian Peninsula, each with their own body of sky knowledge. Some of these beliefs were shared widely, and some were unique to specific tribes. The extant books on this subject only rarely identify a specific tribe or region in which a certain belief about the sky was held.
In addition to the above multivalency, each of these tribal societies experienced great changes through time as they first converted to Islam (622 and later) and then were organized under the rules of the Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) caliphates. Even before the advent of Islam, Arab tribes were not isolated from the cultures of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and India and their own astronomical histories. Because of this, it is difficult to identify origins for Arabic star names that existed before the early Abbasid period.
Two Deserts, One Sky is an outreach project funded jointly by NASA, through the Arizona Space Grant Consortium, and by the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies and the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. In addition to this website, outreach activities including live sky talks will be conducted in partnership with Flandrau Planetarium and Science Center and the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.