Lenses and Telescopes in the Ancient Near East and the Bible


koot van wyk (DLitt et Phil; ThD)

Kyungpook National University

Sangju Campus

South Korea

conjoint lecturer of Avondale College

8 July 2010


Modern society enjoys the advantages of using glasses to see when we suffer from astigmatism and telescopes if we want to see the stars and planets up close. But what about the ancients? The consideration of lenses and telescopes in the time of the Bible is born from two major considerations: In the book of Job Moses knew that the earth is "hanged up on nothing" and secondly, in the year writing the book of Job (1460 BCE) he was aware of strings that connects the Pleiades or seven star. How did he know that nebulae are connecting these stars unless they had already telescopes or lenses in those days? Or didn't they?

Robert Temple claimed to have collected about 450 artifacts from Museums all over the world illustrating that ancients had telescopes and lenses. He also wrote some apologetic online articles, some of which we lists below as source and some that has illustrations of lenses in antiquity. As optimistic as Robert Temple is in his book about the presence of telescopes in ancient times, as pessimistic is the Australian senior lecturer in Linguistics, Mark Newbrook from Monash University. He felt that if this was true what Temple is trying to claim, then there would have been ample references in literature about it but currently the evidence is very scanty. A catalyst position is probably safer here. We must say in defense of Temple that Newbrook admitted that Temple brought a strong case for the existence of lenses in the past. Telescopes no, but lenses, yes. Let us look at the evidence.


Layard lense from Nimrud

The Layard lense is name such, since it was brought to the British Museum in 1853 by Sir Henry Austen Layard after it was discovered at Nimrud in the throne room of the palace of the Assyrian King and usurper to the throne, Sargon II who started to reign after the assassination of Shalmanezer V in 723 BCE. It is a rock crystal lense seemed to have had a flat (plane) base and according to Robert Temple, was known to be toroidal, "technique only available for the public since about 1900" (see his site listed as source below). According to Temple, such grinding of lenses produces lenses to correct for individuals their problem with astigmatism. He feels that the lense was used in those days between 722/1-705 BCE as a monocle. He claims that it fits the eye aperture perfectly. The lense is about one-quarter of an inch thick and shaped with one side convex and the other a flat surface.

Layard asked Sir Davis Brewster, a famous physicist and specialist in optics to give his opinion on this lense and he concluded that it may have been used "either for a magnifying or concentrating the rays of the sun". Layard then reported that

"Its properties would scarcely have been unknown to the Assyrians and consequently we have the earliest known specimen of the burning and magnifying glass."


Aristophanes and his "The Clouds" and a crystal lense

There is a conversation in a work of Aristophanes that gives us an insight in the role of lenses in his days (420 BCE):

"STREPSIADES Have you ever seen a beautiful, transparent stone at the druggists', with which you may kindle fire?

SOCRATES You mean a crystal lens.

STREPSIADES That's right. Well, now if I placed myself with this stone in the sun and a long way off from the clerk, while he was writing out the conviction, I could make all the wax, upon which the words were written, melt" (cited from Temple's article).


Troy and lenses

At the Heraklion Museum of the ancient Cretan civilization are many lenses that were found at the excavations at Troy by Henry Schliemann. This demonstrates that at Greece and the Mediteranean, lenses did exist in antiquity. 

Temple reported that one lense found at Crete and dating to the 5th century BCE could magnify up to seven times. "If it is held farther away from the object viewed, it will actually magnify up to twenty times, though with considerable distortion" (Temple).


The lens from Nimrud is not an isolated example. Similar rock crystal lenses have turned up in archaeological excavations throughout the Mediterranean and Near East. Two lenses of optical quality are on display at the Heraklion Museum of ancient Cretan civilization. As many as fifty were reported as having been found in the excavations of Troy, though only a handful have been properly published.


Democritus and the Milky Way as stars

Democritus said that the Milky Way is a very large number of stars. How did he know this with the naked eye? Robert Temple raised this issue and it is a valid question.  We have to agree with the Australian critic of Temple that one needs to be skeptical of his assertions, but that does not mean that he did not raise very important questions and collection very important data.


Ancient Egypt and glass

Glass-making was known to the ancient Egyptians. Several examples exist. Glass was used as jewelry but it is likely that several optical phenomena could be observed with the help of these glass objects. The Greeks made small bottles by winding threads of molten colored glass onto clay mixed with manure and then with a knife smeared the colors (Temple). In the Roman period, clear glass was seen. Glass blowing was also invented (Temple).


Pliny and magnification of water in a glass container

Pliny (23-79 CE) described the magnification properties of water when it is filled in a spherical glass container (Temple).


Roman emperor Claudius Nero and lenses

It is said that Nero used a faceted emerald to correct his near-sightedness (Temple).


Pompey and Herculaneum and lenses

Examples of glass-crystal lenses were found at Herculaneum and at Pompey.


Lenses in the Athens Archaeological Museum

Robert Temple related that he went to the Athens Archaeological Museum to study Mycenaean lenses. In the Mycenaean Room he could see a number of lenses that were "mislabeled". He said that the former Deputy Director of the Museum wrote an article about a crystal lense which he had excavated on Crete but Temple criticized this Director for not mentioning the other lenses in the same Museum.


Mislabeled lenses in the British Museum

Temple claims that in the Greek Room there are mislabeled lenses. He said that one can clearly see how the lense is magnifying the cloth underneath them.


Lenses mislabeled as crystals in mineral collections

Temple found some examples of ancient British lenses that were labeled as crystals and placed in mineral collections.


Lense from Troy with hole in the center

One of the lenses found by Henry Schliemann had a hole in the center and that caused many to doubt whether it is indeed a lense. Temple argues that the hole is functional since the artisan can now place his instrument for carving through the center and then magnify his area in a circle while he is working.


Schliemann's Troy lenses

Schliemann excavated 48 crystal lenses at Troy but of these lenses all disappeared during World War II and all that remained were a catalogue of descriptions and a single photo of four of the lenses in a group (Temple).


Troy lenses probably in Russia

Temple claims that their Red Army during World War II took the lenses with the Troy gold of Schliemann to Russia and that they are there but held in secrecy. There is no way to verify this claim unless Russia themselves comes forward with such a verification or added information.


Jay Enoch's study of Old Kingdom Egyptian lenses in statues

Jay Enoch is professor of Optometry at the University of Berkeley. Old Kingdom Egyptian statues from the first to the sixth dynasties had lenses placed in their eyes. What Enoch found in his investigation, is that these lenses were designed by artisans who had a remarkable high concept of their skills. The thickness of the lenses was not intended to duplicate the thickness of the real human eye, but rather to create an effect so that the eye follows the person passing by when looked from other angles. Enoch called it the illusion of the following eye technique. The retina was created with copper inlays and resin over it and then the lense was fitted in the eye position. It created the illusion of the following eye.


Enoch's research

Enoch studied at the Louvre the seated scribe statue E-3023 and a reserve eye from Saqqara, E-3009. He also made observations on other pieces found at the Louvre and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.


Consultation of other specialists

Enoch is an optical specialist and he consulted other optical specialists and many Egyptologists, Kathleen Keller and Carol Redmount.


Instruments used to study the lenses

The report on Enoch's lecture says:

"A number of opitcal and opthalmic tests were performed on the reserve eye and the scribe Accroupi, a number of which worked while others did not. A keratometer (a device normally used for examining the cornea of a real eye) was used to measure the convex lens mirror surface of the lenses, which were shown to have astimagic errors. It is interesting to note that virtually all ancient lenses demonstrate astigmatism (a structural defect in a lens or eye that prevents light rays from an object from meeting in a single focal point, so the object appears indistinctly formed). The construction of the reserve eye lens (see the two drawings below) results in certain findings which are very close to real human eyes. The image of the pupil of a real eye lies at circa 3.6 mm from the front surface while the image of the pupil of the schematic reserve eye lies at circa 4.6/4.7 mm. Direct measurement of the reserve eye diameter was 14.33 mm, while photographic records of the schematic eye measured 14.2 mm - a remarkable concurrence of measurements, all things considered.  The pupil image was circa 1/4 of the diameter of the front lense of the schematic eye. The illusion of the following eye results from a form of image parallax, that is, the main factor is the appearance of the location of the pupil image perceived as you move around the eye structure."


Lense making techniques in the Old Kingdom

Enoch concluded about the techniques of cutting hard stones by the Egyptians,

"Certainly the Egyptians had learned to work hard stones early in their civilization (Dr. Enoch noted there are only limited examples of quartz beads, a quartz whiskey-like shot glass and a carved quartz lion in the predynastic collections in Cairo) - thus there are few examples of work done on early rock crystal pieces in current Egyptian collections."  


Lenses appearing and disappearing

The lenses were fully formed during the first Egyptian dynasty at Meidum in the statues of Rahotep and his wife Nofret, then they disappear and reappear sporadically in small statues during the fourth and fifth Dynasties. The peak of the lenses was in the fourth Dynasty. The last Old Kingdom example is that of Mitri in the fifth Dynasty. The funerary Priest statue of the fifth Dynasty, the priest Kaemked had eye structures where the rock crystal lenses were replaced with obsidian, a dark volcanic glass. In the sixth Dynasty there are no examples of these eye structures or lense inlays. Then in the First Intermediate Period the lenses reappeared in one example and that is the king Hor at Saqqara. All these statues were found to be ka statues in which they are the essence of the individual.


Chronology of Egypt

When we talk about the Old Kingdom of Egypt chronology, we are opening a can of worms. Scholars are giving conventional dates following this or that scholar of the past who made attempts to calculate these fragments of references, but none are fix. As one Egyptologist George Hanfmann said in the 1950's, the chronology of Egypt and Mesopotamia are not two stout pillars that cannot be shaken.

The Bible is also a source for chronology and a very careful one. The Flood of Noah that killed all the dinosaurs, occurred in 2521 BCE. That is the biblical date for the Flood. History as we know it, can only follow this date, not precede it, except the detail that were preserved by Noah and told to Abraham and passed on from ancestors to ancestors as copies of books, like the book of Adam that Moses used in 1460 BCE when he wrote Genesis (Genesis 5:1). He also used a [book] of the generations of Noah (6:1).

The result of this careful record of chronology is that the unstable chronology of Egypt's Old Kingdom can now be refined and adjusted by the Bible: the first to sixth dynasties has to fit in, even if concurrently, in the period between 2521-2004 BCE.

It is our understanding that the Great Pyramids were built out of fear that another Flood may come and then they wanted to be safe and sound up in their pyramid. Our theory is that the coffin was placed in the center of the pyramid hoping that the water will not reach there. Later when the Flood did not return they stopped building ziggurats and pyramids and were satisfied with burials in the mountain tombs and elsewhere.

Enoch has found that the technology of the rock cutting techniques were extremely specialized in the period of what we would allocate here, post-Diluvial or post-Flood, thus after 2521 BCE.


Enoch surprise at the early technique of lense making in Egypt

Enoch was very surprised to see that the thickness of the lenses was because they understood the principles involved in making the illusion of the following eye. For some reason this high technique was lost and appeared again and then disappeared again in Egypt. Why this happened is not sure.


Moses and lenses

When we read the book of Job we are convinced that Moses must have had access to a lense of some kind.

In Job 38:32 a group of stars is referred to and scholars think that it is the Pleiades constellation. It is the word kimah. The semantics is not clear (BDB) but they know that it is connected to astronomy. In the Egyptian Dictionary of E. Wallis Budge (1920): 546, he mentioned that the word khemiu is used to refer to a group of stars. Moses knew Middle Egyptian very well, since he lived in the palace and got his university training there. In fact, the four different uses of the same word in Egyptian are all related to astronomy. They refer to stars above the horizon or planets or the like.

How did he know that the Pleiades or seven star was connected with links of nebulae? That is what Moses is asking in 1460 BCE in Midian when he wrote the book of Job: "Can you bind the knots of the seven star/Pleiades?" He also said that the earth is hanging on nothing (Job 26:10). This means that Moses did not believe as they did in the Middle Ages, that the earth is standing on pillars.

There was a famous astronomer in the palace of Hatshepsut, where Moses lived between 1518-1490 BCE, Senenmut and it is possible that Moses were taught proper astronomy by this teacher. After Moses left, there developed a relationship between Senenmut and Hatshepsut, studies have shown. The tomb of Senenmut is very important for anyone studying ancient astronomy.


Plutarch and the Face of the Moon

Plutarch said that the face of the moon is very uneven and rugged. This book of Plutarch is written similar to the book of Job with many scientists of a school or schools participating in dialogue on options of how one can view the face of the moon. The book is describing various views regarding the moon and its shadows and finally it moved into the arena of religion trying to answer the question what happen to man after death even mentioning a second death option (Plutarch, Face of the Moon  XXVII at the end). The current view of Christians with a soul flying somewhere to continue existence is non-biblical but is very likely borrowed from Plutarch and his theorists, as described in this book (Plutarch, Face of the Moon  XXVIII). Sulla said that the moon is moving around the sun since it loves the sun. "For the moon herself, out of desire for the sun, revolves round and comes in contact with him, because she longs to derive from him the generative principle" (Plutarch, Face of the Moon  XXX).


Lenses and the Babylonians

Astronomical records in the British Museum and studied by George Rawlinson in 1862-1868 suggests that the Babylonians knew about the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They knew about the four satelites of Jupiter and they also knew about the seven satelites of Saturn. It is not possible to see this with the naked eye. Says Rawlinson:

"Other astronomical achievements of the Babylonians were the following. They accomplished a catalogue of the fixed stars, of which the Greeks made use in compiling their stellar tables. They observed and recorded their observations upon occultations of the planets by the sun and moon. They invented the gnomon  and the  polos, two kinds of sundial, by means of which they were able to measure time during the day, and to fix the true length of the solar day, with sufficient accuracy. They determined correctly within a small fraction the length of the synodic revolution of the moon. They knew that the true length of the solar year was 365 days and a quarter, nearly. They noticed comets, which they believed to be permanent bodies, revolving in orbits like those of the planets, only greater. They ascribed eclipses of the sun to the interposition of the moon between the sun and the earth. They had notions not far from the truth with respect to the relative distance from the earth of the sun, moon, and planets. Adopting, as was natural, a geocentric system, they decided that the Moon occupied the position nearest to the earth; that beyond the Moon was Mercury, beyond Mercury Venus, beyond Venus Mars, beyond Mars Jupiter, and beyond Jupiter, in the remotest position of all, Saturn. This arrangement was probably based upon a knowledge, more or less exact, of the periodic times which the several bodies occupy in their (real or apparent) revolutions. From the difference in the times the Babylonians assumed a corresponding difference in the size of the orbits, and consequently a greater or less distance from the common centre.

In order to attain the astronomical knowledge which they seem to have possessed, the Babylonians must undoubtedly have employed a certain number of instruments. The invention of sun-dials, as already observed, is distinctly assigned to them. Besides these contrivances for measuring time during the day, it is almost certain that they must have possessed means of measuring time during the night. The clepsydra, or water-clock, which was in common use among the Greeks as early as the fifth century before our era, was probably introduced into Greece from the East, and is likely to have been a Babylonian invention. The astrolabe, an instrument for measuring the altitude of stars above the horizon, which was known to Ptolemy, may also reasonably be assigned to them. It has generally been assumed that they were wholly ignorant of the telescope.

But if the satellites of Saturn are really mentioned, as it is thought that they are, upon some of the tablets, it will follow--strange as it may seem to us--that the Babylonians possessed optical instruments of the nature of telescopes, since it is impossible, even in the clear and vapor-loss sky of Chaldaea, to discern the faint moons of that distant planet without lenses. A lens, it must be remembered, with a fair magnifying power, has been discovered among the Mesopotamian ruins. A people ingenious enough to discover the magnifying-glass would be

naturally led on to the invention of its opposite. When once lenses of the two contrary kinds existed, the elements of a telescope were in being. We could not assume from these data that the discovery was made; but if it shall ultimately be substantiated that bodies invisible to the naked eye were observed by the Babylonians, we need feel no difficulty in ascribing to them the possession of some telescopic instrument (George Rawlinson, The Seven Great Monarchies Of The Ancient Eastern World, Vol 4. [of 7]: Babylon: The History, Geography, And Antiquities Of Chaldaea, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Parthia, And Sassanian or New Persian Empire; With Maps and Illustrations [1862-1867]).


Microscopic art in Old Kingdom knife from Abydos

A knife that was excavated in the 1990's from a pre-dynastic grave at Abydos in Egypt [our dating after the Flood of Noah in 2521 BCE], showed that it belonged to a king and the carvings was done in such a way that one can only see them properly with a magnifying glass. A lense must have been used to make them.


Binoculars in ancient times

Temple pointed out that the fragments of Polybius, a second-century BCE Greek historian, speaks of a telescope with two tubes. In talking about the earth's position in the universe, the first century Roman writer Pliny the Elder said that binoculars confirm his position powerfully (see Temple cited in sources below).


Julius Caesar and lenses and his calendar change in 46 BCE

It is suggested by R. Temple that Julius Ceasar may have used binoculars to confirm the position of the earth. Roger Bacon the Medieval Franciscan monk of Ilchester, claimed that Julius Caesar used some sort of telescope to survey the shores of Great Britain from Gaul (France) (see Temple). Julius Caesar was known to have introduced the Julian Calendar.




1. Sines, George, and Sakellarakis, Yannis A.; "Lenses in Antiquity," American Journal of Archaeology, 91:191, 1987.

2. Marx, Patricia, "Four Eyes: Looking for glasses," The New Yorker March 29, 2010: 46-50.

3. James, Peter and Thorpe, Nick,: Ancient Inventions (Ballatine Books, 1994).

4. http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Lenses.htm

5. http://home.comcast.net/%7ehebsed/enoch.htm

6. The Hebrew Bible and text of Job.

7. Online source of the book by Plutarch, The Face of the Moon. See http://thriceholy.net/Texts/Moon.html

8. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/16164/pg16164.txt

(George Rawlinson's Volume 4 on the Babylonians online, chapter V).




lense of sargon II Nimrud lense by Temple.jpg lense of layard of sargon II in throneroom 1853 from Temple article.jpg lens from tanis by Petrie (1853 to 1942) by Temple.jpg lense of heinrich schliemann at troy by Temple.jpg