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Many of the prominent stars known today are of Arabic origin as they bear names given to them during the golden age of Islamic astronomy. A major contribution in this field is that of al-Sufi (10th century). Presenting shortly the historical context of the old nomenclature of Arabic star names, the article contains also a list of 165 stars known by Arabic names.
The origin of star names
|Figure 1: The constellation Centaurus
from al-Sufi’s book. (Source).
Regardless of origin, almost all star names belong to old traditions. They are a part of the collective cultural heritage of humanity. Modern astronomers study many stars too faint to see without a telescope, and these are so numerous they are known only by catalogue numbers and coordinates. As a result, official star names are essentially limited to the old names, and typically only bright stars have names.
The majority of stars names are related to their constellation, e.g., the star Deneb means “tail” and labels that part of Cygnus the Swan. Others describe the star itself, such as Sirius, which translates literally as “scorching,” apt enough for the brightest star in the sky. Quite a lot of prominent stars bear Arabic names, in which al corresponds to the article “the” and often appears in front, e.g., Algol, “The Ghoul.” Its inclusion has become somewhat arbitrary over time. Hence, several star names of Arabic origin are given elsewhere with or without the al- prefix. Most other names of stars inherited from the past have Greek, Latin or Chinese labels.
History of Arabic Star Names
Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer who lived and worked around 100-178 CE in Alexandria, Egypt, collected ancient Greek descriptions of 1,022 stars in his famous book The Great System of Astronomy, popularised under its shortened Arabic title, the Almagest. Ptolemy’s catalogue of stars arranged into 48 constellations, with estimates of their brightness, based largely on the observations of the Greek earlier astronomers, such as Hipparchus.
|Figure 2: The depiction of Orion, as seen from Earth (left) and a mirror-image, from a 13th-century copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars. In this version, Orion’s shield has become a long sleeve, typical of Islamic dress. (Source).|
Ptolemy’s book was translated twice into Arabic in the 9th century and became famous. Many of the Arabic-language star descriptions in the Almagest came to be used widely as names for stars. The leading expert on star names in Islamic astronomy, the German historian Paul Kunitzsch, has identified two traditions of star names in Muslim heritage. The first is the traditional star folklore of the Muslim peoples which he has named “indigenous-Arabic”, the second being the scientific Islamic Arabic tradition, which he designates “scientific-Arabic”.
|Figure 3: Depiction of star patterns for the Celestial Twins of the constellation Gemini in al-Sufi’s catalogue of stars. (Source).|
When the Arabic texts were translated into Latin beginning from the 12th century, the Arabic tradition of star names was passed down to the Latin world. However, this happened often in a highly corrupted form that either changed the meaning, or in extreme cases gave birth to words with no meaning at all. Other names were mistakenly transferred from one star to another, so that a name might even refer to a different constellation (Greek or Arabic) rather than to the one of the star’s actual residence.
Nevertheless, even with these shortcomings, the majority of star names adopted since the Renaissance are Arabic in origin. In 1603, German astronomer Johann Bayer (1572-1625) instituted a system of assigning Greek letters to stars (Bayer designation), consisting of a lowercase Greek letter followed by the genitive name of the constellation. The letters are usually assigned to the stars in the order of their brightness within a given constellation. For instance, the brightest star in a constellation “Alpha” was rendered as “the second Beta,” and so on. To the Greek letter name is appended the Latin possessive form of the constellation name. Thus the brightest star in Lyra, Vega (an Arabic proper name), becomes Alpha of Lyra or Alpha Lyrae (where “Lyrae” means “of Lyra”).
Al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars
|Figure 4: Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru’l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 25b-26a. Figure of Cassiopeia, dhât al-kursî (the seated one). The constellation, composed of 13 stars, represents the figure of a woman seated on a cushioned chair. The largest of the stars, in the cushion upon which one of Cassiopeia’s elbows rests, is called al-kaff al-khadib (written al-hadîb), maning “the hand of the dyed one”.|
One of those who left an indelib`le influence on the Arabic observation and study of stars is the astronomer Abu al-Husayn ‘Abd Al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986), known also by his Latinized name of Azophi, who systematically revised Ptolemy’s catalogue of stars. Al-Sufi produced a revised and updated version of Ptolemy’s Almagest in a major book called Kitab suwar al-kawakib (The Book of Fixed Stars), completed around 964 CE. Built on the basis of the Greek astronomical heritage, the work of al- Sufi contained a listing of the Arabs’ own star names, magnitudes determined by al-Sufi himself, and two drawings of each constellation, one as it is seen in the sky and one reversed right to left as it would appear on a celestial globe. The oldest surviving copy was produced by his son around 1010 CE and is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Marsh 144).
|Figure 5: Depiction of star patterns for the Celestial Twins (Jawza) of the constellation Gemini in Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru’l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 51b.|
According to Paul Kunitzsch, the German authority on Arabic star names, local tradition of the peoples of Islamic lands in the Arabian Peninsula and in the Middle East had their own names for various bright stars such as Aldebaran, and they commonly regarded single stars as representing animals or people. For example, the stars we know as Alpha and Beta Ophiuchi were regarded by them as a shepherd and his dog, while neighbouring stars made up the outlines of a field with sheep. Some of the Arabic names were already so many centuries old that their meanings were lost even to al-Sufi and his contemporaries, and they remain unknown today. Other star names used by al-Sufi and his compatriots were direct translations of Ptolemy’s descriptions. For example, the star name Fomalhaut comes from the Arabic meaning “mouth of the southern fish”, which is where Ptolemy had described it in the Almagest.
Al-Sufi did his own brightness and magnitude estimates which frequently deviated from those in Ptolemy’s work. He identified the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is visible from Yemen, though not from Isfahan in the centre of Iran where he worked; it was not seen by Europeans until Magellan’s voyage in the 16th century. He also did the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy, which he described as a “small cloud”. He observed that the ecliptic plane is inclined with respect to the celestial equator and more accurately calculated the length of the tropical year. He observed and described the stars, their positions, their magnitudes and their colour, setting out his results constellation by constellation. His famous Book of Fixed Stars was translated into Latin and had a major influence in Europe since the 13th century, both by its textual descriptions and pictures.
|Figure 6: Depiction of star patterns fort he Pegasus (al-Faras al-a’zam) constellations from Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru’l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 37a.|
List of star names having Arabic origin
In the following, we present a list of Arabic Star Names. This list does not contain all documented star names in the Arabic nomenclature. Note also that some stars may have more than one Arabic name (such as: Gamma Gem, Eta UMa, Beta Cet, Lambda Ori, Alpha Psc, Beta Ori ), and that some star names may be composites of Arabic and Latin words (such as: Alula Australis (Xi UMa). Some of the above names are still used in the sky atlases, while others are rarely used, and others disappeared from astronomical atlases.
|No.||Proper Name||Arabic Name||Meaning||Star|
|01||Acamar||Akhir an-Nahr||End of the river||Theta Eri|
|02||Achernar||Akhir an-Nahr||End of the river||Alpha Eri|
|03||Acrab||Al-‘Aqrab||The scorpion||Beta Sco|
|04||Acubens||Az-Zubana||The claw||Alpha Cnc|
|05||Adhafera||Ad-Dafirah||The curl||Zeta Leo|
|06||Adhara||Al-‘Adhara||The maidens||Epsilon CMa|
|07||Ain||‘Ain||“Eye” of the Bull||Epsilon Tau|
|08||Albali||Al-Bali’||The swallower||Epsilon Aqr|
|09||Alchibah||Al-Khiba’||The tent||Alpha Crv|
|10||Aldebaran||Ad-Dabaran||“Follower” of the Pleiades||Alpha Tau|
|11||Alderamin||Adh-Dhira’ al-Yamin ?||The right forearm ?||Alpha Cep|
|12||Alfirk||Al-Firq||The flock||Beta Cep|
|13||Algedi||Al-Jady||The goat||Alpha Cap|
|14||Algenib||Al-Janb||The flank||Gamma Peg|
|15||Algieba||Al-Jabhah||“The forehead” of the lion||Gamma Leo|
|16||Algebar||Al-Jabbar||The giant||Beta Ori|
|17||Algol||Al-Ghul||The ghoul||Beta Per|
|18||Algorab||Al-Ghurab||The raven||Delta Crv|
|19||Alhena||Al-Han’ah||The brand-mark||Gamma Gem|
|20||Alioth||Al-Jawn||The black horse||Epsilon UMa|
|21||Alkaid||Al-Qa’id||“Leader” of the mourning maidens||Eta UMa|
|22||Alkes||Al-Ka’s||The cup||Alpha Crt|
|23||Almak||‘Anaq al-Ard||Earth-kid||Gamma And|
|24||Almeisan||Al-Maisan||The shining one||Gamma Gem|
|25||Alnair||An-Nayyir||The bright one||Alpha Gru|
|26||Alnair||An-Nayyir||The bright one||Zeta Cen|
|27||Alnilam||An-Nidham||The string of pearls||Epsilon Ori|
|28||Alnitak||An-Nitaq||The belt||Zeta Ori|
|29||Alphard||Al-Fard||The solitary one||Alpha Hya|
|30||Alphecca||Al-Fakkah||“The broken” ring of stars||Alpha CrB|
|31||Alpheratz||Surrat al-Faras||Navel of the steed||Alpha And|
|32||Alsafi||Al-Athafi||“The tripods” for cooking on||Sigma Dra|
|34||Altair||At-Ta’ir||“The flying” eagle||Alpha Aql|
|35||Altais||At-Tinnin||The great serpent||Delta Dra|
|36||Alterf||At-Tarf||“The glance” of the lion||Lambda Leo|
|37||Aludra||Al-‘Udhrah||The maidenhead||Eta CMa|
|38||Alula Australis||Al-Qafzah al-Ula||The southern one of “the first leap”||Xi UMa|
|39||Alula Borealis||Al-Qafzah al-Ula||The northern one of “the first leap”||Nu UMa|
|40||Alya||Al-Alyah||The fatty tail of a sheep||Theta Ser|
|41||Angetenar||‘Arjat an-Nahr||Curve of the river||Tau2 Eri|
|43||Arkab||Al-‘Urqub||The heel-tendon||Beta Sgr|
|44||Arneb||Al-Arnab||The hare||Alpha Lep|
|45||Arrakis||Ar-Raqis||The dancer||Mu Dra|
|46||Atik||Al-‘Atiq||“The shoulder” of the Pleiades||Omicron Per|
|47||Auva||Al-‘Awwa’||The barker||Delta Vir|
|48||Azha||Al-Udhi||The hatching-place||Eta Eri|
|49||Baham||Al-Biham||The livestock||Theta Peg|
|50||Baten Kaitos||Batn Qaytus||Belly of Cetus||Zeta Cet|
|51||Beid||Al-Baid||The eggs||Omicron1 Eri|
|52||Benetnash||Banat Na’sh||Daughters of the bier||Eta UMa|
|53||Betelgeuse||Yad al-Jauza’||Hand of Orion||Alpha Ori|
|54||Botein||Al-Butain||The little belly||Delta Ari|
|55||Caph||Al-Kaff||“The palm” of the Pleiades||Beta Cas|
|56||Celbalrai||Kalb ar-Ra’i||The shepherd’s dog||Beta Oph|
|57||Chort||Al-Kharat||The rib||Theta Leo|
|58||Cursa||Al-Kursi||The chair||Beta Eri|
|59||Dabih||Sa’d adh-dhabih||The lucky star of “the slaughterer”||Beta Cap|
|60||Deneb||Dhanab ad-Dajajah||Tail of the hen||Alpha Cyg|
|61||Deneb||Dhanab ad-Dulfin||Tail of the Dolphin||Epsilon Del|
|62||Deneb Algedi||Dhanab al-Jady||Tail of the goat||Delta Cap|
|63||Deneb Kaitos||Dhanab Qaytus||Tail of Cetus||Beta Cet|
|64||Denebola||Dhanab al-Asad||Tail of the lion||Beta Leo|
|65||Diphda||Ad-Difdi’||The frog||Beta Cet|
|67||Dschubba||Al-Jabhah||“The forehead” of the scorpion||Delta Sco|
|68||Dubhe||Ad-Dubb||The bear||Alpha UMa|
|69||Dziban||Adh-Dhi’ban||The two wolves||Psi Dra|
|70||Edasich||Adh-Dhikh||The hyena||Iota Dra|
|71||El Nath||An-Nath||The butting||Beta Tau|
|72||Eltanin||At-Tinnin||The great serpent||Gamma Dra|
|73||Enif||Al-Anf||The nose||Epsilon Peg|
|74||Errai||Ar-Ra’i||The shepherd||Gamma Cep|
|75||Fomalhaut||Fam al-Hut||Mouth of the fish||Alpha PsA|
|76||Furud||Al-Furud||“Individual” stars||Zeta CMa|
|77||Gienah||Al-Janah||The wing||Gamma Crv|
|78||Gienah||Al-Janah||The wing||Epsilon Cyg|
|79||Gomeisa||Al-Ghumaisa’||The bleary-eyed one||Beta CMi|
|81||Hamal||Al-Hamal||The ram||Alpha Ari|
|82||Heka||Al-Haq’ah||The white spot||Lambda Ori|
|83||Homam||Sa’d al-humam||The lucky star of “the high-minded man”||Zeta Peg|
|84||Izar||Al-Izar||The loin-cloth||Epsilon Boo|
|85||Jabbah||Al-Jabhah||“The forehead” of the scorpion||Nu Sco|
|86||Kaffaljidhma||Al-Kaff al-Jadhma’||The cut-short hand||Gamma Cet|
|87||Kaus Australis||Al-Qaus||The southern one of “the bow”||Epsilon Sgr|
|88||Kaus Borealis||Al-Qaus||The northern one of “the bow”||Lambda Sgr|
|89||Kaus Media||Al-Qaus||The middle one of “the bow”||Delta Sgr|
|90||Keid||Al-Qaid||The broken egg-shells||Omicron2 Eri|
|91||Kitalpha||Qit’at al-Faras||Part of the horse||Alpha Equ|
|92||Kokab||Al-Kaukab||The star||Beta UMi|
|93||Kurhah||Al-Qurhah||“The blaze” on a horse’s brow||Xi Cep|
|94||Lesath||Al-Las’ah||The sting||Upsilon Sco|
|95||Maasym||Al-Mi’sam||The wrist||Lambda Her|
|96||Maaz||Al-Ma’z||The he-goat||Epsilon Aur|
|97||Marfik||Al-Mirfaq||The elbow||Lambda Oph|
|98||Markab||Mankib al-Faras||“The shoulder” of the horse||Alpha Peg|
|99||Matar||Sa’d Matar||The lucky star of “the rain”||Eta Peg|
|100||Mebsuta||Al-Mabsutah||“The outstretched” paw||Epsilon Gem|
|101||Megrez||Al-Maghriz||“The insertion-point” of the Bear’s tail||Delta UMa|
|102||Meissa||Al-Maisan||The shining one||Lambda Ori|
|103||Mekbuda||Al-Maqbudah||“The pulled-in” paw||Zeta Gem|
|104||Menkalinan||Mankib Dhi-al-‘Inan||Shoulder of the rein-holder||Beta Aur|
|105||Menkar||Al-Minkhar||The nostril||Alpha Cet|
|106||Menkib||Al-Mankib||“The shoulder” of the Pleiades||Xi Per|
|107||Merak||Al-Maraqq||The loins||Beta UMa|
|108||Mintaka||Al-Mintaqah||The belt||Delta Ori|
|109||Mirak||Al-Mi’zar||The loin-cloth||Beta And|
|110||Mirfak||Al-Mirfaq||“The elbow” of the Pleiades||Alpha Per|
|111||Mizar||Al-Maraqq||The loins||Zeta UMa|
|112||Mothallah||Al-Muthallath||The triangle||Alpha Tri|
|113||Muphrid||Al-Mufrid||The solitary one||Eta Boo|
|114||Murzim||Al-Murzim||The roarer||Beta CMa|
|115||Nashira||Sa’d Nashirah||The lucky star of Nashirah (un-translated)||Gamma Cap|
|116||Nekkar||Al-Baqqar||The cattleman||Beta Boo|
|117||Nasl||An-Nasl||The arrowhead||Gamma Sgr|
|118||Nihal||An-Nihal||The camels quenching their thirst||Beta Lep|
|119||Nusakan||An-Nasaqan||The two series||Beta CrB|
|120||Okda||Al-‘Uqdah||The knot||Alpha Psc|
|121||Phact||Al-Fakhitah||The dove||Alpha Col|
|123||Phad||Al-Fakhidh||The thigh||Gamma UMa|
|124||Pherkad||Al-Farqad||The calf||Gamma UMi|
|125||Rasalased||Ra’s al-Asad||Head of the lion||Mu Leo|
|126||Rasalgethi||Ra’s al-Jathi||Head of the kneeling one||Alpha Her|
|127||Rasalhague||Ra’s al-Hawwa’||Head of the snake-man||Alpha Oph|
|128||Rastaban||Ra’s ath-Thu’ban||Head of the snake||Beta Dra|
|129||Rigel||Ar-Rijl||The foot||Beta Ori|
|130||Rigilkent||Rijl Qanturus||Foot of the centaur||Alpha Cen|
|131||Risha||Ar-Risha’||The rope||Alpha Psc|
|132||Rukbah||Ar-Rukbah||The knee||Delta Cas|
|133||Rukbat||Ar-Rukbah||The knee||Alpha Sgr|
|134||Sabik||As-Sabiq||The preceding||Eta Oph|
|135||Sadachbia||Sa’d al-Akhbiyah||Lucky star of the tents||Gamma Aqr|
|136||Sadalbari||Sa’d al-Bari’||Lucky star of the excellent one||Mu Peg|
|137||Sadalmelik||Sa’d al-Malik||Lucky star of the king||Alpha Aqr|
|138||Sadalsuud||Sa’d as-Su’ud||Luck of lucks||Beta Aqr|
|139||Sadr||As-Sadr||The breast||Gamma Cyg|
|140||Saiph||As-Saif||The sword||Kappa Ori|
|141||Scheat||As-Saq||The leg||Beta Peg|
|142||Shaula||Ash-Shaulah||The raised tail of the scorpion||Lambda Sco|
|143||Shedir||As-Sadr||The breast||Alpha Cas|
|144||Sheratan||Ash-Sharatan||The two signs||Beta Ari|
|145||Sirrah||Surrat al-Faras||Navel of the steed||Alpha And|
|146||Skat||As-Saq||The leg||Delta Aqr|
|147||Sulafat||As-Sulahfah||The tortoise||Gamma Lyr|
|148||Tania Australis||Ath-Thaniyah||The southern one of “the second” leap||Mu UMa|
|149||Tania Borealis||Ath-Thaniyah||The northern one of “the second” leap||Lambda UMa|
|150||Talitha Australis||Ath-Thalithah||The southern one of “the third” leap||Kappa UMa|
|151||Talitha Borealis||Ath-Thalithah||The northern one of “the third” leap||Iota UMa|
|152||Tarf||At-Tarf||“The glance” of the lion||Beta Cnc|
|153||Thuban||Ath-Thu’ban||The snake||Alpha Dra|
|154||Unukalhai||‘Unuq al-Hayyah||Neck of the snake||Alpha Ser|
|155||Vega||Al-Waqi’||“The stooping” eagle||Alpha Lyr|
|156||Wasat||Wasat as-Sama’||“Middle” of the sky||Delta Gem|
|157||Wazn||Al-Wazn||The weight||Beta Col|
|158||Wezen||Al-Wazn||The weight||Delta CMa|
|159||Yed Prior||Al-Yad||The preceding one of “the hand”||Delta Oph|
|160||Yed Posterior||Al-Yad||The succeeding one of “the hand”||Epsilon Oph|
|161||Zaniah||Az-Zawiyah||The angle||Epsilon Vir|
|162||Zaurac||Az-Zawraq||The boat||Gamma Eri|
|163||Zavijava||Zawiyat al-‘Awwa’||Angle of the barker||Beta Vir|
|164||Zubenelgenubi||Az-Zuban al-Janubi||The southern claw||Alpha Lib|
|165||Zubeneshamali||Az-Zuban ash-Shamali||The northern claw||Beta Lib|
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Sufi, al-, Abu al-Husayn ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Umar, Description des étoiles fixes: Suwar al-kawakib. Traduction de Hans Carl Frederik Christian Schjellerup. Edité par Fuat Sezgin. Frankfurt: IGAIW, 1986.
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Wikipedia, “List of Arabic star names”. Online here) (accessed October 2007). Presents a huge collection in which the names are given even in Arabic script.
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