The Observatory of Ulugh Beg
The Observatory of Ulugh Beg is located in the legendary city of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. The observatory is the result of one Muslim prince’s devotion to science and was the site of the worlds most advanced astronomical studies before being levelled by religious extremists three decades after it was built. Today you can still visit what remains of the observatory and its astronomical instruments, as well as the onsite museum dedicated to astronomy.
Who was Ulugh Beg?
Ulugh Beg was a Timurid ruler and grandson of the legendary Tamerlane or Amir Timur as he is known throughout Central Asia. Beg is known not only for his contribution to astronomy, but also to mathematics such as spherical geometry and trigonometry. He spoke five languages, Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Mongolian and Chinese and during his rule the Timurid Empire reached its cultural peak, or Renaissance.
Ulugh Beg was given control of Samarkand and its surrounding kingdoms by his father Shah Rukh, after which he set about turning the city into a cultural centre. Between 1417 – 1420, he built a madrasa (Islamic place of learning) on Registan Square, and he invited numerous Islamic astronomers and mathematicians to study there. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his star catalogue containing at least 1018 stars and their locations in the night sky, compiled almost 200 years before the first telescope.
Ulugh Beg was more interested in his scholarly pursuits and proved an unpopular ruler. He After losing several campaigns his own son took him to trail and his punishment for his apparent ineptitude was a pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey ended quickly however, when he was beheaded just outside the city of Samarkand by his own son, ending his short reign. Ulugh Begs reputation was somewhat rehabilitated by his nephew, Abdallah Mirza, who placed his remains at Timur’s feet in his mausoleum of Gur-e-Amir in Samarkand.
Ulugh Beg built his revolutionary observatory in 1428, more than a hundred years before the birth of Galileo. In its prime, the observatory consisted of three great astronomical instruments contained within a three-story cylindrical building. The main instrument, the sextant, which remains mostly intact, is a monumental meridian arc, now called the Fakhri sextant. Its forty metre curving stone arch was once used by the astronomers of the time to measure the angle and elevation of bright celestial objects. With this instrument, Ulugh Beg and his fellow astronomers could determine the time of noon each day and the angle between the Earths rotational axis and the plane of its orbit around the sun.
The sextant worked by allowing light to pour in through a window and fall on a specific point on the arch that depended on the height of the object in the sky. In fact, the astronomers at the Ulugh Beg observatory were able to measure the length of a year to with in twenty-five seconds of its actual value, and determined the axial tilt of the Earth so accurately that their number falls with in modern ranges. They we able to achieve this because the meridian arch of the sextant was the largest of its kind ever built. Following the death of Ulugh Beg the observatory was razed to the ground by his son and skilled scientists driven away from Samarkand. The site was rediscovered in 1908 by Russian archaeologist Vassily Vyatkin.
Why should I visit the Observatory of Ulugh Beg?
If you’re in Samarkand, why wouldn’t you? Especially if you’re a science buff. You can go and see the remains of Ulugh Begs giant meridian sextant as well as visit the small, but well-kept onsite museum. The museum was built in 1970 to commemorate Ulugh Beg and his contribution to science. The museum contains reproductions of Ulugh Beg’s star charts, the Zij-I Sultani. The museum also contains other instruments and a miniature reconstruction of the observatory itself. The observatory is located on the top of a hill overlooking Samarkand and provides a great view over the city.
The Observatory of Ulugh Beg is featured on our Heart of the Silk Road trip to Uzbekistan – for more information call us on +61 (2) 7229 1926 or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org