A level, nondescript hilltop, in the midst of the sprawling, labyrinthine neighbourhoods of Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The hilltop is paved, swept clean on an hourly basis, surrounded by a series of small, manicured parks. It’s all newly built, or newly restored, the trees and flowers still young and not yet established, the pavers unworn and unstained.
An obscure, beguiling building, its purpose impossible to guess, occupies the centre of the hilltop. An ornate, grandiose, clay brick portal, patterned with strips of blue, white, and aquamarine tiles. Behind the portal: a set of stairs leading into the ground. A long half cylinder covers whatever it is that lies beneath.
A second paved patio, at the base of the small hillock, contains a larger-than-life statue of a bearded, turbaned man holding what appears to be a scroll in one hand. A tall, convex wall curves around behind him. The wall is painted in bright, eye-catching tones; rich azures, sharp blues, deep indigos, alluring maroons, hints of lapis lazuli; the colours merging, swirling, exploding, forming distant star fields, glinting constellations, glowing elliptical galaxies, interstellar dust clouds.
This tall, ruggedly handsome man is Ulugh Beg, one of the most significant figures in Uzbekistan’s history, a man few have heard of outside of Central Asia.
The Ulugh Beg Observatory
The bizarre, subterranean structure recessed into the hilltop is his work – or, to be more precise, it protects his work. Behind those grandiose doors, beneath that cryptic half-cylinder covering, lies the remains of a giant sextant, one of the few remnant elements of the observatory Ulugh Beg had built here, on this hilltop, in 1428. The rest of the observatory was destroyed by religious zealots in 1449, shortly after his death – the remnants of the observatory wasn’t rediscovered until 1908.
The sextant has a radius of 40.4m, and it was the largest of its type at the time of construction. Ulugh Beg (whose name was actually Mirza Mohammed Taraghay bin Shahrukh – Ulugh Beg means: Great Ruler in Turkic) used the sextant to increase the precision with which previously charted stars were mapped. He, and his team – at its peak the astronomy was host to somewhere between sixty and eighty astronomers – re-charted a total of 992 stars. These were tabled in Ulugh Beg’s magnum opus, the Zij-i Sultani, considered the most significant star chart produced between those of Ptolemy (in 170CE) and Brahe (in 1600).
He (and his team) also determined the length of the sidereal year, to an accuracy that was not further improved upon until 1525 by Copernicus.
“Religion disperses like a fog, kingdoms perish, but the works of scholars remain for an eternity.”
Champion of science and academia
Ulugh Beg was a champion of science and academia. He built madrasahs (a madrasah is an educational institution) in Bukhara and at the Registan, Samarkand and provided a secular education within their walls. Doing so enraged the Sufi clergy of the time, who were vehemently opposed to secular education (it was his insistence on making statements, such as the two quotes listed in this post, along with his promotion of secular education that led to his observatory being destroyed shortly after his death).
“Pursuit of knowledge is the duty of each follower of Islam, man and woman.”
How did Ulugh Beg manage to build such establishments in such times?
Ulugh Beg had a dynastic lineage; he was royal stock. His grandfather was Timur, the mighty Tamerlane, founder of the Timurid empire. He spent much of his childhood following the armies of Timur, as they set about conquering and massacring the populations of Armenia, Afghanistan, India, and China.
He was married at age 10, to his cousin, Aga Biki, a Mongol princess and descendent of Gengis Khan. At age 16 he became governor of Samarkand, where he would later build his second madrasah, and in 1411 (now age 18) he became the ruler of Transoxiana (modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and southwestern Kazakhstan).
Sultan of the Timurid Empire
He did not take over as sultan of the Timurid Empire – encompassing all of Iran, Afghanistan, Mesopotamia (Iraq, Syria, Kuwait), and the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), as well as a large portion of Central Asia, and pushing its borders into Pakistan, India, and Turkey – until the death of his father, Shahrukh Mirza, in 1447. His succession was immediately challenged by several of his nephews, and the empire beset with long-running internecine conflict. This period of struggle came to be known as the Second Timurid Succession Crisis (the First Timurid Succession Crisis occurred immediately after Timur’s death).
Within two years Ulugh Beg was dead, having been beheaded at the order of his rebellious, scheming son, Abdal Latif Mirza, to whom he had surrendered. Abdal went on to murder his brother, just three days later, to gain rule over all of Transoxiana. Abdal ruled for just six months, before being killed, and succeeded by his brother, Abdallah Mirza, who transferred Ulugh Beg’s body into the mausoleum of Timur in Samarkand. Abdallah’s reign was also a short one; he was executed within the year by his cousin, Abu Sa’id Mirza, who went on to win the struggle for the Timurid empire (Abu Sa’id Mirza was grandfather of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire of India and South Asia).
Son of a sultan, grandson of an empire builder, champion of science and academia, astronomer and mathematician, challenger of the religious regime; erudite, ambitious, pugnacious; Ulugh Beg was all these things, and yet he ruled as sultan for less than two years before being brought down by his own son. Today he is a national hero, one of the most revered historical figures in Uzbekistan, his statue erected in town squares across the nation. In the west he is unheard of, overlooked in favour of European scientists, the likes of Copernicus and Brahe. He has a crater on the moon named after him, but that’s likely to be the only mention you hear of him outside of Uzbekistan.
It’s impossible to know what a man that lived over five hundred years ago was truly like. Was he ruggedly handsome? Who knows? Did he look anything at all like the man portrayed by the statue? Probably not. Was he kind to the downtrodden? Did he react with amusement or anger when interacting with his clerical opponents? Did he think nothing of killing a man? Was he corrupted by power? No one can say with any certitude. He can only be judged by the actions that have been passed on through history. And on that basis, this handsome, larger-than-life figure with a determined glint in his eyes, is a satisfactory personification.
Will his academic works remain for an eternity, as Ulugh Beg suggested?
But they will survive until our sun expires, and everything on Earth is obliterated in a single, extremely loud instant. And that, I am guessing, is what he meant.
1394 Born (in Sultaniyeh – currently part of Azerbaijan, but at the time it was part of the Persian Empire)
1404 Married, age 10, to his cousin, Aga Biki, a Mongol princess and descendent of Chengis Khan (Gengis Khan)
1409 Becomes governor of Samarkand.
1411 Becomes ruler of Transoxiana
1417 Builds a madrasah in Bukhara to promote secular education.
1420 Builds a second madrasah in Samarkand, now part of the Registan complex.
1428 Completes construction of the astronomical observatory Gurkhani Zij, which includes a sextant with a radius of 40.4m, the largest of its type at the time.
1437 Compiles the Zij-i Sultani, an astronomical table and star chart mapping a total of 992 stars.
1447 Becomes sultan of the Timurid Empire, following the death of his father.
1449 Death, via beheading, at the order of his rebellious son, Abdal Latif Mirza. Shortly after he was killed, religious zealots destroyed the Gurkhani Zij observatory. It was not rediscovered until 1908.
Practical information and how to reach the Ulugh Beg Observatory:
Samarkand is 300 km from Tashkent. There are trains running between the two cities (3 hours); otherwise you will need to find a share-taxi.
Read more on Samarkand in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.