The astronomer prince of Samarkand

Sweeping conquests in the style of Genghis Khan, a shining city at the crossroads of east and west and amongst it all, one of the great astronomers of his age……

I should start by saying that I came across the subject for this post from listening to the BBC radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects as a podcast. The particular episode was on the jade cup of Ulugh Beg. The owner of the object in question was the descendant of one of the most successful military campaigners of the late middle ages and was himself one of the great Islamic astronomers.

In the late 14th century Central Asia was a patchwork of successor states to the great Mongol Empire. In this period the Turco-Mongol military leader Tamerlane waged campaigns of conquest from India to Mesopotamia. In doing so he founded the Timurid Empire which in stretched from Baghdad and the Black Sea in the west to Kashmir in the east and from the Indian Ocean to the Aral Sea.

After Tamerlane’s death, his son Shah Rukh took over most of empire covering Iran and Central Asia. Rather than rule his territories from Tamerlane’s capital of Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan, he moved his capital to Herat in modern-day Afghanistan. He then sent his sixteen year old son Ulugh Beg to rule over Samarkand.

When I think of the great Islamic astronomers and centres of learning I automatically envisage Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus. Samarkand by contrast conjures up images of bussling commerce and great wealth due to its position on the Silk Road. But, like his father and grandfather before him, Ulugh Beg was a patron of the arts and sciences. He founded an Islamic school (madrasa) in Samarkand but was also interested in pursuing science himself.

An enthusiastic scholar of astronomy and mathematics Ulugh Beg’s madrasa was a place with a vibrant academic culture attracting great minds such as the Persian mathematician al-Kashi. To satisfy his growing interest is astronomy he build a magnificent observatory. Before telescopes astronomical measurements could be difficult. The positions of stars were measured by timing them crossing their highest point and using sextants to measure their height while they did this. Ulugh Beg’s observatory had a massive sextant over 35 metres in diameter. This was used to measure the length of the astronomical year and the tilt of the Earth’s axis more accurately than later, more famous astronomers such as Copernicus and ol’ Mr. Brassnose Tycho Brahe. Ulugh Beg also catalogued nearly a thousand stars and determined trigonometric relations to astonishing accuracy.

Ulugh Beg's Observatory in Samarkand

The observatory also produced great thinkers of its own. One such was Ali Qushji, the son of Ulugh Beg’s royal falcon trainer. He challenged the orthodox astronomical thinking of the time, trying to break astronomy free from the shackles of Aristotle’s model of the world and making it an independent science. He also postulated that the Earth was not stationary based on his observations of comets.

Ulugh Beg was one of the great scientists of the Middle Ages, however he was not a successful ruler. After his father’s death he lost several important battles and was eventually killed after his own son moved against him. The Timurid Dynasty would survive thanks to his great-nephew Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty in India. This did not officially fall until the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. Just to put that into context, Tamerlane and Ulugh Beg’s dynasty lasted from before the European Renaissance to the time of Queen Victoria.

If you want to read more on Ulugh Beg, I found this article from the University of St. Andrews very informative.

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One Comment on “The astronomer prince of Samarkand”

  1. [...] The astronomer prince of Samarkand [...]


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