Ulugh Beg Observatory
The Ulugh Beg Observatory is an observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Built in the 1420s by the Timurid astronomer Ulugh Beg, it is considered by scholars to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world. Islamic astronomers who worked at the observatory include Al-Kashi, Ali Qushji, and Ulugh Beg himself. The observatory was destroyed in 1449 and rediscovered in 1908.
Rise and Decline
Ulugh Beg's Observatory, also widely known as the Samarquand Observatory, is one of the most important observatories in bringing new discoveries in mathematics and astronomy.
Ulugh Beg, the son of Shāhrukh and grandson of sultan Teymūr, became the ruler of Samarkand in the 9th century. Ulugh Beg was very skilled in mathematics and astronomy. He taught many important astronomers; one example is the famous Ali Qushji.
Many historians have tried to accurately identify dates of the events that have occurred during the Samarkand or Ulugh Beg Observatory. The differences in interpreting dates and citations of historical sources have cause inaccuracies and neglection of some events during this time.
In Jamashīd al-Kāshī’s letters to Ulugh Beg’s father, you can see Ulugh Beg’s visit to the Maragha Observatory had an effect on Ulugh Beg. This could have affected Ulugh Beg’s reason for his transformation of the city of Samarkand and his mathematical orientation. Other matters such as, political, economic, military, social, and even commercial reasons could have played a role in the building of Ulugh Beg’s observatory. Another reason of starting his own observatory could have been because of Ulugh Beg’s differences in observations of those with al-Sūfī .
The Ulugh Beg Observatory was built somewhere around 824-1422. Different sources mention different dates; however, many sources mention around 830 to be the date of the observatory’s foundation and 1422-1428 to be the construction competition of the observatory. Many Old Persian texts include the Samarkand Observatory and the great Ulugh Beg.
He invited skillful mathematicians and astronomers to help build this observatory and also a madrassa in Samarkand. Among those he invited were Ghīyāth al-Dīn Jamshid al-Kashi, Mu’in al-Din al-Kashi, Mu’in al-Din al-Kashi, Salah al-Din Qadi Zada Rumi, and Ali Qushiji. Over 60 mathematicians and astronomers were invited to the observatory. Jamshid Al-Kashi was appointed as the first director of the observatory. After al-Kashi’s death Qada Zada became the director of the observatory. After the death of Qadi Zada, Qushji led the observatory as the last and final director. The Samarkand Observatory was a place for astronomers and mathematician to work together in finding new discoveries.
Ulugh Beg’s observatory was built according to the plans of the Maragha observatory, which was designed by Nasir al-din al-Tusi. Ulugh Beg’s observatory included the largest quadrant principle device. The building was not tall but was allowed a maximal size for the arc of the circle. This device was carefully oriented, and the arc was scaled very accurately. This device was very versatile. It could accurately measure the sun from the horizon, the altitude of a star and other planets. The duration of the year, period of planets, and eclipses were measured by this device. Ulugh Beg’s measurements of planets closely relate to today’s measurement, showing us the phenomenal accuracy of the device.
People visiting Ulugh Beg's observatory today, can only see the foundations and the buried part of the marble quadrant. Those are the only original vestiges from the observatory. Much of the decline of the observatory could be contributed to Ulugh Beg's death.
Not much is known about the decline of the observatory. However, the biggest impact of the decline of the observatory could have been highly contributed by Ulugh Beg's death. Ulugh Beg died at around 1449. He was assassinated by his own son Abd al Latif. Ulugh Beg's death cause chaos within the observatory. The observatory was destroyed and the dozens of talented astronomers and mathematicians were driven away. Later in 1908, Russian archaeologist Vassily Vyatkin uncovered the remains of the Observatory.
Jamshid Al-Kashi,, a known 15th century Persian astronomer and mathematician, is known to have relocated to Samarkand to interact with the scientific processes taking place there. Through an invite from Ulugh Beg, Al-Kashi left his native land of Kashan in north central Iran and went to Samarkand. Recently, a letter Al-Kashi had written to his father during his stay at Samarkand has been translated by Kennedy (1960) and Sayılı (1960). This letter, which was written in Persian, has shaped the modern view of Samarkand activities substantially despite its lack of writing about the scientific activities that had taken place at the observatory. However, a new letter written by Al-Kashi to his father has been found in Iran, and the translation of this letter, by Bagheri, sheds more light on the scientific aura of Samarkand in particular and even reduces the ambiguity of certain elements from the first letter by virtue of their overlapping parts.
In the letter, there is a part where Al-Kashi describes a problem about astrology being discussed by him and his fellow colleagues. The translation, ‘‘[Let us suppose that] the Sun is, e.g., in 10 degrees of Aquarius, with a certain altitude, and the ascendent of time is a certain degree [of the ecliptic]; then [the ascendent of the time when] its [i.e., the Sun’s] altitude [is the maximum altitude of the ecliptic at that moment] is a quadrant [in advance of the Sun’s position], i.e., in 10 degrees (20) of Taurus, reveals that perhaps Samarkand’s scientific atmosphere was more geared towards astrology than previously believed given Krisciunas’s paper on the “Legacy of Ulugh Beg” where astrology has an extremely limited discussion. Astrology, only mentioned once in passing in Krisciunas’s paper on the scientific atmosphere of Ulugh Beg, was perhaps a more integrated element of the scientific discourse in the Samarkand world given the new, aforementioned letter.
Per the letter of Al-Kashi to his father, an innovation was created with Ulugh Beg. The Fakhrı sextant, which stood on top of a rock in which some of it was carved into so the edifice would not be tall given the soft bricks of the area. Al-Kashi compares this to Maragha, saying that the sextant is positioned higher there but also notes the flat roof present in Samarkand should facilitate scientific improvement given the fact that “instruments may be placed on it”. This information, about the sextants in Maragha is contradictory to other sources that state there were no sextants at Maragha. This contradiction was revealed by the translation.
Moreover, the scientific atmosphere of Samarkand was one of general isolation because Al-Kashi describes the stout adherence to Ptolemy’s methodologies and lack of awareness for happenings of the Maragha observatory. The lack of awareness and strict adherence to prior methods by Ulugh Beg himself reveals the perhaps provincial nature of their studies. However, this perceived closed-mindedness was alleviated by the increasing diversity of scientists and students that were invited to the observatory. An evaluation of the errors made in Ptolemy at Samarkand by Shevchenko further confirms the effects of Samarkand’s initial isolated nature.
Bageri’s translation of Al-Kashi’s letter says that there was a lot of teaching going on strictly from memory by the teachers there who had learned from other astronomers in Herat. Moreover, at the time Al-Kashi wrote the letter there were three teachers who were well versed in Islamic jurisprudence. Also, it was stated that Ulugh Beg himself does not show up to teach class often. The three teachers were Qazızada, Maulana Muhammad Khanı, and Maulana Abu’l-Fath.
Maulana Abu’l-Fath stated that he was intellectually underneath Maulana Muhammad Khanı, who was only occasionally present in the court meetings or observatory meetings, and Qazızada, who was always practicing his craft. To do them justice, [I must admit that] (30) when there is a discussion in their meeting, I dare not intervene,
Ulugh Beg fostered an environment consisting of the some of the best astronomers of the time, and they all observed and calculated the positions of thousands of stars. Ulugh Beg's main work was the Zij-i Sultani. Written in 1437, this work was in Persian, and it was also greatly influenced by Nasir al-Din Tusi.
One of the scientists Jamshid al-Kashi would study with was Yusuf H. allaj, who had prior experiences in Herat, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, and adjacent regions. Yusuf H. allaj was the son of Maulana H. allaj’, who also resided in Samarkand at the same time Al-Kashi was there.
It is also noted that music was studied and taught at the observatory. Prosody, music and mathematics seemed to foster the curiosities of the scientists therea t the time. However, in the letter by Al-Kashi, he noted that despite his curiosity about music and math, he was urged to focus on his tasks at hand.
Modifications and Architecture
The architecture of Ulugh Beg’s observatory was different from the others built around that time. Ulugh Beg needed a skilled architect to help him, so he contacted Qazizada-I Rumi and asked him to find a experienced and skilled architects. Qazizada-I Rumi recommenced Kashani, a mathematician and architect. The observatory was modeled after the Maragheh observatory which thought of by Hulagu Khan and Mangu Khan, they hired Nasir al-Din al-Tusi so head the construction of the observatory. Ulugh Beg’s observatory was built on a hill 21 meters above the ground. The observatory has a cylindrical shaped building with a diameter of 46 meters and a height of 30 to 33 meters, the sextant was in the middle of this cylinder. The building was made of brick, which was readily available but not particularly stable. According to the radius of the sextant the height would have to be so large that it could cause the building to be too tall and could potentially fall. They were able to solve this problem by building half of the sextant underground. This allowed the size of the sextant to be maintained without the height being dangerously tall.
The observatory was made up of three stories, the first story was for the staff to live in. All observations were made from the second and third stories, which had many arches to look through. The roof of the observatory was flat, allowing instruments to be utilized on top of the building.
The entrance of the observatory has been modified several times in recent years. This is primarily for athestic reasons and is not to improve the observatory's accuracy.
A Zij is an astronomical table that is made up of numerical tables and explanations that allow astronomers to compute any problems they encounter. It should provide enough information that they can understand how to measure time and how to compute the positions of planets and stars. The Zij may also contain the proof for the math and theories contained in the tables.
Ulugh Beg’s Zij-I Sultani was published in 1437, it was written in Persian, and listed around 1,000 stars. It follows Ptolemaic work and does not suggest any changes in the planetary model. It has also been called Zij-I Ulugh Beg, Zij-I Jadid-I Sultani, and Zaij-I Gurgani. It is thought that he may have been influenced to create his Zij by Nasir al-Din Tusi, who had written 150 books. Ulugh Beg’s star catalog was the first to have been published since the Almagest written by Ptolemy. The Zij-I Sultani includes the stars explained in the Almagest, but has more accurate numbers accompanying them. The primary instrument used to obtain the information in the Zij-I Sultani came from Ulugh Beg’s observatory quadrant. He did not work alone, he was assisted by his students and other muslim astronomers including Jamshid al-Kashi and Ali Qushji. It took 17 years to compile the full list of stars, they began in 1420 when Ulugh Beg was 26 years old and they finished in 1437. One of the most significant parts of the Zij-I Sultani is Ulugh Beg’s sine table. The table is 18 pages long and has values of sine to nine decimal places for every degree from zero to 87, it also contains the value of sine to 11 decimal places from 87 to 90 degrees. The Zij was influential and was continuously used until the 19th century and hundreds of copies of the original Persian manuscript exist around the world. It has also been translated into many languages including Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. Commentaries by known astronomers like Quishji have also been made.
Ulugh Beg determined the length of the tropical year as 365d 5h 49m 15s, which has an error of +25s, making it more accurate than Nicolaus Copernicus' estimate which had an error of +30s. Ulugh Beg also determined the Earth's axial tilt as 23;30,17 degrees in sexagesimal notation, which in decimal notation converts to 23.5047 degrees.
The Ulug Beg Observatory Museum was built in 1970 to commemorate Ulugh Beg. The museum contains reproductions of the Arabic manuscripts Ulug Beg's star charts, the Zij-i Sultani, and of important European printed editions of Ulugh Beg's work. It also contains astrolabes and other instruments as well as a miniature reconstruction of the observatory itself.
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- Fazlıoğlu İ. (2008). "The Samarqand Mathematical-Astronomical School: A Basis for Ottoman Philosophy and Science" (PDF). Journal for the History of Arabic Science. 14: 3–68. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-02-22.