Medieval Samarkand was a centre for both religious and secular learning, and his rulers patronised the sciences as well as the arts. Ulug Beg's Observatory (Tashkent; 09.00-18.00 daily; foreigners US$2), one of the largest astronomical observatories of the period, lies a brisk, ten minute walk past Afrosiab and into the foothills. 15th century observatory is the crowning achievement and path to disaster of Tamerlane's grandson, astronomer-king Ulug Beg.T he observatory lay forgotten and in ruins for some 500 years prior to its partial restoration, the important work undertaken there remembered only in Ulug Beg's astronomical works, which had been published posthumously in Europe.
In 1908, the mystery of its whereabouts was solved after years of painstaking research by Russian archaeologist Vladimir Viyatkin. Today visitors can view his discovery, the underground section of a vast meridian arc, ignored by the fanatics who destroyed the building in 1449. Quadrant arc 63m in length was used to chart the progress of celestial bodies across the sky. Using this arc, Samarkand's medieval astronomers produced a star catalogue charting the movements of 1,018 stars, which was still known and studied in Oxford in the 17th century.
It was the largest 90° quadrant the world had ever seen, though it is called a sextant as only 60° were used. Deeply embedded in the rock to lessen seismic disturbance, the surviving 11-metre arc sweeps upwards in two marble parapets cut with minute and degree calibrations for the astrolabe that ran its length. The arc completed its radius at the top of a three-storey building.
When you first arrive at the site you'd be forgiven for thinking that there's nothing to see: only a modern portal is visible. The arc itself is sunk below ground, which is the reason it survived when the rest of the observatory was destroyed by fanatics in 1449. Descend into the gloom, and you will be struck by the scale of the arc but also the precision with which it was made: tiny niches are cut into the surface for calibrating the once-accompanying astrolabe, enabling exact calculations to be made. In fact, their accuracy would not be beaten until the invention of the computer.
Above ground floor service rooms were arcades designed as astronomical instruments. A witness described the planetarium-like decoration: 'Inside the rooms he had painted and written the image of the nine celestial orbits and the shapes of the nine heavenly bodies, and the degrees, minutes and seconds of the epicycles; the seven planets and pictures of the fixed stars, the image of the terrestrial globe, pictures of the climes with mountains, seas and deserts.
The sextant is now covered by a portal and vault at the centre of the observatory's foundations. Viyatkin's grave lies nearby, as he had requested. A memorial museum (open 9am-7pm daily) details the careers of Tamerlane and his grandson. Ulug Beg's scientific success, the culmination of a Central Asian tradition including al-Khorezmi, al-Beruni and Avicenna, is set alongside the political failures that cost him his life. The observatory lies a further ten minutes' walk northeast from Afrosiab Museum-the same marshrutka apply.
Alongside the arc and its portal is the grave of Viyatkin and a small museum (09.00-18.00 daily) about Ulug Beg's life and works.
Religion disperses like a fog, kingdoms perish, but the works of scholars remain for an eternity.
Not content with their earthly domains, kings have often looked to the stars for confirmation of their divine right to rule, and indications of what the future might bring.Their patronage and personal interest in astronomy have driven forward our understanding of not only our own solar system but also the planets beyond.
Astronomy had been a royal pursuit for thousands of years: the ancient Egyptians aligned their pyramids to the stars and were able to accurately predict the flooding of the Nile by sightings of Sirius and the summer solstice, whilst the Babylonians were producing star catalogues as long ago as 1200 bc. It would be the medieval Emperor Ulug Beg (1394-1449) who would take astronomy into the modern age, however, building a vast observatory and producing the most detailed star catalogue before that of Tycho Brahe. Ulug Beg was born in Samarkand in 1394 and was the grandson of Amir Timur. He lacked the political skills of his predecessors but instead focused on turning his capital into an intellectual centre for scholars from across the Islamic world. Having travelled to both India and the Middle East as a child, he was well aware of scientific developments in both those regions, and was determined to build upon them in Samarkand. The young Ulug Beg constructed a huge madrassa on the Registan square and invited numerous astronomers and mathematicians to study there.
Although Ulug Beg was himself a fine mathematician, his real interest lay in astronomy.The observatory he built, the Gurkhani Zij, contained a sextant 11 m long and with a radius of 40.4m. It was the largest such instrument in the world and had to be kept underground to protect it from earthquakes. Long before the invention of the telescope, this instrument enabled Ulug Beg to accurately position over 1,000 stars, determine the year with such accuracy that it would even surpass Copernicus' calculations, and to work out the exact tilt of the earth's axis.
Given that Ulug Beg and his astronomers were working without optics, the accuracy of their calculations is unnerving. Even today we do not have a more accurate calculation of the earth's axial tilt than Ulug Beg's 23.52°, and his assertion that the year is 365 days, six hours, ten minutes and eight seconds in length is only one minute longer than modern electronic calculations.
Had Ulug Beg and his astronomers had more time to study the stars, they may yet have been more impressive, but fate was to intervene: the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449 and would lie forgotten underground until it was rediscovered by an archaeologist in 1908. Ulug Beg himself hardly met a more glamorous fate: he was beheaded by his own son en route to Mecca and his remains were interred in Timur's tomb.