Friday, December 31

Ulugh Beg

Timur's son Shah Rukh was infatuated of a Persian 'slave' girl. Goharshad (Jawahar Shad or Jewel Shining) came from a family of nobles from Herat (Afghanistan), who had been previously allied to Genghis Khan; and, after Timur's conquest of the area, swore submission to him to retain their governorship of the province. Under Goharshad's influence, Shah Rukh became more and more Persianized, living the cultured life in Herat rather than the military life on horseback. Timur thoroughly disapproved. In 1394, a son was born to Goharshad in Soltaniyeh, in Zanjan province NW of Tehran. Mirza Mohammad Tāraghay bin Shah Rukh, later to be called Ulugh Beg or Great Ruler, would come to be the greatest astronomer of his time. The crater Ulugh Beg on the moon is named after him.

As a child, Ulugh Beg was taken across most of the Middle East and India as his grandfather went about trashing those areas. We have read of Timur's India campaign earlier (see post on Shakhrisabz.) After his return from the subcontinent, Timur started wars with the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Mamluk empire of Egypt. He invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. This led to Timur's being publicly declared an enemy of Islam (he was no longer only killing non-Muslims.) To restore his status as ghazi, in 1400 Timur invaded Christian Armenia and Georgia. Of those that survived the slaughter, more than 60,000 were captured as slaves, and many districts were depopulated. Timur then invaded Baghdad in June 1401. After he captured the city, Timur ordered every soldier to return with at least two severed human heads (once again, that these would be Muslim heads did not matter, under the doctrine of necessity.) His hordes were so scared of his wrath that they had started stockpiling prisoners earlier in the campaign to ensure they had a supply of heads to present on demand.

Meanwhile, under the patronage of Ulugh Beg's mother Goharshad, who had emerged as the power behind Shah Rukh's governorship, Persian became the court culture amongst the early Timurids. She led a renaissance through her lavish patronage of the arts, attracting to Herat artists, architects, philosophers and poets, all acknowledged to be the world's most illustrious at the time, including Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman 'Jami', one of the greatest Persian poets of the15th century and one of the last great Sufis. In breaks between his grandfather's pillage and rapine, Ulugh Beg spent time composing diwan with his mother and watching his father build a great library. Such, then, was his education.

As soon as Timur died in 1405, his empire fell apart. The Qara Qoyunlu (Black Sheep) tribes of Turcomans (whose ruler Qara Yusuf had been sent flying to Egypt by Timur in 1400) sacked the western part of the empire, capturing Tabriz by 1406 and Baghdad by 1409. The Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep) Turcomans rebelled in Eastern Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan. In Persia and Transoxiana, Shāh Rukh was able to secure effective control from about 1409. Fortunately, these contained the trading routes of the Silk Road, and Shah Rukh became immensely wealthy from the tax revenues, perhaps more so than his father did from pillage. Shah Rukh moved the capital to Herat, deciding to put his son in control of Samarkand; the 16-year-old Ulugh Beg thus became his father's deputy and the ruler of the Mawaraunnahr (Transoxus) region.

Gradually, Ulugh Beg would go about making Samarkand a center of science and learning. In 1417, to endow the study of astronomy, Ulugh Beg began building a madrasah at what would become the Registan Square in Samarkand; he then began to appoint the best scientists he could find to positions thence as lecturers. One of the recruits was Ghiyāth al-Dīn Jamshīd Masʾūd al-Kāshī; a letter from al-Kāshī to his father has survived and affords a glimpse into the intellectual life at Ulugh Beg's court. In this letter (translated in Studies In The Islamic Exact Sciences) the lecturer writes of his patron:

(Ulugh Beg) himself cultivates the branches of mathematics, and this has reached the extent that one day while riding he wanted to determine the date, which was a Monday of [the month of] Rajab, between the fifth and the tenth in the year eight hundred and eighteen (A. H.), as to what day it was of the (astronomical) season of the year. From these very given data, by mental computation, and from horseback, he determined the true longitude of the sun (correct) to degrees and minutes. When he came back he asked this humble servant about it. Truly, since in mental computation the quantities must be retained by memory and others determined, and there is a limit to one's strength of retention, he (i.e. I) was not able to extract it to degrees and minutes, but contented myself with degrees.

Ulugh Beg also built an observatory to match the school. Lacking telescopes, he obtained his accuracy of astronomical observations by constructing a giant sextant; the Fakhri-style mural sextant had a radius of about 40 meters (and the optical separability of 180" of arc.) Around 1437, i.e. almost a century before Copernicus, Ulugh Beg determined the length of the sidereal year to be 365d 5h 49m 15s, which has an error of +25s, making it more accurate than Copernicus' estimate (which had an error of +30s.) Ulugh Beg then determined the Earth's axial tilt as 23.52 degrees, which remains the most accurate measurement to date; it is more accurate than later measurements by Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, and matches the currently accepted value precisely (see Hugh Thurston's Early Astronomy, p194 for a comparison of historical measurements of the axial tilt.)

The trigonometric results from Ulugh Beg's observatory include tables of sines and tangents, given at intervals of 1° (like schoolboys used to have to consult). His calculation was built on an accurate determination of sin 1°, which Ulugh Beg first shewed to be the solution of a cubic equation and then solved by numerical methods. He obtained
sin 1° = 0.0174 5240 6437 2835 71
Contemporary online astrophysical calculators give the value as
sin 1° = 0.0174 5240 6437 28
A more correct approximation apparently is
sin 1° = 0.0174 5240 6437 2835 12820
which shows the remarkable accuracy -- correct up to a part in a quadrillion -- that Ulugh Beg achieved. At this precision, he would have been able to measure the distance to Voyager I (currently at 16 light-hours away the most distant man-made object, and taker of the famous pale-blue-dot photo) accurately to about a third of a millimeter; or hit an elephant on Proxima Centauri.


Ulugh Beg's scientific expertise was not matched by his skills in politics. He kept losing his forefathers' territories, and in 1448 faced a particularly bloody uprising in his father's former fiefdom in Herat which he failed to suppress in spite of ordering Timur-style massacres. Within two years, he was beheaded by his own eldest son, 'Abd al-Latif, while on his way to Mecca. Later, his remains were placed in the Gur-i-Emir (Timur's tomb) in Samarkand, and they were rediscovered there by Russian archeologists in 1941. It was discovered that Ulugh Beg had been buried in his clothes, which is known to indicate that he was considered a martyr; when his exhumed body was examined the injuries were described as:

... the third cervical vertebra was severed by a sharp instrument in such a way that the main portion of the body and an arc of that vertebra were cut cleanly; the blow, struck from the left, also cut through the right corner of the lower jaw and its lower edge.

In other words, his neck was chopped off; according to legend, from behind as he pored over star tables; to be a metaphor for the fate of learning in front of power (and it must be noted that Galileo nearly suffered a similar fate.)


What of Goharshad, Ulugh Beg's mother? In his book Taliban, Ahmed Rashid tells a story:

One day in the company of 200 'ruby lipped', beautiful ladies in waiting, (Goharshad) inspected a mosque and madrassa complex she was building on the outskirts of Herat. The madrassa students (or taliban) had been asked to vacate the premises while the Queen and her entourage visited, but one student had fallen asleep in his room. He was woken by an exquisitely attractive lady-in-waiting. When she rejoined the Queen, the lady was panting and dishevelled by the exertions of passionate love-making and thus she was discovered. Instead of punishing her or the student, the Queen ordered all her ladies-in-waiting to marry the students in a mass ceremony so as to bless them and ensure they avoided temptation in the future. She gave each student clothes and a salary and ordered husband and wife meet once a week as long as the students studied hard. It was the kind of story that epitomized the liberal, human tradition of Islam and madrassa education in Herat.

The Taliban had no knowledge of Herat's history or traditions. They arrived to drive Herati women indoors. People were barred from visiting the shrines of Sufi saints of which Herat had an abundance. The Taliban canceled out years of effort by the Mujaheddin commander Ismael Khan to educate the population, by shutting down all girls' schools. Most boys' schools also closed as their teachers were women.

Goharshad lived to be 80, plotting, parrying and patronizing, the de-facto power in the Persian part of Timur's fragmenting empire, a strong woman in a man's world. About a decade after Ulugh Beg's murder, Abū Saʿīd, warlord of Yasi (modern-day southern Kazakhstan), great-grandson of Timur, grandson of Miran Shah, nephew of Ulugh Beg, and grandfather of Babur, captured Herat, and had the old queen executed.


Near the historical Afrosiab (more on that later) is Ulugh Beg's hill, now a musuem filled with astrolabes and pictures of life at his court. Outside, there is a statue of Mirza Ulugh Beg, framed against a background of the milky way and stars.

Here is the museum on Ulugh Beg's hill. Beyond the distant mountains lies Tajikistan.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice and partly detailed info about Ulugh Begh.

11:10 PM  

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