Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Sunday, March 22, 2020


Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) ws a Persian sultan, known for his astronomical and mathematical studies.  The grandson of the conqueror Tamerlane, Ulugh Beg (a sobriquet roughly equivalent to "great ruler") was born Mirza Muhammad Taraghay bin Shahrukh during his grandfather's invasion of Persia; both Tamerlane and Shah Ruck (Ulugh Beg's father) were natives of what is now Uzbekistan.  As a child, Ulugh Beg roamed throughout the Middle East and India as Tamerlane continued his conquests.  He was eleven when Tamerlane died and Shah Ruck moved the capitol of the empire to Afghanistan.  When he was sixteen, Ulugh Beg's father gave him the city of Samarkand to govern.  Two years later he was named the sovereign ruler of Mavarannahr -- an area that encompassed Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and portions of  Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; Ulugh Beg's territory eventually expanded to cover the Timurid empire, which included Iran, Mesopotamia, much of Central Asia, and parts of India, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey.

The teenager's interests lay much more in the sciences rather than governing.  He invited top scholars to his realm and, over the years, he constructed the largest observatory in Central Asia, and founded several institutes of learning.  He was responsible for the cultural renaissance in the area in the fifteenth century.

Having no telescopes, Ulugh Beg built a large sextant with a radius approximating 118 feet to measure the transit altitudes of stars.  Using the equipment at his observatory, he created a star catalog of 1018 stars  -- slightly less than that of Ptolemy.  Later realizing that he had made multiple mistakes in his catalogue, he issued a new one in 1447 containing 994 stars.  This is generally considered the greatest star catalog in the years between Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe.

In 1437, Ulugh Beg determined the length of the sidereal year.  Eighty-eight years later, Copernicus was able to improve Ulugh beg's calculations by a mere 28 seconds.  Ulugh Beg's calculation for the tropical year, however, was slightly more accurate (by 5 seconds) than that of Copernicus.

The Persian scientist-sultan also created trigonometric tables of sine and tangent values accurate to eight places.

(Understand that I have little or no idea what all the above means.  Suffice it to say, it was some pretty brainy stuff.)

I mentioned that Ulugh Beg was better at science than he was at ruling.  During his reign, others -- including family members -- took advantage of his lack of control over his realm.  When Shah Ruck died in 1447, Ulugh Beg discovered that his brother's son -- Ulugh Beg's nephew -- was claiming the throne.   Ulugh Beg went to war. defeated his nephew and slaughter the inhabitants of Herat, which his nephew had claimed for his throne.  But...there's always a but...there was another nephew who attacked Ulugh Beg's troops and defeated them, forcing Ulugh Beg to retreat to Balkh, a city governed by his eldest son.  His son revolted against Ulugh Beg, forcing him to retreat further into Samarkand, where he eventually had to surrender to his son, Abd-al-Latif.  His son seemingly spared Ulugh beg's life, allowing him to begin a pilgrimage to Mecca. but on the way his son had him assassinated.  The family that preys together...

For a brief, shining moment science had had its Camelot in Central Asia.

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