Monday, April 19, 2010

The Great Astronomer - Muhammad Taragay Ulugbek

The post office of Uzbekistan has issued two stamps celebrating the 615th anniversary of Ulubek's birth to coincide with the International Year of Astronomy.The two stamps are separated by a label featuring the IYA 2009 logo. The 350 Soum  stamp features the Ulugbek Observatory in Samarkand while the 750 Soum stamp has a statue depicting the great astronomer, mathematician and statesmen Muhammad Taragay Ulugbek.

Stamps commemorating the
Ulugbek Observatory in Samarkand.
Among his many accomplishments, he was the creator of a number of astronomical catalogues and tables, defining the location of thousands of planets and stars, which even today astound scientists with their accuracy.

Ulugbek was an outstanding scholar of his time and a grandson of the great Аmir Timur. He was born on March 22, 1394 in Sultania, in today's Azerbaijan. The young scholar was brought up by his grandmother, the first wife of Timur, Saray Mulkkhanim and from an early age he displayed a great thirst for knowledge. He was also tutored in theory of music and poetry and had an exceptional memory.

After the Great Amir Timur’s death in February 1405, a struggle for power started among his sons that lasted almost for 5 years. Eventually Ulubek's father, Shahrukh gained power. He made Herat his residence and gave his eldest son Ulugbek Samarkand in 1409 and then the whole of Maveraunnakhr in 1411 to govern.

With an advent of a clever and educated ruler rising to power, Samarkand soon became a major centre for scholarship and intellectual pursuit. During the years 1417-1420 he erected the first madrasah in the Registan (square) where many great oriental scholars of the age lectured. He also built two other important madrasah’s in Gijduvan and Bukhara. The inscription on the entrance portal of Ulugbek’s madrasah in Bukhara proclaims: “It is the sacred duty of every Muslim man and woman to seek after knowledge”

His major passion was for astronomy and he made the construction of a great observatory in Samarkand a key priority. His magnificent three-level observatory was completed by 1428-1429. It was a unique building of its time, built in the stony foothills of the Kuhak hills as they were believed to be more earthquake resistant. The observatory was a round three-storey building with a height of 30.4 m. At the base of the observatory was set in place the azimuth quadrant with a radius of 40.212 meters and arc length of 63 meters. The main instrument its massive sextant was orientated to the meridian line from the south to the north. Other astronomical instruments were also kept in the top levels of the observatory. The size of the sextant, its almost perfect construction and the scientific knowledge of Ulugbek and his fellow scientist-astronomers Qazi-Zadeh Rumi, Djemsnid Giyas ad-Din Kashi, Giyasaddin Jamshid, Ali Kushji, Muhhamad Havofi and others made for much more accurate astronomical observations than any until that time been performed.

The Samarkand observatory became famous after it published the "Ulugbeg Zidj" (Catalogue of the Stars) containing a theoretical introduction and astronomical charts describing 1,018 stars. This was the first such major publication since that of the ancient Greek astronomer Gipparkh (190-126 BC).

This astronomical catalogue of the celestial sky is still considered as one of the greatest historical contributions to the science of astronomy. Besides this, he wrote two other great works, one on the definition of ecliptic movement to the equator and the other on the measurements of the stellar year carried out in the observatory. He determined that the length of the stellar year to be equal to 365 days 6 hours 10 minutes and 8 seconds. Today with all our advanced technology we now known that the star year is equal to 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.6 seconds. Amazingly only a 61.6 seconds difference.

Ulugbek as he got older spent more and more of his time in the observatory and paid less and less attention to government affairs. His eldest son, Abd al-Latif, fell under the influence of a radical religious group (ED: nothing is new sadly) and on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Ulugbek was deceitfully beheaded with Abd-al-Latif’s connivance.After the tragic death of Ulugbek, these same religious fanatics provoked the destruction of his great observatory. The scholars, who worked in this famous scientific centre fled or were killed and the valuable library was plundered. The main building housing the observatory was also destroyed and by the end of the XVII century very little remained of the observatory.

Its location stayed unknown for a long time and it was only in 1908, did the famous Samarkand archaeologist V.L.Vyatkin find the ruins by studying old documents. He excavated the underground remains of the huge quadrant (40m in radius) which was used for the observation of the Sun, Moon and other celestial bodies and restored it to allow people to see this a great achievement of Ulugbeg.

Though he was unable to complete his work, Ali Kushji, a devoted follower of Ulugbek was able to escape Samarkand in time and took his famous catalogue of the stars to Europe where upon  Ulugbek’s name and his scientific achievements became well known. His catalogue of the stars became the most accurate astronomical guide right up until the invention of telescope. The important astronomical tome “The Catalogue of stellar sky” was published during the XVII century in Europe by the Dutchman Jan Geveliy was decorated with beautiful engravings, one of which depicts a symbolic meeting of the greatest astronomers who lived in different countries at different times Ulugbek among them. The inscription over the image of Ulugbek states "I have presented my case seriously" - where Ulugbek stands on the right arm of the goddess of astronomy, Urania.