Ulugbek loved sciences and arts from an early age, was interested in acquiring as much knowledge as possible. His grandfather supported him by sending him the best books conquered during his campaigns. Moreover, many scientists and Sufis took care of the education of young Ulugbek.
After Ulugbek father took power and ruled from Herat, Ulugbek became the governor of Transoxania and realised his scientific interests. He wanted to win the favour of the local religious authority and ordered to build his first madrasah in Bukhara.
Madrasah of Ulugbek was also built in Samarkand, which he directed after its completion. The religious school taught mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, literature and other subjects. According to legend, Ulugbek himself was one of the professors of the madrasah. The school attracted talented students and became a meeting place for the best scientists of the empire.
The construction of Ulugbek’s observatory
Ulugbek’s main focus, however, was astronomy. His dream was to build an observatory. Ulugbek was not only a sponsor of the project but a scientist himself, working with the famous astronomers of the time, Qadi Zada al-Rumi and Jamshid Kashani, as well as his student Ali Kushchi.
The observatory’s construction was completed in 1429. It is said to have been a three-storey building with a diameter of 46m and a height of 30m. From the lowest part of the basement to the roof, 63m long marble arches occupied a quarter circle and had an arch radius of 40.2m. They were oriented precisely to the north and south.
Due to his love of science, Ulugbek incurred the displeasure of the clergy. In 1449, during a pilgrimage to Mecca, he was murdered by traitors. After his death, most of the observatory was destroyed, and bricks of the observatory were used elsewhere. Until the early 20th century, there was no sign of the observatory’s location.
In 1908 the Russian archaeologist L.V. Vyatkin, based on old chronicles of property documents (vakuf document) and with the help of a connoisseur of rare manuscripts Abu Said Makhzum, was able to identify the observatory’s location and excavated the remaining elements.
Today, a part of the sextant, which lies up to 11 meters deep in the rock, has been preserved. Next to it, a museum was built, dedicated to Ulugbek and his achievements.
An outstanding achievement of the Samarkand astronomers is their star catalogue “Ziji Jadidi Guragani”, which in translation means “new astronomical tables”. The catalogue determines the coordinates of 1018 stars—accuracy of the calculation that could not be achieved in the Occident until much later.
In 1437, Ulugbek and his team calculated the length of the astronomical year as 365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes, and 8 seconds. Thus they deviated only by 58 seconds from the value valid today.
Ulugbek’s main scientific work consists of four major parts. The first, called “Chronology”, describes the methods of time reckoning adopted by various peoples in the Orient. The second part describes the questions of practical astronomy, while the third part gives information about the visible movements of the stars based on the geocentric worldview. The fourth part is devoted to astrology and is thus an unavoidable homage to the science of the medieval worldview.
After Ulugbek’s death, the observatory was destroyed, the valuable library looted, and essential works destroyed. Fortunately, Ulugbek’s pupil and scientist Ali Kushchi saved some of the scientific works they had been working on for decades and delivered them to Constantinople (Istanbul).
Some of the works were finally printed in Oxford in 1648, which made Ulugbek famous in Europe.