Ulugh Beg: The ruler who reached for the stars

History Tamalika Basu
Ulugh Beg
Ulugh Beg Statue at Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It is part of the Samarkand - Crossroad of Cultures World Heritage Site. © Beibaoke1 | Dreamstime.com

How does one judge a ruler? Not a democratic one of the modern era of course, but an ancient or medieval king or an emperor? Satyajit Ray’s renowned film Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) raises this interesting question. If Wajid Ali Shah, the 19th century Nawab of Oudh, an Indian territorial master, was callous administrator, the film depicts him as a great artist. I wish there was a similar film on Mirza Muhammad Tarbhay bin Shahrukh. This gentleman, aka Ulugh Beg, the Sultan of the vast Timurid empire in the late 14th and 15th centuries is almost a forgotten figure in history.

Who was Ulugh Beg?

Very few people, barring those with a keen interest in the history of astronomy, have even heard his name. Yet Ulug Beg’s contribution in the field of astronomy was path-breaking. Indeed, no proper history of the science of celestial bodies would be complete without the mention of Ulugh Beg. Sadly, kings, emperors, sultans and nawabs, largely because of a strange slant in western historiography are generally remembered for their political acumen. In this count Beg was certainly a failure, and therefore has been buried by historians.

To recount his life briefly: Beg was the grandson of Timur, a Turco-Mongol ruler who conquered vast territories in areas of what is present day Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia. Timur founded the Timurid Empire. Ulugh Beg’s father Shah Rukh ruled the empire between 1407 and 1447. It was during his father’s reign that Ulugh became the governor of Samarkand in 1409, when he was only 16. Eventually he did ascend the throne on his father’s death in 1447. And his incapability as an administrator was soon revealed to the world, and in a sad turn of events within two years he was assassinated at the instigation of one of his sons Abd al-Latif. And history quickly forgot him.

Ulugh Beg

The Ulugh Beg Observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Built in the 1420s by astronomer Ulugh Beg, it is considered by scholars to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world. © Demerzel21 | Dreamstime.com

Observatory of Ulugh Beg

Yet the Ulugh Beg Observatory and the huge Madrasa which he built in Samarkand are testimonies of his erudition. The madrasa in time became of the largest educational institutions in the world. Particularly stunning was the observatory. It was an enormous structure built in 1428. Besides Beg himself great astronomers such as Al-Kashi and Ali Qushji used the observatory. There was a huge ‘sextant’ in the observatory. Only the lower and the largest parts of the instrument now survives.

However, in the hay days of the observatory the sextant extended well above the ground. It is considered to be largest meridian instrument ever built. The angle of the elevation of major celestial bodies could be measured with it. Light from these bodies were made to pass through controlled openings, and thus shone on the curved track, which was marked precisely with degrees and minutes.

Always much ahead of his time

Noted American astronomer Kevin Krisciunas in an article points out that the instrument could “…could achieve a resolution of several seconds of arc–on the order of a six-hundredth of a degree, or the diameter of an American penny at a distance of more than half a Kilometre.” One must remember that Ulugh Beg was working 200 years before the telescope came into existence. According to Krisciunas, Ulugh Beg was “certainly the most important observational astronomer of the 15th century. He was one of the first to advocate and build permanently mounted astronomical instruments.”


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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