Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan
Day 13 - Thursday, 4 May 2000


Today we visited the observatory of Ulugh Beg. We were not aware of it at the time but we had eaten lunch near the observatory on our way to Bukhara last Sunday (Day 9).

The layers of history were spread before us again; in the 4th century, Alexander the Great conquered, in the 6th century the Turks ruled, and in 712 AD the Arab conquerors came. They brought a new language (Arabic) and a new religion (Islam) and with it a new culture. At this time in the city were people of many religions, including Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Islamic nation was added to this mix.

In 1054, Omar Khayam came to Samarkand and wrote of "bushes cut as animals, water running, and naked women diving under willows." He also encountered astonishing and impressive hospitality in the beautiful city.

It was in the 12th century that Ghengis Khan destroyed all this civilization and the city itself.

In the 15th century Timur, born in Shahrisabz, rose to power and created an empire that reached from the shores of the Mediterranean (and included Israel) to the Asian land of China. This empire was a nurturing environment for scientists, philosphers and scholars.

On one of the highest, most rocky, hills around Sarmarkand, Timur's grandson Ulugh Beg built this wonderful observatory around 1420. Before his death in 1449, with this instrument, Ulugh Beg marked degrees, minutes, seconds. He calculated a 365 day year (with an error of 58 seconds compared to today's calendar), fixed the eclipses, and determined the days of the equinox.

Our guide said that no one today knows how the instrument worked, they only know the results of Ulugh Beg's work. All this, she said, was accomplished by the "unaided eye." It was before the days of optical instruments which were discovered by the Europeans.

In 1908, the archeologist Uyatkin found the observatory. He excavated the lower part (1 story) which still remains and is 11 meters deep. Inside was a built in cylinder of 2 arcs, 51 centimenters apart. The upper part (2 stories) of the observatory was either destroyed by his murderers, or fell into neglect and decay. Ulughbeg's own son was connected to the murder of Ulughbek, and there seem to be some discrepancies in different accounts.

Although Ulugh Beg was an excellent scholar, he was not a very good leader of his people. Perhaps he was also not sufficiently obedient or respectful to the Islamic elders, because one story says that he was killed because he elevated science above faith. His fame however, is recorded in Encyclopedia Brittanica, and I quote in part:

"The most productive Islamic observatory was that erected by the Timurid prince Ulugh Beg at Samarkand in about 1420; he and his assistants made a catalog of stars from observations with a large quadrant............ the only known Oriental astronomer to reobserve the positions of Ptolemy's stars. His catalog, put together in 1420-37, was not printed until 1665, by which time it had already been surpassed by European observations."

Aziza, our local guide, also talked to us about some of the men who came before Ulugh Beg and whose work gave him a leg up. One of these is Al-Khwarizmi (c. 780-850). He was a mathematician and astronomer who lived in Baghdad. His major works introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra into European mathematics. It is from his name on one of his books translated into Latin that we get the word algorithm, and from another one of his books we get the word algebra.

We went to the Afrosiab museum. A fresco was discovered in the excavation of the city in 1968, but as soon as the archeologists saw it, they sealed it up again because they did not know how to preserve it. Ten years were spent in developing a method of preserving it, and today it has been moved into the museum where it is displayed exactly as they found it.

Because it depicts people and animals, it had to exist prior to the coming of Islam, and because it was covered, it was not destroyed by the conquerors. The 20th century archeologists reconstructed the room exactly, and the fresco on four walls is preserved for our view. A ruler is depicted receiving guests with gifts. There are white birds symbolizing peace, an instrument in his hand symbolizes authority. In the procession are horses, a camel, an elephant, snow leopard, doves and even what is perhaps a hippopotamus. There are people of different races; the Sogdians, Persians, Turks and Chinese are all represented.

We visited the Bibi-Khanum mosque, and from there we went to the market.

We visited Registan Square again, taking pictures of the Zoroastrian symbols on the third building, and wandering in the reconstructed monuments. There is a controversy; should the ruins have been left so, or was it right to reconstruct them for people to see how they might have been?

Resting in the courtyard with a cold CocaCola, Jim and I met an American from Oregon, who was in Central Asia visiting his wife. She is an attorney who is helping the nation of Tajikistan to write a new constitution.

- Continues with Day 14 -