From Samarqand to the Stars

Did you know that Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world? The other (less controversial) one is Liechtenstein.[1] All that to say: today’s stamps are taking us to central Asia.

Uzbekistan started issuing their own stamps in 1992, and just two years later released this set to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the birth of Ulūgh Beg. Mīrzā Muhammad Tāraghay bin Shāhrukh, later known as Ulūgh Beg (’great prince’), was the grandson of Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire.

The empire eventually grew to include an astonishing amount of land, including modern-day Uzbekistan, Iran, the southern Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, large parts of Central Asia, and parts of modern-day India, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey.

The Timurid Empire at its greatest extent (shown in lighter green). Image credit.

Ulūgh Beg became the governor of Samarqand in 1409 at the age of 16, and, like many 16-year-old boys, he was apparently keen to keep up with the latest technology. He set out to make Samarqand the intellectual heart of the Timurid empire and followed his interests in astronomy and mathematics. The stamps help to tell the story of his successes in this area, and the legacy he left behind.

‘Madrasa’ is an Arabic word – a name given to different types of educational institutions. The Ulūgh Beg madrasa in Samarqand was built between 1417 and 1420 and played an important role in making the city an intellectual centre. Among the students was Ali Qushji, who famously separated work on astrophysics from natural philosophy, transforming the field into a purely mathematical and scientific one.

In the 1420s, Ulūgh Beg built a second madrasa in Bukhara (also in modern-day Uzebekistan). The madrasa was a magnet for scholars from across the Muslim world and helped lead to Bukhara’s cultural rebirth. Astral designs are prominent in the decoration of the madrasa, and the gate features the inscription “Seeking knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female.”[2]

A third Timurid-era madrasa was built in G‘ijduvon, near Bukhara, but this was not one of Ulūgh Beg’s.

In the 1420s Ulūgh Beg also built an observatory close to Samarqand to indulge his passion for astronomy. The right-hand side of this stamp prominently features a large meridian arc, used to measure the angle of elevation of bright celestial objects. In its day, it was 40 meters tall, and it is now known as the Fakhrī sextant.

The other instruments are mostly lost on me, I’m afraid, though I’m sure some astrophilatelists can help me out in the comments! The globe photo shown above is a celestial globe from 1430-1431, made in modern-day Iran. The British Museum notes that globes much like this one “were used to teach calculations in observatories such as the one built in Samarqand in 1428–9 by the Timurid prince Ulugh Beg”.[3]

Last but not least, the man himself. This statue of Ulūgh Beg can be found in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where there is also, appropriately, an international school named after him.

However, the story of Ulūgh Beg did not end quite so gloriously. When his father died in 1447, Ulūgh Beg came to power, but his success with science was not matched with political prowess. After a short reign with unrest and civil wars, his son ʿAbd al-Laṭīf had Ulūgh Beg killed in 1449.

[1] So Uzbekistan’s classification as doubly-landlocked is actually contested. Two of the countries it borders (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) have a border with the Caspian Sea. If the Caspian Sea is a sea-as-in-lake, then it’s an inland body of water, and Uzbekistan is doubly-landlocked. If it’s a sea-as-in-ocean, then Uzbekistan is just the normal level of landlocked. But “Did you know that Uzbekistan is landlocked?” didn’t seem like a great start to a blog post.

[2] The phrase is taken from Bihar al-Anwar, Al-Majlisi 1:177.

[3] Let me acknowledge here that although this globe was purchased by the British Museum in 1895-1896, the question of rightful ownership is obviously far more complex.

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