Question: Where in the world did scientists hide a sextant as big as the wing of a 747?
Answer: Ulugh Beg Madrasa & Observatory, Samarkand
At the dawn of the 15th century, Sultan Ulugh Beg transformed the Silk Road hotspot of Samarkand into a mecca of learning by founding a madrasa where Islamic scholars studied philosophy, poetry, history and theology. But his dream project was the building of a cutting-edge observatory nearby. The result was majestic—a three-story complex the height of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Ulugh Beg hired its staff personally, bringing together 60 or so of the greatest minds of the Islamic world.
As in many eras, the more regressive-minded factions of the Samarkand government were threatened by science, fearing it might reveal truths that did not align with their existing beliefs. Less than a century after its founding, opponents of the observatory succeeded in getting it razed to the ground. Though its contributions to the world were already established, its physical location was lost to history—until 1908.
That’s when archaeologist V. L. Vyatkin discovered a trench in a hillside close to the madrasa. The more he excavated, the clearer it became: the trench was not leading to a great find; it was the find. The floor of the marble-lined trench featured parallel stone rails 20 inches apart, running 43 yards long on the meridian. This was the heart of an enormous sextant, the instrument that had made all the scientists’ calculations possible. The sextant’s in-earth design had kept it out of the line of fire during the destruction of the observatory, and nature had done the rest, filling it in over the ensuing centuries.
The underground sextant remains the largest instrument of its type ever made on Earth, an achievement too big to stay hidden forever.
The Sultan’s Handiwork in 9 Fast Facts
- Before focusing on astronomy, Ulugh Beg created his own garlic-and-liquor elixir to treat diarrhea, intestinal distress, and headaches.
- He invented a recipe for a marital aid/virility treatment containing nuts and dried fruit.
- Using the sextant he designed, his team was able to pinpoint the location of 1018 stars (many of which had been mapped incorrectly before).
- Not content to rest, he calculated by degree how each star’s placement would shift for each of the next 70 years afterward.
- The observatory’s zij, a catalog of star positions, was so influential that it was later printed as an astronomy text at Oxford.
- Ulugh Beg’s estimation of the solar year (also known as the tropical year) was better than that of Copernicus, with an error of only 25 seconds.
- Without leaving terra firma, he and his scientists were able to determine the axial tilt of the earth in relation to its solar orbit.
- The sultan wrote accurate trigonometry tables with precise tangent values and the value of sine.
- Ulugh Beg is now himself part of the celestial expanse: a crater on the Moon and an asteroid are both named for him.
Behold the handiwork of the sultan and more of Samarkand’s wonders on your The Stans of Central Asia: Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan adventure.