Ulugh Beg (March 22, 1394 - October 27, 1449), born Muhammad Taragai ibn Shakhrukh ibn Timur Gurgan, Mongol-Turkish astronomer and mathematician from what is today Uzbekistan.

Ulugh Beg, meaning "Great Prince" was the grandson of the Mongol warlord Timur (aka Tamerlane) and the son of Shakhrukh, and was appointed the viceroy of the province of Transoxiana (then Maverannakhr) by his father, between 1405 and 1410. The capital of the province was established in Samarkand. Ulugh Beg showed an aptitude for scientific pursuits from an early age. His father and grandfather attracted scholars to Samarkand, and Ulugh Beg took full advantage of this.

When he came to power in Samarkand, he was a willing patron of the madrasa (Russian: medresa) - essentially a university - and funded construction of its observatory. Under his patronage, the observatory completed the Zij-i-Gurgani or Zij-i-Ulugh Beg - a summary of astronomical and mathematical knowledge up to the fifteenth century, similar to but more advanced than Ptolemy's Almagest. It included a catalogue of 1018 stars visible to the naked eye, with positions accurate to within five arcseconds (measured with Samarkand's giant 40-meter quadrant), an amazing achievement for the time. The Zij-i-Gurgani also gave the Earth's precession rate as 51.4 arcseconds per year, very close to the 50.2 arcseconds per year now known to be correct for that era. The Zij is considered one of the three greatest works of Muslim astronomy. The observations were completed in 1437, and the results published (in Persian, Arabic, and Tadjik) a few years later. His book was unknown in Europe until it was translated in part by John Greaves of Oxford University in 1648, and finally published in full by Thomas Hyde (also of Oxford) in 1665.

Ulugh Beg was not directly involved in taking observations, but left that to the observatory staff under the directorships of Jamshid Al-Kashi and Qadi Zada, and the observer Ali ibn Muhammad al-Qushchi. However, he was deeply involved in the editing and review of the final work. Interestingly, he was very strongly devoted to the search for truth and accuracy, to the point of using his position of power to advance a false idea, then chastizing people who agreed with him out of deference to his rank and power.

His father, Shakhrukh, died in 1447 and passed control of his kingdom to Ulugh Beg, which drew him away from his scientific pursuits. Ulugh Beg was assassinated in 1449 under the orders of his son, Abdul Latif, who was himself murdered a year later. Ulugh Beg's death and the end of his patronage of the observatory put an end to the astronomical work at Samarkand.

Archaeological excavation of Ulugh Beg's observatory was carried out by V.L. Vyatkin in 1908 and 1914, and Ulugh Beg's tomb (in the mausoleum of Tamerlane) was uncovered in 1941 and 1948 by the expeditions of T.N. Kari-Nazov. Ulugh Beg had been buried with the honors of a martyr.


Sources: Kevin Krisciunas' excellent Astronomical Centers of the World, Cambridge University Press, 1988, and Astronomi: Biograficheski Spravochnik by I.G. Kolchinski, A.A. Corson, and M.G. Rodriguez, Naukova Dumka, Kiev, 1986.

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