1449: Ulugh Beg, astronomer prince

On this date in 1449, Timurid sultan and astronomer Ulugh Beg was beheaded at the order of his son.


Ulugh Beg and his famous astronomical observatory, depicted on a Soviet stamp.

Grandson of the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane), Ulugh Beg had hitched along on some of those legendary military campaigns.

As power passed to Ulugh Beg’s father Shah Rukh, our man settled in as governor of the silk road city of Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan — and turned it into an intellectual capital of the empire.

A great patron of the sciences, Ulugh Beg was a brilliant astronomer in his own right, nailing NASA-quality precise calculations of heavenly bodies’ positions and the revolutions of the earth a century ahead of the likes of Copernicus.

An inscription on the madrasah he erected summed up the city’s philosophy under its philosopher-prince: “Pursuit of knowledge is the duty of each follower of Islam, man and woman.”

Wedding scientific genius to political power enabled Ulugh Beg to build a great observatory in Samarkand. Though this structure unfortunately did not outlive Ulugh Beg himself, it made Samarkand the world’s astronomical capital in the 1420s and 1430s.

But the flip side of wedding scientific genius to political power was that the guy had to govern — which wasn’t his strong suit. Within two years of his father’s 1447 death, Ulugh Beg had been overthrown by his own son* and summarily beheaded.

* The son became known as “Padarkush”, meaning “parricide” … and appropriately, he was overthrown by his own cousin within months.

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