1449: Ulugh Beg, astronomer prince

Add comment October 27th, 2011 Headsman

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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Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Intellectuals,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Timurid Empire,Uzbekistan,Wrongful Executions

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1393: The Muzaffarids, by Timur

1 comment May 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1393 — or 10 Rajab 795 on the Islamic lunar calendar — the feared conquerer Timur (or Tamerlane) disposed of the squabbling ruling dynasty he had recently overturned, the Muzaffarids.

The House of Muzaffar came to prominence under the Mongol Ikhanate that stretched itslef from Persia to the Mediterranean in the 13th century.

As the Ilkhanate broke up in 1335, a guy like Yazd governor Mubariz al-Din Muhammad ibn Muzaffar could bloodily carve out a state of his own.*

Renowned for his cruelties, Mubariz al-Din ended his life blinded by his heir, Shah Shuja (or Shah Shujaa).

And in this generation, the House Muzaffar rapidly became a house divided, with brothers and cousins vying with each other (and with neighboring princelings). They were easy pickings for the rising Timurid Empire and its eponymous founder.

Exploiting a letter** sent by the aging Shuja (after a lifetime warring with his fellow Muzaffarids) recommending Shuja’s son to Timur’s protection, Timur rolled in and set up his own puppet Muzaffar. (It wasn’t the recommended son. C’est la vie.)

No sooner had Timur decamped for his next conquest than yet another of the Muzaffar clan — a brother of Timur’s puppet by the name of Shah Mansur† — revolted and set himself up as king.

It didn’t work, but Edward Gibbon was moved to pay tribute to Mansur’s intrepidity as he surveyed the Timurid annexations:

[P]etty tyrants might have opposed him with confederate arms: they separately stood, and successively fell; and the difference of their fate was only marked by the promptitude of submission or the obstinacy of resistance. Ibrahim, prince of Shirwan, or Albania, kissed the footstool of the Imperial throne. His peace-offerings of silks, horses, and jewels, were composed, according to the Tartar fashion, each article of nine pieces; but a critical spectator observed, that there were only eight slaves. “I myself am the ninth,” replied Ibrahim, who was prepared for the remark; and his flattery was rewarded by the smile of Timour. Shah Mansour, prince of Fars, or the proper Persia, was one of the least powerful, but most dangerous, of his enemies. In a battle under the walls of Shiraz, he broke, with three or four thousand soldiers, the coul or main body of thirty thousand horse, where the emperor fought in person. No more than fourteen or fifteen guards remained near the standard of Timour: he stood firm as a rock, and received on his helmet two weighty strokes of a cimeter: the Moguls rallied; the head of Mansour was thrown at his feet; and he declared his esteem of the valor of a foe, by extirpating all the males of so intrepid a race.

* The Muzaffarids’ most famous subject was the Persian poet Hafez (or Hafiz), whose lifetime was roughly paralleled the dynasty’s own. Hafez was patronized by the powers that be, though his favor waxed and waned.

** Timur himself would not think of empire-building; he accrued a mighty central Asian realm strictly by happenstance. “God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity.”

“For every war,” observes Gibbon of Timur and his ilk, “a motive of safety or revenge, of honor or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors.”

† The Muzaffarid family tree is unnecessarily confusing, but a genealogy here may clarify matters.

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