Ulugh Beg – his Book of the fixed Stars by Al-Sufi
The Almagest of Ptolemy was authoritative in astronomy for centuries. Numerous manuscripts of the Occident bear witness to this. However, the heavens and their empirical observation have fascinated people worldwide – and this manuscript gives us a glimpse of fabled Samarkand, mythical center of the Silk Road in the 15th century and synonymous with oriental splendour under the Timurids. Ulugh Beg, a scientist on a ruler’s throne, had the famous 10th-century text of Al-Sufi calligraphed and painted as a magnificent manuscript for his library.
Antiquity and the Arabic Tradition of Astronomy
One of the earliest known writers on astronomy is Ptolemy (100–160), the ancient philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria, whose writings were regarded as the standard scientific work on celestial science up to the early modern age. His Almagest is a systematic guide to mathematical astronomy, the contents of which would remain definitive for centuries to come.
The Almagest is also the basis for Al-Sufi‘s 10th-century work on the fixed stars. The Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman Al-Sufi (903–986) studied Ptolemy‘s work in detail and combined it with the scientific Arab tradition and the empirical observations of pre-Islamic cultures such as the Bedouins.
In his text, Al-Sufi corrects numerous statements by Ptolemy and supplements them with his own empirical observations. He merges all the star names mentioned in Arabic literature with Ptolemy‘s catalogue of stars and quotes their ecliptic coordinates and magnitudes. In his observations he even describes the Large Magellanic Cloud (which he names al-Bakr) and the Andromeda Galaxy. All the mythological figures of the constellations are depicted twice, once as an image as seen in the sky and once projected onto a sphere.
Thanks to this, his impressive work served for many centuries as a model for numerous celestial globes. Over a long period of time, Al-Sufi’s text was the most important guide to the stars not only in the Islamic, but also in the Christian world.
The Manuscript of a Prince
The manuscript from Paris, reproducing the text of the Book of the Fixed Stars, captivates with its magnificent illustrations, meticulously executed, detailed depictions of the constellations and celestial bodies described in the text. With 74 large-format miniatures, the codex is undoubtedly one of the richest and most beautifully decorated versions of Al-Sufi‘s famous astronomical text.
In addition, the codex is of outstanding historical importance: the manuscript was created at the court of the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg – a scholar on a prince’s throne, famous for his great cultural and scientific activities and achievements.
A Scientist in the Seat of Power
Ulugh Beg (1394–1449) is still known today for his achievements in the fields of art, education and science. He was a grandson of the conqueror Timur Leng (Tamerlane). Appointed governor of Samarkand at the age of 15 by his father, the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh, Ulugh Beg immediately began to transform the city into a centre of Islamic culture. He was responsible for the construction of the famous Ulugh Beg madrasa on the Registan in Samarkand (around 1417), and of an astonishing observatory (1424 onwards), which was not discovered and excavated until 1908.
A definitive Work for Centuries
Even today, we are impressed by the precision of the measurements made at the observatory in Samarkand, on the basis of ancient texts and empirical observations. This precision made it possible to measure the stars exactly and to define their luminous intensity. Ulugh Beg was even able to calculate the sidereal year to an accuracy of 58 seconds, and his manual of astronomical tables – the star catalogue Zij-i-Sultani, giving the positions of 1018 stars, created between 1420 and 1437 – was unsurpassed in accuracy until Tycho Brahe’s time.
74 fascinating Miniatures of Constellations executed in the finest Technique
Authentic facsimile edition of the Codex Arabe 5036 in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris. 74 finely executed miniatures of constellations as well as numerous golden headings illustrate the text of Al-Sufi on 247 leaves in the format 24.5 x 18.5 cm. The binding of the original is also faithfully reproduced: it consists of a gold-embroidered cloth and gold-stamped leather binding with a flap. The valuable facsimile is protected by a magnificent case.
The commentary volume accompanying the manuscript illuminates all of its aspects, describing how it came into being as well as the context in which it was produced, and explaining all of the miniatures in detail.