Ulugh Beg – The stars of Samarkand

Ulugh Beg’s book of the fixed stars by Al-Sufi

(Paris, Bibliothèque national de France, Arabe 5036)

The fascination of the firmament

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences, founded and pursued through a
long tradition in the endeavour of the human mind to grasp and understand the workings of the universe. From earliest times, it was only by observing and studying the celestial bodies that calendars and time could be determine.

The daily lives of people throughout history have always been directly dependent on these calculated rhythms and the changes in nature that came along with them, which is why people attached such great importance to the heavenly bodies and often worshipped them in rituals. The great interest in astronomy is also reflected in the construction of emblematic structures such as Stonehenge (around 3000–1500 B.C.) or the Egyptian pyramids; the Bronze Age Nebra Sky Disc is another example illustrating the great importance accorded to the celestial bodies and their observation from early on.

Astronomy played a decisive role in everyday life – which was shaped by the seasons – as well as in religious life (determining prayer times and
high feast days) in both the Christian and Islamic worlds.

“Religions disperse like mist, empires destroy themselves, but the works of the scholar remain for all time. It is the duty of every true Muslim, man and woman, to strive after knowledge.”
Ulugh Beg (1394–1449)

The Golden Age of Islamic science – antiquity and the Arabic tradition of astronomy

The first known attempts to describe the composition of the heavens originate in classical Greece. 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 world, but also in the Christian world.

Art and science in unique synthesis

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 scientist on a ruler’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.

Our facsimile edition

A masterpiece of Central Asian art, one of the most important and at the same time most beautiful treatises on the starry sky, created for the greatest scientist on a ruler‘s throne, a symbol of the flourishing of the legendary city of Samarkand in the Middle Ages: this incredible manuscript is now being published for the first time ever as a complete, true-to-the-original facsimile edition.

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.

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