Friday, March 2, 2018


Of all the places we had planned to visit on this trip through the Stans, I was most excited for Samarkand, a city in Uzbekistan that is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in Central Asia. I knew very little bit about it other than what I could glean from the pictures we had looked at in the travel brochure, but man-oh-man, those were some pictures.

Our first introduction to Samarkand when we stepped off the train was provided by this group of "musicians," a word I use loosely here. It sounded more like really annoying and really large insects buzzing in my ear than it sounded like music:

Things got better after that. Here is the tropical courtyard of the train station:

"Welcome" in English!

Looking back at the train station and already missing our comfy cabin (NOT) . . . 

. . . and looking ahead into the city:

We saw these cleaner-upper ladies with their "organic" brooms everywhere. Samarkand is a very clean city:

Our first stop was a visit to Ulugh Beg (also spelled Ulugbek and Ulegbek), the grandson of Timur who lived from 1394 to 1449. His name is not really his name, but rather a title that means "Great Ruler." Note the wall behind him covered by orbiting planets.

It's a pretty big statue:

Ulugh Beg ruled all of the area that is now Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, southern Kazakhstan, and most of Afghanistan from 1411 until his death in 1449. Do you remember that he was born in 1394? Yep, that's right. He became the ruler of all that territory at age 17.

Some other interesting facts about him:

• He started out as the ruler of "just" Samarkand at age 16. (Think about yourself at age 16.)

• He had 13 wives.

• He was passionate about math, medicine, poetry, and, above all, astronomy.

• As the telescope would not be invented until the 1600s, he had only a sextant to work with, so he made an enormous sextant with a radius of about 118 feet, and in 1428 he built the world's finest observatory at that time to house it.

• Samarkand, under Ulugh Beg's rule, was the center of the scientific world.

• Good scientists don't necessarily make good dictators. Ulugh Beg was not very successful in battle, and after losing two wars, he was captured in a plot led by his son and beheaded.

• Six months later his son was beheaded and his head was left in the city square with these words: "This is what happens to sons who kill their fathers."

Following Ulugh Beg's murder, his grand observatory was leveled and the scientists who worked there were driven out. The equipment and records remained buried until they were discovered in 1908 by a Russian archaeologist named Vassily Vyatkin. Around the year 2000, the ginormous sextant was encased in this interesting structure, which, when viewed from the side, looks like a leviathan slinking across the pavement:

The front is the usual splendid explosion of geometric patterns:

The far end has a window that lets in light so that visitors have a better view of the interior. (Note the building in the distance--that's a museum I'll be talking about later.)

When it was built in 1428, the observatory was a 157-foot-tall and 130-foot-wide three-story cylindrical building that housed three huge astronomical instruments. The main instrument, known today as the Fakhri sextant, remains largely intact. It was once used to measure the angle of elevation of stars and planets. 

This is what an 18th century sextant looked like.The dictionary defines a sextant as "an instrument with a graduated arc of 60° and a sighting mechanism, used for measuring the angular distances between objects and especially for taking altitudes in navigation."
Photo from Royal Museums of Greenwich website

It was a thrill to look down into this tunnel and see Ulugh Beg's 15th century version of a sextant. I don't quite understand how it worked, but it has something to do with how light streaming in through a window would fall on a specific point on the brass rails you can see running along the ground. The sextant was placed partially underground like this to provide it with added stability.

With this instrument, Ulugh Beg and his fellow astronomers  were able to determine the length of the year within 25 seconds of today's calculations, the time of noon each day, and even the relationship between the Earth's rotational axis and the plane of its orbit around the sun. Using this instrument, Ulugh Beg also created an extremely accurate catalog of at least 1,018 stars and their locations in the night sky. Fortunately, one of the escaping astronomers was able to save this catalog from destruction after Ulugh Beg's murder.

A small museum faces the front of the observatory:

Under Ulugh Beg's portrait is a quote from Islam Karimov (the elected-for-life president of Uzbekistan from 1989 to 2016): "The scientific courage and unrivaled scholarship of the Great Amir Temur's grandson Mirzo Ulughbek demonstrated in the conditions of the medieval ages cannot but astonish the contemporary scientists. The life and scientific activity of Ulughbek stands as one of the founding stones of our people's spirituality, and shows what a profound significance was paid to develop the fundamental sciences in our land, so many centuries ago."

Here is what the observatory looked like in Ulugh Beg's day:

A cut-away view, being explained by our awesome tour guide Yulia:

Another version:

It was nice to see the museum being appreciated by the locals:

In 2009, American astronaut and the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, participated in an international conference honoring Ulugh Beg and his discoveries. His picture and a somewhat indecipherable description are part of the museum displays:

They do mis-identify him as the FIRST man to step on the Moon, but that was Neil Armstrong. Buzz was the second.

As we moved on to our next venue, I had to stop to admire this beautiful outfit because I have a flannel nightgown that I swear is the same print:
I love the women's traditional clothing. I am afraid that the rising generation will soon eschew these styles in favor of more Western fashions. I'm glad we got to see The Stans before that happens.


  1. I'm glad you were paying attention. I kind of zoned out on this one. The scientific aspects are incredible, but were not in my wheelhouse that morning.

  2. I loved the Insect Welcoming Committee...not. But aptly described! I am amazed by all of this, as well as by all the scarves and patterns of clothing on the women. I keep enlarging your photos to catch all the details. Terrific!