Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reflections on a note in Science about a Central Asian astronomer

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the most prestigious scholarly organization in this country. But the June 17 issue of the society’s journal Science has a brief note [p 1365] that veils a useful distinction that to some of us is important.

The note is about the esteemed Central Asian astronomer Ulugh Beg. The note refers to a tribute made to Ulugh Beg by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687. Hevelius asked for help in finding Beg’s map of the heavens and asked for it to be translated from the Persian.

The resultant map produced by Hevelius is being displayed in a show called Arabick Roots in London. The article refers to the “flow of knowledge from the Arab world to Europe in the 17th century.”
Technically the statement is OK but it masks a certain historical reality. That is, Ulugh Beg was not Arab; he was Turko-Persian, the grandson of Tamer lane, and the son of the famed ruler of Herat Shah Rukh who sponsored an elaborate Turko-Persian culture. Ulugh Beg wrote in Persian even though he may have known Arabic as well as Persian and Turkish. So the “Arabic world” in Ulugh Beg’s time was very Persian as well as Arabic. Much of the scholarly knowledge that came to Europe from the “Arab world” was very Persian as well as Arabic. In fact, some of the most scientific gains in those centuries were made by Central Asians – that is, Turko-Persians. So the flow of knowledge to Europe came from the Turko-Persian societies in Central Asia.

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