SEnECA Blog Post: Heavenly spheres above Samarkand and Gdańsk

Probably no other scien­tific disci­pline shows the impor­tance of Central Asia for the develo­pment of European civiliz­ation better than astronomy.

In its relations with Central Asia, the EU often evokes the idea of the Silk Road placing Central Asia merely as a “stopover” on the route between China and Europe. However, the EU should take more literally into consi­de­ration the name of Central Asia and acknow­ledge that the region used to be the centre of the world in the past. Its heritage is one of the main sources of European Renais­sance and Enligh­tenment, parti­cu­larly concerning science and philo­sophy.

The American historian Frederick Starr, in his ground-breaking book Lost Enligh­tenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, described the period mentioned in the title of his book as following: “This was truly an Age of Enligh­tenment, several centuries of cultural flowering during which Central Asia was the intel­lectual hub of the world. […] It bridged time as well as geography, in the process becoming the great link between antiquity and the modern world. To a far greater extent than today’s Europeans, Chinese, Indians, or Middle Easterners realize, they are all the heirs of the remar­kable cultural and intel­lectual efferve­scence in Central Asia.”

The status of Central Asia as the intel­lectual hub of the world between 800 and 1100 AD confirms especially its role as a source of inspi­ration for Nicolaus Coper­nicus (1473–1543) and Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687), two great European astro­nomers origi­nating from Pomerania, a region located at the shore of the Baltic Sea. They were ethnic Germans and, at the same time, loyal subjects to the Kingdom of Poland. They therefore symbolize the Polish-German cultural metissage (mix of cultures). In fact, Pomerania’s multi-cultural heritage may be compared to the experience of Central Asia where for centuries Turkic commu­nities mixed with Iranian people.

Coper­nicus, in his opus magnum De revolu­tio­nibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolu­tions of the Heavenly Spheres), often referred to the achie­ve­ments of Muslim astro­nomers including the works of the “giants” from Central Asia. The most important among them was Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201–1274) origi­nating from Tus, a city located close to the Iranian-Turkmen border. He invented a geometrical technique called a Tusi-couple for the planetary models. Tusi created this technique in order to replace Ptolemy’s equant. The Tusi couple was later employed in Coper­nicus’ helio­centric model. In fact, as Frederick Starr rightly points out there are striking simila­rities between Tusi’s criti­cisms of Ptolemy’s theory and arguments later used by Coper­nicus in order to defend his idea of Earth’s rotation around the Sun.

Coper­nicus’ theory became the main point of reference for many European astro­nomers, including his compa­triot Johannes Hevelius, who was also mayor of Gdańsk.  Hevelius included in his famous catalogue of stars Atlas firma­menti stellarum large fragments of works of Ulugh Beg (1394–1449), a Central Asian ruler who went down in history as one of the greatest astro­nomers. Another book by Hevelius, Prodromus Astro­nomiae, contains a compa­rison of data from Ulugh Beg’s star catalogue “Zij-i-Sultani”. “Zij-i-Sultani” is generally consi­dered to be the most accurate and extensive star catalogue created between Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe.

Ulugh Beg also estab­lished a legendary obser­vatory in Samarkand which was, at that time, one of the finest obser­va­tories in the world. It was modelled on the Maragheh obser­vatory created by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi situated in the East Azerbaijan Province of Iran in the middle of 13th century. The obser­vatory in Samarkand served as a source of inspi­ration for other endow­ments of that kind including the obser­vatory in Gdańsk created by Hevelius.

Summing up, this short odyssey through the biogra­phies of observers of heavenly spheres confirms that the heritage of Central Asia, indeed, “bridged time as well as geography, in the process becoming the great link between antiquity and the modern world” as Frederic Starr stated. These intel­lectual links should be much more acknow­ledged and empha­sized by resear­chers and other stake­holder involved in EU-Central Asia relations.

SEnECA blog contri­bution by Adam Balcer, Program Manager in Foreign Policy and Inter­na­tional Affairs Program at WiseEuropa Institute (Warsaw, Poland)