Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Samarkand. Ulugbek Observatory and the Mausoleum of Daniel.

Posing with a group of Uzbek women at Ulugbek Observatory.  They were all as short as me! :-)

After spending time learning about paper making at the Meros workshop, located in the village of Koni Ghil, we returned to Samarkand and went to the Ulugbek Observatory.


A statue of Ulugbek stands at the steps leading up to the observatory.

Shavkat dropped us at the small plaza that fronts the steps leading up to the observatory and a small museum.  We took a few seconds to look at a statue of the famed Timurid ruler and astronomer before making our way up.


At the top, we had a wonderful view of Bibi Khanym Mosque (back left) and Shah-i-Zinda (middle left)


Turning around, we were greeted by a very unusual view - a very traditional, Uzbek entrance portal like we've seen  many of except they usually front a mosque or a madrasah.  Except there was no building behind the portal.....just a very odd tube like structure.


Standing here, Valentina gave us the background on the astronomy work of Ulugbek.

Ulugbek was not only Timur's grandson and himself, a ruler of the Timurid Dynasty but he was also considered by scholars to have been one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world.  In 1420, he built Ulugbek Madrasah, which is one of the three madrasahs of the Registan Ensemble.  The madrasah became an important center for astronomical studies and in its heyday, had as many as 70 astronomers teaching and working there.  To support the astronomical studies at the madrasah, he built an observatory, located nearby.  Construction on the Ulugbek Observatory began in 1424 and was completed five years later in 1429.The observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449 and was only re-discovered in 1908, by a Uzbek-Russian archaeologist from Samarkand named V. L. Vyatkiin.

I was dying to find out what was behind the portal.  It felt like an eternity before Valentina finished talking and we headed on inside.


So what was behind the door?  It was the heart of the observatory.

While working at the excavation site, Vyatkin found one of the remains of one of the most important astronomical instruments that was used at the observatory - a mural sextant.  Known as a Fakhri Sextant, the instrument was 11 meters long and stood as tall as a three storey building.   Calibrated along its length, it was the world's largest 90 degree quadrant at the time, with a radius of 40.4 meters.  A trench, that was about 2 meters deep, was dug in a hill along the line of a meridian and in it was placed the arc of the sextant.

The sextant was used to conduct astronomical observations and using it along with other sophisticated equipment, enabled astronomers to determine when noon (12pm) occurred every day.

Today, all that remains is the trench and that's what was behind the door.

A group of tourists peering down at the trench that once held the Fakhri Sextant.

We waited our turn to see the trench.  It was just a small fragment of the original, massive stone trench.  On either side were stone brick steps that led to the bottom.  The walls were lined with polished marble.


Even after listening to Valentina describe the trench and seeing it for myself, I still didn't understand the trench.  Luckily, they had a few displays inside the museum that brought a clear image to my mind.

What historians believed the observatory originally looked like.

Cross section showing the trench.

Light streaming and hitting the trench was used to determine time.

After seeing the trench, we went to the small museum - there was only one exhibition hall.  There weren't a whole lot of items to see but what was there was well displayed and there were descriptions in English.  The museum does its best to try and explain astronomy to visitors but wasn't easy to understand - the pictures did help!



We didn't stay long.  I think my mind was already on the road to Bukhara and I was ready to leave Samarkand behind but we still had a couple of places to go.

Next stop.  The Mausoleum of Daniel.  Back to the car and another short ride.  We arrived at what looked like a construction site, alongside a stream.  Hmmm.....where's the mausoleum?


A local family visiting the Mausoleum of Daniel.
Patience, I must be patient! We walked through the construction site.  Valentina said something about the government wanting to shift the direction of the river.  I was guessing they just want to re-do the place.  In any event, we crossed the footbridge to get to the other side.  At the top of a small hill was a building.  I was guessing that was the Mausoleum of Daniel.

The prophet Daniel is revered by three world religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  In Islam, he is known as Daniyar Hodge - St. Daniel.

According to the Old Testament, Daniel was born in Jerusalem in 603 BC and descended from the kings David and Solomon.  When Jerusalem was conquered in 586 BC by the Babylonians, Daniel was taken to Babylon.  There, Daniel was schooled at the royal court and as an adult, became advisor to Kings Darius and Cyrus.  Just before his death, Daniel moved from Babylon to Susa (modern day city of Shush in Iran), where he died.  Although there are many places that claim they are the place where Daniel was buried, the tradition preserved among the Jews and Arabs is that he was buried in Susa. Today the Tomb of Daniel in Shush is a popular attraction among local Muslims and Iran's Jewish community.

In his lifetime, Daniel had nothing to do with Uzbekistan so how did the mausoleum in Samarkand come to be?  According to legend, on a campaign in Asia Minor, Timur made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Daniel and stole the remains of one of Daniel's arms.  Another tale has it that Timur tried to conquer modern day Syria, but successively failed – apparently because the body of Daniel was preventing his success. When he finally succeeded, he ordered the body to be buried at Samarkand for good luck.

What is agreed upon is that Timur brought the remains back Samarkand.  The legend continues that when the caravan consisting of fifty camels approached Samarkand, it stopped on the bank of the Siab river.  The horse, carrying the remains, stood on this site and refused to move on. Timur took the horse's action as the sign that the relics of the saint to buried here.  The mausoleum was built on a bluff overlooking the burial site.


People were coming and going from a small pavilion that was built atop a spring.  One legend has it that the horse, carrying the remains of Daniel's arm, struck of its hoof against the ground and water sprung forth.  Another legend has it that the spring miraculously appeared shortly after the remains were buried.  Over the centuries, locals who considered this place to be a pilgrimage site, believe the water has healing properties.


Shavkat stood in line to get water.  I don't think he believes it has healing powers.  I think he just needed to refill his drinking water.



We climbed the steps to reach the mausoleum.  I peeked inside and was surprised what is the longest tomb I've ever seen!  It's 18 meters (nearly 60 feet) long!  It was covered by green prayer rugs embroidered with gold thread.


As with so many religious things in Uzbekistan, there is a legend associated with the length of the tomb.  Of course though this one is a rather curious legend.  The story goes that Daniel's buried arm was continually growing at a rate of around 5cm a year and so periodically both the tomb and the mausoleum had to be extended.  However, historians have done the math.  If the legend was indeed true, the arm of Daniel would by now have a length of more than 125 meters (410 feet), rather than “just“ 18 meters, since he died approximately 2500 years ago. However the truth behind the corpse's growth is that Timur was paranoid about grave robbers and extended the grave to make it harder for potential robbers to pillage the bones as they would not know exactly which section of the tomb the remains were resting in.

As the mausoleum was extended, domes were added until the Soviets put a stop to it.  As of today, there are five domes.

The Mausoleum of Daniel is a popular pilgrimage site.  On the day we were there, there were indeed quite a few people there.

Mausoleum of Daniel on the left; the men are lining up to peek inside at the tomb.



Looking back down at the pavilion covering the tomb. 

One more place to go  before we say goodbye to Samarkand.  I am quickly losing my interest in being in this town as Bukhara is screaming for me to arrive!