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)