Maragheh, the Jewel of Persian Astronomy

Maragheh, the Jewel  of Persian Astronomy
Maragheh, the Jewel  of Persian Astronomy

Maragheh observatory, located on the heights west of Maragheh, East Azerbaijan, is an institutionalized astronomical observatory, established in 1259 under the patronage of the Ilkhanid ruler Hulagu Khan and the directorship of scientist and astronomer Nasir-ol-Din Tusi.  It was once considered one of the most prestigious observatories in the world.

Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, settled in East Azerbaijan and made Maragheh his capital, due to its favorable climate and abundant grasslands.

Hulagu’s conquests opened Iran to both European influence from the west and Chinese influence from the east. This developed Iran’s distinctive excellence in science and architecture. Thus Maragheh saw its best days during Hulagu’s reign.

Like many other Mongol aristocrats Hulagu was fascinated by astrology. Along with bone divination, stars were often referred to as signs and omens by the Mongols. Tusi took advantage of this, and encouraged Hulagu to commission an observatory like no other.

The Maragheh Observatory was the largest observatory in its time, consisting of a series of buildings occupying an area of 150 meters in width and 350 meters in length. One of these buildings was a dome which allowed the sun’s rays to pass through.

There was also a library consisting of 40,000 volumes previously plundered from other libraries by the Mongol invaders across Persia, Syria and Mesopotamia, including the legendary library of Alamut, where Tusi himself salvaged some compositions.

Astronomers from across Persia, Syria, Anatolia and even China were gathered at Maragheh Observatory, and the names of at least twenty who worked at the observatory are known. It is believed that several Chinese astronomers worked at the observatory and that they introduced several Chinese methods of computation.

 The observatory was also reported to have had over a hundred students studying under Tusi, and was also said to be the first observatory to benefit from the revenues out of endowed properties.

After Tusi’s death, his son was appointed its director, but the observatory was abandoned later in the middle of the 14th century.

Two centuries later, a visit to the ruins of the observatory inspired the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, who was also an astronomer, to construct his own large observatory at Samarkand to continue the astronomical research of the Maragheh School.

 National Heritage Monument

With 300 registered national heritage monuments, Maragheh is among the top ten cultural cities of the country. The city features the squat dome of Qafarie, Round Tower, the 10-sided Kabud Dome, Mehr Temple, Tomb of Ohadi Maraqei, Kabutar Cave, Hulagu Bridge, mineral springs, etc; but all pale by comparison to the astronomical observatory of Maragheh, dating back to 800 years ago.

Maragheh Observatory, registered on national heritage list under the number 1675, was the most advanced astronomical facility of its time, before the advent of telescope. Even for 300 years after its establishment, no observatory of such technology came into existence.

 How to get there

Throughout the city of Maragheh, there are numerous signs directing visitors to the astronomical observatory.  The signs are present on the main roads as well as on minor streets, an indication of the pride of place for the city.

Following the signs, one reaches a hill. The observatory hill, once on the outskirts of Maragheh, is now surrounded by the urban texture.

The observatory is on the topmost part of the hill. Its geometric remains are now protected under a metal-framed dome.