On Radio 4 Now

Midweek

21:30 - 21:58

Libby Purves meets actor Brian Cox and singer June Tabor.

Coming up at: 21:58

Weather

View full schedule

Episode Transcript

Episode 74 - Jade dragon cup

Jade dragon cup (made around 1430), probably from Samarkand, Uzbekistan

On a clear night, if you look long enough, you can see that the surface of the moon is dimpled with hundreds of craters. They add interest, texture - but their names provide another kind of pleasure. They form a kind of dictionary of great astronomers. There are craters called Halley, Galileo and Copernicus, but among them there's an astronomer whose name I certainly didn't recognise. He lived in central Asia at the start of the fifteenth century, and his name was Ulugh Beg.

Ulugh Beg built a great observatory in Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan, and compiled a famous catalogue of just under a thousand stars. He was also briefly the ruler of one of the world's great powers - the Timurid Empire - that at its height ruled not only central Asia, but Iran and Afghanistan, as well as parts of Iraq, Pakistan, and India. The Timurid Empire had been founded by the redoubtable Tamerlane in the years around 1400. Ulugh Beg, the astronomer prince, was Tamerlane's grandson. He had a cup made of jade, with his name incised on it . . . I have it with me now, it's the subject of this programme.

"I think that cup, the idea of which comes from China but which was made in central Asia and which has landed up in the west, really does symbolise a good deal about where the Timurids stand in the history of the Middle East and of the world." (Beatrice Forbes Manz)

In this week's programmes, we've been looking at the great empires that dominated the world five to six hundred years ago - Ottoman Turkey, Ming China and the Inca in South America. In this programme . . .

" . . . we'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword."
(Christopher Marlowe)

In these words Christopher Marlowe fixed forever the European image of Tamburlaine, still a legendary force in Elizabethan England. A couple of hundred years earlier, around 1400, the real Tamerlane had become the ruler of all the Mongol lands except China. The heart of his empire was the region we now know as the "stans" - Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan - that huge area in central Asia that has always had a tumultuous history, where empires build, crumble, fade away - until another empire rises and the cycle begins again. It's a region that's inevitably always had two faces - one looking towards China in the east and the other to Turkey and Iran in the west. Samarkand, Tamerlane's capital, was a major city on the great Silk Road that linked these two worlds, and much of this complex cultural and religious history is embodied in the small jade cup that belonged to Tamerlane's astronomer grandson, the Timurid emperor, Ulugh Beg.

Ulugh Beg's cup is oval, it's about six inches (15 cm) long, and it feels more like a small bowl than a cup. It's made from superbly grained olive green jade, with natural cloud-like markings drifting across the glossy stone. It is very beautiful, but jade was valued in central Asia not just because it was beautiful, but because it had great powers of protection - jade would keep you safe against lightning and earthquakes and, especially important in a cup, against poison. Poison placed in a jade cup, it was said, would result in the vessel splitting. So the owner of this cup could drink without fear.

The cup's handle is a splendid, sinister, Chinese dragon. It's got its back paws firmly planted on the under side of the bowl, while its mouth and webbed front paws cling to the edge at the top. The style of the handle may be Chinese, but the inscription carved into the cup, which you see as you lift it to your lips, is in Arabic script. It reads "Ulugh Beg Kuragan". Kuragan is a title that means literally "royal son-in-law" and it was used by Tamurlane, and by Ulugh Beg. They had both married princesses of the house of Genghis Khan, and so by calling themselves son-in-law, they declared themselves the heirs to the universal sovereignty of Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire. Like all new dynasties the Timurid's wanted to appropriate the authority of their predecessors.

So, we have a cup made probably in Samarkand, with a handle showing connections east to China, and an inscription looking west to the Islamic world. That Arabic inscription reminds us that this new Timurid Empire created by Tamerlane was energetically Muslim. This is the time of the building of the great mosques of Bukhara and Samarkand, Tashkent and Herat, all conceived and executed on a monumental scale - a central Asian equivalent of the European Renaissance.

From about 1410, Ulugh Beg governed Samarkand, and there he built his famous observatory, in which he revised and corrected the computations of the Ancient Greek astronomer, Ptolemy. Ulugh Beg's table of 994 stars became a standard work of astronomical reference in both Asia and Europe. It was translated into Latin at Oxford in the seventeenth century, and it earned Ulugh Beg the honour of that crater on the moon.

What was Ulugh Beg like? Here's historian Beatrice Forbes Manz:

"Ulugh Beg was a very very poor commander, and probably not a great governor in certain ways. He was however an excellent cultural patron, famous especially for his patronage of mathematics and astronomy. These were his real passions, much more I think than government or especially the military campaigning. He also had a passion for jade, so it's not surprising to find that cup in his possession, and he had a fairly high-living court, looser morally than his father's. His father was a teetotaller, and super-pious. Ulugh Beg was pious, he knew the Qur'an by heart, but he, like many rulers, took a certain amount of licence. So there was a lot of drinking, for instance, at his court."

An envoy from Ming China who visited Samarkand around 1415 was taken aback at the free-wheeling manners of the Timurid capital, which still smacked of the easy-going informality of a semi-nomadic society. It was an odd city, designed to accommodate both modern buildings and traditional tents - the yurts which the Timurids had brought with them from the steppes. For the rarefied Chinese visitor, Samarkand was the Wild West:

"They have no principles or propriety. When inferiors meet superiors, they come forward, shake hands, and that is all! When women go out, they ride horses and mules. If they meet someone on the road, they chat, laugh and fool around with no sense of shame. Moreover, they utter lewd words when conversing. The men are even more despicable." (Ch'en Ch'eng)

It's perhaps not surprising that the Timurid Empire, bound together only by personal loyalties, didn't survive long. It was run by people who were more at home on the steppes than in a government office. There was no established habit of orderly central power, and there was barely any working bureaucracy. The death of every ruler brought chaos. Ulugh Beg's father had struggled to rebuild a Timurid Empire, but after his death in 1447, Ulugh Beg would reign for only two years before completely losing control. He tried hard to use the reputation of Tamurlane to bolster his authority, burying his illustrious grandfather under a monument made of rare black jade, inscribed in Arabic for all to see: "When I Rise, the World will Tremble". Ulugh Beg must have longed for the return of a power that he knew he himself could never match. The earth was unlikely to tremble before him. The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov sees a poetic, metaphorical meaning in Ulugh Beg's green jade cup:

"The symbolism of this cup is seen throughout the whole region as a sort of destiny of a person. When we say 'cup is filled', so destiny is fulfilled, and for example, Babur - who was a great poet as well as the nephew of Ulugh Beg - he is saying in one of his poems, 'troops of sadness are countless', and the only way to deal with them is 'bringing thicker wine and keeping a cup as a shield'. That is the symbolism of the cup - it's a shield, a metaphysical shield, against the troops of sadness."

But it was a shield that failed. Towards the end of his life, the troops of sadness came crowding in on Ulugh Beg. His two year rule of the Empire was as disastrous as it was brief. Very un-metaphorical troops invaded Samarkand, and in 1449 he was defeated and captured by his own eldest son, handed over to a slave and decapitated. But Ulugh Beg was not forgotten. His great-nephew Babur, who became the first Mughal emperor of India, honoured him by burying his remains in the black jade monument, alongside the great Tamerlane.

But by this time the Timurid Empire was over. Once again central Asia had fragmented and become the theatre of competing influences, among them the great new power in the west, the Ottoman Empire. And that later development too, is recorded on our cup.

At some point, presumably long after Ulugh Beg's death, this precious jade cup must have been dropped, because it's badly cracked at the end opposite the handle. But that crack has been covered up with a repair in silver, and on the silver is an inscription. It was probably engraved in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, so three hundred years after its owner's execution. It's in Ottoman Turkish, so this cup by then must have found its way to Istanbul. The inscription reads, "There is no limit to the beneficence of God."

The unfortunate Ulugh Beg might not have agreed. By the time this cup was re-inscribed in Turkish, Russia was already expanding into the old Timurid Empire. In the nineteenth century the whole region would become part of the Russian imperial scheme, and Samarkand would be absorbed into another central Asian empire, first Tsarist, then Soviet, until in 1989 that in its turn collapsed - an upheaval the Timurids would have been very familiar with.

One of the new states to emerge in this post-Soviet order is Uzbekistan. As it strives to define its identity, it turns to its past - to a moment that is neither Russian, nor Chinese, neither Iranian, nor Turkish. The bank notes of modern Uzbekistan show to the world that this new state is the heir to the Timurid Empire. On them we see the mausoleum that houses the black jade monument where both Tamerlane and Ulugh Beg lie buried.

There can be no doubt that Ulugh Beg achieved more as a scholar of the stars than as a ruler of his collapsing empire. So perhaps it's fitting that the crater on the moon named after him is not far from the Oceanus Procellarum - the Sea of Storms. Storms against which his jade cup might have given him solace, but not protection.

In the next programme, a rhinoceros from India is sent to the king of Portugal by a new sea route around the southern end of Africa. Europe and its first fledgling empire has begun its great expansion . . . and the geography of the world is about to be changed.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.