I Am Ulugh Beg

by David Barber


I am Ulugh Beg, princely scholar and grandson of Timur the Lame,
known to history as Tamburlaine, who made of rebellious Isfahan
a hundred towers of heads, each higher than a man.

Though the blood of tyrants fills my veins, by my command in Samarkand
was built a great observatory of the heavens,
famed for science and for learning instead of conquest.

With instruments of my own devising were the errors of earlier times corrected,
and new and more accurate catalogues made
of nine hundred and ninety-two of the fixed stars of Ptolemy.

It did not outlive me: destroyed by religious fanatics, its centrepiece,
a protractor cut into rock one hundred feet deep to better read the elevations
of celestial bodies, pilfered of its marble for the floors of mosques.

There were battles lost and ambitious men I should have watched rising.
My son, later called Padarkush the Parricide, was more pious;
the stars were not his business, fire gems on velvet merely.

You must know desert skies at night to understand
Islam’s fascination with the heavens; and it is the will of Allah
that the stars reveal the future to those familiar with them.

I foresaw my own beheading at my son’s decree,
and the handling of my bones five centuries afterwards
by unbelievers who puzzle at my martyr’s robes.

Padarkush scarcely warmed the throne before misjudging
the fads of zealots. His successor buried me in the tomb of Timur,
where the star-spotter and the heaper of skulls rest uneasy together.

I am Ulugh Beg, known for sine and tangent tables true to eight places,
who measured the sidereal year and the tilt of the world
more accurately than Copernicus, who bickers in death with the emperor of the sword.

..but mounds of heads higher than a man
would need 1500 skulls, a simple calculation shows;
requiring only 46 such piles for all of Isfahan...


Copyright © 2012 by David Barber

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