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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeri Astrology Worth More Than a Shoestring

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PIRGULI, Azerbaijan -- Azerbaijan is not known for its astronomers, which is probably why Nadir Ibragimov had such a hard time. When he looked through his telescope at Pirguli in 1971 and discovered the other side of Mars, astronomers in Moscow told him not to be so daft.

It was only when he sent the images to the United States, where they were highly praised, that anyone started to take him seriously. But by then, funding for the observatory in western Azerbaijan had dried up and today it is run on a shoestring. Manami Shukurov, the chief telescope engineer at Pirguli, does a guided tour of the observatory. He doesn't get much business. On Sunday, the only people apart from me who wanted to look round were a man from the Chinese Embassy and his translator.

Outside, flower beds once shaped like stars and crescent moons are overrun with weeds. Inside, the vast silver dome which houses a 90-ton telescope is lit by a single 40-watt light bulb. "Scientists used to come from all over the Soviet Union to look through this telescope," Shukurov said, brushing the dust off its lens. "Now everyone's forgotten about Pirguli."

Ibragimov wasn't the only world-class astronomer to come out of Azerbaijan, Shukurov told us. The man from the Chinese Embassy had started to take notes.

Eight centuries ago, another Azeri star-gazer, Nasraddin Tusi, worked out that the world was round 350 years before Copernicus.

Tusi was an all-round boffin. He found 38 ways to prove Pythagoras' Theorem and discovered new methods of solving cubic equations.

He even found time to write complicated books with titles such as "Counting Totality." And he did all this while he was locked up in the Assassin's Castle at Alamut in what used to be Persia.

When he was let out of prison, Tusi created the most powerful telescope of its day at Maraga in southern Azerbaijan, using it to make more cosmic discoveries. Tusi's family went on to prosper in Azerbaijan in the Middle Ages after his son calculated a nifty way of earning money without paying any taxes.

"Azerbaijan has given birth to some truly great astronomers," Shukurov said. "But no one seems to appreciate them any more."

No one, it seems, except the man from the Chinese Embassy and his translator. What method had Nadir Ibragimov used to look at Mars, they wanted to know. What were the proportions of the telescope, how far could it see, could it take high-quality images?

As I left, Shukurov was deciding when they could come to the observatory at night to use the telescope. I wondered what the astronomers in Moscow who sneered at Ibragimov and his pictures of the red planet would make of that.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.