The Old Observatory


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Kublai Khan established an observatory at the southeastern corner of his city and it is still there today. Functioning as part of the more modern Beijing Observatory and Planetarium (which is right at the other encl of the city, opposite the Beijing Zoo in the northwest), the Old Observatory is now a museum with a small but superb collection of Ming and Qing astronomical instruments.

Of the instruments that were made from the 15th century on wards only 15 pieces remain, including several made by Jesuit priests-notably Adam Schall and Ferdinand Verbiest in the 17th century. When these missionaries came to China they proved themselves to be such skilful astronomers that they were put in charge of the observatory. The most famous Jesuit was Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who, aside from being science tutor to the emperor’s son, was also an influential preacher; he left behind hundreds of Catholic churches in the Ming dynasty.

These instruments were taken to Germany in 1900, as spoils of war after the Allied forces had subdued the Boxer Rebellion, but were returned to China in 1919. Eight of them are displayed on the Observatory terrace atop one of the few remaining sections of the old city wall (the other seven were moved to the Nanjing Observatory in 1931). They include three armillary spheres, a quadrant, a sextant, a celestial globe, a horizon circle and a quadrant altazimuth.

The observatory may be visited from 9.00 a.m.-11.30 a.m. and 1.00 p.m.-5.30 p.m. but is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

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