Omar Khayyam, (Lit: "Omar The Tentmaker), was born, (circa 1051), at Nishapur in Khorassan, (A region in N.W. Persia). Omar was a very inquisitive boy, in possession of a good mind, and soaked up the education afforded by his father's prosperity, ...judging by his later achievements. Omar probably learnt his father's trade and became a tent-maker for a while. Omar travelled around his country and nearby areas visiting places like Samarkand and Isfahan, (Isfahan has some of the most beautiful Temples I have ever seen!, the entrance to the Main one has tiles of the most exquisite and colourful designs unrivalled anywhere in my humble opinion...), no doubt exchanging ideas and researching with some of those he met. He died in 1131 and is buried in the Khayyam Garden at the mausoleum of Imam Zadeh Mahruq in Nishapur.
728 years later, an English linguist, Edward FitzGerald, published, (in the same year, 1859, as Darwin's "On the Origin of Species"), what was to become one of the best-selling, and smallest, for a while, volumes of all time. This volume contained some of the extant quatrains ("Rubai") of a man with arguably, a similar genius to Leonardo. Apparently, Omar was said to have written around 750 of these "stand-alone" quatrains, although there are many who feel many of them weren't written by him originally. Fitzgerald translated many and gathered together about 50 of them that he used to form his book entitled simply: "Rubai'yat" (trans: lit: plural of "Rubai" ie: "Quatrains")
This tent-maker, and: poet, mathematician and astronemer, was himself, living in a tent, in a garden. Now, living in a garden in a tent, (usually on a temporary basis), is probably familiar, and not in the least, extraordinary, to a very large percentage of the worlds population of children, past and present. as well as being the actual home for a much smaller percentage of people; however, most of them weren't camping out in the garden of the Sultan of Persia... The point is, that tent-making is a perfectly worthy and honourable profession, especially in a country where many nomadic tribesmen need repairs and new tents on a pretty regular basis; however, notwithstanding a roaring trade, the garden of a palace would be somewhat out of reach of the income bracket of an itinerant tent-maker. not to mention the political ramifications...So how did he pay the rent? ...and why on earth did he have the Sultan's permission to live there?
Let us whisk back to Persia again and delve into the annals of a certain "Mirkhond's History of the Assassins", who were originally called the "Ḥashshashin" or "Hassissim" with origins in Hassan-i Sabbah's Isma'ili leadership of a separatist moslem order or cult, and widespread bandit organisation in 11th century Persia. Sabbah apparently founded this order to promote his political ambitions... by any means necessary. Okay, so within Mirkhond's history of the "Assassins", as we now now them, Nizam ul Mulk, onetime Vizier to the Sultan, in his "Wasiyat" or pre-death testimonial, related the following (paraphrased) story:
...My father, therefore, sent me to Khorassan's Imam Mowaffak of Nishapur, universally recognised as an infallibly certain route to success for his students. When I arrived, I found two other students of a similar age to me also freshly arrived for the Imam's instruction. These students were Omar Khayyam, and the ill-fated Ben Sabbah, ( ie: Hassan -i Sabbah), both of whom were well-endowed with wit and perception. The three of us became fast friends and delighted in each others company whether for study or for sharing those moments of rollicking hilarity in our rare moments of free time.
It became evident to the three of us that at least one of us was bound to end up really prosperous, so, in honour of our friendship and with a concern for our brother students, we decided to take a vow to look after each other in this life, as follows: Whoever earned the most would look after the other two should they need it. We all happily agreed to this and parted at the end of our studies with tears and laughter, those twin illuminating lights of brotherly love.
Time, as it inexorably does, passed, and after some travels and travails, armed with a little experience and a willing and loyal heart, was rewarded with a post as Vizier for the Caliph. Hassan turned up one day and urged me to give him a position within the government, which, true to our word, I obtained for him. Unfortunately Hassan wasn't content with a gradual rise within the government, and precipitated events which meant that he had to flee to the mountains, hiding there and creating the "Assassins" under his "Old Man Of The Mountains" persona.
Whilst Hassan -i Sabbah was sowing confusion and terror throughout Islam, Omar Khayyam also turned up on the Viziers doorstep to "claim his due", which in Omar's case was simply: " to let me live in a corner of your garden under the shadow of your fortune, to spread wide the advantages of Science, and pray for your long life and prosperity" Seeing Omar's sincerity, the Vizier tried to press Omar into the Caliph's service with all the advantages that went with such a title and service, but Omar refused at every attempt. Thus it was that a tentmaker lived in a palace garden in Persia, rent-free and advising his friend the Vizier when needed. (Nizam ul Mulk, the narrator of this tale, became a victim later on of Hassan's, or one of his minion's, daggers.)
A story associated with Omar's assassin "friend" concerns a later Sultan Sandjar, of Persia, who, rightly disturbed at the progress of Hassan's invasion, resolved to entirely destroy these brigands sowing terror in his territories. To this end, he organized an army which he led to chastise and punish them. When he arrived within striking distance of Mount Alamout, the original headquarters of Hassan's sect and army of bandit-assassins, he ordered rest before the next day's fray and retired himself. In the morning, upon waking, a dagger was sunk into the earth near the bolster of his bed. It's blade pierced a note addressed to him, containing these words: "O Sandjar! know that if I had not wished to respect your days, the hand which sunk this dagger in the earth could as well have sunk it in your heart." It is said that the Sultan was so overcome by the reading of this note, which revealed to him the marvelous power of Hassan-Sebbah over his trusty followers, that he relinquished for the time being his plan of attack.
Although comfortably ensconced in the Sultan's garden and lacking for none of his simple and very modest needs, Omar, a bit like the Japanese artist Hokusai, lived for his work, with eating drinking and a social life taking a very emphatic "second-place". The discovery of Omar's "quatrainic gems" is a part of the "Pre-Raphaelite" history also as it was discovered by Swinburne, a poet-favourite of Christine Rosetti, in a bin of remainders being sold for a penny each... Christine, a poet herself, was the sister of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, a poet, and painter who, with John Everrett Millais and William Holman Hunt, formed the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood", (PRB), to hark back to a "purer" romantic, medieval time, and include "reality" and "truth and sincerity" in their paintings and sculpture. They signed their work "PRB" and challenged the status quo of the Royal Society of Art amongst others and were partly responsible fo the emergence of the "Arts and Crafts" Movement spearheaded by the likes of William Morris...(Morris's wife was a favourite model / muse of the PRB painters).
With the Rubaiyat shown to Rosetti by Swinburne, it's publicity and popularity became assured, and in fact eclipsed, in the west, his other achievements in astronomy and mathematics. Rosetti positively raved about this diminiutive collection from antique Persia which coincided very nicely with the Victorian vogue in "Orientilism" which was expressing itself in everything from textile design, wallpaspers, objects and furnishings including "Chinoiserie" Japanese Woodblock prints and also a "Spiritual" wave which included the rise in popularity of "Mediums" and mystical orders like Blavatsky's "Rosicrucians", Crowley's "Golden Dawn" and the writings of poets like Blake.
So our friend Omar was relaxing in his garden, but contributing greatly to the culture of his country after his friend introduced him to the Sultan. During his life the Sultan gave him the task of setting up an observatory to study the heavens and also responsibility, with other scholars, to review the calendar system in use at that time. They did so, and, according to rumour, (a lot of Omar's life is conjecture), due to to Omar's excellent grounding in mathematics, created a calendar system that was more accurate than those devised as much as 500 years later. As briefly mentioned, Omar was also a mathematician and contributed significant theorems to the list of discoveries throughout history. Khayyam contributed in many ways that we are no doubt ignorant of as the evidence of scrolls, paper manuscripts etc has disappeared like many bio-degradeable items down the centuries.. however we are principally concerned with his writings here, which we shall look at a little closer now.
Such has been the popularity of this short anthology of Omar's quatrains, that it has attracted much scholarly probing, analysis and emulation. The number of different editions produced of this "Rubaiyat" numbers in the hundreds, some of which are shown in the illustrations above, as well as many people creating illustrations inspired by the philosophy and images written in the quatrains. Amongst the most famous illustrations are Dulac's, with 5 of his full-page illustrations included above in the first main illustration of this article under the title, (one of whose original volumes is on sale currently for about £4,500), and Sheriff's, who also has 5 examples included above, just below Dulac's. I have 4 different copies myself, including a delightful one illustrated by Willy Pogony
, (1st on the left, bottom row in the edition illustrations above. Some other illustrator's inspired by Omar's oeuvre include Frank Brangwyn
, Rene Bull
and William Morris in collaboration with Burne-Jones, the famous Pre-raphaelite author of many paintings now worth millions, whose illustration can be seen in the "title picture" of this article. The Morris edition was sumptuously framed by Morris's lavish designs, printing and gold leaf work. I have inserted the first 16 quatrains here to give readers a taste of the volume.
We know that many authors piggy-back on the shoulders of their antecedents, Shakespeare copied the plots of writer's like Aristophanes, Homer, etc and I wouldn't be surprised if William didn't know of Omar's 48th quatrain:
"For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go."
when he penned:
"All the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances"
In the same way that Omar uses the Roman idea of Apollo driving in his chariot across earths sky to bring daylight in the very first Quatrain, A significant percentage of authors and poets refer to their classical peer's in writing, whose muse still roams the world nudging authors to this day. I'm sure the reader knows of examples so I'll not fill this article with unnecessary literary comparisons. One of the aspects of Omar's work is the relationship to the prevailing beliefs in Persia at the time. The use of The "Rose" and "wine" as metaphors within the text has been assumed by many to refer to the Sufi tradition. Because of this, many ascribe Omar's beliefs to be sympathetic to those tenets. However, If we look at Quatrains 27 and 29:
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss'd
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Works to Scorn
Are scatter'd, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.
both, fairly obviously, reject the constant commentary, (by saints and sages), and analysis of Sufi, Ismaili, or other texts and beliefs which, in the end, (...Came out by the same Door as in I went...) amount to nothing. However, at the same time as pouring scorn on theological attempts to explain existence, Khayyam also dispenses with much of history's philosophers, and their arguments on the Palatine Hill or the Acropolis, (as well as his own!, since he naturally used logic when pursuing his mathematical researches and probably also as a basis for some of his own beliefs...), when he composed Quatrain 43:
You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a Second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.
Others have interpreted this 43rd "verse" as giving up base physical empirical thinking, ("Reason") and in some kind of epiphany, adopted the Sufi faith, (Wine), as his guiding principles. In any event, there is much to discover and discuss within the pages of this slim volume which has had such an immense effect on people all over the world. Some have even said that they weren't sure which was the most significant book of 1859: Darwin's or Khayyams.... This in itself, is reason enough to have his work in ones library.
Omar, despite his "fame", is still relatively obscure to many and I hope that my little article helps to promote, despite my personal style of writing and presentation, the life of a singularly interesting man, both commendable and fascinating. Above all else he exhorts us to live! to love! and to enjoy life! I, for one have no argument to refute that one... just like Robin Williams in the film: "The Dead Poets Society", a fitting point to come to a close in my essay I feel...
The writer credited with the first translation of the Rubai'yat. He did several versions
frpm 1859 to 1879. He was born in 1809 and, apart from his association with the rubai'yat, led a fairly uneventful life mostly consisting of translation work and other writings, which ended in 1883 after which he was buried in the precincts of of St Michael & All Angels
in Suffolk. A clipping from a rose tree which grew on the tomb of Omar Khayyam at Nishapur in Iran (previously Persia) was planted at one end of Fitzgerald's grave in 1893. Six more rose trees were planted around the grave in 1972.
One of the most singular versions I've seen of the Rubai'yat is Elihu Vedder's
1884 edition which, released in Boston, Mass., took the world, and the world of design, by storm!
Isfahan or Esfahan (historically also rendered as Ispahan, Old Persian Aspadana, Middle Persian Spahan, Persian اصفهان) located about 340 km south of Tehran is Iran (Persia)'s third largest city. Isfahan
has been designated by UNESCO as a world heritage city. It contains a wide variety of Islamic Architectural sites ranging from the 11th century to the 19th.
Islam: The Qur'an
is the central religious text of Islam with 114 Surah
Here is a link, (including a sound-recording, -eng lang-30mins-, of a discussion on the subject), to a very erudite BBC article on Sufism
is a form of Islamic mysticism also called: "Tasawwuf" one of whose practices is performed in public by the Whirling Dervishes
This is a link to the Edmund Dulac illustrated slim 1st edition
that I received as a present from a dear friend, though in a later edition, but still with these exquisite drawings/paintings printed on separate sheets of paper and slipped-in.
A brief overview of Nishapur can be found here
, as well as this look at the notorious Genghis Khan incident
that occurred in this city. A few pictures of Omar Khayyam's tomb
(courtesy of Eliza Tasbihi's Flickr account) in the Garden at Nishapur also containing Imam Zadeh Mahruq's mausoleum and Attar's, (Famous Poet and Sufi born a few years after Omar's death)The high city, (Alt: 4,000ft) got it's name from King Shapur I and is a tourist destination with a current population of about somewhat less than a quarter million.
Malik-Shah I succeeded his father, Alp Arslan, as the Sultan of the Seljuq Empire in 1072, and reigned until his death in 1092. The currency of the period was golden dinarii
Old Man Of The Mountains
By repute the first "Old Man Of The Mountains" was Hassan-i Sabbah
, the fabled founder of the "Assassins"
On the Origin of Species
Inquire within upon Darwin
(from Sogdian/Mongolian: "Stone Fort" or "Rock Town") is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan and the capital of Samarqand Province. Being a stop on the Silk Road from China gave it a romantic and adventurous reputation in literature where it was often cited to give an exotic and oriental feel to the story. It was also an Islamic centre for scholarly study. which explains Khayyam's visit(s?) Later, (circa 14th C.), it became Tamerlane's capital and is the site of his mausoleum (the Gur-e Amir). It was a centre for crafts including: gold embroidery, paper-making, silk weaving, engraving on copper, ceramics, carving and painting which are preserved to this day.
Mirkhond(Writer of the "History of the Assassins")
Mohammed bin Khawandshah bin Mahmud, more familiar as "Mirkhond" was the son of a learned man who belonged to an old Bokhara family of Sayyids or direct descendants of the Prophet. From his early youth he applied himself to historical studies and literature in general. In Herat, where he spent the greater part of his life, he gained the favour of a famous patron of letters, Mir`Alishir who now served his erstwhile fellow student, the reigning Sultan Husain, first as keeper of the seal, afterwards as governor of Jurjan. Mir `Alishir suggested that Mirkhond write a "universal history" which was begun in1474 (approx.), the largest ever written in Persian, and to the present day an inexhaustible mine of information both to Eastern and Western scholars despite it's occaasional naivete and omissions.
The Dead Poets Society
English Lit teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) inspires his students in the 1989 film: "The Dead Poets Society
", to develop a love of poetry and remember the latin phrase: "Carpe Diam" or: "Sieze The Day", a recurring theme in Omar's Quatrains...
Dante Gabriel RossettiRossetti
, the artist and poet who publicized Omar's work and started, with others, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood"
This is a Link
to the Wm. Morris Museum