When John Ruskin, the great British art critique of the Victorian era saw the quatrains of Omar Khayyam for the first time in 1863, he immediately wrote a letter to the unknown translator of this poetry collection and confessed that he had never read anything so glorious than these poems, and asked for more!
It is no exaggeration to say that, no other Persian literary figure has been this popular in the West more than the 11th century-Persian-poet, Omar Khayyam. Although he is world widely known for his literary masterpiece, the Quatrains or as called in Persian "The Rubaiyat", literature was just one of the several fields he had mastered in. Some even call him the Da Vinci of Persia as he was a polymath and an expert in various scientific areas including Philosophy, Astronomy and Religious studies.
Khayyam was born in 1048 in the city of Nishapur in the Greater Khorasan, Iran, one of the most developed and prosperous cities of the Orient in the Medieval time. Omar showed great talent and enthusiasm for learning various fields of science including mathematics, philosophy and astronomy in his hometown until he set off to Samarkand in Uzbekistan to pursue his scientific investigations and start a new chapter in his life.
Khayyam was 24 years old when he arrived in Samarkand. There he was warmly welcomed by Abu Tahir, the Chief Judge of the city who introduced him to the ruler of the state. His famous treatises in Algebra and Arithmetic which are still in use are the outcome of these years in Samarkand.
A couple of years later, Malik Shah, the Seljuq Sultan invaded Iran and came to power. When he learned about Khayyam's ingenuity through his Grand Vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, he invited Khayyam back to his country to set up an observatory in Isfahan to revise the Persian calendar along with a team of scientists working under Omar's supervision.
Finally, after several years of hard work, he introduced one of the most precise calendars of all time to the Sultan, which they named it Jalali Solar Calendar. This calendar was used in Iran till the 19th century.
Although Omar had very fruitful years in Isfahan, after the death of his patrons and companions, the sultan and is Grand Vizier, he preferred to leave that city for good mainly because the Sultan's widow, had turned against him. Thus, around 1092 he set on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Afterwards, he returned to his hometown, Nishapur where he spent the rest of his life till he passed away at the age of 83.
Apart from his magnificent scientific achievements which only a few of them have been mentioned previously, Khayyam was a notable literary figure as well. As a philosopher and a moderate Muslim, he lived in an age when practising philosophy was considered blasphemous by the majority of Orthodox Muslims. Sometimes he was even accused of infidelity since his work of poetry mainly reflected his philosophical ideologies. Thus, his poetry collection, The Rubayyiat, was not welcomed by his contemporaries. It almost took two centuries (after its composition) for Iranians to rediscover this book of brief and rhythmic verses of wisdom, delight and faith.
The word Ruba‘ī (plural: Rubā‘iyyāt), means "quatrain" and it refers to a poetic form which is consisted of a four-lined stanza and two hemistichs for a total of four parts. It is much like an epigram in terms of style and meaning. The ingenious, simple and concise approach that Khayyam has adopted in composing the Rubayyiat is the main reason behind the high popularity of this poetry collection among people of different walks of life. The poems of this book are mainly about the following subjects:
Although the Rubaiyat was introduced to the West by the English translation of Edward Fitz Gerald, it primarily was discovered by Sir Gore Ouseley, the British ambassador to Iran who took an edition of this book to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. There it caught the attention of Professor Edward Byles Cowell, who was the first person to translate some parts of this book. He shared the result of his work with FitzGerald who expressed great interest in Khayyam's literary masterpiece and immediately published his first translation of the verses in 1859.
In less than two years it found its way to the English-speaking literary societies and many copies of it were reprinted and sold. Accordingly, other European countries were impressed, and the Rubaiyat was translated into almost every major language spoken on the continent.
Khayyam's life, his scientific achievements and poetry masterpiece has always been a source of inspiration for both Iranian and non-Iranian scholars, literary figures and artists. Several books have been authored about his life, academic treatises and philosophical explorations. Various musicians and singers have also composed music and songs based on his quatrains. Including Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian singer and the most Celebrated Diva of the Arab world. She sang an excerpt of the Arabic translation of the Rubayyiat which is still considered one of her best songs by her fans.
According to Nizami Arudi's account, Khayyam always wished to be buried in a place where in spring, trees shed their blossoms on his gravestone. When Arudi visited Nishapur a couple of years after his death, he said that Khayyam's grave was exactly like what he wanted and flower petals covered his gravestone beautifully.
Later, in the 20th century, Reza Shah Pahlavi the King of Iran commissioned Houshang Seyhoun the prominent Iranian architect to design a new mausoleum for the highly revered Persian Poet. The monument which is an elegant combination of Persian and modern architectural style, is one of the main attractions of Nishapur, attracting several visitors every year. May 17 is the national day of Omar Khayyam and celebrated by Iranian literature lovers all around the country.
By Nazanin Moayed