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Omar Khayyam
Biography
John Bowen

 

On the whole surface of the earth, and in every region of the habitable world, I never encountered a man who as his equal. (Nizami1 of Samarqand)

Ghiyāth al-Din Abu’l Fath ’Umar Ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyāmī, who is known to us as Omar Khayyam, was born and died at Nīshāpur, which in the eleventh century AD was one of the four2 mighty cities of the great eastern province of Khurasān.

Omar Khayyam, who in Europe and America is generally regarded as a poet with an essentially hedonistic attitude to life, was in fact the profoundest scholar of his day. He was probably the most learned mathematician, and was certainly the most celebrated astronomer of medieval times, and although he was by no means a prolific writer – probably preferring to devote himself to teaching rather than to the written word – the titles of such of his books as have survived the intervening eight-and-a-half centuries give an inkling of the majestic sweep of his wisdom and knowledge. They are:

Mathematics: “A Treatise on Algebra”, and “On Euclid’s Axioms”; Physics: “A Short Treatise on Physics”, “Researches into the Specific Weight of Silver and Gold”, and “On methods of Ascertaining the Value of Jewelry Sets with Precious Stones”; Geography: “On Methods of Determining the Cause of the Different Climates of Various Countries”; Philosophy: “On Being and Obligation”, and “On Existence”, as well as Diwāns of Persian and Arabic poetry.

Furthermore, Omar Khayyam, assisted by a small committee of learned men, compiled the Astronomical Tables, which enabled a new Calendar to be introduced in the realms of Sultan Jalāl al-Dīn Malik Shāh at Nawrūz (New Year’s Day) the 15th March, AD 1079. This Calendar is more accurate than which was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in A.D. 1582. In the Gregorian Calendar, an error of one day occurs during a period of 3,330 years, whereas in the Jalālī Calendar the error is one day in approximately 5,000 years. Omar’s Calendar is, in fact, the most accurate yet devised.

I have paid tribute in my Introduction to “A New Selection from the Rubā‘iyyāt of Omar Khayyam”3 to the wit, the beauty, the profound philosophy, and the extraordinary variety of the poetry of Omar Khayyam. As his first English interpreter, Edward FitzGerald, wrote: “He sang, in an acceptable way, it seems, of what all men feel in their hearts but had not had exprest in verse before.”

 

For scattered petals never sigh,

      Nor for Tomorrow vainly cry,

By happy now, Dear Heart, and do not fear

      That any moment of our love can die

 

The Mullah to a harlot said:

      ‘When you entice men to your bed,

Do you not in your heart repine

      To live a slave to lust and wine?’

But she upon his words broke in;

      ‘I am adept in every sin:

’Tis my career – can you profess

      To follow yours with like success?’

 

The arch is broken and the splendour fled

Where every aspect once was brave and fair,

This Palace none inhabits save the dead

      Whose ivory bones the desert breezes stir.

The Hall of Audience desecrated lies –

      Though Princes came to make obeisance here –

And from a ruined tower an owlet cries:

      ‘The glory is departed – where? where? where?’

 

 

The winds that wanton in the vale

      Have suddenly grown colder;

The errant clouds which by us sail

      Weep on the green hill’s shoulder;

But we, whatever griefs or fears

      Make other men repine,

Will drink, in spite of April’s tears,

The red, the sun-warmed wine.

 (Extracted from “Poems from The Persian”)

 

 

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1. Nizami, author of a famous twelfth-century literary commentary, entitled Chabar Maqala (For Discourses), had been a pupil of Omar Khayyam.

2. The others were Balkh, Merv, and Herat.

3. Published by the Unicorn Press, London, 1961.

   
 
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