Omar Khayyám: Ancient master of the universe

The Persian mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Omar Khayyám was born in Nishapur situated on a fertile plain at the foot of Mount Binalud in north-eastern Iran. Today his tomb in the same city is a site of pilgrimage.

FitzgeraldStrangely, neither Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana (1937) nor Jason Elliot in Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran (2006) makes any reference to Omar Khayyám on their brief visits to Nishapur. Robert Byron must have known the rendition of the Rubáiyát by Edward Fitzgerald (photo left) first published in 1859 and subsequently revised and extended in four more editions. The first quatrain is famous:

“Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.”

Omar Khayyám’s original manuscript is thought to have comprised at least 750 (possibly more) quatrains. Each was a distillation of such thoughts as might occur to the mind of a Persian philosopher-poet, not written for publication but for teaching and debate. Khayyám also wrote about mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music and Islamic theology.

Educated in Samarkand, Omar Khayyám (1048-1123) moved to Bukhara to become one of the most important mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period. He wrote the Treatise on Demonstrations of Problems of Algebra (1070), which laid down principles that were eventually studied in Europe. As an astronomer it is thought he may have anticipated Copernicus in believing that the sun might be at the centre of the earth’s solar system. In 1073, the Seljuq Sultan Malik-Shah I invited the 25-year-old Khayyám along with other distinguished scientists to build an observatory and to refine a calendar which has since been shown to be more accurate than the Gregorian calendar of 500 years later.

Omar Khayyám’s philosophy of life (sometimes difficult to distinguish from Edward Fitzgerald’s) seems to have questioned the views of Islamic thinkers of his time. Fitzgerald’s 1889 version of the Rubáiyát describes human beings as “a moving row of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go” in a game played on a “Chequer-board of Nights and Days.” It famously includes lines that posit an uncaring and unforgiving universe:

“The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.”

According to legend one of Omar Khayyám’s pupils once heard him say, “My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses over it.” When he died in 1123 he was buried just outside a walled garden over which fruit trees stretched their boughs. In spring they dropped their flowers on his tomb so that the stone was hidden beneath them.

Fitzgerald-graveKhayyam-mausoleumWhen Edward Fitzgerald died in 1883 he was buried in the little churchyard (photo left) at Boulge Park in Suffolk, England. The following year the Scottish artist William Simpson (famous for his water-colours of the Crimean War) visited Omar Khayyám’s tomb and gathered rose-hips from the bushes growing there. The hips were cultivated at Kew Gardens and a tree grown from them was planted next to Fitzgerald’s grave in 1893. In 1963 a mausoleum (photo right) was constructed on the site of Omar Khayyám’s tomb.

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