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Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat

(This information is taken from our book The Art of Omar Khayyam, forthcoming)

Life of Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam and the Rubaiyat

Libraries with manuscripts of rubaiyat attributed to Omar Khayyam


Chronology and key dates

c.1048 Born near Naishpur in Khorasan (now North East Iran).

           Full name Abdul Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim Khayyam.

c.1068 At Samarkand and Bukhara. Wrote treatise on algebra.

c.1074+ In service with Sultan Malik-Shah. 

             Involved with the reformation of the Persian calendar 

               and the building of the observatory at Isfahan. 

             Published mathematical and philosophical treatises.

1092+ Death of Malik-Shah and accession of Sultan Sanjar. 

          Fall from grace of Khayyyam, pilgrimage to Mecca and extensive travels, 

            including to Baghdad.

          Retirement to Naishpur.

1095   Published a further philosophical treatise.

c.1131 Death of Khayyam.

Life of Omar Khayyam

There is very little known about Omar Khayyam and his life, other than the knowledge of his treatises on mathematics and philosophy, some of which have been lost, and his involvement with the reorganisation of the Persian calendar at the behest of Sultan Malik-Shah. There are a few anecdotal stories of his adult life, written down by his contemporaries, and referring to his wisdom, memory and forecasting ability; but none relate to the composition of rubaiyat or other poetry. For more information, see detailed works by Dashti, De Blois and Aminrazavi. The story of the friendship linking Khayyam with fellow students Hasan Tusi (later given the title "Nizam al-Mulk" and made Chamberlain of the Seljuq court), and Hasan Sabbah (the founder of the order of assassins) and their pact to help each other, included by FitzGerald in the introductions to his editions of the Rubaiyat and widely propagated thereafter, has been convincingly refuted.

Omar Khayyam and the Rubaiyat

There are many manuscripts of rubaiyat (click here for definition), as well as other collections of verse, that contain one or more quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. These have been extensively documented by Khayyam scholars. In our brief comments, we draw particularly on the work of Dashti and Aminrezavi.

No manuscript of rubaiyat has, so far, been discovered that was contemporaneous with Khayyam’s life. The first reference to any verse by Khayyam came in 1174, over 50 years after his death, in an anthology of Khorasan poets who were writing in Arabic. This anthology (Kharidat al-Qasr) quotes four two-line verses by Khayyam in Arabic. The earliest verses in Persian attributed to Khayyam are contained in a number of manuscripts from the early 13th century. There are a variety of other manuscripts, dated in the next 200 years, with different numbers of verses attributed to Khayyam. The widely known Ouseley manuscript from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which was used by FitzGerald, is dated 1460/61. It claims to be by Khayyam and contains 158 quatrains. The Calcutta manuscript, also used by FitzGerald, was not dated. It contained 516 quatrains attributed to Khayyam.

Research over the last two centuries or so has lead to many more manuscripts of rubaiyat being discovered. Swami Govinda Tirtha in his book on Omar Khayyam, ‘The Nectar of Grace’, published in 1941, listed 111 manuscripts and editions of relevance. One of these has over 1000 quatrains attributed to Khayyam. Since then, further manuscripts have been discovered, notably in Iran, However, from the late 19th century, scholars have queried the attribution to Khayyam of many of the quatrains in these manuscripts. 

In more recent time, the analysis of the true heritage of Khayyam’s verse has been complicated by the appearance of new manuscripts that have eventually been assessed as forgeries. Notable among these are several which appeared in the late 1940’s, including one in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and one in the University Library in Cambridge. These purported to be dated 1260 and 1208 respectively, but subsequent analysis shows that they were probably based on Rosen’s edition of 1925, itself a copy of a 15th century manuscript.

Libraries with manuscripts of rubaiyat attributed to Omar Khayyam

Many libraries, both in the West and the East, hold manuscripts and copies (lithographs) of collections of Khayyam’s rubaiyat, and anthologies of Persian poets that include Khayyam’s work. In the UK, notable collections are in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the University Library in Cambridge and the British Library in London. Further important depositaries include the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Konigliche Bibliothek in Berlin, other libraries in Europe and the United States, and others in Istanbul, India and various Eastern countries. For more details see Tirtha, Dashti, Saidi, De Blois and Aminrazavi.


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