Today is the birthday (1048) of Omar Khayyám; born Ghiyāth ad-Dīn Abu’l-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī (Persian: غیاثالدینابوالفتحعمرابراهیمخیامنیشابورﻯ, ), Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet. He also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, and Islamic theology. He was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran also known as Persia, and at a young age he moved to Samarkand and obtained his education there. Afterwards he moved to Bukhara and became established as one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period. He is the author of one of the most important treatises on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle. He also made major contributions to calendar reform which were more accurate than the Gregorian reform made centuries later. His significance as a philosopher and teacher, and his few extant philosophical works, have not received the same attention as his scientific and poetic writings. Al-Zamakhshari referred to him as “the philosopher of the world”. He taught the philosophy of Avicenna for decades in Nishapur.
Outside Iran and Persian-speaking countries, Khayyám has had an impact on literature and societies through the translation of his works and popularization by other scholars. The greatest such impact was in English-speaking countries; the English scholar Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) was the first non-Persian to study him. The most influential of all was Edward FitzGerald (1809–83), who made Khayyám the most famous poet of the East in the West through his celebrated translation and adaptations of Khayyám’s rather small number of quatrains (Persian: رباعیات rubāʿiyāt) in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
He spent part of his childhood in the town of Balkh (in present-day northern Afghanistan), studying under the well-known scholar Sheikh Muhammad Mansuri. He later studied under Imam Mowaffaq Nishapuri, who was considered one of the greatest teachers of the Khorasan region. Throughout his life, Omar Khayyám was tireless in his efforts; by day he would teach algebra and geometry, in the evening he would attend the Seljuq court as an adviser of Malik-Shah I, and at night he would study astronomy and complete important aspects of the Jalali calendar.
Omar Khayyám’s years in Isfahan were very productive ones, but after the death of the Seljuq Sultan Malik-Shah I (presumably by the Assassins sect), the Sultan’s widow turned against him as an adviser, and as a result, he soon set out on his Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He was then allowed to work as a court astrologer, and was permitted to return to Nishapur, where he was renowned for his works, and continued to teach mathematics, astronomy and even medicine.
I’ll spare you a long rambling discourse on the importance of his mathematical work and simply say that he was centuries ahead of the West which owed him a great debt when his works were finally discovered and translated. I get a little tired of reminding Westerners what a great debt in general the West owes the Medieval Islamic world, not just in preserving the great works of the classical Greek world (including Euclid, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle – which Westerners undervalued and generally lost), but in moving their ideas forward. From idiotic Western history textbooks you might, if you are lucky, get a nod to the great Islamic writers of the age, but otherwise you get the impression that the West moved forward all on its own. Particularly in the modern political climate people like Khayyám deserve a great deal more respect. I take it as a personal mission here to right this wrong. See, for example:
Let me simply say that it took the West 600 years to catch up with Khayyám in the fields of geometry and algebra, and even then many of their “advances” were eventually proven wrong !!
The Jalali calendar was introduced by Omar Khayyám alongside other mathematicians and astronomers in Nishapur. Today it is one of the oldest calendars in the world as well as the most accurate solar calendar still in use. Since the calendar uses astronomical calculation for determining the vernal equinox, it has no intrinsic error, but this makes it an observation based calendar.
The Jalali calendar remained in use across Greater Iran from the 11th to the 20th centuries. It is the basis of the Iranian calendar, which is followed today in Iran and Afghanistan. While the Jalali calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian, it is based on actual solar transit, similar to Hindu calendars, and requires an ephemeris (table) for calculating dates. The lengths of the months can vary between 29 and 31 days depending on the moment when the sun crosses into a new zodiacal area (an attribute common to most Hindu calendars). This means that seasonal errors are lower than in the Gregorian calendar.
Omar Khayyám was a notable poet during the reign of the Seljuk ruler Malik-Shah I. Scholars believe he wrote about a thousand four-line verses (quatrains) or rubaiyat, many now lost. He was introduced to the English-speaking world through the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which are poetic, rather than literal, translations by Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883). Other English translations of parts of the rubáiyát exist, but FitzGerald’s are the most well known. Ironically, FitzGerald’s translations reintroduced Khayyám to Iranians who had long ignored.
Here’s a small sample – well known in English:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,
Beside me singing in the Wilderness,
And oh, Wilderness is Paradise enow.
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help—for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
Modern scholars are generally dissatisfied with Fitzgerald’s translation, believing it to be more Western than Eastern, not truly reflecting Khayyám’s philosophy. But if it gets you started, I’m happy. However, it’s a good plan to seek out more literal translations with commentary.
Anything approximating a usable recipe from Khayyám’s era does not exist. Even recipes from as late as the 16th century need heavy interpretation. So instead here is a recipe for Ash Reshteh a modern bean and noodle soup that has its roots in medieval Persia – and, yes, Persia had noodles centuries before Marco Polo supposedly brought them back from China. I’m using a video because, as ever, I am pressed for time.