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Summary Article: Omar Khayyam
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(ō'mär kīäm'), fl. 11th cent., Persian poet and mathematician, b. Nishapur. He was called Khayyam [tentmaker] probably because of his father's occupation. The details of his life are mostly conjectural, but he was well educated and became celebrated as the outstanding mathematician of his time. As astronomer to Sultan Malikshah, he was one of a group that undertook to reform the calendar. Their work led to the adoption of a new era, the so-called Jalalian or Seljuk era, beginning Mar. 15, 1079. Although he wrote a number of important mathematical studies, Omar's fame as a scientist has been greatly eclipsed in the West by the popularity of his Rubaiyat, epigrammatic verse quatrains. The work was little known in Europe until the freely paraphrased English translation of them was first published by Edward FitzGerald in 1859. This influenced all subsequent evaluations of his poetry, even among native speakers of Persian, where FitzGerald's translation led to a new appreciation of his output. FitzGerald omitted many of the quatrains (which were independent and unconnected) and rearranged them into a unity expressing his conception of Omar's philosophy; it is, however, impossible to establish definitely that many of the nearly 500 quatrains attributed to Omar are really his work. The hedonism of his verse often masks his serious reflections on metaphysical issues. The verses have been offered in literally hundreds of editions.

  • See study by A. Dashti (tr. 1972).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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