Nizām ad-Dīn Abū Muhammad Ilyās ibn-Yusūf ibn-Zakī ibn-Mu'ayyad or ‘Ali Nizami' is a key figure in Persian literature and widely renowned as the region's best romantic epic poet. He lived from approximately 1141 (or 535 in the Islamic calendar) to 1209, in a period that was characterised by both political turbulence and intellectual excitement.
Nizami's life is something of a mystery, as his work provides the sole, rather scanty supply of information. It is thought that he lived and worked in Ganja, which is now the Republic of Azerbaijan. Orphaned at a young age, Nizami was brought up and remarkably well educated by his mother's brother , who ensured he had a good knowledge of Arabic and Persian literatures and traditions, as well as an understanding of numerous other fields such as mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, medicine, botany, Quranic exegesis, Islamic theory and law, history, ethics, philosophy and esoteric thought, music, and the visual arts . It is this impressive wealth of knowledge for which the poet is most well known.
Although Nizami was patronised by different rulers and dedicated his epics to various dynasties, he was not an active court figure, preferring a more isolated way of life. He also travelled very little and referred to himself as "The Prisoner of Ganjah ." Nizami married a total of three times and all three wives died young. Interestingly, each died at the point of completion of one of his epics, leaving the poet to remark, "God, why is it that for every mathnavi I must sacrifice a wife!" .
"Nizami is admired in Persian-speaking lands for his originality and clarity of style, though his love of language for its own sake and of philosophical and scientific learning makes his work difficult for the average reader."
Little is known about Nizami's works and only a minority of his divan (collection of poems) has survived, mainly consisting of qaṣīdahs ("odes") and ghazals ("lyrics"). He is most famous for the Khamse or Panj Ganj (Arabic and Persian titles, which translate into English as Five Jewels), a group of five long narrative poems written in masnavi verse form (rhymed couplets) and totalling 30,000 couplets .
The first of these is Makhzan al-Asrar, or "The Storehouse of Mysteries" ( arguably written in either 1163 or 1176), which is a philosophical and theological poem consisting of twenty stories on religious and ethical topics such as the need to prepare for the after-life and warning of vanity in the world.
This is followed by Khusraw o Shirin, or "Khosrow and Shirin" (1177-1180), which is based on the true story of King Sassanian Khosrow II Parviz's courtship of the Armenian princess Shirin and the battle with his love-rival, Farhad, a famous stone cutter. Farhad eventually commits suicide by throwing himself off a mountain top upon being tricked by the King into thinking Shirin is dead.
The third poem, Layli o Majnun, or "Layla and Majnun" (1192) and perhaps the most popular Islamic myth of all time, has a similar subject matter to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and tells the story of doomed lovers who are prevented from marrying. The man goes mad (hence the name Majnun, which means mad and possessed in Arabic), moves to the desert and writes poetry for Layli, who is forced to marry someone else. Despite not being allowed to be a couple whilst alive, they are eventually buried together.
Haft Paykar and Other Works
The fourth work, Haft Paykar, or "The Seven Beauties" (1196), tells the adventurous tale of Bahram V, the Sassanid king, who is given a spectacular castle and falls in love with the portraits of seven women that are hung on the walls of one of its rooms. He builds a palace for each woman and the poem tells of his visits to these palaces, each narrated by one of the women, in the tradition of the famous "One Thousand and One Nights."
Finally, Eskandar-nameh, or "The Book of Alexander" (1196-1202), draws on Islamic versions of Plato's Republic to depict Alexander's transformation into the ideal ruler. It is divided into two parts: "Sharaf-nama", which tells the stories of Alexander's battles and victories and "Iqbal-nama", which portray his life, feasts, and visionary abilities as well as his education under Aristotle.
A famous manuscript of the Khamse was commissioned by Emperor Akbar of the Mughal Empire in the16th century. The volume, in which the poet's work is illustrated with stunning images, is now held at the British Library and has been described as ‘the most wonderful Indian manuscript in Europe' .
Images from the life and works of Nizami decorate the Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse, Colorado, presented to the city of Boulder by Mayor Maksud Ikramov of 1987, to celebrate the establishment of sister city ties. The central pool of the Teahouse is adorned with seven hammered copper sculptures inspired by "The Seven Beauties" .
Nizami has been influential across the Islamic world, shaping not just Persian poetry, but also literature in Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish and Urdu, as well as influencing historians. Many writers have produced their own versions of Nizami's works and the five poems of the Khamse have been translated into English over the last two centuries.
One of the most famous modern artists to be influenced by Nizami is Eric Clapton, who used Layli and Majnun as his inspiration for his hit song ‘Layla', on the 1970 albumn ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs', much of which was strongly influenced by the poet's work .
Nizami's name has been given to both a minor planet - the 3770 Nizami, discovered in 1974 - and a Museum of Literature, located in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Monuments to the poet have been erected in many Azerbaijan cities, as well as in Tabriz (Iran), Moscow, St. Petersburg and Udmurtiya (Russia), Kiev (Ukraine), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Marneuli (Georgia), Chişinău (Moldova) and the mausoleum constructed on his grave was refurbished by the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in 1947, accompanied by an exhibit of various scenes from his works .
Emperor Akbar's ‘Khamsa of Nizami', British Library online gallery
Christine van Ruymbeke. Science and Poetry in Medieval Persia: The Botany of Nizami's Khamsa . University of Cambridge Press.
Bashiri working papers on Central Asia and Iran
Iraj Bashiri (2000), "The Teahouse at a Glance" - Nizami's Life and Works
Picture 1: Nizami Rug Crop,2004 David Chamberlain, Wikipedia
Picture 2: Nizami Monumnet, Wikipedia
Picture 3: Nizami Mausoleum, 2004 Derek Jones, Wikipedia
Picture 4: Haft Paykar in the Xamsa of Nizami, India. c.1610 © The Trustees of the British Museum.