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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Three's Company
April 5, 2000

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The writings of Omar Khayyam
Do you enjoy a good story? I am sure you do. As trekkers we are always running around new countries looking for new stories to tell. Sometimes they pop up in the strangest places, and other times they are right under our noses.

A few days ago, Monica, Abeja, and I set out to visit a storyteller from long ago. His name is Omar Khayyam and he is well known in the West for his collection of poems known as the Rubaiyat. You may have read about him last week.

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Hm...there is more to this man than we thought...
I know what you are thinking, what more is there to tell about Omar Khayyam? The truth is there is much more. We expected to visit the tomb of this respected poet, take some pictures and leave, but it seems he has more stories to tell, even from the grave. When we arrived at his tomb, the plaque beneath a carved marble bust read: Omar Khayyam-astronomer, mathematician, and poet. Wait a minute. He was an astronomer and a mathematician and THEN a poet? Obviously there was more to discover about this man.

As I learned more about him, a fascinating story developed that was as intriguing as any great story of fiction. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. Listen to the tale of his life....

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The cover of the tomb of Omar Khayyam
Omar Khayyam was born in the year 1047 CE. When Omar was in his early teens he left home to study with a famous Imam - Imam Mowaffak of Naishapur. Naishapur is a town in the Khorasan province of Iran. He is buried there today. It was said that anyone who studied the Koran and Islamic religious traditions with Imam Mowaffak would surely rise to prominence in the world because of the imam's great wisdom and guidance. Omar was joined by two other students, Hasan Sabah and Nizam-ul-mulk, and they became fast friends. After their daily lessons these three would rest in the courtyard and repeat what they had learned to each other.

Your Turn!!!

Would you ever make a pact with friends to share your wealth and fortune with them once you've graduated from college and are working?

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One day, Hasan Sabah approached the other two with a proposition. He suggested that these three friends make an interesting pact of friendship that would bind them for life. Since it was commonly believed that students of Imam Mowaffak were destined for greatness, it seemed likely that at least one of them would eventually become rich and famous. He proposed that if any one of them became rich they would share their riches and power equally with the other two friends, without giving special consideration to themselves. All three agreed on this bond, and they made a verbal pact and pledged to honor it for their entire lifetime.

All three graduated from their studies and many years passed. Nizam traveled to Ghazni and Cabul, and Omar Khayyam worked as a tent maker for some time. In fact, the name Khayyam means "tent maker."
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You, too, can study like Omar!
During this time he developed a keen interest in science and mathematics and studied as much as possible in his spare time. Studied, in his spare time? Is he crazy? Well, you will see through Omar's story that a little extra studying can really pay off. When Nizam returned from his travels, he was appointed to a government position and soon rose to be Administrator of Affairs under the Sultan Alp Arslan and given an office in the city of Naishapur. Hearing of their friend's good fortune, both Omar and Hasan Sabah soon came to collect on their schoolyard bet. Nizam was a man of his word, and he agreed to honor the pact of many years ago. Hasan requested a place in the government, and with the Sultan's permission Nizam granted his wish. However, Omar Khayyam had no desire to rise in the world of politics. He told Nizam that his only wish was to live quietly in the shadows of Naishapur where he could spread the benefits of science and pray for the well-being of his good friend. When Nizam was convinced of his seriousness he granted him a yearly salary of gold from the government which allowed him to live quietly and pursue his studies.


It would appear that all was perfect between these three close friends, but trouble soon began to brew. Hasan Sabah, not content with rising through the ranks of government slowly, made a failed attempt to overthrow his own friend from office. When this failed, he was disgraced and expelled from the government and the town. This was a dark hint of the troubles to come from Hasan Sabah. Meanwhile, Omar Khayyam was happily pursuing his studies in science, particularly in the field of astrology. When the sultan decided to reform the calendar, Omar was one of eight men employed to complete the task. He calculated the time of the Persian New Year, which is based on the solar calendar and therefore changes every year.


The word "Rubaiyat" actually refers to a style of poetry. A rubai is a stanza of four lines that usually has two specific rhyme schemes. A rubaiyat is a collection of this particular style of poetry. Sometimes all four lines rhyme, but more often the first, second and fourth verses rhyme while the third is blank. Below are some examples from the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. NOTE: When reading these verses, consider a few things. In Iran his poetry is widely considered to be too pessimistic. He was not an openly religious man, and many of his verses seem to ridicule those who pursue a life of God. Do you think that his connection with Hasan Sabah and Nizam-ul-mulk affected his outlook? After all, he saw his childhood friend gradually become evil and take the lives of many people.

The worldly hope men set their hearts upon Turns ashes-or it prospers; and anon, Like snow upon the desert's dusty face, Lighting a little hour or two-is gone.

We are no other than a moving row Of magic shadow-shapes that come and go Round with the sun-illumined lantern held In midnight by the Master of the show.

Oh threats of hell and hopes of paradise! One thing at least is certain-this life flies; One thing is certain and the rest is lies; The flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Into this universe, and why not knowing Nor whence, like water willy-nilly flowing; And out of it, as wind along the waste, I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

Ah, my beloved, fill the Cup that clears TO-DAY of past Regrets and future Fears: TO-MORROW!-why, to-morrow I may be Myself with yesterday's sev'n thousand Years.

--translation by Edward Fitzgerald

Hasan Sabah had left the city of Naishapur, but the lives of these men were destined to be intertwined. After a few years of wandering, Hasan became involved with a group of terrorists and bandits. His excellent education enabled him to rise within their ranks quickly, and he was soon their leader. In 1090 CE, they seized the castle of Alamut in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea and began a reign of terror that haunted the Middle East for many years. True to the common belief that all students of the Imam would rise to greatness, Ben Hasan was now also a rich and famous man, but his name was associated with darkness and evil. He was known from Syria to the Khorasan province as the "Old man of the mountains", and his group of men was known as the "Hashishiyun." These men built six castles in the mountains that were nearly impossible to reach. They would go on missions and murder religious and political leaders throughout the region. The English language bears proof of their power - the word "assassin" comes from these evil men who went on deadly missions in the night.

The lives of these three friends continued to rotate around each other in different orbits. Omar Khayyam continued his studies and published astronomical tables as well as a famous discourse on algebra that has been translated into many languages. Nizam continued his life in politics under the Sultan until Hasan Sabah's band of assassins visited him and murdered him. The Hashishiyun took countless lives during their time, but it could be argued that this was the most cold-blooded.

Relevant Links

Read the Rubiyat online... Omar would be most impressed with this technology!

Luckily Omar was not a target of the Hashishiyun, and he lived to the ripe old age of seventy-six, spreading the advantages of science until his death in 1123 CE. As you know, he also wrote poetry, and Edward Fitzgerald's translation of his writing in the nineteenth century spread his name farther than ever before. Hasan Sabah died the next year at the even riper age of eighty-four, and the assassins continued to flourish until Alamut was captured by the Mongols in 1256 CE.

Can you believe that story? Each of the three

ridicule - To make fun of
pessimistic - A bad outlook, not positive
intriguing - To arouse intrigue or curiosity
prominence - Being important, highly regarded.
bind - Bond.

fulfilled the predictions of fame but each in their own way. Nizam-ul-mulk's generosity was repaid with murder by the treacherous Hasan Sabah.

I am surprised that Omar Khayyam's poems never directly mentioned this strange twist of fate with his three childhood friends! Well, you know what they say: "The best of friends make the worst of enemies."


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - The Holiest of Shrines: The Astan Quds Razavi of Mashhad
Abeja - Sweet Home Iran
Jasmine - Nader Shah: War Can Make You Lose Your Head
Kavitha - Superman? Wonder Woman? Ha! This Guy Saves Languages! Why Iranians Fall for Ferdowsi

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