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Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond

Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond

Layla and Majnun

The poet Byron described the Persian story of Layla and Majnun as the 'Romeo and Juliet of the East'.

Majnun, which means 'possessed by spirits' or 'crazy', was the name given to the semi-legendary 7th-century Arab poet Qays Ibn Mulawwah when he reputedly became mad with love for Layla.

In Persian accounts, the hopeless lovers meet as schoolchildren and fall deeply in love; however, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, they are forbidden to marry. Grief-stricken, Majnun retreats to the desert, wild animals his only companions. Layla, in time, is married to a nobleman, but she remains devoted to Majnun, initiating several thwarted attempts to meet him. Eventually she dies of a broken heart, and her obsessed beloved follows her to the grave, dying as he mourns at her tomb.

The late 12th-century poet Nizami wrote the best-known version of this sad story, describing himself in the prelude as 'the mirror of the unseen' and offering the work for spiritual contemplation. He included the tale in his Khamsa (Quintet), after which it was much copied and incorporated on many levels into later poets' work, both in Iran and in the wider Persianate sphere, especially Mughal India. Epitomising the notion that earthly love could, and probably should, lead to spiritual enlightenment, the story had long-lasting and universal appeal.

In the late 1960s, a friend of English musician Eric Clapton gave him an English translation of the story of Layla and Majnun. Clapton subsequently wrote his bestselling song ‘Layla’, inspired by the female beloved of Nizami’s story.

Love & devotion in the UK

The Bodleian Libraries is showing its own presentation of the Love and devotion exhibition at the Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library, in Oxford, England, between 29 November 2012 and 28 April 2013.

Learn more about how you can visit this exhibition on the Bodleian Libraries website.

Conference

Love and devotion: Persian Cultural Crossroads

This two-day conference held in April 2012 featured distinguished international guests and Australian specialists exploring cultural convergences in literature, the arts and architecture, history and philosophy within Persia's cultural sphere and Europe, from the 11th century to the present day.

For information on keynote speakers & topics discussed, visit our conference page

Visit the exhibition

The Love and devotion exhibition took place from 9 March to 1 July 2012. In-depth information about the exhibits and themes can be found on this website.

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