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Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond

Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The West’s understanding of the world of Persian literature owes much to a series of events that centred on the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, in the 1850s. An eccentric English scholar, Edward FitzGerald, encouraged by his teacher and friend EB Cowell, translated a 15th-century manuscript written in delicate Persian script.

This small work had come into the Bodleian's collection 15 years earlier. It was a collection of short, witty poems written in sets of four lines, with an internal rhyme rather like an epigram. These charming verses, or rubaiyat (thus the title given to the work by FitzGerald), had been written in eastern Persia in the 11th century by Omar Khayyam, a man more famous as an astronomer and mathematician than a writer.

FitzGerald’s imaginative rendition would eventually become one of the bestselling works of poetry in the English-speaking world. In addition to his own revisions and other English translations, the Rubaiyat was also translated into many other languages, inspiring artists and musicians.

While fanciful in parts and having lost some of the skilled wit and rhythm of Khayyam’s joyous advice for living, the Rubaiyat offered Europeans a glimpse into the world of medieval Persia and its rich court life, friendships and love affairs, fine costumes, garden parties and music, and its love of beauty. Swept up in its atmosphere of sensuality, Europeans were transported to another dimension, yet they felt curiously at home.

Provincial court life in medieval Persia and Europe had much in common, and some of the Rubaiyat’s extravagant language and the imagery it evoked was reminiscent of the language of ‘courtly love’ and the troubadours already familiar in European culture. Europeans had been exposed to Persian poetry before, but for most it was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that conveyed the atmosphere of that distant land straight to their hearts.

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.


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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