Nezami (Nizameddin abu Mohammed Iljas ibn Jusof: also Nizami: 1141-1203) was born and lived his whole life in Ganja, the capital of Arran in Transcaucasian Azerbaijan. His father died when the poet was still young, and his mother, of a noble Kurdish family, followed soon afterwards. Nezami was probably brought up by an uncle, married three times, and had at least one son, Mohammed. Little is otherwise known. His works were dedicated to local rulers, as was the custom to the Atabegs and the Seljuk ruler Tughril bin Arslan and there was apparently a Diwan (collection) of short poems, most of which have not survived.

Nezami was of a singularly pious, understanding and gentle nature. He avoided the attractions of court life, and wrote five long works that are among the greatest in Persian literature and which have widely influenced subsequent poetry east and west. His Layla and Majnun was a particular source of inspiration to Ottoman poets, and has several times been translated into European languages, sometimes as an 'oriental Romeo and Juliet', though it is rather more a philosophical and dramatic exploration of love in all its mystical and worldly forms. Wide learning was expected of Islamic poets, and Nezami was well versed in Arabic and Persian literature (including oral and local traditions), mathematics, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, medicine, Koranic exegesis, theology and law, history, ethics, philosophy and esoteric thought, music and the visual arts.

Besides producing a Diwan (a collection of ghazals and qasida) in 1188, Nizami wrote Makhzan al-Asrar (The Mirror of Meanings: 1165) Khosrow o Shirin (The story of Khosrow and Shirin:1175) Laila o Majnun (The story of Layla and Majnun:1188) Eskandar-Nameh (The Book of Alexander: 1191) and Haft Paykar (The Seven Beauties: 1198): a total of 30,000 rhymed couplets (masnavi). The first is mainly devoted to philosophic matters, interspersed with short tales illustrating the maxims of the meditations. The second is a romantic tangle between Shah Khosrau Parwiz, the Armenian princess Shirin and the architect Ferhad, the latter dispatched by an ingenious trick. The poem was dedicated to the local Atabeg ruler, who rewarded the poet with the revenue of two villages. The third poem is the favourite of many, and reworks the famous Bedouin love-story of Laila and Majnun, a tale of thwarted passion that passed into European Renaissance literature in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and others. Nezami is reputed to have written the poem in four months. The fourth poem was Nezami's attempt to rival Firdousi. The Iskandarnama, or Book of Alexander, also called Sharafnama or Iqbdlnama-i-Iskandari ( The Fortunes of Alexander ) is in two parts. The first depicts Alexander the Great as the conqueror of the world, and the second portrays him as a prophet and philosopher, narrating a second set of adventures. Sufi allegories appear, and pantheism in the expedition of Alexander to the fountain of life in the land of darkness. Nezami's fifth work is often regarded as his masterpiece. Haft Paikar, or the Seven Beauties, concern the romantic exploits of seven wives of the Sassanian king Bahramgur, and have again found their way into European art. The fourth princess was the model for Turandot, afterwards adapted by Schiller and Puccini. In sum, the five mathnawis set the pattern for later epic poetry in the Persian, Turkish, Chaghatai and Hindustani languages.

Unless of wealthy family, Islamic poets subsisted as plain scholars, as did Nizami himself and the haughty Jami, or entered princely courts as poets in residence, when they received wealth and title for unstinting celebration of their patron's virtues and accomplishments. Competition was fierce, fellow poets unscrupulous, and patrons sometimes tardy in their appreciation, when the poet might revile the ruler in pointed qasidas and move to greener pastures. Of the three gifted poets to whom Nezami is often compared, Anwari (d. c. 1190) was the most successful of court poets. He served the Seljuk ruler Sanjar at Merv, writing a famous Tears of Khorrasan where the country was invaded by Ghuzz Turcomen and turning out qasidas of great accomplishment but more scholarly interest today. He was a noted student of music, metaphysics and natural science, but suffered ridicule when his 1185 astrological prediction failed to materialize. He retired after 40 years of service to a simple life in Balkh, which his better nature hankered after. Khagani (1106-1185), the second court poet, served his local ruler in Shirwan, married that ruler's daughter, at least corresponded with the court of Khwarazm, took himself off to Isfahan (where he fell out with the inhabitants) returning to Shirwan (and imprisonment), dying in Tabriz. Zahir (d. 1201) may have been the most ambitious of the three. His voluminous and polished panegyrics were addressed to all Persian's contemporary rulers, and the poet at one time resided in Nishapur, Mazandaran, Isfahan and Tabriz, where he also died. In these and so many other court poets the same themes appear: fulsome praise of the patron, withering scorn for rivals, and continual requests for money and recognition.

Persian poetry cannot be appreciated without a deep understanding of Islamic culture, and you may wish to start with general introductions to the history of the area. For the critical literature generally, try as always the bibliography in the The New Princeton Encyclopedia section on Persian Poetry, E. Browne's A Literary History of Persia (1902-24: the Indian reprint is affordable), A. Schimmel's A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry (1992: good bibliography), and perhaps J.S. Meisami's Medieval Persian Court Poetry (1987), W. Thackston's A Millennium of Classical Persian Poetry (1994), Talatoff and Clinton's The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi : Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric (2001), and A. Seyed-Gohrab's A Narration of Love (2003). Many translations exist, mostly as prose.

Suggestion: Mirror of the Invisible World: Tales from the Khamseh of Nizami Nizami Ganjavi (Author) Peter J. Chelkowski (Translator). Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1975. $10.85.

Not Nizami's greatest work, but a good introduction to Persian literature. A nice edition, with excellent illustrations.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.