The city of Nishapur is, along with Mashhad and Toos, part of the region in northeastern Iran that churned out some of the foremost Muslim thinkers and academics of the Middle Ages. Nishapur’s favorite son, and its primary claim to fame, was Omar Khayyam, possibly the greatest mathematician to live between Euclid and Copernicus. Interestingly, he is even better known for his poetry, as captured in the book The Rubaiyet of Omar Khayyam, possibly the second most popular work of Muslim literature after the 1001 Nights. The strange, geometry-inspired modern sculpture which now marks the site of his tomb is now the most popular site in the city where he is trumpeted as one of the great heroes of science.
Ghiyath Al-Din Abu’l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nishapuri Al-Khayyami, better known as Omar Khayyam, spent almost all of his long life in and around Nishapur. During his lifetime in the 11th and 12th centuries, Nishapur was the regional capital of Khorasan, and may have been the largest Muslim city east of Baghdad for a time. Nishapur, along with nearby Toos and Mashhad, was an incredibly important center of learning during the Middle Ages, and it was a major base from which Islam spread into Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Omar Khayyam probably began to write and teach in Nishapur sometime around 1075 AD. He was multi-disciplined, and considered an expert on several subjects, including mathematics, various sciences, geography, philosophy and music. But it was in mathematics that he made his greatest mark on the Muslim world. Among his contributions were his studies in solving geometric and algebraic equations; physics and mechanics; and astronomical observations. As an expert in the latter, Omar Khayyam is credited with making early suggestions concerning the establishment of a new calendar as well as challenging geocentrism.
As amazing as his mathematican and scientific contributions to the world were, Omar Khayyam is best known, especially to non-Muslims, for his literature and poetry. In the 19th century, more than seven hundred years after his death, the writer Edward Fitzgerald translated a number of Khayyam’s poems into English and had them published collectively as the Rubaiyet of Omar Khayyam. Many of these poems suggest that Khayyam was skeptical about organized religion, and may have been persecuted in his day as an Islamic Galileo Galilei.
Omar Khayyam died in 1131 AD at the age of 83. By the time of his death, he had achieved prominence as the greatest scientist of his age. His writings and teachings quickly spread to every corner of the Muslim world and beyond. His ideas were one of the major reasons that the Middle East emerged into a golden age of science while Europe still lingered in the dark ages. His tomb in Nishapur has become a favorite stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Masjid Imam Ridha in Mashhad, and remains to this day one of the most visited burial sites in all of Iran.
Omar Khayyam was buried outside of Nishapur, which came in handy when the Mongols arrived and laid waste to the city in 1221 AD but left the burial site undisturbed. However, though the grave dates to the 12th century, the current monument marking his tomb is only a few decades old. It is shaped like an inverted hyperbolic cone dissected by numerous planes, an ode to Khayyam’s work on geometry. Inscribed on it surfaces are some of his more memorable writings.
The Tomb of Omar Khayyam is located on the perimeter of the old city of Nishapur, approximately 40 miles west of Mashhad and 380 miles east of Teheran. It is otherwise an open site and can be visited freely at any time. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran)
Nishapur remains to this day an important center of Persian literature, art and culture. Among the city’s other important cultural sites are the Tomb of Farid Al-Din Attar, a 12th century writer, and Kamal-Ol-Molk, a 19th century artist. Also in Nishapur is the locally famous Wooden Mosque, an extreme architectural rarity in the Middle East.
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