Nizami Ganjavi

The name of a library is usually an afterthought in the mind of a reader with a deadline – little more than a direction towards the book they need, or a quiet place to study until their next lecture. If they give it any thought at all, then most people when hearing the name “Nizami Ganjavi Library”, assume that Nizami Ganjavi must have been a donor of some significance, perhaps an alumnus of what used to be the Oriental Institute, or a recently-deceased scholar who the University saw fit to memorialise.

In truth, Nizami could not have donated to, taught at, or attended the University – on account of having been dead for nearly nine hundred years.

Since Nizami was not a court poet, the only real source that we have for his personal life is his own writing – which is often lacking in detail and therefore hotly debated by modern scholars. We know that he was born around 1141, likely in Qom in central Iran, or perhaps Ganja, to a Kurdish mother – before being orphaned and raised by his uncle in Ganja, who had him educated in a wide variety of subjects. While it is intuitive that he was well-versed in both Arabic and Persian literary traditions, his knowledge of other topics ranged from astronomy to law to botany – his skills in which make themselves known throughout his poetry.

He was married three times over the course of his life, but each of his wives died young, with each of their deaths coinciding with the completion of one of his romantic poems. He is said to have loved his first wife the most, with whom he had his only son, and who died when he finished Khosrow and Shirin. Some suggest that her name may have been Afaq, but it’s not a definite fact, and history doesn’t record the names of his other wives, who died after he finished his two other romances. Regarding this, he is reported as having exclaimed “God, why is it that for every mathnavi I must sacrifice a wife!”

The twelfth century was a time of great political instability in Persia and the Caucasus, but also of never-before-seen reach for Persian poetry, which is in turn reflected in Nizami’s poems. He had various patrons throughout his career, from several different and sometimes rival dynasties; such as the Seljuqs, Eldiguzids, and Ahmadilis – the influences of these different cultures and their languages make themselves known through his stylistic choices, such as cross-cultural idioms and certain words from the local Pahlavi dialect that spread beyond their traditional range. Nizami mentions several other poems, contemporary and otherwise, which he used as inspirations for his own – but maintains his superiority over his influences.

Nizami is known for his mathnavi poetry – didactic and romantic poems composed of rhyming couplets with a metre of eleven syllables, rarely ten. His most famous work is the Khamsa (خمسه, ‘Quintet’) – an anthology made up of five long narrative poems which he wrote over the course of about forty years:

  • Makhzan-ol-Asrâr (مخزن‌الاسرار, ‘The Treasury of Mysteries’), 1163 (some date it 1176)
  • Khosrow o Shirin (خسرو و شیرین, ‘Khosrow and Shirin’), 1177–1180
  • Leyli o Majnun (لیلی و مجنون, ‘Layla and Majnun’), 1192
  • Eskandar-Nâmeh (اسکندرنامه, ‘The Book of Alexander’), 1194 or 1196–1202
  • Haft Peykar (هفت پیکر, ‘The Seven Beauties’), 1197

He did write other shorter-form lyric poems, mostly ghazals and qasidahs, which were not held in as high regard as the Khamsa in his own time, and only a few of these survive to us.


Influence in Modern Culture

There is no shortage of retellings of the stories in Nizami’s poetry, with varying levels of fidelity to the renditions that appear in the Khamsa as opposed to elsewhere. These retellings have taken the form of both poetry and prose translations of his work, as well as films, stage plays, songs, and even a few ballets. The versions of these stories that remain in the public consciousness are not always exactly the ones Nizami told –there is a lot of overlap with the versions that inspired Nizami – such as those found in the Shahnameh. In other cases, parts of the story are changes to align with current preferences; for example his Majnun is Layla’s uncle, a detail which is often changed in modern accounts. Despite these changes, Nizami’s influence on the most common versions of the story in the modern day is still evident.

Many would say that the most notable interpretation of Nizami’s work, however, was as the inspiration for Derek and the Dominos’ album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The titular song, and centrepiece of the album, Layla, was inspired by the all-consuming love in Nizami’s poem Layla and Majnun, and went on to be ranked at #27 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the greatest songs of all time above A Day in the Life by The Beatles at #28 – most people recognise it almost instantly by the opening riff, if not by the title. Earlier in the album, in the notes for the song I am Yours, singer/guitarist Eric Clapton listed the composer as Nizami as well as himself, because he had used so many of the lines that Majnun sings to Layla in Nizami’s poem that he felt he couldn’t take all of the credit for the lyrics.

Link to the album on youtube:


^Album cover for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos


Status as National Poet of Azerbaijan

When Azerbaijan was formed under the Soviet Union in 1936 and had to name a national poet, they chose Nizami due to his widespread influence and having spent most of his life in the area, though not born there. At this time there were no serious claims that Nizami was ethnically Turkic – it was widely accepted that he was Persian but lived in Ganja – and this wasn’t an issue for the citizens of Azerbaijan who loved his poetry anyway, and held an 800-year anniversary of his poetry in order to keep up with the other Soviet countries who were holding celebrations for their own recently-appointed national poets. It seems that the idea of claiming Nizami as a native Azerbaijani poet began with the First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, who held deeply-felt anti-Iranian sentiments. The idea was bolstered by the Institute of History of Language and Literature of the Azerbaijani affiliate of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, who started publishing his poetry, and the magazine Pravda, which mentioned Nizami as specifically Azerbaijani as opposed to Persian.

By 1939, with the involvement of Soviet Orientalists and perhaps even Stalin, the idea spread that Nizami had been forced to write in Persian instead of a supposed native Turkic language, and he was only now being “returned” to his “true heritage”. This statement was usually followed by an assertion of the greatness of the Soviet Union for enabling this to finally happen – feeding into the Soviet nationalist ideology of the period. Despite being based on ethno-territorial assumptions and deliberate misinterpretations of Nizami’s work, the USSR directly benefited from the idea that fascists in Persia and the West had deliberately conspired to steal Nizami from the nation of Azerbaijan. As a consequence, many Orientalists continue to this day to assert that Nizami was not Persian, and there are still serious consequences in Azerbaijan for disagreeing.


Resources at the Bodleian

Many books related to Nizami Ganjavi and his works can be found, intuitively, in the Nizami Ganjavi Library under the shelfmark PK6501, as well as in the Middle East Centre Library, the Weston Library, and elsewhere. We have books of his poetry in the original Persian, as well as translated into several other languages including English, Russian, and Japanese. Additionally, there are several manuscripts of Nizami’s poetry, the earliest dating from the fifteenth century, which have recently been made searchable within various digital archives on the new Marco software.


^illustration of one of the scenes in the Iskandar-Nameh, in a manuscript of the Khamsa linked above


Further Reading

Baum, Wilhelm. Shirin: Christian – Queen – Myth of Love: A Woman of Late Antiquity: Historical Reality and Literary Effect. Gorgias Press, 2004

Berthels, Evgeniĭ Èduardovich, and Edmund Herzig. The Great Azerbaijani Poet, Nizami: Life, Work and Times. Edited by Paul D. Wordsworth, Translated by James White and Maroussia Bednarkiewicz, Gilgamesh Publishing, 2016

Brend, Barbara. Treasures of Herat: Two Manuscripts of the Khamsah of Nizami in the British Library. Gingko Library, 2022

Chelkowski, Peter J., and Niẓāmī Ganjavī. Mirror of the Invisible World: Tales from the Khamseh of Nizami. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975

Chelkowski, Peter J., editor. Crafting the Intangible: Persian Literature and Mysticism. University of Utah Press, 2013

Cross, Cameron. “The Many Colors of Love in Niẓāmī’s ’Haft Paykar:’ Beyond the Spectrum”. Interfaces: A Journal of Medieval European Literatures, no. 2 (June 30, 2016): 52–96

Geybullayeva, Rahilya, and van Ruymbeke, Christine, editors. The Interpretation of Nizami’s Cultural Heritage in the Contemporary Period: Shared Past and Cultural Legacy in the Transition from the Prism of National Literature Criteria. Peter Lang, 2020

Nezami, Parviz. Twelve Centuries of Persian Poetry and History: Classics to Modern (8th to 21st Century). Gutinbirg Publishers, 2022

van Ruymbeke, Christine. Science and Poetry in Medieval Persia: The Botany of Nizami’s Khamsa. Cambridge University Press, 2007

van Ruymbeke, Christine, and Johann-Christoph Bürgel. A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim. Leiden University Press, 2011

Rypka, J. “POETS AND PROSE WRITERS OF THE LATE SALJUQ AND MONGOL PERIODS.” The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5, Cambridge University Press, 1968, pp. 550–625

Seyed-Gohrab, A. A. (Ali Asghar). Laylī and Majnūn: Love, Madness, and Mystic Longing in Niẓāmī’s Epic Romance. Brill, 2003

Stchoukine, Ivan. Les peintures des manuscrits de la “Khamseh” de Niẓâmî au Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi d’Istanbul. P. Geuthner, 1977

Talattof, Kamran, et al. The Poetry of Nizami Ganjavi: Knowledge, Love, and Rhetoric. Palgrave, 2000

Talattof, Kamran. “Siavash Lornejad: Ali Doostzadeh, On the Modern Politicization of the Persian Poet Nezami Ganjavi (Yerevan Series for Oriental Studies—1), Yerevan: ‘Caucasian Centre for Iranian Studies’, 2012, 215 Pp.” Iran & the Caucasus, vol. 16, no. 3, 2012, pp. 380–83


by Iona Spark

South Asia Archive and Library Group summer meeting, 2024

The South Asia Archive and Library Group will be holding its summer meeting at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on Wednesday 19th June. SAALG is a UK-wide organisation that brings together librarians, archivists and scholars with an interest in South Asia and we meet once or twice a year, with lunch and speakers.

We are very much looking forward to our one-day event in mid-June at OCIS – see the poster for information about the speakers and talks. All are very welcome to attend, but please register in advance with Hedley Sutton (, ideally by Friday 7th June. There is a charge of £25, payable on the day, to cover catering and administrative costs.



Trial: The Baghdad Observer Digital Archive (1967-1996) (until 6 April 2024)

Researchers at Oxford are invited to use the Digital Archive of the Baghdad Observer as part of a trial ending on 6th April 2024.

The Baghdad Observer was a state-sponsored Iraqi newspaper founded in 1967, published in English until its closure in 2003. The Observer not only covers key events from the recent history of Iraq and the Middle East – such as the Gulf War and the presidency of Saddam Hussein – but also wider global news that happened concurrently, often clearly filtered through the Ba’athist perspective promoted by the Iraqi government at the time.


^An article published in the Observer in 1986. While framed as simple analysis of historical sources, it places the blame for the Iran-Iraq War entirely in the camp of the Iranians and their determination to “destroy and plunder the cultural centres of Mesopotamia”.


The Baghdad Observer provides a valuable insight into a narrative of events in the Middle East in the mid-late twentieth century, especially when used in conjunction with other newspapers from the same period available on the Global Press Archive. The biases of the government are more apparent in some articles than in others – but the wide variety of subjects covered in its forty years of publication make it a valuable resource for researchers in many areas.


^ An Observer article published in 1989 on the founding, layout, and artefacts of the Ashmolean Museum. The author is largely complimentary of the pieces in the collections, as well as the way they have been displayed, and laments the lack of funding given to public museums in the eighties.


The digital archive itself contains 7619 issues of the Observer – comprising 60563 pages in total. The database has very user-friendly search and filter functions which can be used to find articles by the date of publication as well as by their title and topic. There is also a text-search function to find keywords within an article or issue.

Please take a look by 6th April and send feedback to


Written by Iona Spark

Trial access to Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism until 7 April 2024

Oxford researchers are invited to trial Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism: 1840–1927, part of East View’s Archive Editions series. This resource consists of 4,050 digitized documents, almost all derived from government records held in The National Archives UK; they capture an era of rising nationalist sensibility in Egypt and the response of the British government in its evolving policy towards the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Autograph letter from Esther Fahmy H. Wissa, Vice-President of the Women’s Committee of the Delegation in Egypt, to His Excellency Field Marshal Lord Allenby, 1 August 1922

Autograph letter from Esther Fahmy H. Wissa, Vice-President of the Women’s Committee of the Delegation in Egypt, to His Excellency Field Marshal Lord Allenby, 1 August 1922 ©East View

The British military occupation in Egypt was a legal and political anomaly. Never formally described as part of the “British Empire” by successive British governments, that relationship may have been inferred, applied by the popular press, or understood to be a colonial relationship by the public. But Britain was an administering power and the term “protectorate” was a debated definition of the relationship as early as 1884. The eventual end of British occupation marked the emergence of modern Egypt.

With more than 4,000 primary source documents in English, French and Arabic, Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism presents the development of nationalist sensibilities, movements, and publications from the 1870s until the third decade of the twentieth century and culminating with the formal dissolution of the British protectorate in 1924.

Letter from British Diplomat L. Oliphant, to for the Foreign Office, 1 June 1922. U.K. National Archives, T 161/155

Letter from British Diplomat L. Oliphant, to for the Foreign Office, 1 June 1922. U.K. National Archives, T 161/155

The documents included in Egypt and the Rise of Nationalism range in scope from records of casual conversations, formal meetings, correspondence with individuals and groups, monitoring of the nationalist press, internal British evaluations and debates on objectives and the status of leaders and individual campaigners, and forceful responses to insurgencies involving nationalist activists.

This collection focuses on developments connected to figures prominent in nationalist activities and pays special attention to interactions between them and British authorities, typically at flashpoints. As such, some years in which no specific events occurred may be omitted, while documents relating to particularly eventful years figure more prominently in the record.

Due to the official nature of the documents included, there is an inevitable bias against Egyptian nationalist sentiments for its inherent negative implications to British interests. However, some officials and politicians were more sympathetic and supportive than others, depending on the overall policy of the home government.

Each document in this collection is richly tagged and full-text searchable. Users can browse by people, places, and topics (as identified by the collection’s editors), as well as document types (e.g., despatch, map, telegram, letter, etc.). Each object is also georeferenced in a map view, both by geographic origin of the document and by locations associated with items in the collection.

[Information derived from East View’s website]

This trial ends 7th April 2024. Please take a look and send feedback to