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

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

Here be dragons…

April 23rd is celebrated as the Feast of St. George here at Oxford!

It is often that St. George was proclaimed as the patron saint of England at the Synod of Oxford in 1222, and though historians cast doubt on this claim, St George’s feast day has, in the minds of many, a special relationship with our city.

As it turns out, the patron “saint” of our library, the 12th c. CE poet نظامی گنجوی Niẓāmī Ganjavī, was also a huge fan of dragons, and featured them prominently in his story of the هفت پیکر Haft Paykar or “Seven Forms”.

In honour of our library’s doubly special relationship with dragons, we here at the NGL have decked our display table with a selection of literature on dragon myths from across our region of expertise.

Of course, given our namesake’s fondness for these scaly beasts, it’s no surprise that the centrepiece of our display is حسن وحید دستگردی Ḥasan Vaḥīd Dastgirdī’s 1936 CE Persian edition of نظامی گنجوی Niẓāmī Ganjavī’s Haft Paykar — one of only a number of original language editions held int he NGL’s collections.

Niẓāmī Ganjavī, and Vaḥīd Dastgirdī, Ḥasan. Haft Paykar. Tihrān, 1936. Print.

When is a dragon not a dragon?

Carving from the 10th c. Georgian ხახული Khakhuli monastery (now in Bağbaşı village, Erzurum, Turkey) which depict the swallowing of Jonah by the “whale”. (picture courtesy of Niko Kontovas)

Various traditions within our region acknowledge numerous types of fantastic creatures which, though distinct from one another according to those traditions, are all sufficiently recognisable as dragons according to our modern conception of the term.

Across much of Eurasia, for example, there is ambiguity – both in language and, often, in form – between dragons and snakes.

In Abrahamic religions, there are numerous creatures which are variously conceived of as both snake-like and dragon-like. In Hebrew, the word תנין tannīn can refer to many such creatures – snakes, sea snakes, crocodiles, dragons, and even whales – often associated with the sea and almost always associated with evil.

Translations of the Old Testament into various languages throughout history have reflect differing interpretations of the same word in different contexts, sometimes translating תנין tannīn the same way as נחש‎ nāḥāš “serpent”. This further reinforced the association between serpents, dragons, and the Devil.

Eventually, in some eastern Christian traditions, giant sea monsters began appearing where none existed in the Hebrew. This carving from the 10th c. Georgian ხახული Khakhuli monastery (now in Bağbaşı village, Erzurum, Turkey) is thought to depict the swallowing of Jonah by the “whale” – here nearly unrecognizable as such – though the original Hebrew refers only to a דג גדול dāg gādōl “big fish”.

Hāṇḍā, Omacanda. Naga Cults and Traditions in the Western Himalaya. New Delhi: Indus Pub., 2004. Print.

Similarly snake-like are the nāga of the Indic tradition. Though the exact characteristics of nāga vary widely across South Asia, like the Hebrew תנין tannīn, the Sanskrit नाग nāga is usually supernaturally powerful and associated with water. In contrast to Canaanite serpent-dragons, however, nāga are often portrayed as part human and can be either neutral or benevolent in their interactions with the human world.

Handa’s Naga cults and traditions int he western Himalaya (2004) details the worship of nāga deities in the Western Himalaya, where they are particularly associated with the weather, agriculture, and – curiously – bees. Like snakes, nāga deities in this region spend much of their time underground or underwater, and they occasionally claim a sacrifice – probably reflecting the occasional loss of life to snakebites in the fields.


In his classic tome on Tree and serpent worship (1873) in India, also on our display, Scottish Orientalist James Fergusson theorised, in part on the basis of the absence of any mention of nāga worship in the Vedas, that the veneration of nāga in these regions of India is a remnant of indigenous traditions dating back to before the Indo-European invasion of the Subcontinent – even, perhaps, before the spread of Dravidian-speaking peoples.

Connected at different points in pre- and early history to both the Biblical תנין tannīn and the Sanskrit नाग nāga is the Avestan Aži Dahāka, the most evil demon serpent of Zoroastrianism.

The word aži is cognate to Sanskrit अहि ahi “snake”, but Aži Dahāka much more closely resembles the Biblical sea monsters than the Indian objects of worship. Where nāga can control wind and rivers, Aži Dahāka merely entreats the Zoroastrian angels of the winds and rivers to lend their power so that he may pervert it to destroy humanity.

Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f. 30a.
ضحاک Żaḥḥāk is nailed to Mount Damāvand as punishment.

In later Iranian myths, preserved most famously in Firdawsī’s epic poem شاهنامه Šāhnāma, Aži Dahāka is anthropomorphised in the form of the immortal tyrannical ruler ضحاک Żaḥḥāk who, after permitting the evil deity اهرمن Ahriman to kiss his shoulders, sprouts from them two serpents who demand to feast on human brains.

You can see this in folio 30a of Ouseley Add. 176, a beautifully illustrated Persian manuscript of the شاهنامه Šāhnāma held at the Weston Library. Some of you may also remember from our post back in March for Nowruz that the NGL hosts a number of editions of the شاهنامه Šāhnāma, so you can come read the gruesome tale of ضحاک Żaḥḥāk yourself in at least four different languages!

Incidentally, the modern Persian word for “dragon” اژدها aždahā is derived from the name of Aži Dahāka, whence also the word for “dragon” in many other languages, like Turkish ejderha and Kurmanji Kurdish ejdeha/ejdîha.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them… in a Mediaeval Turkish manuscript at the Weston!

By the Islamic Middle Ages, dragons in much of the Middle East had become, much as they had in contemporary Christian Europe, fantastic beasts of various shapes and sizes.

In an illuminated manuscript of مصلح الدین سروری Muṣliḥuddīn Sürūrī’s 17th c. CE Turkish translation of زکریا ابن محمد قزوینی   Zakariyyā ibn Muḥammad Qazwīnī’s 13th c. CE عجاٸب المخلوقات Ajā’ibu l-maḥlūqāt, housed here in the Weston Library (shelfmarked MS Turk. d. 2), we can see two depictions of dragons, accompanied by an explanation of their form, nature, and purported habitat.

The first (folio 140a) demonstrates how dragons in this period are depicted as largely malevolent and associated with the destructive forces of nature. Here we see repeated the common trope, whereby dragons are associated with the end of the world – here as the food for Gog and Magog, the monstrous lords who will wreak havoc upon the Earth before the Day of Judgment. The notion that Gog and Magog feast on a dragon flesh is first attested in Firdawsī’s Šāhnāma.

Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
MS Turk d 2, folio 140a.

“And (another) one is the dragon in the sea, which harms sea creatures. God on high sends a cloud to lift it from the bottom of the sea. It has a body like a big black fish and the colour of it sends out lightning, such that if its tail as big as a tree should touch a building it would ruin it. Whatever its breath reaches burns, and that cloud raises it up to the region where Gog and Magog are and drops it there, so that it might be their food, such that each of them brings a knife and cuts it and feeds upon it […]”

In a second (folios 144b-145a) depiction, we see another dragon fulfilling roles as both an object of conquest and a bearer of magic. Any man brave enough to slay it can employ its oil and meat to a variety of magical ends, further enhancing his valour and virility. In the interest of space we’ll leave them off this blog post, but you can come see these and read a translation of these folios in the NGL!

A case of mistaken identity (Part 1)

The northern half of the Armenian Highlands (composing parts of what is now Armenia, north-eastern Turkey, and southern Georgia) is littered with megaliths known in the Armenian scientific literature վիշապաքարեր višapak‘arer (singular վիշապաքար višapak‘ar) in Armenian – literally “dragon stones”.

While the dating of these stones – and, therefore, the ethno-linguistic characteristics of those who constructed them – is uncertain, they have become associated in local cultures for centuries with “dragons”, with which they share a name in local languages: Armenian վիշապ višap and Kurmanji Kurdish ejdeha.

Early research, such as Marr & Smirnov’s Les vichaps (1931), relied heavily on this association in their analysis of these stones. They note that an early Georgian translation of the Bible employs the word ვეშაპი vešap’i for the sea creature which swallows Jonah, often confused with a whale. They further suggest that the location of the dragon stones near high-altitude lakes and rivers seems to suggest an affiliation with water, which is also a characteristic of dragons in pre-Christian Armenian folklore. If the dragon stones were sites of veneration of dragon-like water deities for ancient Armenians, they argue, the veneration of the fire god Վահագն Վիշապաքաղ Vahagn Višapak‘ał “Vahagn Dragon-culler” and the vilification of dragons by later Armenians may suggest successive inversions of older beliefs by Zoroastrian and Christian authors.

Later research, such as Капанцян Kapant͡si͡an‘s О каменных стелах на горах Армении O kamennykh stelakh na gorakh Armenii (1952), has preferred to analyse the stones outside the context of their later mythical association with dragons. They identify the two figures which frequently appear on these stones as a “fish” and a “sacrificial animal” – probably a bull – but the popular association with dragons and the name višapak‘ar has remained.

Հայերեն: Վիշապաքար ցուլի պատկերով, Ք.ա. 3-2 հազ. Կառավարական երրորդ շենքի գլխավոր ճակատի մոտ.

A case of mistaken identity (Part 2)

With a name like “Georgia”, you might expect the largely Orthodox Christian Caucasian nation to celebrate St. George’s feast day – and indeed it does, though not when you might expect.

The festival of გიორგობა Giorgoba in Georgia is celebrated differently and at different times in different parts of Georgia, with common dates being 6 May, 23 November, and 14 August. Even the name of the holiday differs from place to place, though the association with St. George remains. Veneration of St. George in general is common across the country – so much so that, upon its independence from the Russian Empire, the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia made St. George its patron saint, as he remains to this day. You can read all about the various folk incarnations of St. George in Charachidzé (1968)’s Le système religieux de la Géorgie paienne.

Charachidzé, Georges. Le Système Religieux De La Géorgie Païenne : Analyse Structurale D’une Civilisation. Paris: F. Maspero, 1968. Print. Textes à L’appui.

You may be surprised to learn, then, that the country was not named after the saint – at least not originally. While the country bears the name Georgia (or names like it) in English and many European languages, the name for the country in Georgian is საქართველო Sakartvelo, ultimately related to a geographical term and ethnonym from a certain part of the country. The common European name seems to stem from the Persian ethnonym گرچی gurjī, ultimately probably related to the word گرگ gurg “wolf”, transformed by European pilgrims to the Holy Land some time during the Middle Ages – perhaps noting Georgian pilgrims’ veneration of St. George.

Funnily enough, while the story of St. George and the Dragon is known in Georgia, it does not seem to have played a major role in his traditional veneration. Instead, Charachidzé argues, many of the St. George myths from Georgia are ported over from pagan myths, usually of an old lunar deity.

Pre-Christian Georgian mythology does, however, feature dragons – usually known as გველისფერები gvelisperebi (singular გველისფერი gvelisperi), literally ‘serpent-coloured’ or ‘serpent-like’. In some legends, the გველისფერები gvelisperebi are servants or guards of certain gods or demigods. In others, they specifically guard the entrance to the underworld and are at war with the birds – sometimes eagles or the phoenix-like ფასკუნჯი Pask’unji – perhaps betraying an older association with the earth and water in opposition to the sky and fire.

Coat of arms of the Democratic Republic of Georgia depicting St. George with the sun and moon – but no dragon!

New Day, New Face!


Welcome to the new face of the Nizami Ganjavi Library blog!

It’s been a long time since our last post, but going forward we hope to use this site more actively to keep our visitors up to date on the Library’s holdings, events, and related activities in Oxford and beyond.

Given the theme of renewal, it seems only fitting that the first post on our new site would revolve around the theme of Nowruz — the Persian New Year and a spring festival celebrated across much of Eurasia — which is also, incidentally, the theme for our book display for the month of March 2023!

What is Nowruz?

Nowruz is, at its core, a celebration of spring and – more specifically – of the spring equinox. In the Iranian calendar, which is a solar calendar, this is also the first day of the first month, فروردین Farvardīn, making Nowruz the Iranian New Year celebration.

While Nowruz is celebrated by numerous groups which do not make use of the Iranian calendar, the name Nowruz and certain traditions associated with it betray a common origin somewhere in the distant, pre-Islamic past of greater Iran.

Though the ultimate origins of the holiday are debated, the Persian epic poem, the شاهنامه Šāhnāma of Firdawsī, tells of how the legendary king Jamšēd saved the world from an endless winter by building a gold and bejewelled throne which, when raised up towards the sky, shone like the sun and banished the darkness, saving humanity. In commemoration of this “New Day”, the Iranians celebrate Nowruz < Persian نو naw “new” + روز rōz “day”.

One of the Library’s many versions of the ŠāhnāmaDick Davis’ English translation, Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings (New York/London: Penguin, 2007) can be found on our book dispaly this month.

You can also find جواد برومند سعید Javād Barūmand Sa‘īd‘s excellent research collection on the history of Nowruz, نوروز جمشيد: پژوهشى نوين از پيدايى نوروز Nawrūz-i Jamshīd: pizhūhishī nuvīn az paydāʼī-i Nawrūz.

Nowruz is celebrated in different cultures across Eurasia, so it’s no surprise that there are different ways to render/spell/pronounce the name of the holiday. One book on our display, Fatih Köse’s Osmanlı Devletinde Nevrûz (İstanbul: IQ Kültür Sanat, 2007) relates how Nowruz celebrations were once common among certain classes and populations within the Ottoman Empire, even if they are primarily associated with Kurds in Turkey today.

Here are some other versions of the name for this holiday in languages you may come across.

name language(s)
Navrez Crimean Tatar
Neowrez Mazandarani
Nevruz Albanian, Turkish
Newroz Kurmanji, Zazaki
Novruz Azerbaijani
Nowruz Turkmen
Nûroj Kurmanj (rare/learned)
Навруз Navruz Nogay, Russian
Науруз Nauruz Bashkir
Наурыз Nauryz Kazakh
Нәүрүз Näwrüz Volga Tatar
Нооруз Nooruz Kyrgyz
نەورۆز Newroz Sorani
نورۇز Noruz Uyghur
نوروز Nowruz Gilaki, Iranian Persian
Nawrōz Balochi, Dari, Pashto
نوورځ‎ Nawwraź Pashto (rare/learned)

The Nizami Ganjavi Haft-Sin Table

The Haft-Sin (“Seven S’s”) Table — سفره‌ای هفت سین  Sofre-ye Haft-Sin (Sufra-yi Haft-sīn) in Persian — is a fixture of most Iranian households during the Nowruz season, much the same way as a Christmas tree or Chanukkiah. The table is decorated with seven items, each starting with the letter س S in Persian.

In many regions, Nowruz traditions involve the number seven. Exactly why this is in uncertain, but it likely derives from the importance of the number in the Zoroastrian tradition.
In the Avesta, the most holy text of the Zoroastrian religion, Aməša Spəṇta “The Eternal Holies” are seven emanations of the supreme god, Ahura Mazdā, personified in the form of seven divine beings, each representing one of the seven eternal aspects of creation. You can read about this yourselves in an original-language copy of a portion of the Avesta in the form of William A. V. Jackson’s Avesta Reader (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1893), currently adorning our Nowruz dispay in the NGL.

The seven items on a Haft-Sin table sometimes vary, but the standard seven are, along with the things they are often said to represent:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
سیب sib (sēb) apple beauty
سیر sir (sīr) garlic health
سنجد senjed (sinjid) oleaster love
سمنو samanu (samanū) malted wheat pudding strength
سماق somāgh (sumāq) sumac the sun
سرکه sirke (sirka) vinegar patience
سبزه sabze (sabza) greens rebirth

Additional items beginning with س S that are sometimes used alongside or instead of the above are:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
سکه sekke (sikka) coin prosperity
ساعت sāʿat clock time
سنبل sonbol (sunbul) hyacinth spring

Other items are often placed on the Haft Sin table for their symbolic significance regardless of the letter they start with:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
آینه āyine (āyina) mirror introspection
شمع shame’ (šam‘) candle light
تخم مرغ رنگی tokhm-e morgh rangi (tuxm-i murğ rangī) red painted egg fertility
نارنج nārenj (nārinj) orange in a bowl of water the earth
شیرینی shirini (šīrīnī) sweets pleasure
اسفند* esfand (isfand) seeds of Ruda graveolens (rue) banishing evil
شیر shir (šīr) milk purity
بیدمشک bid-meshk (bēd-mišk) branch of a Salix aegyptiaca (musk willow) nature
**کتاب ketāb (kitab) book wisdom

(* Indeed, in some dialects and in older varieties of Persian, this word was pronounced سفند sifand or سپند sipand and would have therefore begun with س S.)

(** The book in question is traditionally one of four: the Qur’ān, the Avesta, the Šāhnāma, or the Dīvān of the poet Ḥāfiẓ of Shiraz. For our display at the NGL, we’ve chosen a version of the دیوان حافظ شیرازی Dīvān-i Ḥāfiẓ-i Šīrāzī — one of many available in our collections!)

Haft-Sin tables are nevertheless as varied as the people who make them, and no book demonstrates this better than Maryam Khosrowshahi’s Sofreh: the art of Persian celebration (London: ACC Art Books, 2014), also on our book display.

In the two-volume set, you’ll find superbly decorated tables, not only for Nowruz but for other Persian celebrations.

Speaking of which, you can learn more about traditional Persian holidays from another of our holdings on display this month, Aly Mazahéri‘s Le Nowroûz et le Mihrikân (Paris: Association des disciples d’Aly Mazahéri, 1992).

Since Nowruz is such a big part of the culture of so many regions within the NGL’s purview, we’ve decided to celebrate this year by adorning our Nowruz book display with a traditional Haft-Sin table!

The board shows even more information about Nowruz traditions from around Eurasia, so don’t forget to stop by before the end of March and see how many of the items above you can spot on our display.

July News and Announcements for August

Building Works

As readers will have seen, we now have scaffolding towers known as crash-decks in three bays of the Library of Congress section under the skylights. It appears – happily – that this should be the only disruption to this part of the library as the work to remove and replace the skylights will be taking place from above rather than in the building, so although we have had to remove the tables from those areas for the duration of the work the books are still safely accessible to readers.

It has certainly afforded us an interesting view of the sky, which we would not usually have from this end of the library!


Meanwhile the corridor by the offices and the office itself are also being readied


We do not have an exact time-table for the end of the works, but are certainly glad to see some progress and grateful that the disruption to the inside of the library has been minimal.

In the meantime please forgive the occasional loud bang or drilling noise!

Book Moves

Kate has now completed her most recent book move, filling up the space at the end of the LC section which was cleared as part of the reclassification project over the last few months. We have updated the shelf-labels to reflect the changes.

Readers seeking anything from the DS300s onwards are advised to move along a few shelves from where they would have expected to find things. The most significant change is that G is now under the windows on the Sackler side, so that has moved quite a long way.

Arabic Geography

Natalija has been working on the G-section, applying a more detailed LC classification to the Arabic geography and travel-writing section, to reflect the different authors and subjects within it. We hope that readers of that subject will find it useful.

SOLO Downtime

The next scheduled maintenance on SOLO will be over the weekend of the 11th-15th August.

From 5pm on Friday 11th August it will be possible to search the catalogue but users will not be able to request items, the Find & Request tab will not show and there will be no information available regarding the availability of particular items. It will not be possible to renew books or place stack requests during the downtime.

Online access to electronic resources will not be affected.

The maintenance period should finish by 9am on Monday 15th August; we will keep readers informed if it overruns.

Note that the staff systems will also be out of commission over this period so we will not be able to order books or renew anything for readers, but we do have an offline circulation system which will mean that books may be borrowed.

Upcoming Closures

A quick reminder that we are closed at the end of August for the Bank Holiday weekend (27th-29th inclusive) and on the 5th and 6th September for St Giles’ Fair. We will post reminders nearer the time.

2015 retrospective


Happy New Year! Please indulge us while we present a reminder of the exciting year that was 2015…

2015 was a busy year at the Oriental Institute Library, with many changes taking place. Most of these have been behind the scenes so we hope that as far as our readers are concerned things have remained calm and peaceful, but for the staff it has been quite a year!

The move that wasn’t

It was early March when the staff of the Library were told of the proposal to close the Oriental Institute Library and move the collections into the Sackler Library. We were told before any other discussions had taken place, in order that we could field questions if anyone heard rumours. Consultations with staff and students were carried out over the next couple of months, with a great number of people expressing to library staff their disquiet at the idea of removing the Library from the Faculty building.

Various points were made about the practicalities of moving our collection into an already full library and the problems which might arise for both sets of staff – Oxford is an institution with a long memory, and it is not uncommon for people to come back years after they left and be confused by changes which took place in the interim, so it would not be a case of taking a few months to get used to different materials.

We were finally told in June that the proposal had been withdrawn, which was an immense relief to both the staff of the library and our loyal readers – not to mention the Sackler readers and staff who had been as dubious as we were about the idea. We hope to continue for a long while as we are, providing a service which is obviously valuable to the University as a whole.


In June we welcomed Vasiliki Giannopoulou to the Library, initially on Thursdays and Fridays, although her role has now expanded slightly to take on extra hours. Vasiliki had previously worked at the History Faculty Library, so her familiarity with the Library of Congress materials was a definite bonus in terms of shelving. She has now been with us for over six months and has settled into the team well.

The summer saw a couple of announcements; Dawn Vaux, who had been the Deputy Librarian at OIL since 2004 (check this) told us that her husband had been offered a job in Sydney, Australia, and that she would be leaving the Library at the start of September, while Dinah Manisty would be retiring at the end of September.

Dawn’s departure was, naturally, more of a surprise, but we all wished her well and she was given a good send-off at the beginning of September.


Meanwhile Dinah’s interim replacement as Subject Librarian for Middle Eastern and Islamic Collections is Lydia Wright, who worked for a month shadowing Dinah to get up to speed with the work before Dinah’s departure.


As both our senior staff had gone we underwent a bit of restructuring to compensate; Lidio has now taken on more responsibility and Jane Bruder from the Sackler has extended her role to include certain managerial duties at OIL. Both Natalija and Vasiliki have also taken on more hours to increase staffing levels. We hope that readers have not noticed any major change in service provision as a result of these adjustments.


At the end of the summer the staff of the Muller Library at the Hebrew and Jewish Studies centre moved some of the books in our collection over to Walton Street as they were deemed more appropriate to the collection there. Readers who find that books they were expecting to be here have moved are advised to check SOLO for new location information.

Kate has reclassified a total of 2342 books in the last calendar year. Over the 2014-15 academic year she reclassified 1688 shelfmarks, representing a 2223 items in total. During September she moved the books from the end of the LC sequence into the area vacated by the DS section and is currently working her way along the shelves near the computers. As ever, please check SOLO regularly if you are a frequent user of materials in the area which is currently being reclassified as things will move.

Looking Forward to 2016

Now that Term has begun again we look forward to welcoming our returning readers, hoping that everyone has had a relaxing break. At present the only major change of which we are aware is the move of some of our Japanese books to the Bodleian Japanese Library, but at present we have no timetable for that work and will keep the Facebook page and this blog updated when more information comes to light.


Brill Online Islam Workshop

Eagle-eyed readers will probably have noticed the posters around the Library for next week’s workshop, but just in case you haven’t…

Next Wednesday, 16th January, there is a workshop on The Brill Online Islam Package as a Research Tool at the Radcliffe Science Library from 1400-1600. The package includes many useful resources including the Encyclopaedia of the Quran online, the Index Islamicus and the Bibliography of Arabic Books online.

Places are limited, and attendees will be given a token which allows FREE access to Brill’s extensive online resources for 7 days, which is a real incentive.

Email Dinah Manisty ( to book a place.

Brill notice

Islamic Seals talk 20th Oct @ 4pm

A seal engraver, drawn in the Kashmiri style, ca 1850. Add.Or.1692. © The British Library

On Thursday 20th October at 4pm, Annabel Gallop from the British Library will give a talk in Room 314 in the Oriental Institute on Islamic Seals: Treasures from the British Library and the British Museum’. This talk is totally free and open to all – please come along!

The talk will complement the British Museum & British Library travelling exhibition about Islamic Seals, that has been displayed in the Oriental Institute reception & inside the library for the past few months.