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“When the Titanic sank on the night of April 14, 1912 (…), its most eminent victim was a book.”
The Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf may have exaggerated a bit in his historical novel Samarkand, originally published in 1988. Or maybe not. It all depends on who you ask.
The book of Maalouf’s novel is a fictional manuscript of the Rubaiyat (“The Quartets”) of the 11th-century Iranian scholar Omar Jayam, whom he describes as particularly valuable because it was unique.
And although in reality there are numerous copies of the volume of Persian poems, at the time of the fatal voyage of the Titanic there was one that eclipsed them all, not because of what was written, but because of its almost otherworldly appearance .
That was the manuscript that inspired Maalouf’s celebrated novel.
“At the bottom of the Atlantic there is a book,” he writes in the introduction. “I’m going to tell you his story,” he continues.
“Whoever wants a peacock must endure the tests of Hindustan,” says a Persian folk proverb.
And although the saying refers to the looting of Delhi and the famous Peacock Throne (among other things) at the hands of the Iranian monarch Nader Shah Afshar, in the eighteenth century, it could have been coined in London a few centuries later.
Engaged in reviving the medieval tradition of jeweled books , George Sutcliffe and Francis Sangorski were already famous throughout the city in the early 1900s, thanks to their opulent and exaggerated designs.
So naturally it was to them that Henry Soltheran, a bookseller on Sackville Street, came over to order them a book like no other.
Sotheran made it clear that the cost was not a problem and gave the bookbinders carte blanche to let their imagination fly and produce the most spectacular book ever seen.
Completed in 1911, after two years of intense work, the book – a free and Victorian interpretation of the poems of Omar Jayam by Edward FitzGerald , with illustrations by Elihu Vedder – came to be known as “The Great Omar” and “The Book wonder “, thanks to its indisputable splendor.
Adorning its gilded front were three peacocks with tails full of jewels and surrounded by the intricate patterns and floral motifs typical of medieval Persian manuscripts, while on the back cover you could see a Greek buzuki.
More than 1,000 precious and semi-precious stones – rubies, turquoises, emeralds and others – were used in its manufacture , along with almost 5,000 pieces of leather and incrustations of silver, ivory and ebony, in addition to 600 sheets of 22 carat gold.
The Great Omar
Although the intention of Sotheran was to send the volume to New York, the bookseller did not want to pay the US customs fees so the book returned to England.
There Gabriel Wells bought it at a Sotheby’s auction for 450 pounds at the time, less than half of his starting price of 1,000.
Like Sotheran, Wells’s intention was to send the masterpiece to the United States. But unfortunately for him – and for the world – the volume could not be embarked on the ship originally chosen for the task.
The next ship was the Titanic, and the rest does not need explanation. But the story did not end with the sinking of the Titanic or the strange death of Sangorski, who died a few weeks later drowned.
A nephew of Sutcliffe, Stanley Bray, was determined to revive not only the recollection of Great Omar, but the book itself.
And using Sangorski’s original drawings, after six years of hard work he managed to replicate the book , which was kept in the vault of a bank.
The Great Omar, however, seemed to have been born with a bad star : the bombings of the Second World War shattered it, a bit like the wine vases the poet, symbols of human frailty.
But Bray did not give up, but set out to re-produce a new version of his uncle’s swan song.
Although this time the process did not take years, but decades.
Completed after 40 years of intermittent work, his efforts translated into another impressive reproduction that was delivered on loan to the British Library , which permanently inherited the volume upon Bray’s death.
“I’m not superstitious in the least,” he noted shortly before his death, “although they say the peacock is a symbol of disaster .”
But what was the Rubaiyat of Omar Jayam and who was that enigmatic character who fascinated Sotheran and many others?
An 11th-century scholar from eastern Iran , Jayam was revered in life for his groundbreaking work in astronomy and mathematics.
And like many other Iranian scholars like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Jayam was also a poet.
That said, his poetry did not resemble that of any other Persian poet and for centuries he has occupied an absolutely unique place in the great canon of classical Persian literature.
Jayam’s inquisitive nature led him to question things that most of his contemporaries took for granted: faith, the hereafter, and the meaning of life itself.
He relied little on the promises of his religion and his speech of heaven and hell, and also expressed doubts about the logic of God.
There was only one thing that Jayam was sure of, and that he valued deeply: this life.
He understood very well-probably because of the turbulent times in which he lived: Iran, by that time under Turkish occupation, had recently been invaded by the Arabs, and Mongol hordes would soon sweep their homeland- the fleeting of life and death. or inevitab her death and the importance of taking advantage of the short time we have on earth.
For him, everything that had to do with religion or life after death was simple hot air.
No one has seen heaven or hell, my heart / Who, tell me, has come from that kingdom, my heart? / Our hopes and fears are tied to what / e xcept name and notion, we can not assign anything.
Although he often lamented the ephemeral nature of life, he also decided to enjoy it to the fullest, with plenty of wine (and also some loves).
If Goethe fell in love with Hafez and Voltaire de Sa’di, the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald found his soul mate in Jayam , the old “tent maker” (the literal translation of the surname in English is Khayyám).
When he discovered it, FitzGerald had already translated from Persian “Salaman and Absal” by Jami, as well as an abbreviated version of “The conference of birds” by Attar.
But it was the Rubaiyat ‘s who became his cimera work .
Although it is not exactly a translation of the original Persian poems, the rather free interpretation he made of them captured very well the spirit of the Rubaiyat and the poet’s worldview , hence one can refer to the author as “FitzOmar”.
And FitzGerald could not have imagined the popularity that the small, but very deep volume, would soon have.
At the end of the 19th century, an important literary salon in London – the still active Club Omar Jayam – was named after the Iranian scholar.
While the interpretation made of the Rubaiyat FitzGerald also served as inspiration ng to Pre – Raphaelite artists such as William Morris, who produced two illuminated manuscripts of the text, the second of which also included illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones.
Artists such as Edmund Dulac and Edmund Joseph Sullivan also illustrated other editions. In fact, an illustration of the latter eventually came to appear on the cover of the seventh album of the Grateful Dead, in 1971.
In another record, the acclaimed short story writer Hugh Munro chose as a pseudonym “Saki”, the title used by Jayam to address his cupbearer , while Ágata Christie’s 1942 novel “El dedo en movimiento” shares a title with a poem by Jayam.
Not to mention the film about Jayam produced in Hollywood in 1957, the declamation of the entire Rubaiyat by the American actor Alfred Drake in 1960, and the appointment made by Martin Luther King in an anti-war speech in 1967 , ahead of Bill Clinton in several decades.
In fact, in the 1960s the Rubaiyat was so popular that more than half could be found in compendia such as Bratlett’s quotes and Oxfrod’s book of quotations.
A not so old store manufacturer
Jayam’s poetry has resisted the passage of time.
In his native Iran he is an imposing figure whose verse book, as well as that of Hafez, is found in virtually every home.
Despite all the freedoms that were taken, the FitzGerald version is the best-known English translation, and a British classic in its own right.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, Jayam’s poems have been translated into virtually all languages.
It is therefore not surprising that Sotheran chose the Rubaiyat as the raison d’être of the wonder of Sutcliffe and Sangorski.
But how can the poems of an 11th-century scholar have been relevant not only in the Victorian era and the mid-twentieth century, but also today?
The answer lies in the timelessness of the Rubaiyat and its universal truths , those that transcend culture, religion or creed.
In fact, in these uncertain times, the Rubaiyat may be even more relevant than during the tumultuous era in which it was written.