Omar Khayyam: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Omar Khayyam is known for his poetry, but did you know that he was also an accomplished mathematician and astronomer? In this lesson, you will learn about the life and works of Omar Khayyam.

A Man of Many Talents

What do you want to be when you 'grow up?' Maybe an attorney or a teacher, a doctor or an app developer? How about all of those things at one time? That sounds pretty impossible, but for a man like Omar Khayyam, the sky was the limit.

Early Life

Omar Khayyam was born on May 18, 1048, almost 1,000 years ago in a place called Neyshabur. If you tried to locate Neyshabur on a map today, you might have a difficult time finding it. The place he called home is a part of present-day Iran. His last name, Khayyam, means 'tent-maker'. However, that was not the career path he chose to follow. Omar Khayyam went to school in Neyshabur and studied philosophy and science, eventually moving to a place found in present-day Uzbekistan to study math.

Khayyam was a very accomplished mathematician. In school today, you've probably learned about finding square roots, cube roots, and fourth roots. These types of calculations can be really advanced, and in the 11th century there were no graphing calculators to help! One of Khayyam's first written works, Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra explored methods to determine cube roots and fourth roots.

Khayyam's Career

Khayyam's mathematical abilities truly impressed the people with whom he studied. Rather than getting a gold star for a job well done, he received something much greater. A sultan of the Seljuk Empire, a man named Malik-Shah, recognized Khayyam's potential. The sultan offered him a job as an astronomer to study the stars, planets, and their movements. Khayyam made his way to Esfahan and set up shop in the kingdom's observatory. As an astronomer, he carefully examined how long it took for the Earth to make its way around the sun. At the time, most of the world operated on the Gregorian Calendar that had 365 days a year and a leap year every fourth year. Khayyam determined that the Gregorian Calendar was slightly off and suggested adjustments to improve the calendar system.

Artist rendering of Omar Khayyam
Artist rendering of Omar Khayyam

Unfortunately for Khayyam, his time in Esfahan came to an abrupt end. Sultan Malik-Shah died, and his wife was no longer interested in employing Khayyam. To make matters worse, many members of the royal court questioned Khayyam's devoutness as a Muslim, or follower of the religion Islam. In 1092, Khayyam left Esfahan and made his way to Mecca, the site of Muslim holy devotion, before returning to his hometown in Neyshabur.

Back at home, Khayyam taught numerous subjects, among them:

  • history
  • philosophy
  • law
  • medicine
  • astronomy
  • mathematics

Imagine if your teachers at school were responsible for teaching every single subject. Not only would this be exhausting, but your teacher would also have to remember a ton of information! In addition to teaching, Khayyam also wrote poetry. Omar Khayyam died on December 4, 1131.

The Rubaiyat

While Omar Khayyam was alive, he was well-known for being a mathematician, scientist, and astronomer. If you ask around today, people who recognize the name Omar Khayyam know him for his poetry. In 1859 a man named Edward FitzGerald translated a series of nearly 600 poems written by Khayyam and published them as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Historians aren't entirely sure if Khayyam actually wrote the poems, because there is very little discussion during his lifetime about his life as a poet. Regardless, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam put him on the map in the Western world.

Khayyam's poetry takes the form of quatrains, or four-line poems that usually follow one of two rhyme schemes: AAAA or AABA. In Khayyam's quatrain below, you can see that the poem follows the AABA rhyme scheme: 'Lo', 'blow', and 'throw' rhyme while 'Purse' at the end of the third line does not.

Look to the blowing Rose about us-'Lo,

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