Omar Khayyam: Persian Mathematician, Astronomer and Poet

Omar Khayyam was a brilliant mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and physician of the 11th century. He contributed to the basic principles of algebra and developed an accurate solar calendar that was used for 800 years. However, he is best known today for his poem “The Rubáiyát.”

Omar Khayyam’s Early Days

Omar Khayyam was born Ghiyath al-Din Abu’l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami on May 18, 1048, in Nishapur, Khorasan, part of present-day northern Iran. Khayyam is believed to have come from a family of tent-makers: the Arabic word for tent-maker is al-khayyami.

His Encyclopedia Britannica biography reports that in Khayyam’s early years, his studies primarily focused on the subjects of philosophy and science. He eventually moved to modern-day Uzbekistan where he began working on his famous “Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra.”

Sources in this Story

Notable Accomplishments

During his lifetime, Khayyam was best known as a mathematician and astronomer. He tackled various key problems in algebra and geometry. His treatise on algebra got him a great deal of attention in his lifetime; it became part of a larger body of work that introduced many higher math principles to Europe. Similar work would be done in later years by Descartes, who also explored geometry as a method for solving cubic equations.

According to an article published on the Stetson University Web site, Sultan Malikshah Jalal al-Din invited Khayyam to come to Esfahan (in modern-day Iran) to make astronomical observations and use them to reform the calendar. The calendar that he helped to develop was called the Jalali calendar and was in use in Iran until the 20th century.

The web site Famous Scientists explains that Khayyam “measured the length of a year—to be specific the tropical year length—with remarkable accuracy and precision.” On March 15, 1079, Khayyam’s calendar was introduced to the Seljuk Empire.

His years working for the sultan were incredibly productive, but when his benefactor died, he fell out of favor with the court. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and only 20 years later was able to regain a position of sponsored scholarship. He continued to work in a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, astronomy, law and medicine, for the rest of his life. He died in his birthplace of Nishapur on December 4, 1131.

The Man and His Work

The Rest of the Story

He does have a lunar crater named after him, but Khayyam’s legacy in the modern era is primarily his poetry. In 1859, Edward Fitzgerald compiled a series of Khayyam’s quatrains (four-line poems) into an epic work he entitled “The Rubáiyát,” and the Persian philosopher was catapulted into the limelight. (“Rubáiyát” means quatrains.) The entire poem can be read on the Internet Classics Archive.

He was certainly an eloquent, contemplative man, as revealed by a collection of quotations posted on the University of St. Andrew’s Web site. The poem became popular to the point of being ubiquitous. Certainly, most are familiar with the line, “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on” and others. Khayyam’s writings also include reflections on his work in math and astronomy. He deeply questioned all that was around him, and his contemplative nature made his epic poem a favorite. Some have questioned how much of the poem is Khayyam’s, and how much was shaped by Fitzgerald’s loose interpretation of the original lines.

A 2009 exhibit at The Harry Ransom Center of The University of Texas at Austin explores “The Rubáiyát’s” place in the modern British and American canon and asks why the work gained such universal appeal. The exhibit, a preview of which can be viewed online, features numerous old manuscripts and an online collaborate commentary of the “The Rubáiyát.”

In 2005, Khayyam was the subject of the movie “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam.” In the film, a 12-year-old discovers he is related to the great philosopher, and the movie shifts between past and present to tell Khayyam’s life story.

This article was originally written by Rachel Balik; it was updated April 27, 2017.