Amin Maloof’s Samarkand is "about" Omar Khayyam, the poet – as we think of him, but he was more of a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer – of C11th Persia. It starts in Samarkand (modern Uzbekistan) but Khayyam comes from further east, in Khorasan in modern Persia, and spends much of his life in Isfahan, the ancient and apparently gorgeous capital of Persia - now, allegedly, being spoiled by property developers and urban planners.
The novel is in two distinct parts, one set in Khayyam's lifetime, one in the late C19th and early C20th, mainly in Persia too. In the first part, Khayyam needs the protection of a powerful figure in Samarkand to protect him against accusations of heresy and alchemy, and is advised to keep his innermost thoughts secret. Later, he becomes caught up, through his friendship with the Nizam al Mulk, the Vizir in Isfahan (allegedly a schoolfellow), and through his love affair with a woman of the harem, in high politics - but is never a willing participant. Always, he focuses on his studies, and as a respite, he writes verses (rubaiiyaat) in a secret book - secret because he was writing in a lowly, unesteemed form, and touched on matters, such as alcohol and sexual love, which would create strife with the militant mullahs). At the same time, the Assassins, led by a man who had once been his friend, threaten the Empire and expound the Ismaili Shiite heresy in a virulent form.
After many twists and turns, he retires from public life, but his book is stolen. He dies in honour, and rose petals bestrew his grave. In the second part of the novel, an American tracks down the book, through the political turmoil of turn of the century Persia, has a passionate love affair with the Shah's granddaughter, Princess Shireen, in a clear echo of the first part. Eventually, after an abortive visit to Samarkand to find the city Khayyam knew, he returns to Europe and thence to the United States. He travels to New York in April 1912 (hint), and loses both the precious manuscript and his princess.
This is a fine novel, not passionate but dealing with things of passion, and written with a very Eastern restraint - "Why should one be afraid? After death, there is either nothing or forgiveness". It deals of heroism and loss, and of the tension between action and meditation. I enjoyed it a great deal. And I cannot leave it without a quatrain of Khayyam's, translated by Edward FitzGerald:
An interesting question is posed by the book's title: Samarkand was a great city in Khayyam's time, and would be again under Timur - but it is not the scene of much of the novel. Was it just the essence distilled in the name, of beauty, learning, and yearning remoteness? As Flecker has it in Golden Road to Samarkand:
"Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand."
The photographs in this post are from a trip I made to Central Asia in 2003; they are of Samarkand itself, but nothing remains of the city Khayyam visited - so I have included the Kalon tower from Bokhara, 150 feet high, which is that old - spared (alone in the city) by Genghis Khan because he was so impressed with the builders' achievement.