“Niẓāmī”Ganjavī, Jamāl al-Dīn Abū Muḥammad Ilyās d. 599/1203 or 605/1209


One of the greatest Persian poets and thinkers, Niẓāmī (his pen-name) was a native of Ganja (modern Gyandzha, formerly Kirovabad, Azarbaijan) and spent most of his quiet life there far removed from court life. Biographers and researchers differ as to the exact date of his birth, but usually place it within the six-year period of 535-540/1141-46. The UNESCO declaration that 1991 was the year of Niẓāmī in honor of the 850th anniversary of the poet’s birth as well as Giacomo Puccini’s use of a story from Haft Paykar for the basis of his opera Turandot exemplify Niẓāmī’s lasting eminence beyond the realm of Persian literature. Niẓāmī’s fame rests on his five masterful masnavīs (epics in rhymed couplets) known collectively as the Ḫamsa, or Quintet: Maḫzan al-asrār, Ḫusraw u Shīrīn, Laylī u Majnūn, Haft Paykar, Iskandar-nāmah. One of the great Persian masters of poetry, “Niẓāmī’s absolute control over the Persian language and his use of compounds and learned double-entendres sometimes makes his poetry difficult to understand; nonetheless, his imagery and power of depiction have been often imitated but seldom rivaled”. The dates given for the death of Niẓāmī differ by 37 years. His traditional death dates are 599/1203 or 605/1209.


Haft paykar     Seven Beauties

Completed 593/1197.

The most intricate of the masnavīs of the Ḫamsa, Niẓāmī’s Haft paykar (Seven Beauties) is a poem on the pleasures of love as experienced by the Sasanian Prince Bahram Gor in his love for seven princesses of the seven climes. Haft paykar also lends itself to a mystical interpretation.

Iskandar-nāmah     The Book of Alexander

Completed after 593/1197.

The longest poem of Niẓāmī’s Ḫamsa, the Iskandar-nāmah (Book of Alexander) is an account on the adventures and exploits of Alexander the Great. It is divided into two parts, Šarafnāmah and Ḫiradnāmah.

Ḫusraw va Šīrīn     Ḫusraw and Šīrīn

Completed after 581/1184.

Ḫusraw u Shīrīn, the first of Niẓāmī’s romantic epics, portrays the romance between the last great Sasanid monarch, Ḫusraw II (590-628), and his mistress Shīrīn. Though their love had been recorded by many writers and appears in Firdawsī’s Šāh-nāmah, there is no doubt that Niẓāmī’s intense portrayal of their affair is the romantic tale’s apogee. Niẓāmī’s rendition of the dramatic romance has been considered one of the great masterpieces of world literature and appropriately called “the best historical fable of love and chastity, the treasure of eloquence, counsel and wisdom”.

Laylī va Majnūn     Laylī and Majnūn

Completed 584/1188.

Possibly the most popular romance of the Islamic world, Laylī u Majnūn is the story of the ill-fated love between Majnūn, traditionally associated with the poet Qays of 1st/7th century Najd, and Laylī (Laylā). Having sighted his beloved one time and never after, the broken-hearted poet becomes insane with intoxicated love, hence earning the epithet Majnūn (crazy). The often repeated tragic romance of Laylī and Majnūn appeared in numerous versions prior to Niẓāmī’s, both in prose and poetry. But it was Niẓāmī’s epic poem of Laylī u Majnūn that gave the story its highest expression as he displayed the utmost original talent in “his psychological portrayal of the richness and complexity of the human soul when confronted with intense and abiding love”.

Maḫzan al-asrār     Treasure of Mysteries

Completed 582/1184-5.

Maḫzan al-asrār is an ethico-philosophical poem comprised of over 2200 couplets. Niẓāmī’s utter mastery of the Persian language and his unconventional usage combine to make nearly each couplet enigmatic and often difficult to understand. The final interpretation is therefore left up to the reader. The poem’s mystical dimension is real but much more elusive than in later Sufi poetry.