Samarkand, Amin Maalouf, France, 1988

Samarkand, Amin Maalouf, France, 1988

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a word of it.

This beautiful book, set in Samarkand, is divided roughly into two parts. The first part tells the story of the 11th century Persian poet, astronomer and mathematician, Omar Khayyam, and his manuscript The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, while the second part, seen through the eyes of a fictional American Bernard Omar Lesage, relates how the manuscript was found after centuries only to be lost for ever.

This book is a mixture of fact and fiction. It opens with Khayyam’s arrival in Samarkand from his home city of Nishapur. Almost immediately he is attacked by those unable to understand his writings, and he is brought before a judge, accused of mocking the religion. However, the judge is a wise man, and he is fascinated by Khayyam’s intellect. Instead of punishing him, he gives him a book of Chinese paper in which he is to write down his poems – this book becomes the Rubaiyat.

Khayyam’s friendship with people such as Nizâmu al-Mulk (Vizier of the Seljuk Empire) and Hassan al-Sabbâh (Grand Master of the feared Assassins) is paralleled alongside a most likely fictional layer where Khayyam has a romantic attachment with a woman from the court – a poet like himself. Khayyam, who has no interest in either religion or politics, is constantly caught up in the conflict between the fanatics and the philosophers.

Amin Maalouf (

The second part, set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although centred around Lesage is very much coloured by the revolution of the early 1900s. Lesage falls in love with Shireen, a granddaughter of the assassinated Shah, who has found the lost Rubaiyat and has devoted her life to protecting it. But nothing can be taken for granted, and with Bernard and Shireen looking forward to a new life together in America something happens that shatters both the illusion and the reality.

Registan Square Samarkand (

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