The fabled city of Neyshabur is about two hours’ car drive from Mashhad. The road offers the same monotony of dirty-yellowish undulated fields merging into nude grey hills in the horizon, which appears to remain unchanged all over Iran. It’s starkly different from the usual scenes we watch beside the highways or railway tracks: the thick dirty ugly slums gradually fading into vast emerald green fields dotted with tiny villages and teeming with life: farmers tilling their lands or spraying insecticides or reaping crops, children in blue and white dresses going to school in small groups along the narrow pathways that divide the fields, a few boys – almost naked –jumping around in a muddy pond, a cowherd reclining against the trunk of a tree smoking biri – watching his rickety herd grazing free. Iran doesn’t offer you such vibrant life along its silken highways. Villages do appear, but they seem to spring out from nowhere, and are invariably painted in various shades of mud. I doze off.
My taxi driver wakes me up from deep slumber. As I step out of the car, the sparkling blue morning sky reminds me of an old saying: Neyshabur’s mornings, Baghdad’s evenings and Cairo’s nights make a man’s life complete. I was to have stayed at the home of my net-friend Muhammad Fakurpour. Unfortunately at the last moment he got stuck in Tehran. His parents don’t speak a word of English. Hence Muhammad has arranged a room for me in a small hotel.
As I push open the glass door a woman-voice calls out with a thick American accent: Welcome to Iram Hotel. It takes me a few moments to realize that the decision to arrange my stay at the hotel isn’t going to be very helpful linguistically, because, except for the machine fitted on the door, no one speaks a word of English in the hotel either. And no one means, a young man of around thirty in the reception, and his mother in a small kitchen beside the lobby.
Just as I am trying to find the way to my room through the labyrinth of the young lad’s English and my Farsi, I hear the American lady call out yet another welcome. Two very young ladies enter the lobby. One of them without an iota of hesitation extends her right hand towards me, “You are mister Nilanjan, right? I am Fayizeh, a friend of Muhammad’s friend Malihe, who was to have come to show you around. But she couldn’t get leave in office. So I have come.”
She is tall, thin, with a longish face, high cheekbones and deep large eyes, wearing jeans and dark jacket. I am so stunned by this unbelievable candid offer of friendship that it takes me a long time to take her hand. And there’s more.
Fayizeh turns to the other lady in full hijab, plump with heavy bosoms, round face with placid eyes. “This is my friend Somayeh. Muhammad told me you wanted to purchase some Firouzeh for your children and wife. As you can see I don’t wear jewels, but she does, and knows much about where to get good quality Firouzeh at a good price. So I have dragged her along. She will leave after you purchase the stones, and we will go around the city. Do you want to start now, or should we come back a little later?”
I really don’t know what to say. This is a new experience that I am going through. So many walls are collapsing in me, so many borders simply melting away! But Fayizeh is a no-nonsense lady. She quickly takes charge. I dump my suitcase in the room. In half an hour Somayeh and I are bargaining over dazzling blue drops laid out on a glass counter. That part over, I and Fayizeh take to the streets of a city, the name of which in the middle-ages used to be bracketed with Baghdad and Cairo. The second emperor of the Sasanid Empire, Shapur, founded this city. He ruled between 240 and 270 CE. Since then Neyshabur has walked through much laughter, tears and flames.
Very little of that Neyshabur, however, remains today. That’s something which has surprised me all over Iran. Where have all the palaces gone of so many legendary kings and emperors gone? Of course there are a few like Chehel Sotoun or Ali Qapu of emperors who were contemporaries of the Mughals. But these are no comparison to the vast Agra Fort or the Red Fort or the Lahore Fort. The real big palaces that I saw in Iran are almost yesterday’s, of the Pehlvi’s. What really remain from the early middle-ages are the exquisite mosques and the tombs. None of them have been preserved in their original form. Of mosques one can understand this, because they are living. Naturally they have been repaired and changed as required over centuries. But the tombs have also been constantly decked up afresh, with new arches over them, with new tiles, and even newly designed canopies.
I and Fayizeh visit two such tombs in Neyshabour, one of which belongs to a person who has a curious connection with Kolkata. But more importantly, I am surprised to learn that the term Algebra has been derived from the Arabic term Al-Jabr, which means bringing two parts together. This gentleman was a colossus among mathamaticians in the middle-ages. In 1070 he wrote a landmark treatise titled: Treatise on the Demonstration of Problems of Algebra. I am told this book was a precursor to Rene Descartes’ seminal contribution to analytical geometry. Its author had given a new direction to non-Euclidean geometry and had solved the ‘cubic equation’. He was also one of the key contributors to the formation of the ‘Jalali Calendar’ around 1079, which calculated the average length of a year to be 365.24219858156 days, and is considered to be more accurate in this regard than the Gregorian Calendar we generally use. His name is Al-din Abulfat Umr Ibn Ibrahim Al-Neyshbouri Al-Khayyami. He was born on May 18, 1048, and he died on December 4, 1131. Both in Neyshabour. Seven hundred years later, in 1859, by a very free translation of 75 of his quartets, Edward Fitzerald made a name for himself and made the original author a legend in the West as Omar Khyyam.
But there is a nice little story behind this remarkable discovery. In 1856 Orientalist Edward Byles Cowell chanced upon a bunch of an old manuscripts of 158 Farsi quartets in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. They were authored by Al-Khayyami. A quick glance told Prof. Cowell that he had struck jackpot. In July 1856 he copied by hand each of them, sent them to his friend and student Edward Fitzerald, left England and joined Presidency College, Calcutta, as a history teacher, the same department which also happens to be my Alma Mater! In 1858 Prof. Cowell became the principal of the Sanskrit College, Calcutta, and in the same year he hit yet another jackpot in Calcutta’s Asiatic Society library: a dusty cobweb ridden bunch of another fatter manuscript of Al-Khayyami, with 516 quartets.
Soon Prof. Cowell anonymously published a long article on Al-Khayyami, along with translations of 30 quartets in the Calcutta Review. Poems of a great mathematician of Neyshabour was translated for the first time into English, 727 years after the author’s death, and placed before the world in a journal from Kolkata! Prof. Cowell also sent the newly found poems to Fitzerald, who chose 75 from the two manuscripts, rendered them into English depending on his rudimentary knowledge of Farsi, and published a poetic revolution named ‘Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam’ in 1859. It is impossible to calculate how many million of copies the book, and its translations into all major languages of the world, may have been sold to this day.
A freezing breeze is blowing from the Binalud Mountains. There’s not a soul around. The sky has taken a darker shade of Firouzeh. I and Fayizeh stand before the tomb for a long time without speaking a word. Then she breaks the silence: the beautiful tomb was designed by one of Iran’s greatest architects, Hushang Seyhun, in 1963! She also tells me that the simple architecture apparently contains within it Al-Khayyami’s complex geometrical equations involving angles and circles. Who cares? I simply absorb the moment.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra