Nizami Ganjevi, Abu Muhammad Elyas Ibn Yusuf

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Nizami Ganjevi, Abu Muhammad Elyas Ibn Yusuf


Born circa 1141, in Ganja, Azerbaijan; died there circa 1209. Azerbaijani poet and thinker. Wrote in Persian.

A member of the urban middle class, Nizami received a good education and as a young man wrote lyric verse. Around 1173 he married a Turkish slave girl, Afaq (Appaq), whom he glorified in his poetry. He never left Ganja and made his native Azerbaijan the setting of several episodes in his narrative poems. Content with the small sums he received from the feudal rulers to whom he dedicated his poems, Nizami never became a court poet.

Nizami’s principal work is Khamseh (Quintet), a collection of five narrative poems: The Treasury of Mysteries (written between 1173 and 1180), Khusrau and Shirin (1181), Layli and Majnun (1188), The Seven Beauties (1197), and Iskandar-namah (Book of Alexander, c. 1203). Part of his lyric divan has also survived, including six qasidas, 116 ghazals, two qitas, and 30 rubaiyat. The Khamseh had an enormous influence on the development of various Oriental literatures. Numerous nazirah (poetic “replies”) and imitations of Nizami’s poems appeared from the 13th century onward. Among the most famous poetic replies were the quintets of the Indo-Persian poet Amir Khusrau and the classical Uzbek writer A. Navoi and the seven narrative poems of A. Jami. The originality of Nizami’s narrative poems, their plot structure, character portrayal, vivid imagery, and, above all, their noblc humanitarian views have inspired the poets of almost all the Near Eastern peoples for more than seven centuries.

Nizami’s The Treasury of Mysteries is a didactic and philosophical poem with Sufi overtones. For a long time it influenced the development of the didactic genre in Oriental literatures. In the introduction the author contrasts his poem with empty and pretentious court poetry. Nizami was the first poet writing in Persian to fuse in the mathnawi genre refined poetic technique and profound thought. The poem’s loose structure, also an innovation, shows the influence of the Oriental sermon tradition with its liberal use of parables; unity is achieved through an associative progression of ideas. Nizami exhorts rulers to be just and to concern themselves with their subjects’ welfare, threatening them with punishment for resorting to oppression and violence. He condemns the love of gold and praises true friendship. Nizami’s admonitions and advice are couched in religious tones, but they are unusually bold. The poem as a whole is clearly a secular work, motivated by humanitarian aspirations.

The second narrative poem is a romantic work about the love of the Shah Khusrau for the beautiful Shirin. The poem departs from tradition in that Nizami assigns the chief role not to the shah but to Shirin, whom he endows with high moral rectitude. The weak, dissolute, and egotistical Khusrau rises to self-sacrifice only at the point of death, ennobled by his love for Shirin. Also unusual in the poem is the figure of the noble Farhad, who personifies labor and the goodness of the workingman.

The third poem, Layli and Majnun, retells the old Arabian legend of the ill-fated love of young Qais, nicknamed Majnun (the Possessed), for the beautiful Layli. The poem describes the circumstances that culminate in the passionate lyric verse of the love-tormented Qais. Nizami gave depth to the legend by developing the protagonists’ characters and providing psychological motivation. Unlike the legend, the poem is essentially tragic, portraying a boundeless love that finds release in lofty poetry and that leads to the lovers’ spiritual union. It is precisely this tragic conception that unites the work into a harmonious whole.

The fourth poem, The Seven Beauties, is based on the legend of Shah Bahram Gur. The narrative comprises seven tales told by queens, the wives of Bahram, who dwell in seven pavilions. In the tradition of ancient mythology, each pavilion is dedicated to one of the planets and to a day of the week and is a particular color. The tales are love stories; they depict crude sensuality giving way to spiritual love, symbolized by a progression of color from black to white. The poem’s second theme is Bahram’s transformation from a frivolous prince into a just and wise ruler, opposing arbitrary power and violence. Here, as in his first poem, Nizami shows the people’s suffering and exposes the duplicity and greed of the shah’s courtiers.

Nizami regarded his fifth poem, Iskandar-namah as his best work. The central character is Iskandar (Alexander the Great), who from the outset is portrayed as a just leader fighting only to defend the injured and free the oppressed. The first part of the work, “Sharq-namah,” describes Iskandar’s feats in chronological order. The second part, “Iqbal-namah,” is divided into two large sections which might be entitled “Iskandar the Sage” and “Iskandar the Prophet”; these sections consist of a series of philosophical tales and disputations with Indian and Greek sages about the origin of the world. A mysterious voice tells Iskandar that he has been chosen to preach the truth to the entire world and orders him to travel over the earth. But Iskandar’s truth is learning, not divine revelation. Setting forth on his travels, he carries with him the “books of wisdom” of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. An account of Iskandar’s four journeys follows.

Traveling to the north on his fourth journey, Iskandar comes to a country where there are neither rulers nor oppressors, neither rich nor poor, where falsehood and injustice are unknown —a land with an ideal social order. Nizami’s social utopia represents the culmination of his thought. Various aspects of the organization of human society had already been touched upon in his Treasury of Mysteries. In Khusrau and Shirin, positive traits appear in Khusrau under Shirin’s influence, but he dies prematurely. Although the social theme is absent in Layli and Majnun, it reappears in The Seven Beauties; however, the work of Shah Bahram, having barely begun, is cut short by his mysterious death. Only in the last poem does the author offer a fully developed portrait of the ideal ruler. Going a step further, Nizami introduces an idea that was extraordinarily bold for his time: no matter how good a ruler may be, a more perfect society is possible, a society of equals in which there is no property inequality and therefore no need of rulers. Nizami realized the importance of his conclusion and ascribed a special significance to his last narrative poem. Iskandar-namah was the testament of Nizami the thinker, who not only expressed the progressive ideas of his time, but in many ways transcended his age. His works were a great contribution to the cultural heritage of both East and West. On the 800th anniversary of his birth, celebrated in the USSR in 1947, a mausoleum was erected over his grave near Kirovabad.


Kulliyat-i Khamsah-i Hakim Nizami Ganjevi. Tehran, 1335 A.H. (A.D. 1956).
In Russian translation: Iskander-name. Moscow, 1953.
Khosrov i Shirin. Moscow, 1955.
Leili i Medzhnun. Moscow, 1957.
Sem’ krasavits. Moscow, 1959.
Sokrovishchnitsa tain. Moscow, 1959. Lirika. Moscow, 1960.


Bertel’s, E. E. Nizami: Tvorcheskii put’poeta. Moscow, 1956.
Bertel’s, E. E. “Nizami i Fuzuli.” Izbr. trudy, vol. 2. Moscow, 1962.
Gulizade, M. Nizami Giandzhevi. Baku, 1953.
Mustafaev, D. Filosofskie i eticheskie vozzreniia Nizami. Baku, 1962.
Istoriia persidskoi i Tadzhikskoi literatury. Edited by J. Rypka. Moscow, 1970.
Aghayev, Ä. Nizami vä düenyaäd äbiyyatï. Baku, 1964.
Abbasov, Ä. Nizami Qänjävinin “Inkdnddrnamá” poemasï Baku, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.