Nizami Ganjavi - Portrait


Nizami Ganjavi is the greatest representative of the Eastern Renaissance, who was born in the XII century in sunny Azerbaijan and represented of world literature and philosophy in his immortal work “Khamsa” (Five) via the aesthetic power of his art.

Humanity, love, valuation of knowledge and women are the motifs at the very heart of Nizami’s philosophy and poetry. The poet regarded it as his sacred mission to apply every ounce of creativity to the service of his people. In this lies the immortality and eternal youth of Nizami’s art through the centuries. His works have been translated into Western as well as into Eastern languages from time to time and played their role in humanity’s moral development.

Nizami Ganjavi was also a social reformer. His works reflect genuine, deep concern for the human condition not just for the characters in his epics, but for all people as well status of women always been paid a special attention. In doing so, he joins the ranks of the immortals. Nizami’s masterpiece, his “Khamsa”, like all great classics, from Homer to Shakespeare to the recent past have stood the test of time. So, it is most appropriate that he is celebrated not just in his native Azerbaijan but in the whole world.


The middle of the 12th century, almost a hundred years after Arabs in Azerbaijan gave way to Seljuk Turks, saw the life and work of Nizami Ganjavi, the prominent poet and philosopher. An outstanding representative of both the Oriental and global Renaissance, he gained fame around the world as the creator of a new approach to the genre of dastan.

The Arabic language lost its positions in Nizami’s time when Seljuks rose to power; having first-hand knowledge of Persian back in Central Asia they came from, they embraced it as their official language. As a result, the northern part of Azerbaijan – the very outskirt of the Muslim world and Seljuk empire alike – became the breeding ground for an unusually versatile, abundant, and structurally strong Persian-language poetry school, which, led by the “King of Poets” Nizami Ganjavi, was immensely popular throughout the Orient.

This school eulogized poets such as Qatran Tabrizi, Khagani Shirvani, Mahsati Ganjavi, Abu-l’-Ala Ganjavi, Iza ad-Din Shirvani, Falaki Shirvani, Mujir ad-Din Baylakani among others. Each of the poets, let alone this entire array of talents, could bring fame to this small country. Another exciting aspect for modern researchers of Azerbaijan’s culture is that these authors created books of profound philosophy and academic knowledge with extremely sophisticated terminology, and texts full of parables and allegories, which resonated with the broad community of readers and caused massive interest.

People were copying and memorizing their works; the plots were spreading across the Muslim Orient at a rate hitherto unseen in those times, and several penetrated the folk art almost to the extent of in distinguish ability.

Replacing Arabs in the 11th century, the Seljuks were characterized as religious tolerant people with traditional Turkic nomadic democracy. Their social system gave rise to the further development of knowledge accumulated during the three Abbasid caliphs (Caliph al-Mansur, Harun al-Rashid, and Caliph al-Ma’mun) in the northern part of Azerbaijan, and, eventually, to the origination of a new poetic school led by the great Nizami.

A celebrated poet and humanitarian, the author of Khamsa gained popularity far beyond the Orient. Apart from his masterpiece, the Khamsa, Nizami left us a rich lyrical legacy of gasidas and ghazals. His works have been translated into many languages of the world, and are studied by individual scientists and entire research teams. His heritage inspired and still inspires writers, playwrights, composers, and artists, especially across the Orient.


Nizami was born in the ancient capital of Arran, Ganja city. It is generally assumed that the year of his birth was 1141. He grew up and lived there almost permanently, and died and was buried there. Afterwards, however, when the poet’s works gained wide popularity, many a town claimed him their own, just like seven Greek cities had claimed the great Homer.

The poet’s own name was Ilyas, his father’s name was Yusuf, his grandfather and great-grandfather’s were Zaki ad-Din and Muayyad fid-Din, respectively. Zaki ad-Din means “purity of faith”, and Muayyad fid-Din “Supported (by Allah) in the faith”. Such titles in the medieval Orient were conferred, as a rule, to scholars and clergymen. Apparently, the poet was born to a noble family. This is also confirmed by the fact that Nizami’s mother, the “Kurdish lady” (“Raisa-i kord”), also descended from a noble family. His maternal uncle, Omar, bore the title “Khwaja”, usually given to court dignitaries in the poet’s time. Most probably, he served at the Atabey court in Ganja. The poet assumed the alias “Nizami” which literally means “the one who puts, strings the words in order”.

The education Nizami received was great for those times. According to the rules of the time, Ilyas was first educated within the family. As a kid (at the age of five) he learned the Holy Quran, which later repeatedly cited in his works. He also studied Quranic literature, Islamic law, the stories of Prophet Muhammad, and the whole range of disciplines that constituted the concept of “adaba” (education). As a rule, descendants of wealthy families were dispatched to the famous theological school The Nizamiyyah in Baghdad or to Damascus, Mecca, and Cairo to continue their education. Nizami, however, would not go; he chose to study in his hometown, since in 1150s Ganja became the town of choice for many great scientists, poets, writers, and architects from all countries. Judging by the books Nizami mentions, he had an access to manuscript lists of works in various fields of science, translations, interpretations of ancient writers, poetic collections of Arabic, Persian and Persian-writing authors that were kept in libraries of Ganja. Nizami thoroughly studied arithmetic, algebra, geometry, astronomy, chemistry, mineralogy, medicine, logic, metaphysics, geography, history, poetics, and versification. The greatest success he achieved in the field of science, as can be seen from his works, was in medicine and astronomy.

Even more than science, it was poetry that Ilyas was fond of yet in his teen age. Apart from his native Azerbaijani language, which was then called “Turki” (Turkic), Nizami had a great command of both Arabic and Persian languages. While the former served as an everyday language of communication, since the bulk of Ganja’s and the entire Arran’s populace was Turkic-speaking, Arabic language was the language of science and religion, whereas Persian was the language of poetry. Nizami studied and memorized verses written by both classical and contemporary Arab and Persian poets.

The five qasidas of Nizami that came down to us “can indisputably establish his authorship”; they were written in different years of his life. Alongside qasidas, Nizami also wrote ghazals. Ghazals of Nizami differ significantly from those of his predecessors and contemporary poets alike. They are much more ingenuous, inspired and humane; reading them, we often see a concrete plot and real feelings such as love, anger, sadness, and delight of meeting with the beloved one; we can experience everything that a lover’s heart is full of.

Nizami’s lyric as a whole is of life-asserting nature; he uses it to urge people to value life, its beauty, and originality, as well as to cherish its wonderful gift, love, which sublimates a human soul.

Unfortunately, the Nizami’s Divan of lyric poems did not come down to us, although it in fact existed, as the poet himself says in the poem Layla and Majnun written in 1188. According to some medieval biographers, this Divan included about twenty thousand lines, but only a small part of this enormous lyrical heritage has survived.

It so happened that the poet dedicated one of his didactic qasidas to the ruler of Derbent, at that time a part of the Shirvanshah state. Nizami’s qasida dedicated to Dara Muzaffar ad-Din has not survived. But it is beyond doubt that, just like Nizami’s other qasidas, it contained a bitter pill of good advice in an appropriate poetic shape. It seems unlikely that a ruler would have liked such admonitions. It so happened that at the same time Muzaffar was presented another gift, a young beautiful lady from a Kipchaks tribe; her name was Appag, which means “white”, “whitey” (her name was spelled “Afak” in Arabic transliteration as there is no sound “p” in Arabic language).

Unable to conquer the heart of this virtuous slave, Muzaffar decided to give her away to the poet as a kind of “fee” for the qasida the latter had written for him. Perhaps he pursued two goals: to punish the poet and mock him for his overly persistent admonitions and lessons by setting on him a combative slave (to have her scratch his face, too), and at the same time to humiliate Afak by handing her over to a poor poet and thus depriving her of “silk attires and delicious viands”. Even if so, Muzaffar played a wrong card, as he inadvertently did a great favor to Nizami: the overjoyed poet really fell in love with Afak, and later on wrote in her memory one of his all-time poems that rightfully entered the gold annals of world literature.

It happened in 1170: Nizami was not married then and, apparently, didn’t even think of it, for he wanted to keep his freedom and work uninterrupted. Having met Afak, however, it was the first time in his life that the thirty-year-old poet experienced the genuine feeling of attachment and love. Nizami introduced the proud and beautiful Turkic girl to his home not as a slave or bondmaid, but as his lawful and respected wife.

Afak played a significant role in Nizami’s life and work. As it was mentioned above, she was from the Kipchaks, one of the biggest Turkic nations. She helped him gain a foothold as a poet, and contributed to his concept of sublime love and teaching of harmonious relationship between a woman and a man.

The poet was the happiest man in 1174 when his son, Muhammad, was born. Those years, full of love and family happiness, were the best time in Nizami’s life. He found himself in his work, achieved perfection as an author; his social ideals and artistic principles, ethical and aesthetic views finally took shape. Nizami went on writing beautiful ghazals as well as didactic qasidas in which he preached noble humanistic ideas of serving people, but he also decided to develop in a large corporate body of work his teaching of the meaning of life and purpose of an individual.

As a matter of fact, that was the happiest time in the poet’s life; the time when he was on the rise, his talent maturing, and himself basking in the warmth of happiness and family well-being. But that happiness would not last long; in 1180, Afak passed away, leaving her young son Muhammad as a living memory of herself.

It took Nizami a long time to recover from Afak’s passing. He still lived with his son but would not get married for almost 7 years. Whenever he had time free of worldly affairs, he spent it home, in industrious pursuits among books. Nizami wrote five poems in his lifetime. These poems titled Khamsa (Quinary) or Panj Ganj (Five Treasures):

  • Makhzan-ol-Asrâr (Treasury or Storehouse of
  • Mysteries),
  • Khosrow o Shirin (Khosrow and Shirin),
  • Leyli o Majnun (Layla and Majnun)
  • Eskandar-Nâmeh (The Book of Alexander),
  • Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties)

The date of Nizami’s death has been disputable, but some data are available that can help resolve this matter once and for all. Someone from Nizami’s family, most likely his son, described the poet’s death and included this chapter in the end of Iqbal-name.

It contains the below lines:
He was sixty and three years old and six months later he passed away.

Converting 63.5 lunar years to the common system (the lunar year is 10 days shorter than the solar one), we can accurately calculate that the poet passed away in June 1202.

It is no coincidence that over time Nizami’s poems came to be perceived as something whole, for they naturally formed a distinctive cycle with a pronounced ideological and artistic cohesion. It was not before the poet’s demise that this cycle was titled Khamsa (Quinary) or Panj Ganj (Five Treasures). Khamsa of Nizami predetermined the path of literature development across many nations of the Middle East for many years to come.


The Nizami Ganjavi International Center is a cultural, non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to the memory of great Azerbaijani poet, Nizami Ganjavi and to the study and dissemination of his works with a mission to build a dialogue and understanding between cultures and peoples for building functional and inclusive societies.


The Nizami Ganjavi International Center was established 30 September 2012 in Azerbaijan under the patronage of an International Board that includes a number of highly respected and recognized international figures who graciously offer their time, experience and gravitas to the development of the center and it’s initiatives.


Nizami Ganjavi International Center works with aim to become: “A center of excellence in the production and dissemination of knowledge and to become a place of dialogue, learning and understanding between cultures and peoples”.