Omar's Grave

WE drew up before a dilapidated mud hovel. The door, a low hole in the wall, served both for entrance and for light. An unhappy familiarity with the ways of Persia enabled us to recognize this cheerless cavern as a teahouse.

The proprietor, a gentleman whom Mr. Wells would call one of the dark-whites, — tall, lean, regular-featured, with head swathed in a brown turban in the fashion of Khorasan, greets us with, —

‘Command me’ — which is the Persian way of saying ‘Welcome,’ or ‘Be seated,’ or ‘After you, please,’ or ‘Dinner is served,’ or ‘Speak: I listen.’

I put a tousled head out of the carriage window. Through a wide-open gateway, next door to our teahouse, I catch the tangy smell of horse dung, and hear the hum of a million flies. It is the courtyard of the Posthouse, where lodge the lean horses of the Administration-of-Loading-and-Transport-of-the-Government. With meagre tails swishing, the horses stand in fours around a sort of hammock, from which they munch their barley.

I ask: ‘What have you?’

THE PROPRIETOR OF THE TEAHOUSE: ‘Everything. A hen, bread, tea, eggs — (hesitates) — mast (sour milk).’

I order tea, boiled eggs, and mast.

When these are brought, I say to the proprietor: ‘How many farsakhs to Nishapur?’

THE PROPRIETOR: ‘I make a petition; three; light ones.’ I (mechanically, having asked the same question ten times already since the morning): ‘Is the road good?’

He stretches out his hand, palm upward, to indicate the utter smoothness and flatness of the road; and with a slow, falling inflection, to indicate perfection, he utters the word: ‘Smoo-ooth.’

I: ‘We have heard that at Nishapur a poet is buried —

THE PROPRIETOR: ‘ It is true: Khayyam — but his grave is not in Nishapur. Half a farsakh from the city gate, there is a garden — a good garden of roses, fruit trees, and grape vines. In the middle of the garden, there is an Imamzadeh,1 where are buried the ashes of the Honorable Mohammed Mahrouk, the brother of the Honorable Imam Reza, the Refuge of Strangers (on whom be peace). The Honorable Mohammed was burned in this place by Jenghiz the Mogul (a thousand curses be upon him).2 In a small porch adjoining the Imamzadeh is the tomb of Khayyam. It is of white plaster — straight, without tile-work or any writing. Who would believe that a great poet is buried there?

‘It is related,’ continued the Proprietor, ‘that in his youth Khayyam had a friend called Nizam ul Mulk. Like Khayyam, he was poor; but being also wise and ambitious, he became at last the Sultan’s Vizier. Then he sought out Khayyam and, when he had found him, begged him to make a request, even up to half his riches. But Khayyam answered: “In the plain of Nishapur, where I was born, there are one hundred and fifty pieces of villages. And there is one small village there, half a farsakh from the Meshed gate, which produces the best grapes in all Persia. Let me be overseer of this village.”And there he died and was buried.

‘It is related that Khayyam was fond of wine, and that when he had drunk he spoke in rubais. One day, as he was seated on a rug on his verandah, with forty jars of wine standing in a row before him, there came a wind which blew down the forty jars and broke them. Whereupon Khayyam, looking over his left shoulder whence ‘the wind came, recited this rubai: —

£ The wind, which broke my forty kuzehs, filled With last year’s vintage, in His wrath he willed;

Who is the greater sinner, he who drank The rare, musk-scented wine — or He Who Spilled?’

That night we spread our groundsheets and sleeping-bags in the garden, by Omar’s tomb. Shall I forget the stately dome of the mausoleum of Mohammed, looming up from among those ghostly trees? Or Orion, hanging low over Nishapur? Or Sirius, burning in the East? While hidden away, in the annex of the mausoleum, that plain white slab of common plaster glimmered to the dawn’s left hand.

We were informed by an attendant that an Englishman had visited the tomb last year and had promised to give money for a decoration of tilework and an inscription. But nothing has been done. Perhaps that nameless Englishman has thought better of it. I trust he has. I like to think of Omar chuckling under his slab of plaster at all that pomp of pointed arch and soaring turquoise dome — the mausoleum of the roasted saint.

  1. Mausoleum of a relative of one of the twelve Imams.
  2. The proprietor of the teahouse was a little weak in his chronology. Mohammed Mahrouk, the brother of the Eighth Imam, whose tomb in Meshed is the holiest shrine of all Persia, died four hundred years before Jenghiz Khan was born.