The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

I was amazed by the individuality of the book I chose. It is truly unlike any layout I’ve ever seen before. Written in 1905,  The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is a 1905 remake of the classic Middle-Eastern poem, translated to English. When I first came upon the book, it was laid open to the first few pages that were meant to introduce the work and thank the contributors. I recognized it quickly from the list that we were given to look at before the exhibit, remembering that it was one of the books that initially caught my eye. I was immediately drawn to these pages, which included a beautiful sepia photograph of a nude woman sitting on her knees in a prayer-like pose surrounded by a decorative, Art Nouveau-style border. On the corresponding left page, the author’s use of Egyptian Hieroglyphic-like typography created a mysterious and intriguing layout that contrasts the visual nature of the rest of the book. This page is the only one that strays from the sepia tones, though it only has splashes of light blue, yellow, red, and black. Throughout the entire book, the design is consistent and simple. On each spread, there is only one object: either a photo or a piece of the poem concentrated in the center of the page. The photographs are an interesting mixture between painting and print, each meant to symbolize the part of the poem that was just told. On some photos, there is even a mixture of text, images, and painting, all in the monochrome sepia color. Their dark and alluring nature is gorgeous. Most of them depict women in spiritual and royal settings, which reminded me of a tarot card deck. For each block of poetry, an ornamental border with flower-like patterns and flowing lines frame it. Between spreads, there is always a completely empty spread. This use of empty space was very interesting to me. I had never seen a book that was so devoid of content. Because of these extra blank pages, the book was about an inch and a half thick. The paper is a smooth yellowy cream that smelled old and dusty, obviously having seen many years in this world and passed through many hands. The ink remained a sepia brown throughout the entire book, which matched the photographs on every other page. The texture of the pages with text was rougher than the ones with the photographs, which felt slightly more glossy. Compared to many of the other books in the exhibit, it was in fairly good shape considering its age. Some of the other publications that were much younger were barely held together at their spines, while this one, though delicate, felt sturdy. The cover was a plain tan fabric with no ornamentation and little text. I thought that this was fitting due to the simple nature of the book, though I was surprised that there was virtually nothing to point to what the book actually was, despite the title name on the spine in a tiny font.


The Rubáiyát is a poem originally written by Omar Khayyám somewhere between 1048-1131. Khayyám was a prolific Persian philosopher, mathematician, poet, and astronomer. Edward Fitzgerald was the first to translate The Rubáiyát to English and bring it to the West in the 1850s. Khayyám’s Rubáiyát is said to only have four quatrains, but it is unknown how many he actually wrote. Unlike most ancient poems that tell tales of epic characters and plots, The Rubáiyát discloses the poet’s feelings on life, love, death, and religion. Rather than a direct translation, Fitzgerald’s version is more of an addition and interpretation of the original. Since then, many versions have been produced with various illustrations and contexts, though it was not very popular upon its release. The copy in the Special Collections Exhibit at D.H. Hill, published in New York by Dodge Publishing Company in 1905, includes illustrated photographs from artist Adelaide Hanscom. In contrast to the mainstream conservative viewpoints of the time, she decided to illustrate The Rubáiyát because of how it challenged religion and basic philosophy. What makes this book so special is not so much the text, which has been recorded many times throughout history, but the pictures that define the poem. It is one of the first books in American history to use photographs in place of fine art. It is also one of the first books to have photographs of male nudity. These aspects make The Rubáiyát significant to bibliophiles and photographers across the country. Hanscom used unique photo and illustration techniques such as painting on dry-plate glass negatives and creating multiple exposures to make one-of-a-kind effects across her images. She also used engraving and airbrush techniques to communicate drapes and texture in her photographs. The flowing lines, natural patterns, and circular forms speak to both the Art Nouveau movement of the time and the Renaissance artwork that Hanscom drew inspiration from. Many of the individuals she used to model for these photographs were prominent artists and writers from Hanscom’s circle in San Francisco, some of which included Joaquin Miller, George Sterling, and Charles Keeler. This publication of The Rubáiyát ultimately formed her reputation as an artist in early 20th-century society. As the book’s popularity grew, she even created full-color versions. Hanscom was also named a member of the Photo-Secession by Alfred Steiglitz because of her impeccable work with The Rubáiyát. The edition that we have in our Special Collections Exhibit is one of the earlier ones to exist (which one can see due to the monochromatic sepia coloring). After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, nearly every one of Hanscom’s prints from The Rubáiyát were lost, meaning that the remaining photographs existed almost exclusively within the books, making the NC State Special Collections edition even more valuable. I feel very lucky to have been able to experience one of these copies in person, considering how rare and prized they are. It was truly a delight to witness the beauty of Hanscom’s prints and her interpretation of The Rubáiyát.



Photograph of two women on a throne.

Photograph of a woman with drapes

Opening introduction page

Opening introduction page with a photograph and Egyptian typography

Photograph with type