It’s been a while since I last posted, because I’ve been busy gallivanting across Canada for work. One of the places I went to was Halifax, which inspired this month’s blog post.
At the turn of the twentieth century, bookbinding was an art, not just an automated process to create generic, identical books to sell at dirt-cheap prices. Books were commissioned by bookbinders, who created masterpieces that were works of art. Some were even inlaid with precious stones and various fabrics and materials. These books took months, even sometimes years to create. With all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making a book like this, it makes sense that the most infamous one of all of them might be cursed…
The book in question is “The Great Omar”. It was one of many editions of the twelfth century Persian masterpiece: “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”, and was illustrated by Elihu Vedder. Ruba’i are short poems with four lines, where the first, second, and fourth line all rhyme. At the time, Omar Khayyám’s poems were “immediately recognized as a dangerous and thrilling counsel of temptation”, and his work was condemned by religious authorities (Gekoski, 2013). He had no other option than to travel to Mecca and write less controversial material. While Khayyám was somewhat of a Leonardo da Vinci of his time, with contributions in philosophy, theology, music, and mathematics, he is most known today for his poetry.
As of 2007, 1300 editions of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” have been produced in North America (US Fed News Service, 2008). However, none of these versions can hold a candle to that which was created by Francis Sangorski in 1912. Founded in 1901, Sangorski & Sutcliffe was a bookbinding firm that was well-known for its extravagant creations. If you’re curious, you can check out a gallery of some of their other works, none of which are quite as beautiful as The Great Omar, but they’re still nicer than what we see today on the shelves at Chapters or Barnes & Noble. In 1909, Sangorski decided to create his own version of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”. Money was to be of no consideration when creating this masterpiece.
Here are some statistics for your perusal:
- It took 2500 hours to create.
- 1,500 precious and semi-precious stones including emeralds, rubies and amethysts…
- 4,967 leather inlays
- 600 sheets of 22-carat gold leaf
This book is definitely just a tad too extravagant to take to the beach for an afternoon of tanning and reading.
Once created, Sangorski was devastated to discover that it was not easy to sell. Apparently there weren’t many people who wanted to buy such a bejeweled and expensive book when they can get a cheaper version with the same contents. He sent the book on a boat to America to be put on sale, but it was stopped at the border. Customs wanted to charge astronomical fees for the book’s entry into the U.S., and instead of paying them, Sangorski chose to have it sent back to England.
In England there was an offer for the book, but it was a pitiful amount, so Sangorski refused. Instead, he put it up for auction, hoping to garner a thousand pounds, but there was a coal strike, so it only sold for 450 pounds to an American. Soon after, the book was to be shipped to its new home in New York via boat. But it never made it there. Why? Because it was shipped on the Titanic.
I went to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and saw some of the items that were retrieved from the wreckage. Unfortunately, it is presumed that the Great Omar is sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic, collecting sediment and rust. But this isn’t where the story ends.
Only a few weeks later, Sangorski himself drowned. The circumstances surrounding his drowning are not well documented. I found one source that states he was drowned while trying to rescue a woman who was drowning (Pierce, 2018). He couldn’t swim. Some might say this was coincidence that he suffered the same fate as the Great Omar. But why would a man who couldn’t swim jump into water to save another? Many sources say that Sangorski was heartbroken by the destruction of his masterpiece. But just how heartbroken was he?
After Sangorski’s tragic death, his partner, Sutcliffe, worked together with his nephew, Stanley Bray, to create another “Great Omar”. This second version, “The Great Omar II” was placed in a bank vault in the British Bank. Sutcliffe was probably thinking that there was no way he was letting this one drown. Instead, the bank was hit by the London Blitz of World War II, and all that was left behind of the Great Omar II was a pile of jewels.
Bray didn’t create a third Great Omar immediately, but when he did, he kept it safe, only donating it to the British Library after his death, where it hopefully will remain for a very long time.
There is an awful lot of bad luck associated with this specific masterpiece.
Omar Khayyam died in 1131 at the ripe old age of 83. I couldn’t find anything regarding the nature of his death. If he had drowned, that would be quite the story. Sorry to disappoint, but apparently death records from the twelfth century aren’t exactly easy to unearth.
The reason why Francis Sangorski decided to create such an opulent version of this book is documented inconsistently across sources. Some say he simply decided to create it. But why would he put the time and effort into creating such a masterpiece if there wasn’t a market for it? Others says that it was commissioned. If so, where was the buyer when the item was finished? Was the final book too pricey for his coffers? Or does the “curse” have its roots set a little earlier, to the original commissioner of the book? If this book was truly commissioned by some unknown man, whatever could have happened to him to stop him from acquiring his treasure?
Gekoski, R. (2013). Lost, stolen, or shredded: Stories of missing works of art and literature. Profile Books Ltd.
Kennedy, M., arts, & correspondent, heritage. (2005, July 7). Legendary book goes to British Library. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/jul/07/books.booksnews
Pierce, N. (2018). Titanic: True stories of her passengers, crew and legacy. O’Brien Press.
The Curse of “The Great Omar”. (n.d.). @Issue Journal of Business & Design. Retrieved from http://www.atissuejournal.com/2016/11/30/the-curse-of-the-great-omar/
“The Persian Sensation: The ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ in the West” Explores Popularity of Poem’s Translation. (2008, December 19). US Fed News Service, Including US State News; Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/469931813/citation/F3965791265A4A4EPQ/1
The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. (n.d.). The Internet Classics Archive. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Khayyam/rubaiyat.html