Curious Omar web.mp3
5:45PM Apr 26, 2019
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Curious Louisville. Because great questions... make great stories.
This is a story about a poet. It's a story about a street. It's a story about a horse and a story about a war. It's today's edition of Curious Louisville. And I'm Laura Ellis. Let's start with our question asker.
Oh, my name is named Siddiqi. Born and raised in Louisville, lived here my whole life
Nadeem and his family live in Valley station in the southwestern part of Louisville.
Yes, yeah, just recently moved out there about a year and a half ago
and driving around his new neighborhood something caught his eye.
There's a street named Omar Khayyam Boulevard. Driving through the back roads there. I would just pass it by every day. And I was just curious why, in the middle of that area of Louisville, they had that street name.
It was a name he recognized
it was a medieval Persian poet. And I know that growing up my parents had a lot of books of his poetry.
So let's just start with the basics. Omar Khayyam is of course is known for his poems.
Maryam Moazzen is a comparative humanities professor at the University of Louisville
In my native country in Iran, he is known as a great scientist, mathematicians, astronomer. He is, he was a genius.
Omar might not be a household name here in Louisville, but in Iran...
he is really really famous and loved by all people. And in every city in every town. There is a Boulevard named after him.
Omar lived in 11th century Persia, writing philosophizing, building observatories.
He back then in the 11th century created this calendar, which is very exact, and to this very day that calendar is being used.
He died in 1131. 728 years later, an English poet named Edward Fitzgerald translated Khayyam's work, the Rubaiyat, into English for the first time. The Victorian people ate it up.
The Rubaiyat on the surface of it is largely hedonistic.
This is Brad Bowman
and I'm an assistant professor of history and Middle Eastern Islamic Studies.
Also at the University of Louisville
part of the beauty of it for people of that period was kind of the fatalistic. I know that sounds very macabre, but I think it was, let's enjoy life. Everything is fleeting, anyway. And so maybe that's a part of the allure of Omar Khayyam for that period, at least.
In a nutshell, he believes that one thing is certain: that we are alive for a short period of time, and we should enjoy it. The English speaking people could identify with his feelings and his ideas.
Omar Khayyam became wildly famous in England.
All of a sudden he became this trendy intellectual and Khayyam became really important, and a person that people - middle class upper middle class affluent people - took joy talking about him and showing that they know him.
People like wealthy horse owners, because it was into this world A few years later in 1914 that a horse was born. And his name was Omar Khayyam. Omar Khayyam won the Kentucky Derby in 1917.
Somebody had named his horse Omar Khayyam? (laugter)
And that's why we have an Omar Khayyam Boulevard in Valley station. Not Because of a medieval Persian poet, at least not directly, but because of a golden chestnut racehorse named Omar Khayyam, the first foreign horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby. (And by the way, there have only been four total. The Derby is a hometown hero's game.) Anyway, Omar The horse was born in a weird time to be horse. World War One broke out the year he was born, and horses were still used in warfare.
It was not uncommon for thoroughbred stallions to be bred to mares of other breeds to produce a strong sturdy horse that would be good in war. Not necessarily to be ridden in war, but to pull carts, to pull munitions.
That's Teresa Genaro. She's a freelance turf writer and the founder of Brooklyn backstretch dot com. She said lots of horses were actually being sent TO Europe at this time.
More than a million horses went from the US to the UK, to be deployed in the war effort.
But Omar Khayyam traveled in the other direction and made it all the way to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. So Omar The horse was born during World War One, but Omar Khayyam the boulevard came after World War Two. When a housing boom in Louisville saw the development of a subdivision called Valley downs. Ashlie Stevens from WFPL did some research and she learned that the developer was a man named Howard A Burkland.
Born in New Jersey. He lived in Florida for a big chunk of his life. He visited Kentucky fairly often and while here he racked up some legal trouble from what it appears. So he was here he, built some subdivisions, he moved to Florida.
Was Howard inspired by the story of Omar Khayyam the horse, escaping from the dangers of war torn Europe to ride to victory in the shadow of the twin spires? Probably not. Howard named all the streets in the subdivision after Derby winners and he seemed to give all his properties everywhere names with some sort of local tie.
If it was an ocean front subdivision it would have things like seashore drive or, you know sandy beach way, you know that that just kind of seems to be the way that he decided to go about naming streets.
So Omar Khayyam. Worshiped by Victorians. Draped in a garland of roses. Slapped on the street sign by a real estate developer. And noticed by a new neighbor named Nadeem, just in time for the derby. And from what Miriam Moazzen says, the original Omar would fit right in at Derby time.
He's a big fan of drinking and having fun and just enjoying life.
Maybe Omar-the-horse's owners were trying to adopt Omar-the-poet's philosophical approach.
We don't care if our horse wins or not. If he wins, okay, we celebrate. Otherwise, forget it and we drink. (laughter)
The question for this edition of curious local came from Nadeem Saddiqui. Reporting came from Ashlie Stevens. Lisa Gillespie, and me. I'm Laura Ellis. Don't forget you can ask a question of your own at curious louisville dot org.