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  • Hannah Fielding - Romance Novelist

‘Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.

Layla, I’m begging, darling, please.

Layla, darling, won’t you ease my worried mind.’

So sang Eric Clapton. ‘Layla’ is widely heralded as one of the greatest rock love songs of all time, but do you know the story behind the music?

The inspiration for ‘Layla’ is a very old tale, that of unrequited love in 7th-century Persian. It is a story that has been inspiring creatives for centuries, having been popularised by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Here are just some of the artworks it has inspired:

Layla collage

The story of Layla and Majnun is, as English poet Lord Byron put it, ‘the Romeo and Juliet of the East’. Various versions exist, but at the core of each is a love that cannot be.

A young man named Qais ibn Al-Mulawah (known as Qays) fell in love with a young lady named Layla: deeply, irrevocably, hopelessly in love. He put his all into wooing Layla, and she reciprocated, falling in love with him. But he became so obsessed by Layla that locals dubbed him Majnun, meaning madman. Consequently, when Majnun finally plucked up the courage to ask Layla’s father for her hand in marriage, he refused, on the grounds that Majnun was a crazy, and thus unsuitable, suitor. Against her wishes, Layla was married off to a wealthy merchant, and a heartbroken Majnun fled the village, to wander the wilderness, murmuring love poems to an audience of wild creatures.

Like Romeo and Juliet, the ending is a sad one. Layla died first, of a broken heart, and Majnun then died of grief at her tomb, after inscribing into a rock:

I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla And I kiss this wall and that wall It’s not Love of the walls that has enraptured my heart But of the One who dwells within them.

Another version of the story has the star-crossed lovers meeting at school. Majnun would be beaten for paying attention to Layla rather than his studies, but for each stroke it was Layla, somehow, who would bleed. When their families discovered the powerful and mystical link between the two, a feud sprang up. As the two reached adulthood, their union was forbidden. Majnun ended up fighting Layla’s controlling brother and killing him (shades of Tybalt). To save Majnun from being stoned to death for this crime, Layla agreed to marry another man, while Majnun was exiled. But as time wore on, Layla pined for Majnun, and her new husband was jealous. He decided to remove the threat, and he rode into the wilderness, found Majnun and stabbed him in the chest. At the moment of Majnun’s death, Layla’s heart stopped beating too.

To this day, each June newlyweds and those who are betrothed come to the village of Binjaur in the state of Rajasthan, India, to pay homage at what legend tells is the tomb of Layla and Majnun, a symbolic place representing love and union – for the two are remembered together eternally in the afterlife, where madness and feuding cannot touch them.

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