Alexander the Great was born in Pella, capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, in July 356 BC. Succeeding his father Philip in 336 BC, by the age of 25 he had become ruler of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt, and successor to Darius III, the ‘Great King’ of Persia. During the next seven years, Alexander became master of an empire that stretched from Greece in the west, into Central Asia and North Africa, and beyond the river Indus in the east, all before his early death in Babylon in 323 BC.
In different cultures across the world, Alexander has been seen as a superhero, religious icon, philosopher-king, adventurer par excellence, but at the same time a greedy despotic ruler who failed in his ultimate quest to gain immortality. There have been many exhibitions about the historical Alexander, but in the newly opened Alexander the Great: the making of a myth at the British Library we instead explore the rich 2,000-year history of storytelling and mythmaking around his life. With objects from 25 countries in 21 languages, the exhibition shows how it was that one figure could serve so many purposes, creating shared narratives of universal appeal.
At the heart of this storytelling was the Alexander Romance, a compilation of stories that was composed, originally in Greek, in Egypt well before the end of the 3rd century AD. Over time, the Greek original was expanded and translated into almost all the languages of medieval Europe, in addition to Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Hebrew, Persian, and Syriac. Particularly through the medium of Arabic and Persian, the stories of Alexander spread through Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent as far as South-east Asia and even China. The Persian Shahnamah (‘Book of Kings’) by Firdawsi (d. 1019 or 1025), and the Khamsah (‘Quintet’) of Nizami (c.1141-1209) – of which the Iskandarnamah (‘Story of Alexander’) forms the fifth book – are still today among the best-loved and most lavishly illustrated works of the Persianate world. Unsurprisingly, both these works feature prominently throughout the exhibition.
Beginning with his origins, we find many different versions of Alexander’s ancestry in different sources. According to the Greek Alexander Romance, he was descended from Egyptian ancestors. He was seen as the son of Philip’s wife Olympias, who had been seduced by the exiled pharaoh of Egypt, the magician Nectanebo, disguised in the form of a serpent or dragon as the Egyptian god Amun. In Persian literature, the most significant account is that found in Firdawsi’s national epic poem the Shahnamah, in which Alexander (called Iskandar or Sikandar in Persian) is in fact the half-brother of Persian emperor Darius. Completed around 1010, the Shahnamah draws on oral traditions that survive in the form of popular storytelling in Iran today. An early example of this family relationship comes from the Persian prose romance the Darabnamah (‘Book of Darab’), composed in the 12th century by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi. In the Darabnamah, Alexander is presented as the son of the Persian emperor and Nahid, daughter of Philip of Macedon. Married as part of a diplomatic exchange, Nahid is ultimately rejected on account of her bad breath and sent home, unknowingly pregnant, where she gave birth to Alexander. This version of Alexander’s origins saw him, in Persian eyes, as the legitimate heir and successor to his half-brother Darius III.
In 334 BC, Alexander crossed the Hellespont with his army, aiming to settle two centuries of rivalry between the Greeks and Persians, which had culminated in the destruction of Athens by Xerxes the Great in 480 BC. Alexander’s conquest of Persia took four years, and Darius III was finally defeated in October 331 BC at the Battle of Gaugamela in today’s northern Iraq. Darius escaped, however, and remained a fugitive until his assassination further north the following year. Darius’ death formed an important motif in both Western and Eastern traditions, and became one of the most commonly illustrated scenes in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah and Nizami’s Iskandarnamah from the early 14th century onwards. In a dramatic scene in the Shahnamah, Alexander, who had wanted Darius alive, not dead, takes the dying king’s head on his knees, revives him and, weeping, agrees to his final requests: to look after his family, to marry his daughter Roxana, and to preserve the Zoroastrian religion. Alexander kept his promise in so far as he did indeed take care of Darius’ family and married his daughter with much pomp and ceremony, but contrary to Darius’ wishes, he deliberately set about eliminating Zoroastrianism throughout Iran. This earned him the title ‘Alexander the Accursed’ in the following centuries, though by the same token, in Islamic times, the same action led to him being hailed as an Islamic hero.
Alexander also won a victory over the beautiful Zoroastrian priestess Azar Humayun in a fanciful episode from the Iskandarnamah. When she transformed herself into a fierce dragon to defend her fire-temple, Alexander tasked one of his seven philosophers, the magician Balinas (Apollonius), to counter her magic. Defeated, Azar Humayun reverted to her original form, and the fire-temple was destroyed. Her life was spared, but she was presented in marriage to Balinas as his reward.
Parallel to the history of Alexander’s military successes are his more peaceful encounters. One of the best known is his meeting with the Brahmans, described in both the Alexander Romance and in allegedly historical accounts. Whether the origins and content of this episode lie in Greek or Indian philosophy is much debated. In an imaginative early 18th-century copy of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah from northern India, Alexander is portrayed, accompanied by his philosophers, in conversation with the Brahmans, who wear only leaves and live on a diet of seeds. When asked why he continually searches for power and wealth, Alexander replies that it is his fate. The moral, however, is clear: greed is the root of all evil and we will leave this world without clothes and possessions, a message reinforced by the stark contrast of the Brahmans’ nakedness with Alexander’s finery.
Powerful queens play a central role in both Western and Eastern versions of the Alexander Romance. Candace, Nushabah, and the queen of the Amazons are among several who engage with Alexander, negotiating a diplomatic solution with him on their own terms, thus avoiding battle. In Nizami’s Iskandarnamah, Nushabah is queen of Barda in today’s Azerbaijan. No men were allowed access to her court, which consisted of a thousand beautiful virgins. Wishing to conceal his identity, Alexander visited her court disguised as a messenger. Nushabah, however, had secretly commissioned his portrait and so recognised him immediately. When his deception was exposed, Nushabah rebuked him for his immaturity and arrogance, but forgave him and they parted on peaceful terms.
Originally completed between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-1576), this copy of Nizami’s poetry was augmented by the addition of 14 full-page illustrations – including the encounter between Nushabah and Alexander – by some of the most famous of Shah Tahmasp’s court artists. It was refurbished several times before being presented in 1827-1828 by the Qajar ruler Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) to his favourite wife, Taj al-Dawlah. Despite these later interventions, it remains today one of the most luxurious examples of 16th-century Iranian book art.
In Islamic literature, Alexander’s role as philosopher-king is one of the most important aspects of his legacy. As a youth, he was traditionally taught by the famous scientist and philosopher Aristotle. From the 5th century AD, wisdom literature attributed to Aristotle was presented as guidance and advice to Alexander, often in the form of letters. In Nizami’s Iskandarnamah and the works of several later poets, Aristotle and a group of philosophers accompany Alexander throughout his journey. In one of the most frequently illustrated episodes, Alexander presides over an assembly of seven, comprising Aristotle, Valens, Apollonius, Socrates, Porphyry, Hermes, and Plato, and seeks to discover the origin of creation. Having listened to their contrary opinions, he resorts to enlightenment rather than reason, recognising the existence of God as creator of all. This conclusion, Nizami tells us, led to his being acknowledged as supremely wise, thereby achieving prophethood.
Alexander and his seven philosophers appear in a Timurid masterpiece, in which the central figure of Alexander deliberately recalls the features of the manuscript’s patron, prince Sultan Husayn Bayqara, ruler of Herat. This would have carried a powerful message, inviting comparisons between Sultan Husayn and the idealised figure of Alexander the Great. The artist, though named Qasim ‘Ali – his name just visible in a note between the two columns of text – was almost certainly the master painter Bihzad (c.1450-c.1535), head of Husayn Bayqara’s atelier. Subsequently the manuscript passed into the hands of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and was regarded as one of his most treasured possessions.
In Western writings, Alexander took a predominantly Christian guise, but in Islamic literature he was generally identified with the prophet Dhu ’l-Qarnayn (‘two-horned’) mentioned in Surah 18 of the Qur’an. Many reasons for the ‘two-horned’ epithet have been offered. The most common explanation is that it refers to having travelled to the outer limits – literally ‘horns’ (qarn) – of the world, although the origin of this belief no doubt lay in Alexander’s association with the Egyptian god Amun, who was regularly depicted as a horned ram. In common with Syriac legends of Alexander circulating in the Middle East in the 7th century, in the Qur’an Dhu ’l-Qarnayn travels to the extreme edges of the world, and finally to a place in the mountains where he finds a people oppressed by Gog and Magog. There he constructs a barrier that will contain them until the end of time.
The story of Gog and Magog features prominently in tales of the prophets, which were adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature and became an established literary genre. One of the best-known and most often illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th-century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. In the copy shown above, Alexander is depicted supervising the construction of the wall, while the oppressed locals bake bricks. Contrary to the usual portrayal of prophets, however, Alexander is without a halo, which typically in this context would take the form of golden flames rising from his head. This may reflect some doubt on the part of the illustrator as to his true prophetic status.
While Alexander is not an Islamic prophet in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah, his portrayal in illustrated Persian manuscripts has distinctly religious overtones. Alexander’s visit to the Ka‘ba at Mecca – which was already a shrine in pre-Islamic times – on his way to Egypt is a relatively minor episode in the text itself. In an illustration in this 16th-century copy of the Shahnamah, his visit is given prominence with the Ka‘ba placed centrally within a darker area in which the pilgrims circumambulate. The Ka‘ba is covered with a curtain and Alexander himself is depicted kneeling, his hands raised in prayer and bare-headed, with his crown placed on the ground, surrounded by worshippers in the traditional white ihram clothing worn by pilgrims. Such details reflect the increased importance of the Ka‘ba as a pilgrimage site and indicate Alexander’s full integration into the Islamic tradition.
It is perhaps as an adventurer that Alexander is best known in the Romance. Journeying into the unknown in search of knowledge and new experiences, he travels into the skies, to the bottom of the ocean, and meets sirens, cannibals, peoples with heads on their chests, and all manner of mythical creatures. These encounters occur in both Western and Eastern literature. A 12th-century Persian encyclopaedia ‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat (‘Wonders of Creation’) by Ahmad Tusi includes 59 anecdotes about Alexander the Great. A century later, the cosmographer and geographer al-Qazwini composed a work of the same title which became one of the best-known and most translated of Islamic encyclopaedias.
The opening of an Arabic version, which was transcribed around 1300 from a manuscript copied by al-Qazwini himself, describes, in the upper part, the inhabitants of the island of Jaba who had faces on their chests and, underneath, Alexander visiting the island of the dragon. On this island, we are told, people were terrified by a large dragon that terrorised and devoured them. Alexander, depicted in the manuscript crowned and seated on a throne, came to their rescue and killed the dragon by feeding it bulls that had been skinned and stuffed with poison.
As Alexander’s power and dominions increased, so too did his preoccupation with his own death. Searching for immortality, his journey led him into the Land of Darkness in an unsuccessful search for the Water of Life. One of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts from Iran is the early 14th-century world history Jami‘ al-tawarikh (‘Compendium of Chronicles’), generously lent to us by Edinburgh University Library. The author was the court historian Rashid al-Din, who almost certainly supervised the copying of this Arabic version. In it, Alexander is seen setting off into the unknown, into an all-pervasive mist where the sun never rises nor sets. His confidence contrasts vividly with the questioning glances of his followers behind, and even their horses, as they face the darkness ahead.
In the darkness, there was a spring of pure water, crystal clear. Anyone who drank it would never die. The poet Nizami gives three different accounts of Alexander’s search for the Water of Life, which he refers to as Zoroastrian, Byzantine, and Arab versions. In the Byzantine account, the prophets Khizr (Khidr in Arabic) and Ilyas (Elijah) – pictured in a 17th-century manuscript both with fiery haloes, and Khizr in his green robe – found the spring and sat down laying a tablecloth with bread and salted fish between them. When one of the fish fell into the water, Khizr leaned over to retrieve it and found it was alive. Both Khizr and Ilyas drank the water and achieved immortality. Alexander does not himself feature in this version of the story, but in the illustration he is pictured in red as a spectator watching from afar, always seeking but never reaching the object of his desire.
Emerging from the Land of Darkness, Alexander approached a mythical paradise but was refused entry. At the world’s end, he consulted a talking tree whose male and female trunks spoke by day and by night, but the messages he received were not what he hoped to hear: his reign would come to an end and he would soon die. Further omens announcing his imminent death greeted him on his return to Babylon and he died almost immediately at the young age of 32.
Alexander the Great: the making of a myth will be running at the British Library in London until 19 February 2023. Visit www.bl.uk/alexander-the-great for more information. The accompanying catalogue and collection of essays, edited by Richard Stoneman, is on sale at the British Library shop, and online at https://shop.bl.uk. Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator of Persian Collections at the British Library, is one of the exhibition’s four curators. You can listen to Ursula's interview with Calum Henderson about the exhibition in an episode of The PastCast here.
All images: British Library, unless otherwise stated