A beloved in every port: Iskandar's encounters with women
The story and character of the Persianate Alexander the Great, known as Iskandar or Sikandar, underwent a great deal of transformation in poetic and prose texts over a millennium. What is most striking in the various works written for different audiences is the increasingly imaginative itinerary of the hero’s travels, especially with respect to his relationships with the women he encounters in each place.
The earliest known verse treatment of Alexander is Firdawsi’s Persian epic, the Shahnamah (Books of Kings), completed ca. 1010 CE, in which Iskandar is represented in the line of ancient Iranian kings. Although not a translation of the Greek romance, the main women of Iskandar’s life are the same with the addition of a few more.
Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own portrait. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, copied at Shiraz, 967/1560 (IO Islamic 133, f.349v)
The story of Qaydafah, ruler of Andalusia, is similar to Candace, ruler of Meroe, in the Greek romance. She at first refuses to submit to the conqueror, and when Iskandar appears before her disguised as his own messenger, she recognizes him because she had seen his portrait beforehand. In the end, she makes a pact with him. Qaydafah is not an Amazon and nor does she live in a city solely inhabited by women. The Amazon story is a brief interlude and comes a bit later when Iskandar is honoured by the women of Harum, a city inhabited solely by women.
Iskandar's message is delivered to the women of Harum. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, Rajaur, Northern India, 1131/1719 (Add. MS 18804, f.122r)
It is in the India section, in a version which is unique to Firdawsi, that we learn about a physician who treats Iskandar’s over-sexed temperament that has led him to become weak and suffer from insomnia. When Iskandar started sleeping alone, he regained his health. This picture of him as a Lothario is in sharp contrast to the scholarly Iskandar of the later Persian poets.
The authors of the later courtly romances were doubtless familiar with Firdawsi’s work but took more artistic liberties in developing Iskandar’s character. Nizami’s Iskandarnamah (1202 CE) is a mixture of epic and romance, and in this work Nushabah, an avatar of Qaydafah and Candace, is a composite character who is an Amazon queen. Nushabah’s name itself means water of life and is linked to Iskandar’s quest for immortality. The setting of this episode is changed from Andalusia to Barda‘, which falls in the poet’s native land, and which was the winter capital connected to two royal women, Mahin Banu and her niece Shirin, characters in Nizami’s earlier romance, Khusraw and Shirin.
Nizami describes Barda‘ as a virtual paradise on earth, which he links to Harum, the land of the Amazons in Firdawsi’s text. Iskandar hears about the hedonistic lifestyle of these women: the entire land appears as an idol temple (sanamkhanah) replete with beautiful and chaste women. Iskandar camps near the city from where Nushabah sends him gifts daily. This only piques his curiosity and he wants to discover the secret behind such a mythical woman and place. In the guise of a messenger sent by himself he enters her splendid court, but being a king cannot play the part appropriately. Nushabah has no difficulty recognizing him, not just by his behavior but also from a portrait her artist has made of Iskandar for a rogues’ gallery of the rulers of her time.
Queen Nushabah is not deceived by Alexander’s disguise. From Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mirza ʻAli. Tabriz, Iran, mid-16th century (Or. 2265, f.48v)
Iskandar persists in claiming to be a messenger and vehemently denies being the king. Nushabah shows him the portrait declaring: “I am a lioness, if you are a lion. / What is female and male among fighting lions?” This is a reminder to him of her position and ability, as well as a warning to disregard her sex since he is only conscious of her as a beautiful woman. Although Nushabah’s behavior threatens Iskandar’s masculinity, he is open to learning from her. She orders a feast for him, and her attendants arrange a repast that has precious gems instead of food on the plates. When Iskandar expresses perplexity at this, Nushabah laughs and asks him why he cannot eat what he spends his whole life pursuing! Iskandar experiences a major revelation and praises her, “A thousand blessings upon a wise woman / Who in a manly way becomes my guide.” She visits him with her magnificent entourage the next day and they spend the day and night in feasting—on real food. Such a sensual setting does not lead to any lovemaking and Nushabah remains one woman Iskandar does not conquer: “Iskandar son of Filqus was aroused, / But did not succumb to those beauties. // One, because he was abstentious, / Secondly, because one cannot hunt in a sanctuary.”
Later in the story, Nushabah makes another appearance. Kidnapped by the Rus, Iskandar vows to rescue her. On his way, Iskandar passes the Qipchaq Turkish tribes; his army is tired and has been away from women, but when they see beautiful unveiled Qipchaq women, they do not dare make any move out of fear of their king. He complains to the tribal elders about the unveiled state of their women: “A woman who shows her face to a stranger / Does not regard her pride and her husband’s dignity.” They respond that it is their custom and “Anyone who hides their eyes in a veil / Looks neither at the moon nor at the sun.”
A black stone sculpture acts as a talisman which causes the women of Qipchaq to veil themselves. Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mukund, Lahore 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.266v)
Iskandar consults one of his wise counsellors and by a trick they manage to institute the custom of veiling among the Qipchaq women! As Farzaneh Milani explains, “Perhaps the veil, because of its symbolic potency, becomes a vessel in which to place both the anxieties and the exhilarations of love and creativity.” Iskandar then launches into a major expedition against the Rus and finally rescues Nushabah and restores her kingdom to her. However, in a surprising move, he weds her to Davali, king of Abkhaz, and sends them off with his blessings. Thus, the Amazon queen is transformed into a respectably married woman.
In Amir Khusraw’s A’inah-yi Iskandari (1299 CE), Kanifu is first introduced disguised as a male warrior fighting on the Chinese side against Iskandar’s troops. When Iskandar engages in single combat with her, Kanifu is captured and her identity as a beautiful woman is revealed to him. Not only is Kanifu not an Amazon, there are no Amazons in Amir Khusraw's work. In fact, Kanifu is the only woman Iskandar has a dalliance with in this work—the marriage with Rawshanak is also not included by Amir Khusraw. Although Kanifu is ready to be his slave and they feast in his tent, their love is not consummated until later. It is when he returns from China that he takes her back as part of his booty.
Iskandar with Kanifu. From Ayinah-yi Iskandari (Iskandar's mirror) by Amir Khusraw, late 19th century (Add. Ms. 7751, f.167r)
Tarsusi’s twelfth century Darabnamah is an epic in prose that includes some exploits of Iskandar, including his relationship with Burandukht (Rawshanak). Another work is the anonymous prose Iskandarnamah dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries that survives in a single manuscript in a private collection, whose author picks up on the image of a concupiscent Iskandar. With seemingly inexhaustible sexual drive he boasts that “God has given me such prowess that in one night I have entered ninety chambers.” There are many episodes in which women, including his old aunt, plot to thwart or kill him, and the poet expounds on their wily and inherent evil nature. In the end, most either perish or are forced to marry the conqueror. Iskandar travels easily from Kashmir, where he marries the infidel king’s daughter, Mahafarin, to Ceylon, then onto Mecca, Yemen, Egypt, Andalusia, and China. In this text he is a holy warrior and love involves religious conversion. The second half of the work veers into the genre of dastan with even more fantastic adventures with mythical creatures and descriptions of marvels. A major part of the narrative is taken up by Iskandar’s clash with and subsequent marriage with Araqit, queen of the peris.
A later prose romance dates from the nineteenth century but is thought to have its origins in the Safavid period. The seven-volume work, Iskandarnamah-yi haft-jildi, is attributed to Manuchihr Khan Hakim and exists in several Qajar era illustrated lithographed editions, although the text varies in them quite a bit. The narrative and geography are even more imaginative, freely mixing ancient Persian and Islamic characters along with historical and epic events involving demons and fairies. In the many places he and his companions visit, they encounter beautiful women and romantic dalliance usually ends with the hero being drugged or captured by inimical forces. This work belongs fully to the dastan genre, but with its context updated. In one reconstructed modern text, Iskandar roams from Europe to India, even arriving in Calcutta!
Iskandar visits the city of the Pharoahs, from Manuchihr Khan Hakim's seven-volume Iskandarnamah. Tehran, 1284/1867 (14783.h.4)
In the range of texts comprising verse and prose Iskandarnamahs, whether he is an over-sexed young man or a philosopher-scientist with only a passing interest in women, the Persianate Iskandar was not portrayed in a same-sex relationship, which is somewhat surprising since homoeroticism was a commonplace feature of classical Persian literature.
Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
The British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Visit our dedicated website to find out more.
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
 Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), p. 7.
 Persian text edited by Iraj Afshar, Iskandarnāmah (Tihran: Bungāh-i Tarjumah va Nashr-i Kitāb, 1343/1964), and partially translated into English by Minoo S. Southgate, Iskandarnamah: a Persian medieval Alexander-romance (New York: Columbia UP, 1978) and Evangelos Venetis, The Persian Alexander: the first complete English translation of the Iskandarnāma (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018).
 Minoo S. Southgate, “Portrait of Alexander in Persian Alexander-Romances of the Islamic era”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 97 (1977), p. 282.
 Yuriko Yamanaka, “The Eskandarname of Manuchehr Khan Hakim: A 19th Century Persian Popular Romance on Alexander,” Cahiers de Studia Iranica, 26 (2002), pp. 181-9.
 Iskandarnamah, az Farang ta Hindustan, ed. A.R. Zakavati Qaraguzlu (Tehran: Sukhan, 1388/2009).