19 February 2023
Akbar and Alexander the Great
With the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The making of a Myth drawing to a close, I would like to highlight one of my special favourites: the Emperor Akbar’s personal copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Quintet) of which the fifth poem, the Iskandarnamah, is a two part account of the life of Alexander the Great or Iskandar as he is called in Persian.
The priestess pleads with Iskandar to spare the sanctuary idol from destruction. Artists La'l and Mukund. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, ff.317v-318r)
Commissioned by Akbar (r.1556–1605) in Lahore between 1593 and 1595, this manuscript represents what was without doubt an intensely personal project and combines the work of the best artists at his court. With 37 highly original paintings, luxurious illumination, marginal decorations and binding, this Khamsah was one of a small group of deluxe Persian manuscripts which also include Jami’s Baharistan (Bodleian MS. Elliott 254) and the Khamsah of Amir Khusraw (Walters Ms. W. 624), all produced around the same time in Lahore. In his monumental survey of 1912, the collector and art historian F.R. Martin wrote of it: “Without exception it is the most wonderful Indian manuscript in Europe.” Originally the manuscript contained 44 illustrations, but at some point 39 folios including five illustrated leaves, were extracted and are now in the Walters Art Museum Baltimore Walters Ms. W.613. Two of the original paintings are now lost and an additional portrait of the calligrapher ʻAbd al-Raḥīm ʻAnbarīn Qalam and the artist Dawlat were added at the end in 1610 by order of Jahangir.
With 16 of the 44 illustrations devoted to the Iskandarnamah, it is easy to see Akbar's special affinity with Alexander the Great. Nizami in the early 12th century was the first to qualify Iskandar (Iqbalnamah 29:4) with the adjective Sahib-qiran (Lord of the Conjunction). Several rulers styled themselves this way, most notably Akbar’s honoured ancestor Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty in 1370. Like Alexander, Akbar was a successful conqueror, but more particularly Nizami’s portrayal of Alexander as a philosopher-king would have appealed to Akbar who promoted himself as a just and tolerant ruler.
In the opening we used for the exhibition (see above) the double-page illustration has a special significance. Here we see Iskandar at a Buddhist sanctuary at Kandahar receiving an impassioned plea from the priestess who asks for the golden statue, with precious jewels as its eyes, to be left unharmed. Iskandar had ordered it to be dismantled but moved by her passion and beauty, he agreed to spare it. Placed right at at the end of the Khamsah, this painting has a special significance, as pointed out by Barbara Brend (Akbar's Khamsa, p. 61). Iskandar is compared by implication with the Mughal emperor Akbar who had taken Kandahar from the Safavids of Iran without bloodshed in April 1595, while this manuscript was still in the process of completion. Akbar’s interest in other religions apart from Islam, exemplified by the establishment of his own syncretic faith, the Din-i ilahi (Divine Faith) in 1582, parallels here Iskandar’s own role as a tolerant philosopher-king.
Sadly, in the exhibition we could only display one opening from each manuscript, so to give a flavour of the whole volume, I have described some further examples here.
Iskandar with Nushabah, queen of the women-only city of Barda, in today’s Azerbaijan. Iskandar had visited the queen in disguise, but she immediately exposed him as an imposter by presenting him with his own portrait which she had had painted earlier. Reprimanding him, she nevertheless forgave him and they feasted together before he went on his way.
Artist, Bhura. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 244v)
Not wishing to engage in war, King Kayd of Hind offered Iskandar four gifts as tribute: his daughter in marriage, his all-knowing philosopher, his personal physician and his never-emptying goblet. This scene shows his envoy's reception at Iskandar's camp. Iskandar accepted Kayd's gifts and so bloodshed was avoided.
Artist, Dharamdas. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 254r)
The story of Mani the 3rd-century founder of Manichaeism who was also famous as an artist, is told as an interlude in a contest between the artists of Chin and Rum. Hearing that the prophet Mani was on his way to China, the Chinese, to discourage him, created a false reservoir out of crystal. When the thirsty Mani placed his earthenware drinking vessel on it, it broke. To prevent others from doing the same, Mani, pictured here with his tools, painted the decaying corpse of a dead dog on the surface. Through this action and his wisdom, Nizami tells us, Mani made many converts.
Artist, Sur Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.262v)
As Iskandar’s power and dominions increased, so too did his preoccupation with dying. Searching for immortality, his journey led him into the Land of Darkness in an unsuccessful search for the Water of Life. Nizami gives three different accounts of the search for the Water of Life, which he refers to as Zoroastrian, Byzantine, and Arab versions. Pictured here is the so-called Zoroastrian version in which Iskandar gave the prophet Khizr his grey horse – a gift from the ruler of Chin – and sent him into the Darkness with a special stone which would light up and reveal the fountain. Khizr located it, drank and washed himself and his horse, but when they had finished, the fountain disappeared.
Artist, Kanak Singh Chela. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.281r)
This illustration comes in the Iqbalnamah, the second of the two books of the Iskandarnamah, which describes Iskandar's prophetic mission. In this episode, after solitary reflection in a barrel (echoes of Diogenes), Aflatun (Plato) obtained full comprehension of the music of the spheres and created an instrument whereby he could make all animals sleep and then rouse them again to consciousness. The scene itself is reminiscent of hunting scenes in which Akbar surveys his catch, as for example on the doublure of the binding of this same volume.
Artist, Madhu. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.298r)
Here Alexander is depicted as a philosopher-king and questions the origin of the universe from his seven philosophers: Valens, Apollonius, Socrates, Porphyry, Hermes and Plato. Having listened to each in turn, he declared that, in view of their contradictory opinions, the only certainty could be that there was no creation without a creator. By resorting to enlightenment rather than reason, Iskandar was acknowledged as supremely wise and thereby achieved prophethood.
Artist, Nanha. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.305r)
Despatched on a prophetic mission by the angel Srosh, Iskandar explored the Western regions and at the edge of the world encountered a shore where there were many coloured stones, blue, red, yellow and black, each weighing about five to ten pounds. If a person looked at one of these stones, he laughed so much that he died. Iskandar ordered the rocks to be covered with cloth and loaded onto 100 camels. Hastening along the shore he used them to build a fortress without doors and covered the exterior with clay to protect passers by. But whoever climbed over to see the interior, would be exposed to the bare rocks and die.
Artist, Bhem Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.312v)
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.
Ursula Sims-Wiliams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
Other illustrations in Akbar's Iskandarnamah
- The invention of the mirror in the presence of Alexander the Great. Artists, Nanha and Shivdas (Walters Ms. W.613, f.16b and f.17a)
- The death of Darius. Artist, Dharamdas (Walters Ms. W613, f.26b)
- Alexander the Great enthroned at Persepolis. Artist, Bem Gujarati (Walters Ms. W613, f.34a)
- The women of Qipchak are persuaded to veil themselves on seeing a veiled talisman. Artist, Mukund (Or.12208, f.266v)
- The Russian champion who tore off an elephant's trunk. Artist, Farrukh Chela (Or.12208, f.273r)
- Maria, the Copt trained in the art of alchemy consulted by other alchemists. Artist, Sanwala. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.294r)
Barbara Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Niẓāmī. London: British Library, 1995.
J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire. London: The British Library, 1912, pp. 48-55.
Haila Manteghi, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.
 Owen Cornwall, Alexander and the Persian Cosmopolis, 1000-1500, PhD thesis Columbia Unversity, 2016, pp. 91-9.
 Naindeep Singh Chann, “Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction: Origins of the Ṣāḥib-Qirān” Iran and the Caucasus 13 (2009) 93-110