13 February 2023
Alexander’s origins: a Persian Perspective
Stories about Alexander the Great’s descent from gods and heroes - the most famous of which being his mother Olympia’s relationship with Amon/Zeus - were disseminated as he travelled across the world. By promoting such mythical connections, Alexander and his successors gained political legitimacy. Greco-Roman gods and heroes were assimilated into the myths of newly conquered lands and so mitigated Alexander’s position as an outsider/foreigner allowing him to be accepted and understood by the indigenous people. This narrative strategy was further enhanced by the Greek Alexander Romance which first emerged towards the end of the third century AD and was subsequently translated into Syriac, Hebrew, Persian and Arabic.
Darab, king of Persia, captures ʻAmuriyah. From the Dārābnāmah by Abu Tahir Tarsusi. Mughal 1580-85, artist, Mani (Or.4615, f.127r)
Iranian stories about Alexander were influenced by the Alexander Romance, as well as a number of Pahlavi, Syriac and Arabic sources. In Firdawsi’s epic history, the Shāhnāmah (‘Book of Kings’), and many other Iranian sources such as the twelfth-century Darābnāmah (‘Story of Darab’) by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi, Alexander’s mother is the princess Nahid, daughter of Filqus (Philip) the king of Rum (Rome), who is married to Darab, king of Iran. According to the Shāhnāmah, Filqus gathered an army to attack Iran. The war lasted three days, and Filqus was defeated. Filqus sent a messenger with gifts to Darab to make peace and Darab, informed by his courtiers that Filqus had a beautiful daughter, requested her in marriage. All went well until one night, Darab smelt an unpleasant odour from Nahid’s mouth. Although physicians cured it, Darab rejected her and sent her back to Rum. Unknown to him, she was pregnant. Since Filqus did not want anyone to know his daughter’s story or that she was pregnant by Darab, when the baby was born, Filqus adopted him as his own son. Nahid called the baby Iskandar. When Iskandar subsequently conquered Darab’s son and successor, Dara (Darius III), it was his half-brother he defeated and being half Persian himself, he became the legitimate heir to the throne.
King Philip's envoy Filasun, brings gifts to king Darab of Persia. From the Dārābnāmah by Abu Tahir Tarsusi. Mughal 1580-85, artist Dargha (Or.4615, f.128r)
A point of interest is Nahid’s name. Rather than being a Persianised Greek form such as Filqus for Philip, her name is the Persian form of Avestan (Old Iranian) Anahita (‘immaculate’), the ancient Iranian goddess of water to whom a special Zoroastrian hymn is dedicated. Firdawsi completed the Shāhnāmah in 1020 but drew on many pre-Islamic sources including oral narratives and the now lost Sasanian Khudāynāmah. The name Nahid therefore has special Zoroastrian connotations though it is strange that if her name refers to the immaculate Anahita why did she become ‘maculate’ and suffer from bad odour in this narration? A possible solution is that the Sasanian Khudāynāmahs described her negatively simply through her association with Alexander/Iskandar whom they regarded as gizistag/gujastag (‘accursed’) because as a grown man he reputedly burned their scriptures and destroyed their temples, and that her name was disassociated from its original meaning. In their view Nahid was merely the daughter of the Roman Emperor and the mother of the accursed Alexander.
Nahid, daughter of Filqus (Philip of Macedon), is presented to Darab. From the Dārābnāmah by Abu Tahir Tarsusi. Mughal 1580-85 (Or. 4615, f 129r)
Also noteworthy is Nahid and Filqus’ association with the city ʻAmuriyah, identified with Armorium, a city in Phrygia in Asia Minor founded during Seleucid rule. It was ʻAmuriyah rather than Macedonia that was Filqus’ base and from which Iskandar summoned his mother before his marriage with Dara’s daughter Roshanak (Roxana). Situated on the edge of the Sasanian Empire, it was a centre of mixed Hellenistic and Iranian cultures.
Alexander/Iskandar was the last of the Kayanid dynasty, tracing his ancestry directly back to the legendary hero Isfandiyar and king Kai Kavus. With such a genealogy, his story inevitably includes elements of ancient Iranian mythology, but that is another story!
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.
Khāliqi Muṭlaq, Jalāl. “Az Khudāynāmah tā Shāhnāmah: justārī darbārah-i maʾākhiz̲-i mustaqīm va ghayr-i mustaqīm-i Shāhnāmah,” Nāmah-i Īrān-i Bāstān (2007).
Manteghi, Haila. Alexander the Great in the Persian tradition: history, myth and legend in medieval Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, (2018).
Zarrīnkūb, Rūzbih, “Khudāynāmah,” in Markaz-i Dāʾirat al-Maʿārif-i Buzurg-i Islamī, Latest update (2019).
1 With thanks to my colleagues, Ursula Sims-Williams, William Monk and Pardaad Chamsaz for their comments on the first draft of this blog.