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5 posts categorized "Alexander exhibition"

31 January 2023

Alexander/Iskandar: Ancestor of Malay Kings

Alexander the Great was born in Macedon in 356 BC, and by the age of twenty-five, he had defeated the Persian army. Over the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece to Egypt and beyond the Indus river in the east, before his early death aged just 32 in Babylon in 323 BC. However, the focus of the current British Library exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth (21 October 2022-19 February 2023), is not on the historical Alexander, but on how the great hero was adopted by countless cultures, each of which remoulded him in their own image. Alexander appears in myths and legends in languages ranging from Greek to Hebrew, Syriac and Coptic, and notably in Arabic and Persian, where he is known as Iskandar Dhu al-Qarnayn, ‘the Two-Horned’. And it was from a Persian prototype that Alexander entered the Malay world as Iskandar Zulkarnain, legendary ancestor of Malay kings.

The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, dated 30 September 1713
The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, dated 30 September 1713. Leiden University Library, Cod. Or. 1970.

The Malay Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, the ‘Tale of Iskandar the Two-Horned’, was most probably translated into Malay in the early 15th century, from an Arab paraphrase of a Persian source, which can be traced back ultimately to the Greek ‘Alexander Romance’ attributed to the writer known as ‘Pseudo-Callisthene’. This literary adoption most likely took place in Pasai in north Sumatra, which had been the first Malay kingdom to embrace Islam in the 13th century. Two recensions of the Malay tale are known today, a shorter Sumatran version which ends with the marriage of Iskandar to the daughter of king Tibus of Damascus, and a longer one associated with the Malay Peninsula, which extends to the death of Iskandar.

In the eponymous hikayat, Iskandar Zulkarnain, accompanied by the Prophet Khidr and Greek wise men, leads expeditions to the West and the East, conquers Iran and Egypt, Andalusia and Ethiopia, Syria and India and finally reaches the edges of the earth. As noted by Vladimir Braginsky (2004: 176-177), the Islamic world of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain ‘widened the limits of the inhabitable world for the Malays and disclosed the unity of humankind to them and their own place in it.’

The opening pages of a three-volume Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain
The opening pages of a three-volume Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, copied in Melaka by Encik Yahya bin Abdul Wahid for William Farquhar, dated 15 February 1817. Royal Asiatic Society, Farquhar 2, Volume 1.

The towering presence of Iskandar is not confined to the eponymous hikayat, for he also appears in other Malay literary works, including the earlier Hikayat Amir Hamzah, narrating the adventures of an uncle of the prophet, which was probably rendered into Malay in the 14th century. In this heroic tale Iskandar is renowned for converting many peoples to Islam (maka segala raja-raja di negeri Zamin Tauran itu semuanya diislamkan oleh Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain; MCP: AHmz 607:34), and when Amir Hamzah sets out from Zamin Ambar on his way back to Rukham, he is guided on his way by landmarks erected by Iskandar Zulkarnain (berpedomankan menara-menara perbuatan Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain itu, MCP: AHmz 676:35). Iskandar Zulkarnain is hailed as a conqueror, statesman and paragon of sagacity in the Taj al-Salatin or ‘Crown of Kings’, a ‘mirror for princes’ composed in Aceh in 1603, and in the Bustan al-Salatin, the universal history compiled by Nuruddin al-Raniri in Aceh in the early 17th century.

The emblematic appearance of Iskandar in Malay literature is in the chronicle of the great sultanate of Melaka, the Sulalat al-Salatin, commonly referred to as the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals. Iskandar is the first actor on the scene in this text, from the manuscript below: ‘according to the teller of tales, one day Raja Iskandar, son of Raja Darab, of the race of Rum [Constantinople], from the country of Macedonia, entitled the ‘Two-Horned’, set out to see where the sun rose, and so journeyed until he reached the border of India.’ (kata yang empunya ceritera, pada suatu masa, bahwa Raja Iskandar, anak Raja Darab, Rum bangsanya, Maqaduniah nama negerinya, Dhu al-Qarnain gelarnya, sekali baginda berjalan hendak melihat matahari terbit. Maka baginda sampai pada [sarhad] negeri Hindi.)

After defeating the ruler of this country, Raja Kida Hindi, Iskandar is married to his daughter at a wedding officiated at by the prophet Nabi Khidir, and the story of their encounter and marriage is related at length in Firdawsi's 11th century Persian epic the Shahnamah. It is from this union that Malay kings trace their descent, for the Sulalat al-Salatin narrates how three princes, progeny of the line of Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain, suddenly appear on Mount Siguntang at Palembang in Sumatra. The eldest became ruler of Minangkabau, the second ruler of Tanjung Pura, and the youngest stayed at Palembang and founded the line of the sultans of Melaka. Ever since, Iskandar Zulkarnain has often been a favoured regnal name for Malay kings, and the greatest ruler of Aceh in the early 17th century was named Iskandar Muda, ‘the Young Iskandar’.

Opening passage of Sulalat al-Salatin
Opening passage of Sulalat al-Salatin, introducing Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain. Copied in Melaka in 1873. British Library, Or 14734, f. 3r. Noc

Space constraints mean that there are no Malay manuscripts featuring Iskandar Zulkarnain in the British Library exhibition, but the accompanying book (Stoneman 2022: 154) includes the royal Malay seal shown below. This is the seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate in the Moluccan islands, who reigned from 1714 to 1751, and it is impressed in lampblack on a letter in Malay addressed to Governor General M. de Haan of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Batavia, dated 27 Muharam 1140 (14 September 1727). The seal is inscribed: al-mu'min billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Raja Ternate sanat 1128, ‘the believer in God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain, Raja of Ternate, the year 1128’ (1715/6), and is decorated with scattered star motifs. Note the use of dots in the date to indicate 'place value': three dots next to the numeral 1 standing for 1000; two dots next to the next numeral 1 indicating hundreds; and one dot above the numeral 2 indicating tens.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate, dated 1715/6. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Mal.-pol. 210, f. 12.

Another sultan of Ternate who ruled later in the 18th century also adoped Iskandar Zulkarnain as part of his regnal name, as can be seen in his red wax seal below, which reads: Billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah Raja Ternate sanat 1188, ‘Through God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, Raja of Ternate, the year 1188’ (1774). This seal is stamped on a contract between Ternate and the VOC, dated 16 August 1774.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah of Ternate
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah of Ternate, dated 1774. National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia, Ternate 131

A century later, a sultan of Maguindanao – on the island of Mindanao now in the Philippines, just north of Ternate – assumed a similar regnal name. His seal, with the characteristic ‘trefoil crown’ of Maguindanao royal seals, stamped on a letter of 1888, is inscribed: wa-tawakkal ‘ala Allah huwa Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘And trusting to God, he is Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain’.

Seal of Sultan Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain of Maguindanao
Seal of Sultan Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain of Maguindanao, ca. 1888. National Archives of the Philippines, Mindanao y Sulu, SDS 9241, f. 899

The seal of a sultan of Bacan – an island to the south of Ternate – is inscribed with his name of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin, suggesting the strong appeal of Iskandar Zulkarnain as a regnal name in these north-eastern islands of the archipelago, a long way from the mountains of Palembang where the descendants of Iskandar are said to have first appeared in the Malay world. In view of the founding myth, it is however hardly surprising that the Malay region where the name of Iskandar Zulkarnain still resonates most strongly is in the Minangkabau highlands of west Sumatra. The letters of an 18th-century royal minister were impressed with a seal inscribed Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, while the 17th-century Minangkabau prince Sultan Ahmad Syah, who fomented rebellion against the Dutch, used a seal inscribed Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah ibn zuriat Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah, descended from the seed of Iskandar Zulkarnain’ (Gallop 2019: 183-185). Even in the late 19th century, a sultan of Inderapura on the west coast of Sumatra bore the seal shown below which laid claim to the whole panopoly of Minangkabau kingship in its grandiose inscription: bi-'inayat Allâh al-‘Azim Syah al-Sultan Maharaja Alif Sultan Maharaja Dipang Sultan Maharaja Diraja ibn Sultan Hidayat Allah ibn Sultan Iskandar Dhu al-Karnain khalifat Allah fi al-‘alam johan berdaulat bi-‘inayat Allah marhum Syah, ‘By the grace of God, the Most Supreme One, Syah, Sultan Maharaja Alif, Sultan Maharaja Dipang, Sultan Maharaja Diraja, sons of Sultan Hidayat Allah, son of Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, vicegerent of God on earth, the champion endowed with sovereign power, by the grace of God, the late Syah’ (Gallop 2019: 178).

Seal of Sultan Firman Syah of Inderapura
Seal of Sultan Firman Syah of Inderapura, on a decree of 1888. British Library, EAP117/11/1/5

And indeed, one of the latest acquisitions for the British Library, a new publication in Malay on the history of Minangkabau, is entitled Minangkabau: from the dynasty of Iskandar Zulkarnain to Tuanku Imam Bonjol.

Book on Minangkabau
Minangkabau: dari dinasti Iskandar Zulkarnain hingga Tuanku Imam Bonjol, ed. Amir Sjarifoedin. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2020. British Library (shelfmark pending).

References:

MCP: references to Iskandar Zulkarnain in the Hikayat Amir Hamzah were sourced through the Malay Concordance Project created by Ian Proudfoot.

V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views. Leiden: KITLV, 2004.
Annabel Teh Gallop, Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia: content, form, context, catalogue. Singapore: NUS Press in association with the British Library, 2019.
Richard Stoneman (ed.), Alexander the Great: the making of a myth, co-editors Ursula Sims-Williams with Adrian S. Edwards and Peter Toth. London: British Library, 2022.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth is on at the British Library, 21 October 2022 - 19 February 2023

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.

 

24 December 2022

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 ortrait
Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own portrait. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, copied at Shiraz, 967/1560 (IO Islamic 133, f.349v)
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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 and the women of Harum
Iskandar's message is delivered to the women of Harum. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, Rajaur, Northern India, 1131/1719 (Add. MS 18804, f.122r)
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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.

Nushabah shows Iskandar his own portrait
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)
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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.”

The talisman and the Qipchak women
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)
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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.”[1] 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
Iskandar with Kanifu. From Ayinah-yi Iskandari (Iskandar's mirror) by Amir Khusraw, late 19th century (Add. Ms. 7751, f.167r)
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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,[2] 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.”[3]  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.[4] 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![5]

Iskandar visits the city of the pharoahs
Iskandar visits the city of the Pharoahs,  from Manuchihr Khan Hakim's seven-volume Iskandarnamah. Tehran, 1284/1867 (14783.h.4)
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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
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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.

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[1] Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers  (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), p. 7.
[2] 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).
[3] Minoo S. Southgate, “Portrait of Alexander in Persian Alexander-Romances of the Islamic era”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 97 (1977), p. 282.
[4] 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.
[5] Iskandarnamah, az Farang ta Hindustan, ed. A.R. Zakavati Qaraguzlu (Tehran: Sukhan, 1388/2009).

14 November 2022

Alexander, Meet İskender: Turkic Manuscripts on Alexander the Great

Two page spread from manuscript showing circular map in black, blue, gold, and red inks. Mecca is at its centre, with snaking bodies of water in blue and smaller gold-ringed circles identifying cities and countries. The map is covered in writing in Arabic script.
A map of the world taken from the Nevadirü'l-garâip ve mevaridü'l-acayip with the Wall of Gog and Magog in the bottom right quadrant, north-east of Istanbul. (Mahmud el-Hatip el-Rumi, Nevadirü'l-garâip ve mevaridü'l-acayip972 AH [1564-65]. British Library Or 13201 ff 2v-3r)
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In October, we celebrated the opening of the Library’s flagship exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. The show explores the depth and breadth of Alexander’s influence around the globe, both as a historical personage and as myth. It should be no surprise that his persona is far from uncommon in the Turkic manuscripts held at the British Library. After all, many Turkic peoples inhabit regions that were deeply impacted by Alexander’s military campaigns, and their creative output forms an integral part of broader Islamicate literary traditions.

A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in red ink.
The start of Ahmedi's İskendername as found in a (Ahmedi, Kitab-i İskendername1252 AH [1837 CE]. British Library Or 1376 f 1v)
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The most obvious place to start this investigation is with the İskendername or Iskendernāmah, Ottoman Turkish and Chagatai renditions of the more widespread Alexander Romance. Literally “The Book of Alexander” (İskender being the Turkish rendering of Alexander), it contains a mixture of historical fact and historicized myth. It takes as its source document the Shāhnāmah, the 10th century CE Persian Book of Kings. The poet Nizāmī Ganjavī is renowned for his creation of a standalone Persian version of the Romance based on the Shāhnāmah, but Turkic works are not necessarily translations of this 12th-century text. The most common Early Anatolian Turkish work, for example, was created by Taceddin Ahmet İbn-i İbrahim el-Ahmedi (an English stub is here) in the 1390s CE. Ahmedi was a member of the ulema during the reign of Sultan Bayezit I. He claimed to be inspired by Nizāmī, but that his own work was more than a mere translation of Nizāmī’s Iskandarnāmah. The British Library holds eight Anatolian Turkish İskendernameler, 6 of which can be identified as following from Ahmedi’s recension (Or 1376 , Or 7234, Or 13837, Add MS 7905, Add MS 7918, Harley MS 3273). The authorship of another recension has yet to be traced (Or 8699), while Or 11056 contains a mixture of Ahmedi’s version and unattributed additions. These might include extracts from Karamanlı Figani’s late 15th century recension, although further research would be needed to confirm this.

A single page from a manuscript with Arabic-script text above and below a painting in gold, light blue, navy blue, orange, pink, green, purple, red, and black. The painting has four individuals in robes, two of which are carrying a coffin on a bier. The coffin is elaborately illustrated in gold with a small dome and an arm waving out the side. The scene is atop a light-blue background with floral patterns and framed with a gold arch.
The coffin of Alexander as described in Navoiy's Sadd-i Iskandarî, with the deceased King's arm waving out the side of the vessel. (Alisher Navoiy, Ḥayrat al-abrār. 1006 AH [1598 CE]. British Library Add MS 7909 f 105v)
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The Alexander Romance also appears in the works Alisher Navoiy, perhaps the greatest name in Chagatai literature. A prolific poet and intellectual, and the central pillar of classical Chagatai literary history, Navoiy crafted a mesnevi entitled Sadd-i İskandarî, which is included in his Khamsa (Or 400, Or 16183, Add MS 7908). The mesnevi takes its name from the Gates of Alexander, purportedly built by the Macedonian monarch in the Caucasus to keep tribes from Gog and Magog out of his territories. The underlying Syriac tale is on display in the exhibition, but Navoiy’s mesnevi is based on Nizāmī’s work. While none of the British Library versions contain illustration, a copy of Navoiy’s Ḥayrat al-Abrār (the first of the five texts that make up Navoiy’s Khamsah) at Add MS 7909 does contain multiple illustrations. In one of the paintings, we see Alexander’s coffin (also featured in the current exhibition) carried by two servants with the King’s arm dangling out of it.

A single page from a manuscript with black ink Arabic-script text at the top two-thirds of the page, and a gold-inked circular labyrinth at the bottom centred around red-inked Arabic-script text.
A schematic drawing of the fortress of Qusṭanṭiniyah (Istanbul), established by Zulkarneyn, at the end of the description of his feats. (Nāṣir Rabghūzī, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā. 15th century CE. British Library Add MS 7851 f 178v)
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In various Islamic literary traditions, Alexander is often identified with Dhū al-qarnayn, or Zulkarneyn in Turkish orthography, a figure found in Surat 18 (Sūrat al-Kahf) of the Qur’an. It is in this form that we find him in some of the British Library’s other well-known Turkic holdings, particularly the Qisās al-anbiyā’. This work, originally ascribed to Ḥasan ibn Nāṣir al-Balkhī, contains the biographies of both prophets and kings, which explains Zulkarneyn’s inclusion. The British Library holds three complete or partial renditions of the Qisās, or Kısasu’l-enbiya, in Ottoman Turkish (Or 6372, Or 12815, Or 13020). By far, however, the best known of the BL’s Qisās ul-anbiyā’ copies is in a Central Asian Turkic language and found at Add MS 7851. Compiled in the 15th century and frequently referred to as the Rabghuzi, after the name of its author, Nāṣir Rabghūzī, the text is an essential source for the development of Turkic languages in the region. Rabghūzī himself states that he collected the work from various sources in the first decade of the fourteenth century CE, indicating the age of the underlying narrative. Zulkarneyn only gets twelve pages out of about 500 (ff 172v-178v), wedged between Jesus and the Asḥab al-kahf or Seven Sleepers, and ending with a schematic diagram of the fortress of Qusṭanṭiniyah (Istanbul) that he founded. The work hasn’t been digitized, but sections of it can be found on the Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts site. An abridged, later copy of the work can also be found at Or 5328, which is currently being digitized.

image from www.thedigitalwalters.org
Alexander the Great atop his black steed meeting the King of China. (Nevizade Atayi, Ḫamse-yi ʿAṭāʾī. 1133 AH [1721 CE]. Walters Art Museum, W.666 f 77r) 
CC Public Domain Image Rights held by the Walters Art Museum.

In 2019, I wrote about an illustrated copy of Nevizade Atayi’s Hamse that included homoerotic illustrations. As interesting as they might be, the images that accompany Atayi’s Heft Han aren’t the only reason to be drawn to the volume. One of the five poems contained in the work, Sohbetü’l-Ebkâr, or the Conversation of the Bachelors, includes a brief description of Alexander the Great’s march to China. Alexander never actually made it that far east, which gives us a clue to just how inflated the legends around him are. The British Library copy, sadly, doesn’t have an illustration of the ruler himself. Another volume, however, held at the Walters Museum in Philadelphia, does depict the Macedonian king at his legendary meeting with the King of China. In this painting, Alexander is atop a black steed and is adorned in a fur-trimmed gold coat with an elaborate crown.

A circular map of the world in black and red inks. The map is centred on Mecca identified by the black-inked Kaaba, with snaking bodies of water in red ink. Cities are identified by writing occasionally enclosed in black ink shapes. There is Arabic-script writing on the map.
A map of the world taken from the Tercüme-yi Haridatu'l-acayip with the Wall of Gog and Magog in the bottom centre, north-east of Istanbul (inside the fortified triangle). (Mahmud el-Hatip el-Rumi, Tercüme-yi Haridatu'l-acayip. 1047 AH [1637 CE]. British Library Or 7304 ff 3v-4r)
CC Public Domain Image

A final source worth mentioning doesn’t really mention Alexander at all. But just as he entered people’s imaginations of divine kingship, so too did the geography of his campaigns influence their conception of the world. Perhaps this is the reason that Gog and Magog ( Ye’cûc ve Me’cûc in Ottoman Turkish) can be found on some Ottoman maps from the 16th and 17th centuries. While the origins of Gog and Magog are older than those of the Alexander Romance, their placement on maps nevertheless had to accord with their appearance in the stories. In Or 7304 and in Or 13201, Ottoman Turkish translations of the Arabic cosmology Kharīdat al-ᶜajāᵓib wa farīdat al-gharāᵓib (خريدة العجائب وفريدة الغرائب), for example, the map of the world contains the Wall of Gog and Magog at the bottom. Given the orientation of the maps and the rest of their content, this places it to the north-east of Istanbul but west of Azerbaijan; somewhere in contemporary Ukraine, perhaps. Just as Alexander was matched to the listing of prophets and kings, so too were the signposts of his story factored into a reckoning of the world.

A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in black and gold ink.A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in black and gold ink.
The Dastan-i İskender from Nevizade Atayi's Hamse, recounting his meeting with the Emperor of China. (Nevizade Atayi, Hamse.1151 AH [1738 CE]. British Library Or 13882, ff 139r-v).

CC Public Domain Image

These are just a few of the examples of Alexander and the stories told of him found within the British Library’s Turkic-language manuscript collections. Their connections to Persian and other literatures gives us a hint of how İskender, or Alexander, formed one of many linkages between the literary traditions of Eurasia. For the full extent of the story, you’ll have to visit Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Luckily for you, it’s on until 19 February 2023.

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.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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23 September 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth

Readers may have noticed the new placards and billboards at the British Library announcing Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth which opens exactly four weeks today. Son of Philip II of Macedon and his wife Olympias, the historical Alexander was born in Pella, capital of Macedon in July 356 BC. By July 330 BC he had defeated the Persian army, becoming, at the age of twenty-five, ruler of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt and successor to Darius III, the ‘Great King’ of Persia. During the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to beyond the Indus river in the east – before his early death in Babylon aged thirty-two.

Alexander billboard

This exhibition, however, is not about history, but the first of its kind to explore 2,000 years of  storytelling and mythmaking. With objects from 25 countries in 21 languages, it shows how one figure could serve so many purposes, creating shared narratives of universal appeal. The Alexander Romance, composed originally in Greek in the third century AD, was at the heart of this storytelling. But legends also found their way into epic poetry and drama, and more recently into novels, comics, films and video games. You will see examples of all of these in the exhibition.

Out of approximately 140 objects, some eighty-six are from the British Library's collections. To give a taste of what’s in store, I have chosen to highlight a few of the thirty-eight exhibits from our own Asian and African collections.

A Christian Alexander
A Christian Alexander described as ‘enemy of devils’ heads this amulet scroll in the Ethiopian Ge‘ez language. Ethiopia, 18th century? (British Library Or.12859)
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The exhibition is arranged in six sections based around Alexander’s legendary life. After an introduction,  A Conqueror in the Making explores the different versions of Alexander’s origins, his education by the philosopher Aristotle and Bucephalus, his faithful warhorse.

Nahid is presented to Dara
Nahid, daughter of Philip of Macedon, is here married to the Persian emperor as part of a diplomatic alliance. Rejected on account of her bad breath, she was sent home, unknowingly pregnant, to Greece where she gave birth to a son, Alexander. This version of Alexander’s origins saw him, in Persian eyes, as the legitimate heir and successor to the throne. From the Darabnamah (Story of Darab), by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi, Mughal India, 1580–85 (British Library Or.4615, f. 129r)
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Aristotle instructs a pupil
Aristotle instructs a pupil in the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (On the Characteristics of Animals). Baghdad?, about 1225 (British Library Or.2784, f. 96r)
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Section three, Building an Empire, describes Alexander’s victory over Darius III of Persia and his expeditions further east to India and China — by the way Alexander did reach India but he never went to China!

Alexander comforts the dying Dara
Alexander comforts the dying Darius and agrees to his final requests in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (Book of Kings). According to one Persian tradition, Darius was in fact his half-brother. Isfahan?, Iran, 1604 (British Library IO Islamic 966, f. 335r)
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Or_12208_f318r_3000_1500Or_12208_f318r_3000_1500
In Kandahar, Alexander was persuaded by a beautiful priestess not to destroy the sacred statue. This copy of the twelfth-century poet Nizami’s Khamsah (Five Poems) was especially commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar who had conquered Kandahar in 1595 while this manuscript was still being copied. The painting would have deliberately invited comparison between Akbar, famous for his religious tolerance, and Alexander. Artists: Mukund and La‘l, Lahore, 1593–95 (British Library Or.12208, ff. 317v–318r)
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In a section on Alexander’s relationships, we introduce the important people in his life: his wives, the powerful women he encountered, his general Hephaestion and the eunuch slave Bagoas.

Alexander's wedding to Roxana
The wedding of Alexander and Darius’ daughter, Roxana. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah (Book of Kings), Qazvin, Iran, about 1590–95 (British Library Add MS 27257, f. 326v)
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The Mythical Quest is the most fantastical section. Here Alexander travels through strange lands inhabited by people with faces in their chests, sirens, griffins and dragons. His journey leads him to the ends of the earth, into the skies above and to the bottom of the ocean, always seeking new experiences and the key to immortality.

Coptic fragment of Alexander Romance
This Coptic fragment of the Alexander Romance describes Alexander setting off to explore the Land of Darkness. When a mysterious voice predicted his imminent death, he turned back bringing with him some objects he had gathered in the dark. These later turned out to be diamonds. Atripe, Upper Egypt, 14th century (British Library Or.3367/2)
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The final section, Journey’s End, describes Alexander’s return to Babylon and the mystery of his subsequent death. His body was transported on a magnificent carriage to Egypt, where it was eventually placed in a mausoleum at Alexandria. The tomb is now lost, but his final resting place is still a subject of debate.

Iskandar's funeral procession
This popular prose version of Alexander’s life reflects a Persian tradition. In accordance with his final wishes Alexander’s coffin was carried through his dominions with his arm hanging loose to show that he travelled to the grave empty-handed. From the Iskandarnamah (Story of Alexander) by Manuchihr Khan Hakim, Tehran, 1857–58 (British Library 14787.k.8)
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Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth opens on 21 October. It will be accompanied by a book of the same title. Edited by Richard Stoneman, it includes nine essays by leading scholars together with images and descriptions of the exhibition items. During the next few months we’ll be writing blogs about several of the items in the exhibition, and also some which we were not able to include. Meanwhile tickets are already on sale and may be booked on our Events page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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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.


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