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21 October 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is now open

The British Library’s new exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, open until 19 February 2023, invites visitors on a mythical journey across time and space. Following in the footsteps of one of the most famous figures of the ancient world, you'll encounter the many lands and legends of Alexander the Great.

DeAlexander sitting crossed legged on a throne as his bride stands in front of him

The Marriage of Alexander the Great, Firdawsi, Shahnamah, Sultanate India, 1438: Or 1403, f. 318r

Visitors to the exhibition will witness Alexander’s mysterious conception involving snakes and dragons, and will attend his birth surrounded by ominous portents of an exceptional career and a life of unparalleled adventures. The stories of Alexander’s origins are revealed through ancient objects and lavishly decorated medieval manuscripts, including the famous Talbot-Shrewsbury Book from the 15th century. This luxurious collection of legends, made for a royal patron, Margaret of Anjou (the future wife of King Henry VI of England), contains some of the most evocative illustrations of Alexander’s adventures.

The left hand image shows a man kneeling before a woman. The right hand miniature shows a couple in bed together

Alexander’s conception from Nectanebo the magician, who convinced Olympias, Alexander’s mother, that a god in the shape of a dragon would visit her in her sleep, but it was in fact he who came to her bed and fathered Alexander; in the Roman d’Alexandre en Prose, the Talbot-Shrewsbury Book, Rouen 1444–45: Royal MS 15 E VI , f. 6r (detail)

Becoming the ruler of Macedon at the early age of 20, Alexander soon conquered the Balkans, marching on to attack his arch- enemy, the Persian Empire under King Darius III. After a series of battles, the two opponents faced each other in a final confrontation at Gaugamela in modern-day Iran. The battle, described in Persian poetry as a war of 'ants and locusts', inspired authors and artists across the world from the medieval West and the Middle East to the Caucasus. A strikingly dramatic representation is shown in one of the gems of the exhibition: the richly decorated Armenian version of Alexander’s legends from 1544, on generous loan from the John Rylands Library, Manchester.

A depiction of Alexander with a golden sword riding a horse A depiction of Darius III of Persia riding a horse while carrying a spear

Alexander (left) facing Darius, the Persian Emperor (right), from the Armenian Alexander Romance, Constantinople, 1544, John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester: Armenian MS 3, ff. 43v–44r

After defeating the Persians at the battle of Gaugamela, Alexander marched further east. In one of his greatest military successes, he defeated the elephant-army of King Porus of India, and conquered today’s Punjab. This victorious battle is represented on an exceptional treasure, probably from Alexander’s lifetime or not much later. Known as the Porus Medallion, this silver medal, on loan from the British Museum, commemorates this triumph with a rare representation of Alexander attacking a war elephant.

The Porus Medalion. Coin showing a horse rider chasing after and elephant and rider

Alexander (left on a horse) and the bearded Porus, king of India, (right on an elephant), The Porus Medallion, Babylon(?), c. 323BC, © Trustees of the British Museum 1887,0609,1.

Alexander is famous for his desire to know and see more than anyone before him, and the legends take him beyond India to explore the marvels and wonders of the unknown realms of the world. The exhibition follows him on these fabulous journeys, as he faces giants and cannibals, fantastic beasts and monsters. We see Alexander taming the mythical griffins who will carry him to explore the sky in a flying machine. An unusual representation of this scene, on loan from the V&A, shows Alexander’s flight in exquisite metalwork, possibly from a 12th-century altar or cross.

Alexander seated in a carriage of pulled by two blue griffins. He holds a spear of meat above their heads

Alexander exploring the sky in a carriage of griffins, The Rolls Plaque, Liege 1150–1160, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, M.53-1988

Traversing the wonders of the East, our visitors will accompany Alexander as he consults the talking Trees of the Sun and Moon about his future. They'll follow him as he reaches Paradise but is refused admission, turning back towards Babylon to be crowned king of the world. Here we see the celebrations interrupted by bad omens. One of these is beautifully represented in a 700-year-old Persian manuscript, the earliest illustrated copy of the great Persian poet Nizami’s epic about Alexander, loaned by the Chester Beatty in Dublin.  A terror-struck Alexander examines a still- born child that is half-beast, half-human, an ominous sign that predicts his imminent death.

Alexander is seated in the middle of a crowd, He is being shown a child that has dog ears and a tail

Alexander examining the portentous child, Firdawsi, Shahnamah (Book of Kings): The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Per. 104.49

The omen was reliable: a few days later Alexander was dead. Some legends claim he was poisoned, others blame malaria and, according to new research, he may have died from alcohol poisoning. Whatever the truth, he did not rest even in death. After a fierce debate over his final resting place, Alexander's generals agreed that his body should be carried home. On the way to Macedon, his general Ptolemy hijacked the sumptuous funeral procession and took Alexander’s coffin to Egypt.

A coffin, upon which a crown is place, is carried by three men while onlookers argue

A Roman and a Persian debate the final destination of Iskandar’s coffin as it is carried from Babylon, from Fidawsi, Shahnamah, Ishafan 1640: IO Islamic 3682, f. 344

Reaching Alexandria, Egypt’s new capital founded by Alexander, Ptolemy built a magnificent tomb for the king. Although it served as a pilgrimage site for centuries, the tomb had mysteriously disappeared by the 5th century AD, never to be found again ... or had it?!?

We invite you to find out for yourselves by visiting Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Book your tickets now.

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.


Peter Toth

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