The conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) changed the political shape of the world from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas. Every people with whom he came into contact turned him into a figure of legend: he had explored the ends of the earth, the oceans and the heavens, had fought with monstrous beasts, giants and pygmies, had left an enduring legacy of wise sayings, and – being a pupil of the great philosopher Aristotle – had even written treatises on astrology and magic. These legends were told in a variety of narrative texts, all of which trace their beginnings to one Greek book, which began to be assembled in Egypt within two generations of the conqueror's death: the Alexander Romance of Pseudo-Callisthenes.

Apart from its penetration of every language of medieval Europe, the Alexander Romance has its widest and deepest impact in the Persian language and in the Persianate world of medieval Central Asia. The earliest surviving texts are the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī and the Dārābnāma of Abū Ṭāhir Tarsūsī, but Alexander's story became the sole subject of works such as Niẓāmī's Iskandarnāma, Jāmī's Khiradnāma-yi Iskandarī, the Mirror of Alexander of Amīr Khusraw of Delhi (1253–1325) and the Wall of Alexander of the Chagatay poet Alī-Shīr Navā'ī (Alisher Navoi), now the national poet of Uzbekistan (1441–1501). He is also a point of reference in the classical lyric poetry of Persia, of Ḥāfiẓ and others.

Though Alexander's conquest of Persia and assumption of the Persian throne is a historical fact, the transmission of his legendary story from the Greek original, via the fifth century AD Syriac translation, to Persian literature has until now eluded explanation. Haila Manteghi's masterly exploration of the question shows for the first time what has been suspected but never demonstrated: that Pahlavi oral tradition played an important part in the centuries between the end of the Achaemenid Empire and the beginning of the epic tradition with Firdawsī – echoes of the Parthian Khudāynāmag can be found in Arabic and Persian writers even before Firdawsī. The question of the existence (or not) of a full Pahlavi translation of the Syriac is treated authoritatively.

In addition, Alexander was a significant figure in Arabic literature following his appearance in Sura 18 of the Qur'ān; his multifarious appearances in Arabic, especially in wisdom literature, also had an impact on Persian writing. Manteghi explores Alexander's importance for this wisdom literature and the mirabilia tradition. In addition, she provides a subtle analysis of the portrayal of the hero in the two great epic poems of Firdawsī and Niẓāmī, raising along the way such intriguing questions as whether Niẓāmī knew Greek.

This is by no means the end of the story, and the reverberations of the conqueror and prophet, sage and Sufi explorer and philosopher, continue through later Persian literature and constitute a major subject in medieval Persian painting. There is more to be said on all these matters, but all future research and criticism will build on what Dr Manteghi has demonstrated about the beginnings of the Persian Alexander.

Professor Richard Stoneman

University of Exeter


Firstly, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Professor Lynette Mitchell and Dr Leonard Lewisohn for their continuous support, patience, motivation and insightful comments on this book, which encouraged me to widen the scope of my research from various perspectives. I am especially indebted to Dr Lewisohn for the fine translation of verses that I have used in the study.

My greatest debt belongs to Professor Richard Stoneman, who is the main reason and the fount of inspiration for this study. He encouraged me to apply for doctoral study at the University of Exeter and supported my application. He kindly read the complete draft of this study and gave me invaluable comments and timely encouragement.

I would like to thank Professor Dr Norbert Hintersteiner at the University of Münster (Germany), where I currently work, for giving me the opportunity of being part of his academic team and allowing me the time to make the final touches to this book.

Last but not least, I would like to thank my family for supporting me all these years. Their guidance and comments have illuminated my path during this time. I owe them all so much that there are no words to thank them enough. Without them, I would not have reached where I am.

Introduction: A Review of Key Secondary Sources on the Alexander Romance


The dicta and exempla of Alexander,

 The tale of his exploits and of where he went

  Have so much been heard by men wide and far,

 His story now is known to all by heart.

Farrukhī Sīstānī (eleventh century)1

Although many of the great works of Greek literature remained unknown to the Muslims, some forms of Greek literature persisted and re-emerged in Arabic (and Persian) guise.2 One of the most influential works of the literature of late Greek antiquity, the Alexander Romance, attributed to the so-called Pseudo-Callisthenes, had a deep impact on the Persian world. This impact is mainly attested by popular romances, epic literature, heroic cycles and historical sources of the Islamic era. As indicated by the verses quoted above from the Persian court poet Farrukhī Sīstānī,3 by the eleventh century AD Alexander's story was so famous that it was known intimately and recited from memory. To give an example of the popularity of Alexander's story in the Persian tradition, it is worth mentioning that in Khāqānī's twelfth-century Dīvāns and Farrukhī's and ‘Unṣurī's eleventh-century Dīvāns alone, Alexander and his deeds are mentioned more than 30 times.4

Alexander as a literary figure is one of the most popular figures in Persian literature, and many books are dedicated to his stories. Unfortunately, all known versions of the legend of this great Greek hero were written down in the Islamic period in Arabic or Persian, as a result of which most are highly Islamised. However, it is still possible to detect and trace some of the pre-Islamic Persian stories about Alexander in these sources.

Because of the lack of pre-Islamic Persian sources, it is difficult to tell the extent to which these versions of the Alexander Romance actually reflect pre-Islamic traditions and history, or articulate later Islamic hagiographical biases. Almost all extant Pahlavi texts represent Alexander as a cursed figure who set fire to the holy scriptures of the Persians, razed their fire temples and generally destroyed the entire country; they thus view him as one of the greatest enemies of historical Iran. This negative vision further complicates the study of the Alexander legend in the classical Persian tradition. However, it should be recalled that the Persian kings dominated a vast territory that was home to many different ethnic and religious groups, each with their own languages and traditions, so this negative vision of Alexander in the Pahlavi sources, which primarily reflects the Zoroastrian tradition, is not always uniform. The heroic and historical traditions, which mainly present Alexander as a Persian king or hero, are reflected in later Arabic and Persian sources.

While the Greek and Latin literatures of the Roman Empire – the Persians’ main rival – were substantially preserved by later generations according to their own peculiar historical circumstances, Persian literature of the same period is almost completely lost. Middle Persian was displaced by Arabic after the Arab conquest, and for the next two centuries Arabic superseded written Iranian languages almost entirely. However, despite the lack of pre-Islamic literature in Middle Persian, some scholars have proven that a number of Greek books were first translated into Middle Persian during the Sasanian period and then translated from Middle Persian into Arabic during the early ‘Abbāsid period (from the second half of the eighth century AD to the early ninth century AD).5 Nearly all of the original Middle Persian versions have been lost along with most of that language's literature, but some survive in Arabic translation or in New Persian. Their survival in Arabic is, in fact, the only reason we know of the Middle Persian stage. In our search for texts in Middle Persian, these Arabic texts suffice to prove that some form of Middle Persian literature on Alexander existed.

Within this framework, the Persian Alexander tradition is an important but little-discussed component of the Persian literary tradition. Although the Alexander literature in Persian is part of a very widespread Arabic tradition, the latter itself belongs to a tradition developed in the Middle East and Central Asia, and consists of several branches. A great number of these branches are based on Syriac and Middle Persian sources. Therefore, the content of these different Arabic and Persian sources lies at a crossroads of two areas of investigation: that of the Syriac sources and that of Middle Persian literature, reflected in Arabic and Persian literature. The Syriac traditions on Alexander the Great played a fundamental role in the development of his legend in the Islamic world. For this reason, this book focuses on Syriac sources as well as the better-known Arabic and Persian texts.

Almost all Arabic and Persian sources that mention Alexander are based on the Pseudo-Callisthenes tradition. The first chapter of this book investigates the different hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the historical origins and different versions of the Pseudo-Callisthenes in Greek. The chapter also endeavours to set out the development of the Alexander Romance in Syriac sources to investigate which elements, from the various areas within the Alexander literary corpus, were influential in the Persian tradition.

Chapter 2 deals with Arabic historical sources that are supposed to be influenced by the Khudāynāmag (Book of Sovereigns) tradition. It explores evidence on the pre-Islamic Persian Alexander Romance and on traditions that point to the transmission of the work into Middle Persian, thus showing different hypotheses regarding the development of the Alexander Romance in the East. It is vital to establish each component part of this Alexander Romance that historians incorporated into their universal histories from the Khudāynāmag or from other Persian legends concerning Alexander the Great. There is no doubt that among the Arabic Alexander traditions there was an important Persian line of transmission of the seventh-century text, which was in circulation in territories that had belonged to the Sasanians before the Arab conquest. This book rebuilds the components of this Persian line of transmission by highlighting the similarities shared by the Romance with various Arabic histories – written by historians who were generally Iranian in origin or lived in eastern Iran, especially in Khurāsān – and juxtaposing these with accounts found in the Persian Shāhnāma of Firdawsī (from the tenth to eleventh centuries). All these sources treated the story of Alexander as a part of ‘Persian history’, an issue that is thoroughly explored in the second and third chapters. In this process, the story of Alexander in the Shāhnāma is a very important clue because it represents certain characteristics that have not survived in any other source, as we will see in the third chapter. Therefore, the Shāhnāma, as a representative of the Khudāynāmag tradition, will shed light on the development of the Romance in the pre-Islamic Persian tradition.

Chapters 4 and 5 are dedicated to the study of the first and second parts of the twelfth-century Iskandarnāma (Book of Alexander) of Niẓāmī Ganjavī, the Sharafnāma (Book of Honour) and the Iqbālnāma (Book of Fortune) respectively. In the Iskandarnāma, Niẓāmī compiled a large number of stories on Alexander from the Sasanian period. The poet of Ganja had already shown his knowledge of Sasanian literature in two other works: the Khusraw u Shīrīn (Khusraw and Shīrīn) and the Haft Paykar (The Seven Beauties), which deal with the adventures of two Sasanian kings, Khusraw II (r. 590–628) and Bahrām V Gōr (r. 420–38). The Iskandarnāma is thus a valuable work in the pre-Islamic Persian tradition on Alexander. Since there is almost no comprehensible translation of the Iskandarnāma in English, these chapters are inevitably descriptive. However, they are important because this is almost the first time that the Iskandarnāma has been studied deeply and in comparison with the Greek Alexander Romance in the English language. This study of the Iskandarnāma shows the great variety of fields and genres in which the Alexander Romance influenced the Persian tradition (mirabilia, wisdom literature and especially the ‘mirror for princes’ genre).

This book compares Greek, Syriac and Arabic sources with Persian sources in an attempt to establish the transmission line of the Alexander Romance from its earliest origins in Alexandria in the third century BC to its appearance in the Persian world in the tenth century AD (that is, in the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī). Apart from tracing the development of the Alexander Romance in the Persian tradition, this book reveals the Romance's influence upon various genres of classical Persian literature (historiography, epic, romance and mirror for princes), in both verse and prose.

Various studies have been dedicated to delineating the different varieties of the Alexander Romance in Persian literature, but this book is novel in several ways. Firstly, it shows that the negative perspective on Alexander in the pre-Islamic Persian tradition was just one of many views. Secondly, it demonstrates that the Alexander Romance was included in the Khudāynāmag, and that this is why Arabic historical accounts (such as Ṭabarī and Dīnawarī) and Firdawsī represented Alexander in the Kayānid's cycle. Thirdly, this book makes use of the latest material in Persian (published over the past three decades) in terms of critical editions of historical texts, scholarly monographs, encyclopaedia articles and recent academic research published in various journals in Iran and the West. Most previous studies of the legend and romance of Alexander were undertaken at a time when critical editions of many of the Persian sources studied here were still unavailable, existing only in manuscript form and so largely unknown to scholars. The main sources used in this book are the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī, the Sharafnāma and the Iqbālnāma of Niẓāmī, and the Dārābnāma of Ṭarsūsī. All these books have been compared with the Greek Alexander Romance, as well as with important Syriac and Arabic sources.

A Review of Key Secondary Sources on the Alexander Romance

One of the most interesting aspects of the Persian sources on Alexander the Great is their particular ‘Iranian’ standpoint, which seems to reflect the view of a conquered people remembering their conqueror.6 Most of the Persian sources were composed retrospectively many centuries later, and written down in the Islamic period. It is thus quite interesting to observe how, even after more than a thousand years, the memory of Alexander as a hero, conqueror and founder of a dynasty stubbornly persisted, being continuously retold and recast in the popular oral tradition, in historical chronicles and in literary accounts, both in prose and verse. The variety of Persian legends and stories about Alexander is proof of the great impact he had upon Persian culture. To understand this peculiar ‘Iranian’ image of Alexander found in Persian sources, it will first of all be helpful to provide an overview of the important recent scholarly research on the Persian versions of the Alexander Romance.

Recent studies on the Persian Alexander legends are almost as numerous as the various versions of the Alexander Romance (Iskandarnāma) themselves. The pioneer of studies of Persian accounts of the Alexander Romance in Iran was the late Īraj Afshār (d. 2013), who edited and published the anonymous Iskandarnāma-yi manthūr (The Book of Alexander in Prose),7 which probably dates from the fifth/thirteenth century AD.8 In the introduction to his edition of this text, Afshār explains the development of the Alexander Romance based on Nöldeke's theory of its transmission.9 Minoo Southgate's translation of Afshār's edition of the Iskandarnāma constitutes one of the first studies of Persian sources on Alexander in English.10 Southgate's work on the Romance also concentrates on the Iranian Islamic image of Alexander in the Persian tradition, providing a detailed analysis of the content, language and historical framework of this Persian Alexander Romance, briefly and succinctly comparing the portrayals of Alexander featured in various Persian accounts.11

Another Iranian scholar of similar calibre and importance to Afshār is the great literary historian Dhabīḥu'llāh Ṣafā, who edited the Dārābnāma of Abū Ṭāhir Ṭarsūsī (or Ṭarṭūsī). In his introduction to this text, Ṣafā briefly compares the content of Ṭarsūsī's Dārābnāma with the account of Dārā and Alexander given by Firdawsī in the Shāhnāma and, like Afshār, details the development of the Romance in the East based on Nöldeke's theory.12 Ṣafā belongs to the camp of Iranian scholars who reject the possibility of the existence of any positive image of Alexander in pre-Islamic Persia, an opinion that he expresses in various works.13 Ṣafā strongly advocates the view that Firdawsī's version of the Alexander Romance was not included in the Sasanian Khudāynāmag and was an independent work, incorporated into the Shāhnāma from an Arabic source; this is indeed the view of the majority of Iranian scholars.14

In the study of the development of the Alexander Romance in Persian tradition, the Dārābnāma of Ṭarsūsī occupies a very important place insofar as it preserves archaic, semi-mythological Iranian legends about Alexander that we cannot find in other sources because of the later Islamisation of Alexander's image. Furthermore, the text sheds valuable light on the process of reconstruction and the reception history of the Alexander legend in Persia.

The first scholar to detect these ‘Iranian’ characteristics in the Dārābnāma was William Hanaway. In his 1970 thesis on pre-Safavid romances, he contributed further to the study of this twelfth-century Persian prose romance.15 In particular he included the Dārābnāma in a comparative study of five pre-Safavid prose romances, all of which he termed ‘popular’. Concerning the Dārābnāma, this comparison mainly involved motifs relating to the Persianisation of Alexander in Persian literature. Hanaway's thesis was the first serious contribution towards the formulation of a basic knowledge of the contents of the Dārābnāma. He observed elsewhere that there was a relationship between Alexander and the goddess Anāhītā in the work.16

Three decades later, Marina Gaillard translated into French selections from the Dārābnāma, in the introduction to which she presented a valuable study of the development of the Alexander Romance in the Persian tradition. Gaillard posited that Alexander was introduced in the Khudāynāmag, although she did not analyse the possible portrayal of him presented in this Sasanian chronicle.17

Among other extensive studies on Alexander in Persian literature, the Persian monograph Alexander and Persian Literature and his Religious Personality (1985) by Ḥ. Ṣafavī deserves to be mentioned.18 This study is divided into four principal chapters that explore different aspects of Alexander in Persian literature from historical, literary, mythological and religious points of view. Ṣafavī summarises and compares stories and legends concerning Alexander the Great based on Firdawsī's Shāhnāma, Niẓāmī's Iskandarnāma and Arabic historical accounts. The main focus of Ṣafavī's chapter on the religious aspect of Alexander concerns his role in the Qur'ān as the Bicornous/Two-Horned One and prophet (Dhū'l-Qarnayn).

Another two excellent studies by Majd al-Dīn Kayvānī on Alexander's place in Persian literature are worth mentioning.19 Kayvānī examines the figure of Alexander as it appears in various versions of the Romance composed during the Islamic period. The novelty of his study lies in his analysis of the image of Alexander in Persian poetry, especially Sufi mystical poetry, and in the genre of the panegyric ode (qaṣīda). Kayvānī explores how different motifs from the Alexander Romance were used as similes and metaphors by various poets during their versification of the great deeds of a certain monarch, or while lamenting the transient nature of the world. His brief study on the different Persian Iskandarnāmas and their contents is also extremely useful.

The pioneer of the study of Persian versions of the Alexander Romance in Western languages was Yevgeni Edvardovich Bertels. In his Roman ob Aleksandre,20 Bertels examined the development of the Persian legend of Iskandar, incorporating into his study a detailed discussion of the contents of the important poetic renditions of the Romance by Firdawsī, Niẓāmī, Amīr Khusraw, Jāmī and Alī Shīr Navā'ī. Unfortunately, he wrote his study before important works such as the Dārābnāma had been discovered. Not only does Bertels's study explore the different sources and versions of the legend of Iskandar in classical Persian poetry, it also offers a brief survey of different aspects of Alexander's image, such as his religious portrayal as Dhū'l-Qarnayn in the Qur'ān and his depiction in Persian adab literature.

Similarly, it is well worth mentioning the work of Faustina Doufikar-Aerts, who in Alexander Magnus Arabicus produced a valuable study of Alexander in Arabic literature and history.21 She explores different aspects of the personality and legend of Alexander in the Arabic tradition, detecting four principal branches: the Pseudo-Callisthenes tradition, wisdom literature, portrayals of Alexander as Dhū'l-Qarnayn and the Sīra tradition (popular romances). Alexander Magnus Arabicus is a valuable contribution to the subject, covering the Alexander tradition through seven centuries. Nonetheless, such a study remains incomplete without considering the legacy of pre-Islamic Persian sources on Alexander in Arabic historical accounts of the ninth and tenth centuries of the Islamic era. Doufikar-Aerts regards possible texts derived from Pahlavi intermediaries as being outside the scope of her research, and affirms that ‘Middle Persian influence appears to play no role in the romances of the Arabic Pseudo-Callisthenes tradition’.22 However, this book will show that the study of the Persian Alexander tradition – especially that of the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī and the Dārābnāma of Ṭarsūsī – sheds light on the development of the Alexander Romance and indicates the legacy of pre-Islamic Persian sources in the Arabic tradition on Alexander.

This book demonstrates that there is indeed a Persian line of transmission in the Arabic Pseudo-Callisthenes tradition through Middle Persian sources. This line of transmission from Greek to Syriac, Arabic and Persian can be clarified and exposed by analysis of the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī, the Dārābnāma of Ṭarsūsī and the Iskandarnāma of Niẓāmī, besides taking into consideration the Middle Persian background of the Arabic materials. In this respect, examining the case of the so-called Pahlavi translation of the Pseudo-Callisthenes both complements and completes some of Doufikar-Aerts's conclusions. It is clear that Iranians displayed a particular interest in the life of Alexander and that this Pahlavi version must have influenced the compilation of the Khudāynāmag. This account influenced the early literary tradition in the Muslim world, and indirectly later on, Firdawsī's compilation of the Shāhnāma.

However, Jalāl Khaleghi-Motlagh believes that the Pahlavi translation of the Pseudo-Callisthenes is an independent work that was translated into Arabic in the Islamic period. He also believes that the legend of Alexander was not included in the Sasanian Khudāynāmag in the same form as it can be seen in the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī,23 but he does not clarify what form Alexander's story might have taken in the pre-Islamic Persian sources. He affirms that the authors of the Shāhnāma of Abū Manṣūr added the story to the work through this Arabic version based on a Pahlavi translation of the Pseudo-Callisthenes, following Nöldeke's hypothesis, and that it was through this source that the legend of Iskandar entered the Shāhnāma of Firdawsī.24 However, a study of the legend of Alexander in the Shāhnāma (see Chapter 3) will show the complex structure of Firdawsī's account, which is derived from various sources. This was a key account that received and transmitted much of the considerable pre-Islamic literary influence, in particular the influence of the Pseudo-Callisthenes tradition.

This book will discuss the possible Middle Persian source of Firdawsī, considering all the theories mentioned here. Until now, this subject has not been adequately explored, as little has been written on the Persian Alexander tradition, both in terms of content (stories, motifs, the profile of the hero and general concepts concealed in the narrative) and in terms of a failure to connect materials with the periods in which they were compiled. This book will address both of these areas, emphasising literary connections between the Greek Pseudo-Callisthenes tradition and the Persian versions, and analysing themes regarding the internal construction and folk elements of the Persian versions of the Alexander Romance.



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