The origins of the myth of Alexander the Great in the Persian-Islamic world

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Alexander the Great, one of the most important men in the European world, becomes an almost prophetic figure in the Islamic world, so much so as to stimulate some of his greatest authors of all time. In this text we will discover the foundations of the legend of Alexander in the East, focusing on the “Alexander Romance” and on the holy Quran

The first universal man

The figure of Alexander the Great, so famous and renowned in the European world, enjoys a decidedly nobler and greater fame in the Islamic world, the place where myth was first merged with legend. The great Macedonian leader will in fact find himself reigning over much of what will become “Dar al Islam“, forever conditioning the imagination and going to insert various myths, some of which are even contained in the Quran. A figure so incredible that it has little to do with the magnificent but “ordinary” Alexander of history, carrying symbolisms still not fully explored today.

Between the Ottoman and Safavid empires, all of Alexander’s domains were part of Dar al Islam

However, to better understand the bases of the literature related to him, it is necessary to first analyze the bases: “The novel of Alexander” by Pseudo-Callistene and the holy Quran, specifically some verses of the 18th surah.

Alexander Romance

The first is certainly one of the most singular and influential texts of the Hellenic world, able to develop in a large part of the East and in Ethiopia, and to be the first to give life to the imagination that will accompany the great leader. Of the book, probably written between II and III A.D. in Greek, there are numerous variants, one of which gave rise to a version written in the Pahlavi language (now unavailable). The latter then gave rise to a version in Syriac which in turn was the basis of an Arabic translation and finally to an Ethiopian one, each of which carried within itself some differences.


The text is fundamental as it will be here that for the first time we will observe a “mythologized” Alexander, full of symbolic elements that make it even more unique than it was. For example, already in the Greek version, the leader is represented since his birth as a son of the East and the West. In the latter, in fact, it is told of how he was the son of Olympias, wife of Philip the Macedonian, and of an Egyptian magician-king, who would have possessed her through a spell. This story will then also be taken up by the Persian version, according to which, however, Alexander is the son of Olympias and the father of Darius III, who would have repudiated the pregnant lover of the great conqueror.


Another great aspect of this book, however, is the path taken by the leader, according to historians pushed up to India, which here will lead him to touch China and other wonderful places. Precisely this aspect will then lead him to merge with the Quranic tale of Dhul-Qarnayn, undoubtedly one of the most mysterious and fascinating.

The Two-horned, conqueror of God

According to a large part of Islamic exegesis, starting with Tabari, Alexander the Great would be the mysterious character called Dhul-Qarnayn mentioned in the 18th surah from verse 83 to verse 98. The latter presents himself as a sort of “conqueror of God “, a great man sent by the Divine to bring peace to every corner of the world. In the Quranic account, in particular, Dhul-Qarnayn will go first where the Sun sets (West), then where the Sun rises (East) and finally he will build an iron and bronze barrier with which he will separate Gog and Magog from the rest of the world ( all presumably to the North).


While Gog and Magog can be identified with enough certainty in the Turks and Mongols (although the interpretations are varied), the same thing is not so direct with regard to Dhul-Qarnayn and Alexander. This is because the name of the Quranic protagonist means “Two-horned”, a physical characteristic that is difficult to associate with a human being, but which in the Semitic world enjoys great significance; in fact, in pre-Islamic times, horns were a positive symbol of: strength, abundance, wealth and nobility. In Arabic, however, qarn does not only mean “horn” in the literal sense, but also “top” or “summit” and is sometimes used in a metaphorical sense to mean the “tops” of the world (East and West) or the concept of ” century”. It must be said that the first Abrahamic sacred text in which the Alexander-horns association appears is not the Quran but the Bible, in a really interesting episode.

Alexander in the Bible

In Daniel 8, in fact, the prophet will have a vision in which he will observe a two-horned ram of incredible power, which will then be struck to death by a goat with a single horn in the middle of the forehead; the latter will then drop the precious weapon, which will be replaced by smaller and less powerful horns. At this point Gabriel will intervene, who will explain the vision to Daniel:


19 He said: “I am going to tell you what will happen later in the time of wrath, because the vision concerns the appointed time of the end.[c] 20 The two-horned ram that you saw represents the kings of Media and Persia. 21 The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between its eyes is the first king. 22 The four horns that replaced the one that was broken off represent four kingdoms that will emerge from his nation but will not have the same power.

The text does not mention him nominally, but for any reader it will be extremely evident that the reference figure is the legendary Macedonian king and his Diadochi successors. With this biblical reference, it appears even more likely that the Quranic one actually means Alexander, a character no longer extraneous to a “horned” representation.

Premises of a great job

Before concluding, however, a very important aspect must be remembered, which will have a significant impact on the stories of Ferdowsi, Tabari and Nezami: the enemy defeated by Alexander is precisely the Persians. With the arrival of Islam, the idea about this character became much more positive, however the destruction he left in the country was never forgotten, which was again ruled by the Persians only with the Sasanids starting from 224 AD. . By the Zoroastrians, in particular, he was seen as a true antichrist, a direct emanation of Ahriman, the equivalent of Satan. Not surprisingly, in the Ârta Virâf Nâmak we read:

“It is said that in other times the holy Zoroaster had spread the Law received from Ormazd in the world. For three hundred years the Law remained pure and men kept the Faith. Then the accursed Ahrimân, the damned, to make men lose the Faith and respect for the Law pushed this accursed Alexander, the Greek, to come to the land of Iran to bring oppression, war and devastation there.


He came and executed the governors of the provinces of Iran. He sacked and destroyed the Kings Gate, the capital. The Law (the Avesta), written in gold letters on ox skins, was kept in the “fortress of writings” of the capital. But the perfidious Ahrimân led the evildoer Alexander and burned the books of the Law. He destroyed the wise men, the men of the Law and the wise men of the land of Iran.


He sowed hatred and discord among the great, so that, crushed too, he rushed to hell. When the men of the country of Iran no longer had kings, provincial governors, leaders, or men versed in the Law, their worries and dissensions divided them and they lost the Faith … ”

Taken from Carlo Saccone’s introduction to Nezami’s “Book of Alexander’s Fortune”

With these long premises, it is even more interesting to observe the representation given to Alexander by some of the greatest Persian authors of all time: Ferdowsi and Nezami, both lived in Islamic Persia and the subject of the next episode.

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