A 'Zealous Muslim' and a Hajji: Alexander the Great in the Islamic Tradition

Hakim abu Muhammad Ilyas bin Yusuf bin Zaki (known as Nizami Ganjavi). Eskander-Nama.

Kashmir, ca. 1800 / late 18th or early 19th century.

4to (23 x 15 cm). Persian manuscript on paper, executed in black ink within red- and blue-ruled borders in two columns, approx. 17 lines per page. (415) pp. on 208 ff., with gilt title ornament on p. (1). Bound in 18th or 19th century calf, rebacked in the late 19th century (?), with renewed spine lacking some material as well. Housed in a custom 19th century slipcase.


Full manuscript, complete in 72 titled stanzas and 6,866 verse couplets, of this celebrated Islamic biography of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). The colophon of the present manuscript states that it was composed in the Persian Year 570, i. e. 1202 AD, and we suspect that the present copy was executed in Northern India, probably Kashmir (where Alexander is said to have finally halted his campaign, dying soon after), in the late 18th or early 19th century. "The Alexander of the Persian romances is much more colorful than his Western counterpart [...] Nizami celebrates him first as a king and conqueror, then as a sage and a prophet. In 'Iskandarnamah', in addition to being a zealous Moslem, Alexander becomes an ardent lover with numerous wives and concubines" (Southgate, "Portraits of Alexander in Persian Alexander-Romances of the Islamic Era").

Islamic myths about Alexander the Great are thought to have derived in part from Qur'anic references to the "Dhu'l-Qarnayn" ("He of the Two Horns") as well as from the Greek sources in translation. "The principal episodes of the legend of Alexander, as known to the Muslim tradition, are elaborated in the [Eskander-nama]: the birth of Alexander, his succession to the Macedonian throne, his war against the Negroes who had invaded Egypt, the war with the Persians, ending with the defeat and death of Dara and Alexander's marriage to Dara's daughter, his pilgrimage to Mecca. Nezami then dwells at some length on Alexander's stay in the Caucasus and his visit to Queen Nushaba of Barda'a and her court of Amazons; this lady takes over the role of Candace in earlier versions of the Alexander saga. Alexander then goes to India and China. During his absence the Rus (i.e., the Russian Vikings) invade the Caucasus and capture Barda'a (as they in fact did some two centuries before Nezami's time) and take Nushaba prisoner. Alexander's wars with the Rus, which are depicted at considerable length, end with his victory and his magnanimous treatment of the defeated army. The [Eskander-nama] concludes with the account of Alexander's unsuccessful search for the water of immortal life" (Encylopaedia Iranica, Vol. VIII, pp. 612-614). Along the way Alexander's conquests of much of Central Asia and the pre-Islamic world are described: Dara (Syria), Ajam (near Kuwait), Kayan (Afghanistan), the Arabian Peninsula, Khorasan (Northern Iran), and so on.

Contents in good order and sound, with a handful of ancient paper repairs to margins throughout. Early (Urdu?) ownership inscriptions on endpapers as well as 19th century English inscription of flyleaf. Bookplate of James Henry Stone (1829-1908) on pastedown.

Manuscripts of the "Eskander-nama" are of great rarity on the market: we are aware of no other examples currently offered for sale, and the last we can find in auction records sold at Sotheby's in 1970 (consisting of just 97 ff).

Cf. Sprengler, A Catalogue of the Arabic, Persian and Hindústány Manuscripts Vol. 1, no. 422; Southgate, "Portraits of Alexander in Persian Alexander-Romances of the Islamic Era" Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 97 (1977), pp. 278-284.