Iskander, Alexander the Great in Persia

Many would be surprised-and may even be scandalized-to learn that one of the greatest exponents of the «Greek triumph,» the great conqueror Alexander the Great, had much more in common with the Persians he conquered than with the Greeks with whom it is usually associated with it. «Eskandar» or «Iskandar» would be the correct way to refer to Alexander the Great if we were speaking in Pahlavi, in Middle Persian.

The Western vision of Alexander the Great often establishes him as «the first crusader» who fought «ignorance of the East» and introduced in him the «Greek light» that the West has had, of course, throughout history. This could not be more wrong, as Professor Ali Ansari writes, since the Persians was not in the world simply for Alexander to conquer them. The influence of Hellenic language and literature has helped to maintain this topic, this half-truth, which portrays the Macedonian leader as the one who civilized the lands of Fārs.

But far from being a pit of darkness, Persia was a very interesting piece that annexed the great empire of Alexander the Great. His admiration for Persian culture and forms reached such a point that what he did was cover himself with the mantle of the King of Kings that Darío and Xerxes had worn before. And Hellenistic admiration for Persia, writes Ansari, came from far back in time. Xenophonte, the Athenian general and writer, wrote a panegyric to Cyrus the Great, the Cyropaedia, admiring his powerful personality and extolling his leadership skills, to lead without problems a territory as vast as the one he controlled.

Although it has its important place in the literature and history of Persia, Alexander the Great is notably remembered for his brutality and unconcern in the invasion and destruction of Persepolis. Especially the Mazdean or Zoroastrian priesthood took the brunt, according to Ansari, since the temples were destroyed and the sacred places, reduced to ashes. However, it is true that when Alejandro arrived in Pasargada, he regretted this display of violence and ordered the start of repair work, as Xerxes did years before, when he set fire to the Acropolis and destroyed Athens.

As we mentioned earlier, Alexander the Great has an important and widespread role in Persian literature. In addition to the weight derived from the conquest itself, there is that the tide of exchange between civilizations was dragging and sedimenting. William L. Hanaway, in his entry on the Eskandar-nāmeh of the Encyclopaedia Iranica, highlights several important aspects in this cultural process. Attributed to a certain Pseudo-Callisthenes, a story was written in Greece between the legend and the truth about Alexander’s life and achievements. This text was translated into Latin around the 4th century, and according to Hanaway at this time a Syriac version also appeared. How this version came into the hands of the Persians, is still uncertain. Perhaps there was a version in pahlavi that is now lost, as Theodor Nöldeke maintains, but this thesis is very much discussed.

There exist, writes Hanaway, two attitudes towards Alexander in the Persian literary tradition: those that have come through this translation of the Pseudo-Callisthenes keep him as a hero and a sage, with a very positive vision. However, the pahlavi sources that remain offer a much darker side to the historical character, pointing to it as a gujastak, a «cursed demon,» and comparing it with Żaḥḥāk and Afrāsīāb, among the worst enemies of the land of Iran.

However, it is true that probably by Sasanian influence the version that finally remained was that which portrayed Alexander as a great leader. These writings were the inspiration for many others in the Middle Ages of Persia. According to Haila Mantegui of the University of Exeter, the literary sources on Eskandar can be divided into two groups: those written in poetry, where we would find the Šāh-nāmeh of Ferdowsī and the Iskandar-nāmeh of Neẓāmī Ganjavī, and those written in prose, such as the anonymous Iskandar-nāmeh-ye Manthūr.

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