Bad History and Ancient Globalization

Earlier, I mentioned that the Sekandar character in Shahnameh was none other than Alexander the Great, and to a large extent the analog holds. There are, however, some interesting anachronisms in Ferdowsi’s text. This is to be expected if you recall that Shahnameh is not a faithful historical document, but instead serves other, more allegorical purposes. Indeed, in earlier parts of the epic, the mists of time obscure familiar reference points such that they just don’t matter that much. But as the story has progressed inevitably toward a time with better-corroborated historical records, the correlation of events separated by centuries starts to raise eyebrows.

Consider the following passage in which Sekandar, upon having visited the Andalusian queen Qaydafeh while he was disguised as his vizier, Bitqun, promises not to conquer Andalusia:

Seeing Qaydafeh on her throne, Sekandar said, “May the planet Jupiter accompany your deliberations. I swear by the Messiah’s faith, by his just commands, by God who is a witness to my tongue, by our rites and by our great cross, by the head and soul of your majesty, by our vestments, our clergy, and the Holy Ghost, that the soil of Andalusia will never see me again, that I shall send no army here, that I shall not seek to deceive you, that I shall do no harm to your loved son, neither through my commands or by my own hand.”

Here, then, Ferdowsi has depicted Alexander the Great as a Christian king. On the one hand, ascribing a religion to a historical figure regardless of whether s/he practiced that religion is not terribly uncommon. On the other hand, this is usually done by members of the religion that has been ascribed, as in the case of Beowulf and the Christianized Anglo-Saxons who wrote down his epic. Writing as late as 1010 CE, Ferdowsi composed Shahnameh nearly 400 years after the birth of Islam and the Muslim Conquest of Persia. Throughout the work, Ferdowsi writes about pre-Zoroastrian and Zoroastrian religions through a primarily Muslim lens, and later turns that lens on the anachronism that a Christianized Alexander the Great represents.

I think what surprised me most about this depiction is that Alexander the Great pre-dated the birth of Christ, and therefore the advent of Christianity, by a couple of centuries. This is not a case like Beowulf, in which Christian authors are examining an era containing both Christians and pagans. This is something else entirely. An 1854 article by Justin Perkins and Theodore D. Woolsey, appearing in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, suggested that Ferdowsi was importing his Alexander myth from the Greeks themselves, but, writing as he was at a time when the only examples of Greek rulers he had were Byzantine, he made Alexander a Christian.

Also note the particular language of the oath. This doesn’t look like any kind of oath I’ve seen from a Christian, which makes me think it comes from Ferdowsi’s lens. Since I can’t claim to have a broad experience of Christianity in all its forms through history, I could definitely be uninformed on this one. Still, I find it curious.

The episode itself is out of time as well, as the queen in question, Qaydafeh (also Qidafa) is hard to place anywhere but, perhaps, the Kingdom of Kush, in modern Sudan, in which case this name seems to be a Persian transliteration of Kandake or Candace. Anyway, like the problems with Christianizing Greece prior to the rise of Christianity, Andalusia itself isn’t a recognized place name until the the Umayyad conquest of the region in ca. 715, a thousand years after the death of Alexander the Great.

Again, this sort of thing seems to have arisen out of Ferdowsi’s devotion to the art of myth-weaving rather than strict historicity, as well as the sources to which he had access and the civilizations with which he was familiar. That we can compare his output to other sources is a testament to the availability of historical record more than anything else.

Ancient Globalization

What Ferdowsi doesn’t get wrong, however, is the contiguousness of the empires along what would come to be known as the Silk Road. At the height of his power, Alexander’s imperial reach extended as far north and west as the Balkan Peninsula, as far south as Egypt, and as far east as the Indus River and Western China, encompassing the former Persian Empire and then some. Intense civilizational pressures had already rendered this space somewhat traversible, eventually producing well-maintained roads, the first of which was the Persian Royal Road (itself the product of earlier road networks). This traversibility is undoubtedly a reason behind the scale of the empires it produced, as good roads made for easier governance of far-flung peoples. The eventual Silk Road began coalescing under Greek expansion eastward.

In any case, Ferdowsi offers up another scene, which I found curious both in terms of the interconnectedness of the ancient world (a clear precursor to modern levels of globalization) and the warping effect of muliple religious lenses applied to a distant religion. The episode is that in which Sekandar travels to India to meet with some wise men (Brahmins) he has heard about. What we get as a result is a Persian Muslim view of a fictionally Christianized Greek’s reception of ancient Hindu wisdom. These bits of wisdom offer up a slight contrast to the text’s previous sensibilities:

An ambitious man struggles to gain something that is not worth the effort he has put forth, and then he passes from the world while his gold and treasure and crown remain here. Only his good deeds will accompany him, and his head and glory will both return to dust.


[W]hy do you long for the world in this way, why do you breathe in the scent of this poisonous flower so eagerly? All you will receive is suffering, while your enemies will inherit the wealth you acquire; to make oneself suffer for another’s profit is the act of an ignorant man or a fool.

Up to this point, the characters have been concerned mostly with the vicissitudes of fate under the invisible hand of what, on the surface, looks like a pretty capricious god. Building up treasure is an occupation that retrospectively indicates God’s favor, something like modern Prosperity Gospel, and, furthermore, makes one’s life more comfortable in the here and now. At times, characters have mentioned rewards after death, but this doesn’t seem to be a major preoccupation in the first half of the text. Therefore a good deal of effort goes into wealth building, and the religious ideals seem to have supported it. This passage appears to refute such ideals.

The best explanation I can think of for why Ferdowsi inserts this episode (assuming it didn’t come from one of this sources) is that it serves as foreshadowing for the fate of Alexander’s empire, which he would leave without a legitimate heir upon his untimely death at age 32. The Persian portion of the empire was ruled thereafter by the Hellenistic Seleucid Dynasty, whose empire declined in fits and starts as encroachment from the east (Punjab, etc.) and the west (the Romans) destabilized it.

Since I have yet to see just how Ferdowsi approaches the death and succession of Sekandar, I have little evidence to support this hypothesis, and will have to wait until I get a little further in the reading to find out if there is any truth to it.

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