When Alexander reached the very edge of his vast new empire on the banks of the River Indus, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer. Having visited the British Library’s new exhibition on the great man, he might have saved his tears because the visitor can see, with their own eyes, the worlds that Alexander conquered went far beyond the borders of his Macedonian Empire. Medieval China, Tudor England and Louis XIV’s France are just a few that have come under his spell.
In this beautifully curated exhibition, there are books here of wondrous beauty as we see how Alexander’s achievements have echoed through the centuries. Perhaps the finest is from Iskandaranamah within the Khamsah (Book of Kings), by the great Persian poet, Nimazi. In this, a copy from late 16th century Pakistan in the time of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, the Macedonian ruler is presented as being embraced by the Iranians, so preserving the Zoroastrian religion. Many of the stunning texts that are presented are done in such a way as to showcase their artistic achievement, and that’s before one absorbs the Alexandrian aspect.
The Alexander Romance, which makes up the majority of the documents exhibited, gave many rulers the opportunity to present themselves as descended from Alexander, just as he had claimed descent from Zeus Ammon. Even Henry VIII was susceptible to its charms as he and his tutor referred to themselves as Alexander and Aristotle.
Alexander had a huge impact on later religions. He features heavily in the Qur’an which did much to secure his legacy in the medieval Middle East, and the aforementioned Zoroastrians presented him as a horned devil, destroying their temples and sacred scriptures. We even see a clip from Michael Wood’s 1998 documentary series In the Footsteps of Alexander, when in Iran, a wonderfully charistmatic re-enactor performs the Battle of Gaugamela (an astronomical diary recording the victory is at the entrance) and the death of Darius III at the hands of Alexander. Iranian children to this day are warned that if they don’t behave, ‘Iskander’ will get them.
As one moves towards the end of the exhibition, a large coat of armour dominates. It is that of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, and eldest son of James I. The intricate carving all over the ceremonial steel shows scenes from Alexander’s life. Quite the monarch to live up to, and which ultimately he was unable to, dying of typhoid at only 18.
The mystery as to where Alexander’s body ended up has fascinated for centuries. Initially residing in Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt, here we see a replica of his sarcophagus and Ubisoft (makers of Assassin’s Creed) has created a digital reconstruction that provides suitable atmospherics.
Who was Alexander the Great? Whilst we’ll never know the definitively, but this exhibition goes along way to answering that question.
Coming up as part of the Library’s celebration of Alexander, there are a series of events exploring his life in more detail. After last year’s Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, the British Library is clearly a driving force in detailed, compelling examinations of the past.
Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is at the British Library until Sunday 19th February 2023.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the editor of Aspects of History. Why not take out an annual subscription for under £9.99?