Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great

Alexander Meddings - October 22, 2017

Most people are familiar with the historical exploits of Alexander the Great. After unifying Greece, he set about defeating the declining Persian Empire and conquering lands to the East, marching to the ends of the known world as far as the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan. As a military tactician, he inspired the likes of Caesar, Hannibal, and Napoleon. As an imperialist he lay the groundwork for the Romans, who sought to replicate his feats while avoiding his failures (Alexander’s failure to consolidate his empire resulted in hundreds of years of civil war after his death).

Fewer people, however, know about the legendary Alexander. This Alexander was less the great general and more the philosophical protégé of his tutor Aristotle. He dived to the depths of the ocean in a glass bell, searched for the elixir of life, and debated philosophy with naked ascetics. He was also a religious figure, a key character in many Jewish, Christian, and Islamic writings as a prophet, a sacred hero, and a messenger of God.

The legendary Alexander has had just as much, if not more, currency throughout the history of the last 2,000 or so years than the historical one. And traces of him can be found in some unexpected places: from the Old Testament to the Qur’an to philosophical texts and adventure novels of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Here are nine of the most surprising.

Alexander in the Old Testament

Alexander’s occupation of the Levant was marked by brutal violence. He spent seven months between January and August 332 BC besieging the city of Tyre. Having finally subjugated it, he had around 3,000 of the city’s defenders crucified on its beach. He then moved onto the Gaza, and after capturing the city he ordered for hooks to be dug into the ankles of the man who had commanded its defense. In imitation of Achille’s mythological desecration of Hector’s corpse, the Macedonian king then had the unfortunate commander tied to his chariot and dragged to his death.

After subduing Gaza, Alexander departed the region and moved on to Egypt. But in 331 the Samaritans rebelled, burning alive the Macedonian satrap he had installed in the province. The king returned to the Levant to take vengeance. He hunted down and executed the leaders of the revolt before trapping other participants in a cave in Wadi Daliya and suffocating them with smoke.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
The horn, as depicted on this contemporary coin, stresses Alexander’s divine parentage as the son of the horned god Zeus Ammon. Quora

Because Alexander’s barbarity left a lasting legacy, it’s little surprise that they appear in some of many of the scriptural texts composed in the area. The Macedonian king appears several times in the Old Testament, firstly in the First Book of Maccabees (1:1). Written in about 103 BC, it describes how Alexander “captured fortified towns, slaughtered kings, traversed the earth to its remotest bounds, and plundered innumerable nations” before going on to moralize how his “pride knew no limits.”

The Macedonian monarch also appears, allegorically rather than by name, in the Book of Daniel (8.5-8, 21-22), a text written around 165 BC. The passage in question narrates the Greek conquest of Persia. It describes a “he-goat from the west” who appears in the area and, in a great rage, charges at a “two-horned ram”, knocking it to the ground and trampling it to death.

That the he-goat represents Alexander (and the two-horned ram Darius II) is clear for two reasons. Firstly, the Book of Daniel mentions a prominent horn between the he-goat’s eyes. Even during his lifetime, Alexander was often depicted with horns, owing to the fact that he claimed his father was not Philip but the horned god Zeus Ammon. Secondly, the prophecy ends with the goat becoming “very great” but his horn breaking off at the height of his powers—a metaphor for the Macedonian’s premature death in Babylon at the age of 33.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Alexander Romance. Bensozia

The “Alexander Romance”

Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC. His cause of death was (and still is) unknown, with theories ranging from poison, liver sclerosis, or tropical disease such as typhoid or malaria. What is known is that his body had barely began to go cold before legends started springing up around his incredible career. This was to be expected; he had achieved the unimaginable in bringing down the once great Persian Empire, traversing the limits of the known world, and spreading Hellenic (Greek) culture as far as the Hindu Kush in northern Pakistan—all before the age of 33.

Just as Alexander’s historical achievements captured the imagination of his successors, so too did his legendary and mythical ones. These were collected in a work known as the “Alexander Romance” around the third or second century BC. Countless versions of the Romance were copied and recopied throughout the coming centuries, making it the most widely-read work of antiquity after the Bible. It was translated into scores of languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Armenian and Syriac, not to mention the European vernaculars of the Middle Ages (French, German, English, Spanish etc).

In the Alexander Romance, the Macedonian ascends to the heavens in a basket borne by eagles and descends to the depths of the ocean in a glass bell. He converses with talking trees, fights two-headed beasts, and debates with naked philosophers. In later, religiously-influenced translations, he even takes on the role of a sacred hero, converting to Judaism or Christianity and carrying out God’s will as a “defender of men” (appropriate, given that the name Alexander or Ἀλέξανδρος in Greek means precisely that).

Alexander’s appearance in the Romance is also the stuff of fantasy. Far from the image of the handsome, wavy-haired king that’s come down to us from historical images (coins, statues etc.), the legendary Alexander looks something like a feline vampire. We are told he had the hair of a lion, one blue eye and one heavy-lidded black eye, and teeth as sharp as fangs.

We don’t know who the author of the Alexander Romance was. But we have some clues. Instead of Philip II, it identifies the great Macedonian’s father as the last Egyptian pharaoh of the Thirteenth Dynasty Nectanebo II, who tricks Alexander’s mother, Olympias, into sleeping with him by magically assuming the form of the god Amun. This patently false paternity story suggests the Romance may have been of Egyptian (Alexandrian) origin, intended to legitimize Alexander’s conquest of the region as the legitimate pharaoh rather than a foreign conqueror.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great

Medieval depiction of Jaddus and the other priests coming out to meet Alexander. Jewish Currents

Alexander’s Visit to Jerusalem

Despite Alexander’s many transgressions in the Middle East, a distinctly positive (and completely fictional) story emerged soon after his death which placed him at the heart of Jewish sacred history. Probably originating from the Jewish community of the Egyptian capital of Alexandria, it first appears in the writings of the first century AD Jewish/Roman historian Josephus. It’s important to note that there’s no historical evidence the Macedonian monarch ever went to Jerusalem. But this didn’t stop a number of stories from emerging.

Several versions of the story exist, spanning the first to the tenth centuries AD. But the main details are consistent. The Jewish High Priest Jaddus has a dream in which God tells him a great conqueror is approaching the city. God instructs him to go out with the other priests from the Temple dressed in their finest robes and greet him on Mt. Scopus. As chance would have it, Alexander has also recently had a dream in which the same God told him to kneel before those he would meet in such robes.

This is exactly what Alexander does, and after supplicating himself before Jaddus and the other priests, he enters the Jewish Temple. There he is shown the Book of Daniel (written, in fact, long after Alexander’s lifetime), which prophecises his conquest of Persia. Another Jewish story exists in which the Macedonian mediates over a dispute over citizenship between the Jews and the Samaritans, eventually ruling in favor of the former. Historically there was a dispute about the statuses of their respective temples in Jerusalem and Mt. Gerizim, but it belongs to the second century BC—200 years after Alexander’s death.

At first glance, why the Jewish community in Alexandria would have wanted to invent this story is a mystery. But it begins to make sense when you think about their political situation. After emigrating from Palestine, they set themselves up in Alexandria but had few rights. In an appeal to the rulers of Egypt—the Ptolemies, descendants of Alexander’s bodyguard, Ptolemy—they created a story linking them to the city’s founder, Alexander. In doing this, they lent a great deal of legitimizing credibility to their cause.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Scene from the story of Dhul-Qarnayn. Wikimedia

Alexander in the Qur’an

It’s well known that early Islam incorporated many figures from the Judeo-Christian tradition into its scripture. The most famous example is Jesus Christ, who appears in the Qur’an not as the Son of God but as the penultimate prophet, sent by Allah as the precursor to Muhammad. What’s less well known is the fact that one of the ancient world’s most famous pagans, Alexander the Great, also features in the Qur’an. It’s not under his own name however but under the name Dhul-qarnayn.

In Arabic, Dhul-qarnayn means “the two-horned one”, and we should remember that the historical Alexander depicted himself with horns to stress his paternity from the horned god Zeus Ammon. Dhul-qarnayn’s first appears in the Qur’an in Sura 18 (94-98). The passage speaks about Dhul-qarnayn’s enclosure of Gog and Magog—the Unclean Nations—behind a manmade wall.

Throughout history, Gog and Magog have essentially represented whoever the enemy at the gates happened to be at the time—so for Christians, Gog and Magog represented Muslims; for Muslims, they represented Christians and so on… They first appeared in the Old Testament, in Genesis, Ezekiel and Revelation, locked away to one day be defeated by the Messiah, thus ushering in the Apocalypse. Over time, stories and literary traditions became confused over who they were and who built the wall, by the fourth century AD the person responsible for building a wall to shut them away had come to be identified as Alexander.

Bearing in mind the Qur’an was composed another 400 years after Alexander made his way into the story of Gog and Magog and it makes sense why Alexander (or rather “Dhul-qarnayn”) should have been the one to build the wall. But this isn’t where his story ends. There was also an Islamic tradition around Alexander as a wise man, a philosopher, and a lover of music. This was mainly inspired by Alexander’s (very real) historical relationship with Aristotle, his tutor, as the famous Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun (1333 – 1378), pointed out.

He tells us that when the Muslims conquered Persia, they destroyed many Persian texts. Later finding they needed the wisdom contained within these lost texts, the Umayyad rulers were forced to turn to Greek texts. Aristotle was one of the great figureheads of Greek intellect, as by this stage was Alexander by association. And this explains why Alexander was so easily adapted into Islamic legend as a wise, pious, and religiously converted philosopher-king.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Alexander (Iskandar) as he appears in Firdawsî’s “Shahnameh”. Payvand News

The Prince of Persia

It might come as a surprise that, despite the fact that he conquered their nation, the great Alexander was just as important a figure in Persia as he was in the West. Sure having been conquered by the Macedonian was somewhat embarrassing. But there was a way to get around the problem. The Persians fabricated Alexander’s ancestry to make him a legitimate Persian ruler: not the son of the Macedonian king Philip II by a royal descendant of the Persian Achaemenids.

Alexander appears in many works of Persian literature. But his most important appearance came in Firdawsî’s eleventh century “Shahnameh” or “Book of Kings”—the world’s longest epic poem composed by a single author. According to Firdawsî, Alexander—or Iskandar as he’s called in classical Persian—was the progeny of the Persian king Darius II and the daughter of Philip of Macedon. Marital issues mean Philip’s daughter is forced to flee to Rome where she gives birth to Alexander. Thus when he ultimately returns to Persia as a conqueror, he’s not the conqueror but the legitimate ruler.

Having established himself on the Persian throne, Alexander sets off on his adventures. His adventures aren’t just about military conquest, however, as they were in the historical record. Instead, they are quests for wisdom and knowledge. He battles his enemies, dispenses justice, and adopts local customs and cultures. He also memorably meets a group of naked philosophers (more on whom later) and discusses with them the brevity of life and the ultimate futility of power.

Approaching the end of the known world—in a story that by now should be becoming familiar—he encounters a terrorized population living at the foot of the mountainous nation of Gog and Magog. They are constantly being attacked by these terrifying marauders, who have the faces of camels, black tongues, and red eyes. So Alexander agrees to help. He assembles blacksmiths and masons and has them construct a giant wall to hold Gog and Magog at bay from civilization.

Finally, Alexander comes across a talking tree with two heads; one male that speaks during the day of terrifying things, and one female that speaks sweetly at night. Both prophesy that Alexander will soon die, “in a strange land, with strangers standing by”. Though obviously legend, this ties in with history. And Alexander does soon die in Babylon, ending this section of Firdawsî’s epic.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Medieval illustration os Alexander meeting the cynic philosopher Diogenes. Eric Gerlach

Alexander and Diogenes

The meeting of the regal Alexander and the Cynic philosopher Diogenes is one of the most popular stories in philosophical history. Versions of the event span antiquity all the way through the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, told by writers from Plutarch to Shakespeare. The amount of attention given to the meeting is even more staggering when you consider that it historically never happened.

Diogenes was one of the ancient world’s most controversial figures. A strict adherent to the philosophical school of Cynicism (cynic, in Ancient Greek, means “dog-like”), he embraced a life of total self-sufficiency. This involved the rejection of societal values and aspirations—which the Cynics believed ran in opposition to nature—in favor of a life revolving around doing exactly what you want—which they believed ran in accordance with nature.

Diogenes took this to extremes. He flouted almost every social convention there was: masturbating in the forum, urinating on those who taunted him and living in a giant barrel just being a few. This earned him the nickname “Diogenes the dog“; a particularly appropriate given one famous legend.

At one stage the only thing Diogenes owned was a begging bowl, which he used to collect up water. One particularly hot day he was passing by a stream and saw a dog lapping up water with its tongue. Immediately realizing his one earthly possession was superfluous, Diogenes threw his vessel away and joined in with his canine companion.

As mentioned, many versions of the meeting between Alexander and Diogenes exist. However, they’re all more or less based on an original anecdote which goes like this. One day Alexander was passing through Diogenes’s city (which city differs according to different versions). He was struck by the fact that although the whole city had flocked to see him, its famous resident philosopher was not in the least bit bothered. So Alexander resolved to go to him. Arriving at Diogenes’s giant barrel, Alexander asked the philosopher if he would like anything from him. Diogenes’s response was that he’d like Alexander to stand aside a little as he was blocking his sun.

While Alexander’s companions fell about laughing, the king himself was in awe of this man who cared nothing for regal power and had no issues speaking out of line with a king. Alexander was reported to have said “But truly If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”, longing for the carefree existence of the Cynic philosopher.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
The “Diving Bell” story: popular in medieval French versions of the Alexander Romance. Pinterest

The Medieval Alexander

We’ve already seen how Alexander took on many different roles in the millennia or so following his death. From a Jewish convert to an Islamic prophet; a philosopher-king to a protector of men against enemies of the Apocalypse. The number of Alexander-legends in existence made it easy for different groups to incorporate him into their mythologies (or just invent myths around him), whatever their culture, beliefs, or agenda. So it should come as little surprise then that during the Middle Ages, the ancient Macedonian came to be reinvented as a chivalric knight, a pious holy man, and a brave Christian king.

While versions of the Alexander Romance existed all across Europe, translated into almost every language, there was no consistency. In Medieval France—the cradle of chivalry—Alexander might have enjoyed an unblemished reputation as a perfect knight, but among German literary circles, he had a much more sinister reputation. Many German theologians equated Alexander with the devil or the antichrist while in Italy, puritanical writers such as Petrarch rallied against him for his immoderacy and excessive drinking.

Part of the reason for Alexander’s negative characterizations was due to his ambivalent role in the Bible—mainly how appeared alongside the much-hated Antiochus Epiphanes in the Book of Maccabees (I). Another reason was that different countries had access to different literature; German writers had access to different texts to their French or Spanish counterparts, for example, with German authors relying on a fifth-century Christian called Orosius. Far from the knight in shining armour of the French tradition, in Orosius’s “History against the Pagans“, Alexander is described as a “bloodthirsty tyrant”.

From the late twelfth century onwards, interest in the fantastical stories of Alexander’s life started to wane in favour of more historical accounts. This was mostly due to renewed interest in classical literature across medieval Europe, with scholars and literates understandably placing more value in the historical/biographical accounts of Plutarch, Arrian, and Curtius Rufus, rather than in stories about Alexander meeting naked philosophers and talking trees.

This isn’t to say the Romances died out completely. The early fifteenth century saw the appearance of a Scottish version, “the Buik of Alexander”, while in Eastern European countries new stories appeared in Slavonic and non-Slavonic languages for hundreds of years. In fact, a Bulgarian version of the Alexander Romance appeared as late as 1810, in which Alexander appears as a messenger sent by God to punish those who stray from the righteous path.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Alexander Dindimus. Oxford Bodleian Library

Alexander and the Naked Philosophers

The Brahmans are a group of naked ascetics who have closed themselves off from society to live lives of natural—and presumably rather cold—contemplation. Historically, the Greek historian Strabo situated them around the city of Taxila in modern-day Pakistan. Over time their exact geographical location came to matter less and less, however, as the land (or, according to some authors, island) of the Brahmans came to be transformed into a utopian ideal.

The story of Alexander’s encounter with them first appears around the third century BC and was continuously retold up until the fourteenth century, finally appearing in what must be the most bizarre piece of travel literature in history: “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville“. As with pretty much all legends that surround Alexander, each story has several versions. The general narrative goes like this:

Alexander arrives in the land of the Brahmans with his helmsman and historian Onesicratus. There they meet with the leader of the Brahmans, Dandamis, who Alexander proceeds to interrogate. He presents Dandamis with a “Halsrätsel”; a form of questioning familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and that final scene on the bridge: If Dandamis gets the answer right, he will live. Should he get it wrong, Alexander will kill him.

Ultimately Alexander learns a great deal philosophically from the Brahmans. They drive home a message found elsewhere in Alexander’s legends: that no matter what his achievements or how much his power, he will ultimately die. How they couch their phrasing, however, is uniquely powerful. Upon seeing Alexander approach the Brahmans begin to stamp their feet. Asking what they mean by this, they tell the king that every man possesses only as much land as he is standing on. Alexander may spend his life traveling and conquering foreign lands, but he too is just a man. And when he is dead, he will need only as much earth as is required to bury him.

This message was in part influenced by the political aftermath of Alexander’s death: the fragmentation of his barely consolidated empire and centuries of civil war fought among his successors. However, it was also injected over the years with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ideas relating to humility and submission to the one, true God. No one man is all-powerful, no matter his achievements, and like all historical kings, Alexander would do well to learn that.

Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great
Macedonian Koinon showing a long-haired, diademed Alexander on the obverse and his taming of Bucephalus on the reverse. Wildwinds

Bucephalus’s Revenge

The close bond Alexander had with his horse Bucephalus is both mythically and historically well documented. Alexander came across him at the age of 12 or 13 while the horse was being presented to King Philip by the horse trader Philonicus. Alexander made a wager: if he couldn’t bring it under his control, he’d pay the money owed to the horse trader on his father’s behalf. If he could, he got to keep the horse. With some horse-whispering and amateur animal psychology (making sure Bucephalus could no longer see his own shadow, the source of his anxiety), Alexander managed to tame him.

Naturally, the fictional Alexander Romance took a slightly different view over Bucephalus’s origins. Rather than sold to the king by a horse trader, legend had it that Bucephalus was bred and reared on Philips royal estate. What’s more, the Greek Delphic Oracle had prophesied to Philip that whoever rode Bucephalus would go on to become the king the world was promised. But it wasn’t just Bucephalus’s origins that the Alexander Romance changed.

The historical horse accompanied Alexander across known world and beyond, serving as his charger in battles ranging from Persia to Pakistan. When Bucephalus eventually died from wounds sustained at the Battle of Hydaspes (326 BC) in modern-day Pakistan, Alexander was devastated. Such was his grief, in fact, that he immediately founded the city of Bucephela at the site of his death, named in his horse’s honor. The legendary horse, while also accompanying Alexander on all his many adventures, met a slightly different end.

Towards the end of the Alexander Romance, the great king is lying in his bed in Babylon, dying from a poison administered by one of his slaves. Everyone around him is howling with grief while Bucephalus is standing at the foot of Alexander’s bed looking longingly at his master. At this point, the slave enters the room and Bucephalus—somehow blessed with the knowledge of his guilt—charges towards him.

Grabbing him in his teeth, he drags the slave to Alexander. He then lets out loud whinny, throws the slave to the ground and tears his body apart, so that “bits of him flew all over everyone like snow falling off a roof in the wind.” Bucephalus then lets out one final neigh before collapsing at Alexander’s feet and breathing his last. Through the horrific carnage, Alexander gently smiles at his recently deceased steed before following suit, likewise falling into his eternal sleep.