“The Cursed One” – Alexander the Great in Pre-Islamic Persian Literature
Examples of Persian literature from the time of Alexander up until the revival of the empire under the Sassanids in 224 AD are rare. What scholars have found or found references to from that early period, however, paints a very clear picture of how the Macedonian king was viewed by the people he conquered.
In those fragments and from documents and literature from the Sassanian era, Alexander is “the cursed one” (gujastak). He is portrayed as one of “the greatest enemies of Iranshar.” (“Iranshahr” was the Sassanian name for their empire; it means “greater Iran.”) As Persian scholar Prof. Haila Manteghi explains in her recent book (see below), “almost all” of the texts from that era “represent Alexander as a cursed figure who set fire to the holy scriptures of the Persians, razed their fire temples and generally destroyed the entire country; they thus view him as one of the greatest enemies of historical Iran.”
These “apocalyptic” texts, the professor adds, present Alexander as “the evil destroyer.”
After the Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD, however, Alexander ‘s story was romanticized to help the rulers of the caliphate legitimize their own claims to power. In that literary tradition, Darius and Alexander are half-brothers (which of course they were not). The Alexandrian conquest is glossed over as part of an attempt to build an uninterrupted legacy to link these later dynasties back to Cyrus the Great himself. This began a transformation of Alexander in Persian literature from an “evil destroyer” to a legendary and romanticized Islamic hero.
Islamic Persian literature took that notion several leaps forward to create a body of poetry and fables known collectively as the “Alexander Romances.” In that tradition, he is depicted not as a foreign invader but as a native Persian ruler who goes on mythical quests. These stories are similar to the Arthurian legends in the West.
By the time of the Safavids (1500 AD), however, the wheel began to turn, especially when Persia felt threatened by the Western colonial powers. The Safavids encouraged the examination of pre-Islamic texts, especially those that were contemporary with the time of Alexander and the Successors. The Pahlavis who took power in 1925 doubled-down on that to resurrect the study of the original Persian Empire,, notably through promotion and funding of archaeological digs and the restoration of ancient monuments and works of art and literature. Scholarship in the Islamic Republic follows both paths – the literary and the historical – but with a concentration the pre-Islamic theme of their nation being invaded by a foreign – and decidedly Western – enemy.