Alexander the Great was born in Macedon in 356 BC, and by the age of twenty-five, he had defeated the Persian army. Over the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece to Egypt and beyond the Indus river in the east, before his early death aged just 32 in Babylon in 323 BC. However, the focus of the current British Library exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth (21 October 2022-19 February 2023), is not on the historical Alexander, but on how the great hero was adopted by countless cultures, each of which remoulded him in their own image. Alexander appears in myths and legends in languages ranging from Greek to Hebrew, Syriac and Coptic, and notably in Arabic and Persian, where he is known as Iskandar Dhu al-Qarnayn, ‘the Two-Horned’. And it was from a Persian prototype that Alexander entered the Malay world as Iskandar Zulkarnain, legendary ancestor of Malay kings.

The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, 'Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain', dated September 30, 1713. Credit: Leiden University Library, Cod. Or. 1970.

The Malay Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, the Tale of Iskandar the Two-Horned, was most probably translated into Malay in the early-15th century, from an Arab paraphrase of a Persian source, which can be traced back ultimately to the Greek Alexander Romance attributed to the writer known as ‘Pseudo-Callisthene’. This literary adoption most likely took place in Pasai in North Sumatra, which had been the first Malay kingdom to embrace Islam in the 13th century. Two recensions of the Malay tale are known today, a shorter Sumatran version which ends with the marriage of Iskandar to the daughter of king Tibus of Damascus, and a longer one associated with the Malay Peninsula, which extends to the death of Iskandar.

In the eponymous hikayat, Iskandar Zulkarnain, accompanied by the Prophet Khidr and Greek wise men, leads expeditions to the West and the East, conquers Iran and Egypt, Andalusia and Ethiopia, Syria and India and finally reaches the edges of the earth. As noted by Vladimir Braginsky (2004: 176-177), the Islamic world of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain ‘widened the limits of the inhabitable world for the Malays and disclosed the unity of humankind to them and their own place in it.’

The towering presence of Iskandar is not confined to the eponymous hikayat, for he also appears in other Malay literary works, including the earlier Hikayat Amir Hamzah, narrating the adventures of an uncle of the prophet, which was probably rendered into Malay in the 14th century. In this heroic tale Iskandar is renowned for converting many people to Islam (maka segala raja-raja di negeri Zamin Tauran itu semuanya diislamkan oleh Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain; MCP: AHmz 607:34), and when Amir Hamzah sets out from Zamin Ambar on his way back to Rukham, he is guided on his way by landmarks erected by Iskandar Zulkarnain (berpedomankan menara-menara perbuatan Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain itu, MCP: AHmz 676:35). Iskandar Zulkarnain is hailed as a conqueror, statesman and paragon of sagacity in the Taj al-Salatin or Crown of Kings, a ‘mirror for princes’ composed in Aceh in 1603, and in the Bustan al-Salatin, the universal history compiled by Nuruddin al-Raniri in Aceh in the early-17th century.

The emblematic appearance of Iskandar in Malay literature is in the chronicle of the great sultanate of Melaka, the Sulalat al-Salatin, commonly referred to as the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals. Iskandar is the first actor on the scene in this text, from the manuscript below: ‘according to the teller of tales, one day Raja Iskandar, son of Raja Darab, of the race of Rum [Constantinople], from the country of Macedonia, entitled the Two-Horned, set out to see where the sun rose, and so journeyed until he reached the border of India.’ (kata yang empunya ceritera, pada suatu masa, bahwa Raja Iskandar, anak Raja Darab, Rum bangsanya, Maqaduniah nama negerinya, Dhu al-Qarnain gelarnya, sekali baginda berjalan hendak melihat matahari terbit. Maka baginda sampai pada [sarhad] negeri Hindi.)

After defeating the ruler of this country, Raja Kida Hindi, Iskandar is married to his daughter at a wedding officiated at by the prophet Nabi Khidir, and the story of their encounter and marriage is related at length in Firdawsi’s 11th century Persian epic the Shahnamah. It is from this union that Malay kings trace their descent, for the Sulalat al-Salatin narrates how three princes, progeny of the line of Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain, suddenly appear on Mount Siguntang at Palembang in Sumatra. The eldest became ruler of Minangkabau, the second ruler of Tanjung Pura, and the youngest stayed at Palembang and founded the line of the sultans of Melaka. Ever since, Iskandar Zulkarnain has often been a favoured regnal name for Malay kings, and the greatest ruler of Aceh in the early-17th century was named Iskandar Muda, ‘the Young Iskandar’.

Opening passage of 'Sulalat al-Salatin', introducing Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain. Copied in Melaka in 1873. Credit: British Library, Or 14734, f. 3r. (Public domain)

Space constraints mean that there are no Malay manuscripts featuring Iskandar Zulkarnain in the British Library exhibition, but the accompanying book (Stoneman 2022: 154) includes the royal Malay seal. This is the seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate in the Moluccan islands, who reigned from 1714 to 1751, and it is impressed in lampblack on a letter in Malay addressed to Governor General M de Haan of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia, dated 27 Muharam 1140 (14 September 1727). The seal is inscribed: al-mu’min billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Raja Ternate sanat 1128, ‘the believer in God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain, Raja of Ternate, the year 1128’ (1715/6), and is decorated with scattered star motifs. Note the use of dots in the date to indicate ‘place value’: three dots next to the numeral 1 standing for 1000; two dots next to the next numeral 1 indicating hundreds; and one dot above the numeral 2 indicating tens.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate, dated 1715/6. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Mal.-pol. 210, f. 12.

Another sultan of Ternate who ruled later in the 18th century also adoped Iskandar Zulkarnain as part of his regnal name, which reads: Billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah Raja Ternate sanat 1188, ‘Through God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, Raja of Ternate, the year 1188’ (1774). This seal is stamped on a contract between Ternate and the Dutch East India Company, dated August 16, 1774.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, dated 1774. Credit: National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia, Ternate 131

A century later, a sultan of Maguindanao – on the island of Mindanao now in the Philippines, just north of Ternate – assumed a similar regnal name. His seal, with the characteristic ‘trefoil crown’ of Maguindanao royal seals, stamped on a letter of 1888, is inscribed: wa-tawakkal ‘ala Allah huwa Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘And trusting to God, he is Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain’.

Seal of Sultan Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain of Maguindanao, ca 1888. Credit: National Archives of the Philippines, Mindanao y Sulu, SDS 9241, f. 899

The seal of a sultan of Bacan – an island to the south of Ternate – is inscribed with his name of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin, suggesting the strong appeal of Iskandar Zulkarnain as a regnal name in these north-eastern islands of the archipelago, a long way from the mountains of Palembang where the descendants of Iskandar are said to have first appeared in the Malay world. In view of the founding myth, it is however hardly surprising that the Malay region where the name of Iskandar Zulkarnain still resonates most strongly is in the Minangkabau highlands of west Sumatra. The letters of an 18th-century royal minister were impressed with a seal inscribed Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, while the 17th-century Minangkabau prince Sultan Ahmad Syah, who fomented rebellion against the Dutch, used a seal inscribed Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah ibn zuriat Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah, descended from the seed of Iskandar Zulkarnain’ (Gallop 2019: 183-185). Even in the late 19th century, a sultan of Inderapura on the west coast of Sumatra bore the seal shown below which laid claim to the whole panopoly of Minangkabau kingship in its grandiose inscription: bi-’inayat Allâh al-‘Azim Syah al-Sultan Maharaja Alif Sultan Maharaja Dipang Sultan Maharaja Diraja ibn Sultan Hidayat Allah ibn Sultan Iskandar Dhu al-Karnain khalifat Allah fi al-‘alam johan berdaulat bi-‘inayat Allah marhum Syah, ‘By the grace of God, the Most Supreme One, Syah, Sultan Maharaja Alif, Sultan Maharaja Dipang, Sultan Maharaja Diraja, sons of Sultan Hidayat Allah, son of Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, vicegerent of God on earth, the champion endowed with sovereign power, by the grace of God, the late Syah’ (Gallop 2019: 178).

Seal of Sultan Firman Syah of Inderapura, on a decree of 1888. Credit: British Library, EAP117/11/1/5 (CC BY-NC 4.0)

And indeed, one of the latest acquisitions for the British Library, a new publication in Malay on the history of Minangkabau, is entitled Minangkabau: from the dynasty of Iskandar Zulkarnain to Tuanku Imam Bonjol.

'Minangkabau: dari dinasti Iskandar Zulkarnain hingga Tuanku Imam Bonjol', ed Amir Sjarifoedin. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2020. Credit: British Library (shelfmark pending).

This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.