With the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The making of a Myth coming to a close, I would like to highlight one of my special favourites: the Emperor Akbar’s personal copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Quintet) of which the fifth poem, the Iskandarnamah, is a two-part account of the life of Alexander the Great or Iskandar as he is called in Persian.
Commissioned by Akbar in Lahore between 1593 and 1595, this manuscript represents what was without doubt an intensely personal project and combines the work of the best artists at his court. With 37 highly original paintings, luxurious illumination, marginal decorations and binding, this Khamsah was one of a small group of deluxe Persian manuscripts which also include Jami’s Baharistan(Bodleian MS Elliott 254) and the Khamsah of Amir Khusraw (Walters Ms W 624), all produced around the same time in Lahore. In his monumental survey of 1912, the collector and art historian FR Martin wrote of it: “Without exception it is the most wonderful Indian manuscript in Europe.” Originally the manuscript contained 44 illustrations, but at some point 39 folios including five illustrated leaves, were extracted and are now in the Walters Art Museum Baltimore Walters Ms W 613. Two of the original paintings are now lost and an additional portrait of the calligrapher ʻAbd al-Raḥīm ʻAnbarīn Qalam and the artist Dawlat were added at the end in 1610 by order of Jahangir.
With 16 of the 44 illustrations devoted to the Iskandarnamah, it is easy to see Akbar’s special affinity with Alexander the Great. Nizami in the early 12th century was the first to qualify Iskandar (Iqbalnamah 29:4) with the adjective Sahib-qiran (Lord of the Conjunction). Several rulers styled themselves this way, most notably Akbar’s honoured ancestor Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty in 1370. Like Alexander, Akbar was a successful conqueror, but more particularly Nizami’s portrayal of Alexander as a philosopher-king would have appealed to Akbar who promoted himself as a just and tolerant ruler.
In the opening we used for the exhibition (see above) the double-page illustration has a special significance. Here we see Iskandar at a Buddhist sanctuary at Kandahar receiving an impassioned plea from the priestess who asks for the golden statue, with precious jewels as its eyes, to be left unharmed. Iskandar had ordered it to be dismantled but moved by her passion and beauty, he agreed to spare it. Placed right at at the end of the Khamsah, this painting has, as pointed out by Barbara Brend (Akbar’s Khamsa, p. 61), a special significance. Iskandar is compared by implication with the Mughal emperor Akbar (r.1556–1605) who had taken Kandahar from the Safavids of Iran without bloodshed in April 1595, while this manuscript was still in the process of completion. Akbar’s interest in other religions apart from Islam, exemplified by the establishment of his own syncretic faith, the Din-i ilahi (Divine Faith) in 1582, parallels here Iskandar’s own role as a tolerant philosopher-king.
Sadly, in the exhibition we could only display one opening from each manuscript, so to give a flavour of the whole volume, I have described some further examples here.