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Persia 37: Shah Iskander

"Ancient Iran: Inside a Nation's Persian Soul" is the featured article in the August 2008 issue of National Geographic. It is a fairly short but interesting piece. Well worth perusing over a cup of chai at your local bookstore cafe.

We could go on studying Alexander forever, and it seems there is no end to the books written about him. I thought I had bought my last Alexander book, but this summer I came across yet another exceptionally good new one, "Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend" (2008) by Richard Stoneman. Here's an excerpt (p 24):

"The Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, of the Persian poet Firdausi is a vast work, comprising 50 books. The national epic of Persia, it is an account of Persian history from legendary times to the reign of Yazdigird III (AD 632-42), the last Shah before the Arab conquest. The story of Alexander (Iskander) and Dara (Darius III) occupies Books 18-20."

According to the Shahnameh, the mother of Alexander became pregnant by the King of Persia, but he sent her away on grounds of bad breath. Alexander and Darius III were therefore closely related in this tradition. Richard Stoneman writes (p 26), "The war between them was merely a civil war, and Sekandar is a legitimate king of Persia. As such he is one of the most prominent heroes of Persian legend ... and the Arab historians from Tabari onward adopt the same tale."

It was concluded here that Alexander and Darius III were in fact both members of the one ruling house of the Near East (which included Greece), even if they were not literally half-brothers as the Persian history suggests.

In a separate and widespread collection of legends known as the "Alexander Romance", Olympias is commanded, "You must have intercourse with an incarnate god, become pregnant by him and bear his son and bring him up." (See Stoneman, p 6) The incarnate gods of this time period were the Persian Great Kings. And the particular "god" that sired Alexander through Olympias was determined to have been Artaxerxes II Memnon.

Nectanebo (a.k.a. Prince Ostanes II father of Darius III) had become pharaoh of Egypt and considered a living god as well. However, his son would have had a somewhat lesser claim to the Great Throne in that he was not the son of a Great King whereas Alexander was.

Persian tradition does not acknowledge Persian defeat by the Greeks, but simply a change in royal dynasty. The exploits of Alexander are consequently far less miraculous sounding when we realize that Darius III was the actual underdog in the brotherly succession battle.

At least some of Alexander's victories would also have been entirely contrived. For example, Alexander/Arbupales proved himself to be a super-human Greco-Persian on the order of Leonidas/Xerxes by ordering 300 mighty men in the darkness of night to scale the treacherous, impregnable, and heavily defended mountain fortress ("Sogdian Rock") of the Bactrian satrap Oxyartes. Oxyartes was obviously one and the same as Persian prince Oxyathres son of Ostanes and the brother of fallen Darius III himself.

"A similar story appears in the fifteenth-century historian Mirkhond: after the crucifixion of Darius' murderers 'he married Roushang [Roxane] and installed the brother of Dara over Fars, appointing him to be the chief of the ninety-nine governors, who were surnamed the kings of the nations." (Stoneman, p 41)

Roxane the daughter of Oxyartes was then no wild barbarian bitch but a royal princess, neice of the short-reigned Great King Darius III. Upon the death of Alexander, Oxyarthres became Regent of Alexander IV (his own grandson), no longer as Oxyathres/Oxyartes but under his Greek name Perdiccas son of Orontes. However, the curious name of Oxyathres/Oxyartes (and his initially democratic rule) lived on as an archetype for the much later King Arthur (and his Round Table of Knights).

Note: For the equivalence of Orontes and Ostanes see the previous segment, Persia 36.
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In another episode of Alexander's conquest, when he had reached India his army grumbled against him and refused to follow him to a Promised Land at the ends of the earth. Therefore, he deliberately killed most of them off by marching them like Moses through the Gedrosian Desert. Alexander also suppressed the leading religion of Persia, Zorastrianism, along with its priesthood, as Moses-Akhenaten had earlier persecuted Amun in Egypt. And like Marduk-Re, Alexander set himself up for a fall in Babylon.