Monday, April 18, 2005


For more than two thousand years the life and acts of Alexander the Great have captured the imagination of a multicultural gamut of authors, historians and poets. The story of the deeds and events of his life has been eagerly received by every nation it has reached so that Alexander’s fame has covered the entire world, creating various ‘claimants’ to his legacy. It is not, however, the literal facts of the credible history of Alexander that has captivated the middle-eastern peoples but rather, the semi-mythical and fabulous legendary history which has sprung up around them. Whereas we in the West read Arrian to appreciate the genius of Alexander, in the east, a different narrative applies.
Enter the history of pseudo-Callisthenes, attributed to Alexander’s companion of the same name. This is ancient history in true “choose your own adventure” style. The various versions of this history, appearing in Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Hebrew and Ethiopic all attribute various elements of Alexander to their own people. Thus for the Persians, he is through an intricate set of coincidences, a relative of Darius, shah of Persia whereas in the Latin version, he visits Rome and anachronistically protects Rome from the Carthaginians.
I came across the Syriac manuscript of pseudo-Callisthenes quite by accident. Of all the versions of this essentially romance of Alexander, the Syriac version is deemed by scholars to provide elements of the oldest, original Greek or Coptic version, said to have been written in Alexandria by Egyptians in 200AD and is used to reconstruct it. It is also the most fun and with the modern film-makers eye, the most amenable to mini-serialisation, as each chapter reads like a larger than life, grossly-exaggerated but thoroughly gripping action half-hour, much like “The Adventures of Hercules,” with Kevin Sorbo. Bad acting, bad plot, bad history but thoroughly engrossing.
The Syriac Alexander is not Greek. Rather he is the son of Olympias via the last Egyptian Pharaoh, Nectanebus, a magician who preserves Egypt from attack by burning the wax models of invading ships in effigy. He magically transforms himself into the God Ammon and commands Olympias to sleep with him in the form of a serpent. Casting aside modern legal issues of rape and bestiality aside, one can only smirk graciously at the way the Egyptians sought to capitalise on the fame of their illustrious ruler.
Growing up as a cuckoo in the Macedonian nest, though with the cognizance of Phillip, Alexander waxes supreme. He is also rather loony. In the tradition of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, he wantonly pushes his real father Nectanebus, living at the Macedonian Court in the guise of a magician into a pit and then learns of his real paternity. He doesn’t seem to bat an eyelid. Indeed what a little brat the Syriac Alexander has turned out to be can be evidenced by the fact that interposed between lengthy attestations as to Alexander’s superiority and nobility, is a lovely long letter written to his tutor Aristotle where he complains of the constraints of continued profligacy, complains that his parents are stingy and asks his tutor, who presumably had better things to do like create philosophy, to intercede with them on his behalf so that they could give him more money for him to go boozing. Timeless and priceless to boot.
For some reason the Syriac Alexander is not only a boozer but also loves to place a bet on the horses. We find him in Pisa racing chariots and killing his opponents after which time this super hero puts down a rebellion at Methone, tells Darius where to stick it when his messengers come demanding tribute, fights in Armenia and then returns to see Phillip murdered by a certain Theosidos. Then its off to Rome via Sicily, a quick dash down to Carthage to get its natives to obey Rome, a quick chat with the god Ammon in Libya who tells him where to found Alexandria, against the opposition of the unimaginative Aristotle and a quick pep-talk to the Egyptians to get them to rise against the Persians. A quick trip to Athens sorts out any opposition that orator Demosthenes had to Alexander’s supreme rule. The conventional story of Alexander’s conquest of Persia is then related, with great embellishment and its all clash and bash until the Macedonians get to India. The main highlight of this section is how the writer, presumably an Assyrian monk known as Jacob of Serugh, has Darius say to Alexander as he dies “into thy hands I commend my spirit,” clearly inspired by the Gospel of Luke at chapter 23, verse 46.
The Syriac Alexander conquers India by using bronze heated robots to scare away Porus’ elephants. He then lands on islands that are actually giant whales that disappear under the waves (now you know from where the Arabs got the idea for Sinbad the sailor), encounters lion headed men, talking trees who prophesise his death, men with eyes and mouths in the breasts and the most disturbing ‘people whose feet are twisted.’ Alexander then arrives in China incognito, though he is discovered and he travels back to Babylon via the cave of Hercules (enter Kevin Sorbo, retired and now running a pub), a bad trip (he descends to the bottom of the sea in a glass cage. Groovy!) and what I assume to be the local brothel, euphemistically called: ‘a land of darkness where beautiful women lived.’ After the Assyrian monk kills off Alexander by having him poisoned through the artifices of cupbearer Iollas and Cassander, he is already thinking sequel.
The addendum to the manuscript then is the most fascinating of all as it is here that ancient Alexander is linked with the monk’s contemporary world and given an unlikely Christian identity. In this metrical discourse, Alexander marches through a land of darkness, somewhere in India. He arrives there after great difficulty, in search of the fountain of life, which he locates by throwing a salted trout into it, which comes to life. However, he is prevented from tasting the water. Instead, he moves beyond that land to the land of the Tubarliki, also known as the Hunaye, whose description is remarkably close to that of the Huns. These are apocalyptically referred to as the hordes of Gog and Magog who obey the Antichrist, who again, is remarkably reminiscent of Attila the Hun. The ensuing battle between Alexander aided by sixty-two kings and the king of the Tubarliki is a cross between Armaggedon and the Roman victory against the Huns at Chalons in 453 AD. Alexander then builds a great brass and iron door to keep Gog and Magog out. An angel appears to him and prophesises the coming of Christ and the end of days. The end shall draw near when the children of Gog and Magog break loose and overrun the earth. (Keanu Reeves where are you?).
The Syriac history of Alexander by pseudo-Callisthenes is an absolutely delightful precursor of the modern middle-eastern soap where anything can and usually does happen. My favourite element would have to be the exquisite mangling of Greek names, Kudkanor for Cynaegirus and Tirmastenis for Demosthenes to quote but a few. Ultimately, pseudo-Callisthenes is proof of how tremendous Alexander’s achievements were, that they lifted him in the minds of others, out of the bounds of reality and well into the ether of myth, where he became more relevant and contemporary to entire nations. We leave you with the final chapter in the Syriac saga for your amusement: “And Alexander went and worshipped in Jerusalem ands put ships to sea and went to Alexandria and when he died, he gave his royal throne of silver to be in Jerusalem.” So where is it? I can feel an Indiana Jones meets Lara Croft sequel coming on.
First published in NKEE on 18 April 2005
Republished in Zinda magazine 19 October 2005