How Alexander The Great Became Iskandar Zulkarnain, The Legendary Ancestor Of Malay Kings

An exhibition at the British Library titled Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth details how Alexander the Great became Iskandar Zulkarnain, the legendary ancestor of Malay kings.

How Alexander The Great Became Iskandar Zulkarnain, The Legendary Ancestor Of Malay Kings 1

At the age of 25, Alexander the Great, who was born in Macedonia in 356 BC, routed the Persian army. Before his untimely death in Babylon at the age of 32 in 323 BC, Alexander had built an empire over the course of the following seven years that spanned from Greece to Egypt and beyond the Indus river in the east. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, on exhibition at the British Library from October 21, 2022, to February 1, 2023, does not, however, center on the historical Alexander, but rather on how other civilizations took the great hero and reshaped him in their own image. Alexander is mentioned in myths and legends in many different languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and Persian, where he is referred to as “the Two-Horned” or Iskandar Dhu al-Qarnayn. Alexander entered the Malay civilization as Iskandar Zulkarnain, the fabled ancestor of Malay kings, based on a Persian prototype.

How Alexander The Great Became Iskandar Zulkarnain, The Legendary Ancestor Of Malay Kings 2
The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, ‘Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain’, dated September 30, 1713. Credit: Leiden University Library, Cod. Or. 1970.

The Tale of Iskandar the Two-Horned, which is known as the Malay Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, was most likely translated into Malay in the early 15th century from an Arab paraphrase of a Persian source that ultimately originated in the Greek Alexander Romance credited to the author known as “Pseudo-Callisthene.” The most likely location for this literary adoption is Pasai in North Sumatra, which in the 13th century had become the first Malay monarchy to convert to Islam. There are two versions of the Malay myth that are currently known: a shorter Sumatran version that concludes with Iskandar’s marriage to the princess of king Tibus of Damascus, and a longer one connected to the Malay Peninsula that goes all the way to Iskandar’s demise.

Iskandar Zulkarnain leads expeditions to the West and East, conquers Iran and Egypt, Andalusia and Ethiopia, Syria and India, and finally reaches the edges of the world in the eponymous hikayat, assisted by the Prophet Khidr and Greek wise men. The Islamic universe of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, according to Vladimir Braginsky (2004: 176–177), “widened the limits of the inhabitable world for the Malays and unveiled to them the unity of humankind and their own place in it.”

The Sulalat al-Salatin, also known as the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, is the magnificent sultanate of Melaka’s history and contains the most famous appearance of Iskandar in Malay literature. ‘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,’ the manuscript below reads. ‘So he journeyed until he reached the border of India.’ Iskandar is the first actor on the scene.(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.)

The account of Iskandar and Raja Kida Hindi’s encounter and marriage is detailed in Firdawsi’s 11th-century Persian epic, the Shahnamah when Iskandar defeats Raja Kida Hindi and marries his daughter in a ceremony overseen by the prophet Nabi Khidir. Malay rulers can be traced back to this union because the Sulalat al-Salatin describes how three princes, descended from Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain, arise out of nowhere on Mount Siguntang in Palembang, Sumatra. The second ruler took over Tanjung Pura, the second took over Minangkabau, and the youngest stayed in Palembang and established the line of sultans of Melaka. Since then, Iskandar Zulkarnain has frequently been a preferred regnal name for Malay rulers, and the most powerful king of Aceh in the early 17th century was known as Iskandar Muda, or “the Young Iskandar.”

How Alexander The Great Became Iskandar Zulkarnain, The Legendary Ancestor Of Malay Kings 3
The opening passage of ‘Sulalat al-Salatin’, introduces Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain. Copied in Melaka in 1873. Credit: British Library, Or 14734, f. 3r. (Public domain)

Due to space restrictions, the British Library exhibition does not include any Malay manuscripts that feature Iskandar Zulkarnain; nevertheless, the companion book (Stoneman 2022: 154) does have the royal Malay seal. This letter, dated 27 Muharam 1140 (14 September 1727), is written in Malay and is addressed to Governor General M de Haan of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia. It bears the lampblack seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate in the Moluccan islands, who ruled from 1714 to 1751. The seal has the inscription: al-mu’min billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Raja Ternate Sanat 1128, which translates to: “the believer, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain, Raja of Ternate, the year 1128” (1715/6). Observe how the date uses dots to denote “place value”: three dots next to the number 1 represent 1000; two dots adjacent to the next number 1 denote hundreds; and one dot above the number 2 denotes tens.

How Alexander The Great Became Iskandar Zulkarnain, The Legendary Ancestor Of Malay Kings 4
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate, dated 1715/6. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Mal.-pol. 210, f. 12.

Through God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, Raja of Ternate, the year 1188, is how Billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, who ruled later in the 18th century, adopted Iskandar Zulkarnain as part of his regnal name (1774). A contract between Ternate and the Dutch East India Company, dated August 16, 1774, has this seal.

How Alexander The Great Became Iskandar Zulkarnain, The Legendary Ancestor Of Malay Kings 5
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, dated 1774. Credit: National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia, Ternate 131

A sultan of Maguindanao, on the island of Mindanao that is now in the Philippines, to the north of Ternate, adopted a similar regnal name a century later. Inscribed on a letter from 1888 is his seal, which bears the distinctive “trefoil crown” of Maguindanao royal seals: wa-tawakkal ‘ala Allah huwa Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain, or “And trusting in God, he is Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain.”

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

Iskandar Zulkarnain has a strong appeal as a regnal name in these north-eastern islands of the archipelago, which are far from the mountains of Palembang, where the descendants of Iskandar are said to have first appeared in the Malay world. This is indicated by the fact that the seal of a sultan of Bacan, an island to the south of Ternate, is inscribed with his name, Sultan Amir Is However, given the founding story, it should come as no surprise that the Minangkabau highlands of west Sumatra are the Malay region where Iskandar Zulkarnain’s name still has the most cultural resonance. The Minangkabau prince Sultan Ahmad Syah, who instigated a revolt against the Dutch in the 17th century, used a seal inscribed Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah, descended from the seed of Iskandar Zulkarnain, while the letters of an 18th-century royal minister were impressed with a seal inscribed Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain (Gallop 2019: 183-185). On the west coast of Sumatra, even in the late 19th century, a sultan of Inderapura lay claim to the entire panopoly of Minangkabau kingship with the extravagant inscription shown below on his seal: 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).

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

In fact, Minangkabau: from the dynasty of Iskandar Zulkarnain to Tuanku Imam Bonjol is the title of one of the newest additions to the British Library, a new work in Malay on the history of Minangkabau.

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How Alexander The Great Became Iskandar Zulkarnain, The Legendary Ancestor Of Malay Kings 8
‘Minangkabau: dari dinasti Iskandar Zulkarnain hingga Tuanku Imam Bonjol’, ed Amir Sjarifoedin. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2020. Credit: British Library (shelfmark pending).

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