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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:07

Alexander, the Mongols, and the great epic of Iran

Video transcript

(Upbeat piano music) - [Narrator] We're in a storage room in the Freer Gallery of Art, looking at one of the most important illustrations coming out of the Islamic world. - [Instructor] It is considered one of the greatest paintings of the medieval period from Iran. It belongs to a copy of the Shahnama. - [Narrator] That simply means, the Book of Kings. The history of the kings of the area that we now call Iran. - [Instructor] The Shahnama is considered the great epic of Iran and the one text that identifies and unifies Iranians. The Shahnama was completed in the year 1010 by the poet Firdawsi. It consists of some 50,000 verses. It is probably one of the longest epics ever written. It is divided into 50 reigns of the kings of Iran, beginning at the beginning of time, ending with the fall of the Sasanian dynasty and the Arab conquest. Of course, the rulers of the beginning of time are mythical rulers and then we begin to get historical, a quasi-historical figures. And it is Alexander the Greek ruler who begins the historical part of the Shahnama. - [Narrator] And what we're seeing here is a scene of mourning of the death of Alexander the Great. - [Instructor] It is odd to find him in the Shahnama. Alexander invaded Iran and burnt down Persepolis, the Achaemenid Palace. - [Narrator] And he's really being mourned here, and that's in part because even though Alexander had invaded by the time that this manuscript is produced, Alexander has been fully embraced. Look at this sense of emotion in these figures. We have Alexander's casket laid out almost as if it was a human body. And you see the back of a female figure, who is laying across her, you can feel her agony, her despair, even though we're only seeing her back. - [Instructor] According to Firdawsi, when Alexander died, his coffin was put on display, in an open landscape. What the artist does here, is he confines it into this space, where, perhaps it's easier to show the intensity of the emotion because it circulates around the coffin. With these onlookers, who are in great agony, they are weeping, they are praying, we have the figure of Aristotle bending over. He looks as if he's crying, he's holding a handkerchief, and then of course there is the figure of Alexander's mother who's thrown herself on the coffin, the agitated, very angular, folds of her robe, which has sort of fallen off, embody the agony that she's going through. - [Narrator] The artist has been careful to make clear to us how important Alexander is through the symmetry of the architecture and its lavish decoration. - [Instructor] This interior has every possible luxury object. In fact, it is a wonderful visual testimony of the types of object that existed at that time. You have these monumental candles with their flames and black smoke, you have this great lamp hanging over the coffin of Alexander, you have carpets, you have textiles, you have tiles, and in many ways, it underscores the importance of Alexander and his wealth. - [Narrator] We have these powerful human emotions but at the center, we have a coffin. It becomes a kind of stand-in for human mortality. - [Instructor] And the issue of mortality is central to Firdawsi's Shahnama, because throughout the story of Alexander, as he moves east and west in search of more territory, he's also looking for immortality. He looks for the Water of Life, he passes the Valley of Darkness, and throughout the narrative, Firdawsi keeps reminding Alexander that despite all your wealth, despite all your power, which is beautifully summarized in this painting, that Alexander, you are mortal like anyone else. And the issue of Alexander's mortality becomes almost a foil for Firdawsi's epic. Firdawsi ends his text by the following. I've reached the end of this great history. And all the land will fill with talk of me. I shall not die, these seeds I've sown will save my name and reputation from the grave, and men of sense and wisdom will proclaim, when I have gone, my praises and my fame. What becomes interesting is that every new ruler after the conquest of Islam in Iran, one of the first things that they commissioned was a copy of the Shahnama. - [Narrator] To become part of that historical legacy. - [Instructor] And that is exactly what the Mongols did, with commissioning the Great Mongol Shahnama. - [Narrator] Now, the Mongols did tremendous damage in Iran when hey first established themselves. And it's interesting that this particular manuscript which has such an emphasis on Alexander, may have been used to create a correspondence between Alexander, who himself was a conqueror, and the Mongols, who had conquered Iran. - [Instructor] This manuscript has the largest number of illustrations of the Alexander Cycle, and there are 12 that have survived. And when you think of Alexander as a world conqueror, he is the perfect model for the Mongol Ilkhanates when they conquered Iran. - [Narrator] That the Mongols could establish themselves with a kind of legitimacy by calling on the tradition of Alexander. (Upbeat piano music)