Iskandar Watching the Sirens on the Seashore

Iskandar Watching the Sirens on the Seashore
(click image to zoom-in)
Miniatures, Gouache, 23.7x13.7 cm
Origin: Iran, 1431-1431, Timurid Dynasty

This is one of the three miniatures illustrating the poem Iskandar-Nameh in the Hermitage's famous Persian manuscript of the Khamsa, an anthology of five poems by the 12th-century poet Nizami, who lived on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan. In 1431 this manuscript of the Khamsa was copied out in Herat by the calligrapher Mahmud for Sultan Shahrukh , son of the legendary Tamerlaine .

Iskandar-Nameh, or The Book of Alexander, is the last poem in the Khamsa and tells of the campaigns and adventures of Alexander the Great, the 4th-century B.C. military leader. >From the 8th century a keen interest in the ancient world appeared in Muslim society. Oriental philosophers commented upon and developed the ideas of Aristotle, Plato and Pythagorus. The poem Iskandar-Nameh is totally based on ancient material. While Nizami knew that the ancient Greeks had deified Alexander the Great, he could not resist the all-embracing Islamic idea of prophecy and in his text Iskandar/Alexander is not only a conqueror and just ruler, but a prophet and wise man .

Whilst the previous poems in the Khamsa - the Haft Paikar , Husraw and Shirin, Layla and Majnun - contain no indication of any unreal and magical event, this work seeks to give a rational explanation for fantastical miracles to which Iskandar is the witness.

During a visit to China, Iskandar sets off for the seashore, where he sees sirens bathing and singing. The Herat artist shows the sirens not as birds with female heads, just as they were depicted on ancient Greek vases, but as sea maids with long dark hair and skirts of leaves, with fiery wings on their elbows. "Their bodies glistened like the sun and the moon." Iskandar wearing a golden crown and his servant peep out from behind the rocks at the top of the picture.

Album: The Khamsa by Nizami
Personage: Alexander the Great
Source of entry: First Branch of the State Hermitage Museum, 1924
School: Herat
Theme: Literature

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