Sekandar and Secrecy in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

by Abraham Zelchenko 

Nominated by Cameron Cross for MIDEAST 434: Shahnameh: Iranian Myth, Epic, and History 

Instructor Introduction

The Alexander Romance, like its eponymous hero, is distinguished by travel, both in the far-reaching journeys it transported its readers, and in its own extensive peregrinations around premodern Afroeurasia. It is thus not all that surprising to find it incorporated into another major work of world literature, the Shahnameh, an epic poem written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi 1010 CE. This inclusion raises a question, however: how does Ferdowsi take this famous story and make it speak to the broader themes of his work? In his essay, “Parts Unknown: Sekandar as Seeker in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh,” Abe Zelchenko offers us an eloquent and moving answer. In prose that shows as much as it tells, Abe introduces his readers to a turbulent inner life behind the facade of a seemingly invincible conqueror. Sekandar, as Alexandar is called in this text, is distinguished by a restlessness that can simultaneously be ascribed to his insatiable greed and/or his yearning for the truth: his desire to conquer the world stems from his knowledge that there is always more out there, a “something” that perhaps cannot even be named, calling him to ceaselessly wonder, question, and explore. And though, at every stop on his journey, Sekandar is humbled, humiliated, and reminded time and again of the futility of pressing on, he presses on anyway, leaving tears in his wake.

It is this motif of travel-in-the-world that both ennobles and debases the world-traveler that I feel Abe explores so well in this piece, which not only showcases the deep interior lives of Ferdowsi’s characters, but also helps readers of the Shahnameh better understand and appreciate the function of the Alexander Romance within the overarching text. As something of an outsider to the Shahnameh — a (semi-)foreigner who forcefully invades his way into the annals of Iranian history, rather than being born into them — Sekandar transforms from the singular philosopher-king par excellence into a universal pilgrim, whose journey through the world acts as a mirror for evaluating the life-paths trod by all mortal creatures. In that way, Ferdowsi’s retelling of the Alexander Romance serves as a metacommentary on the Shahnameh itself: if the Shahnameh is above all a temporal history of the world, a history of lost moments, fallen heroes, and ruined kingdoms, Sekandar demands to know what lies beyond its borders: “What is the reality of this thing that makes us weep with longing?” The question posed is the same as Camus’ Sisyphus, but the answer is substantially different: where Sisyphus exults in his labors even as he retreats down the mountain, Sekandar cannot ever turn back.  Mourning the ignorance that his wisdom has exposed, he shoulders on, continuing his quest to find — to quote the mot juste of this essay — “…something.”

- Cameron Cross

Parts Unknown: Sekandar and Secrecy in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

“In the name of the Lord of soul and wisdom, whose throne sits higher than thought can reach…” thus begins Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh, a monumental work of world literature relating the legendary stories of Iran’s ancient kings and warriors.[1] From the very opening of its exordium, the text puts front and center the theme of God’s ineffability – even his unknowability. We are told in clear terms that He cannot be named, described, or expressed, and the first line implies that He is ungraspable even in thought. This theme of the unknowable proves paramount in the epic as a whole, with refrains in nearly every chapter warning us that the secrets of the world and the turnings of Fate will never be revealed. Most often, these refrains come as sober calls to level-headedness in moments facing either great death or great victory, and often they come from wise elder characters, if not from the narrator himself. At other times, the incomprehensibility of this conundrum – the utter inability of man to discern justice or reason in the workings of the world – is invoked in the giving of advice. But the questions raised from the outset of Ferdowsi’s work come to a head in the journeys of Sekandar – a Persianized version of Alexander the Great who appears unexpectedly as one of the Shahnameh’s most memorable heroes – whose life serves as a proof of the impenetrability of these cosmic forces.

One striking component of Sekandar’s characterization in the Shahnameh is his emotionality and psychological immediacy. To understand this trait, which is so prevalent in his tale as to become a theme in its own right, we must understand the connection between the unknown and mortality. Time and again, Ferdowsi and his protagonists tell us that “the world will never reveal her secrets” and that “no man is born from his mother but to die.” The disheartening truth implied in such a worldview is that with regards to our own destinies nothing can be known except that death is certain. Thus we might expect such dramatic statements to be uttered with gravity, and yet throughout the first half of the epic they are rattled off time and again as common-sense axioms. Until the story of Sekandar, that is.

Consider the following line from the conclusion of Sekandar’s reign: “There is nothing in the world so terrible and fearful as the fact that one comes like the wind and departs as a breath, and that neither justice nor oppression are apparent in this. Whether you are a king or a pauper you will discover no rhyme or reason to it” (636). Far from being offered as practical know-how, the cold truth of mortality is now presented as “terrible” and “fearful.” And in contrast with the vague and somewhat preachy earlier statements about the world not “keeping faith” with its inhabitants, we now get biting, bitter strokes from Ferdowsi about there being “no rhyme or reason” to our fates. Such language moves away from the stoicism of the earlier stories, and indeed the diction here well reflects Sekandar’s story as a whole – he travels through the world often weeping, often fearful, always anxiously searching for … something.

In the Shahnameh, Sekandar is portrayed primarily as a seeker. At the beginning of his reign, he announces that he must “travel the face of the earth, and reckon up what there is of good and evil in the world” (565). Just so, his entire journey arises from a personal urge to explore the world and see what is in it. For those familiar with the stories of the earlier kings, this should raise a red flag: as we know, the world will never reveal her secrets. Sekandar’s first encounter (and indeed his most narratively substantial) is with his half-brother Dara, king of Persia,[2] whose empire he conquers. The two kings have a great deal of mutual respect, and Dara delivers an extended death-bed sermon – a scene which has a deep emotional effect on Sekandar: “pity made his face turn pale, and he wept for the wounded king” (576). In his final moments, Dara bequeaths his kingdom and his daughter unto Sekandar, but it is a bittersweet victory and Ferdowsi ends the chapter exactly as we might expect, writing “Don’t ask the world her secrets: she will hide/Them from your gaze, and turn her face aside” (579) – a foreshadowing of what is to come.

This is when Sekandar’s long wanderings properly begin. For much of the remainder of his tale, he is simultaneously characterized as braggadociously prideful – as when he says to Qaydafeh,[3] “If I had my arms and armor here, all your palace would be a sea of blood” (604) – and deeply shaken by Dara’s death, describing himself to Kayd’s[4] philosopher as “darkened by  feasting, warfare, bloodshed, and constant fighting against enemies” (588). At once triumphal and distraught, the Greek king departs to fulfill his quest of seeing the earth. He traverses the three major continents of the old world and meets with powerful rulers, wise men, and supernatural beings. But what is it that he really seeks?

A simple answer might be that he wishes to conquer the world, but with a caveat: he seeks that particular mastery that comes with the power of knowledge. Everywhere he goes, he asks questions. His urgent need for knowledge is exemplified in his curiosity about Kayd’s goblet, which causes him to go to the “wisest philosopher of his time” and insist that the man “mustn’t conceal from [him] what’s happening” (590). And yet Sekandar’s emotional state suggests that it is more than a mere curiosity which drives him. He chases after knowledge with an unquenchable thirst, and often appears profoundly scarred by the answers he receives. In a good half of the sites he visits, someone respectable warns him not to rush about seeking riches. Qaydafeh addresses him, “You say the world is yours because of your knowledge, but what you say does not seem true to me. What will knowledge avail you when you go into the maw of the dragon death?” (604). Likewise, the Brahmins[5] ask, “Since you know that there is no recourse against death, and that there is no disaster worse than old age, why do you long for the world in this way, why do you breathe in the scent of this poisonous flower so eagerly?” (612). Finally, Esrafil[6] commands, “Stop struggling, slave of greed! One day, at last, / Your ears will hear the mighty trumpet’s blast– / Don’t worry about crowns and thrones! Prepare / To pack your bags and journey on elsewhere!” (622). Through these lines, we begin to form a picture of what it is that Sekandar wants: he wants the world, he wants knowledge, he wants crowns and thrones.

Arguably, Sekandar is compelled by the first words Arestalis[7] says to him early on, before he sets out from Greece: “We are made and born from dust, and we have no choice but to return to dust. If you act well, your name will survive you and you will prosper during your reign” (565). It is this impetus to the immortality of fame that drives Sekandar on his quest. His interests in conquering are for the sake of being remembered as a mighty king. His interest in knowledge is polyvalent – knowledge might allow him to defeat his enemies, to find some guarantee of his fate, and/or to cheat death. We see him ask after all three.

That fear of mortality is a personal driving force for Sekandar is suggested in many of his encounters, but particularly in the parable presented by the mountain throne. After traveling to the Land Where the Men Have Soft Feet, he discovers a mountain atop which sits a dead man on a golden throne, who is described as radiating farr[8] and glory (616). The man is surrounded by vast treasure, so much so that the path to the throne is impassible. In effect, the sight is a perfect visualization of Arestalis’s warning: no amount of gold or glory, no throne or crown has saved this man from death. Sekandar leaves that place “sick at heart” (616). By contrast, he sets out to seek the Water of Life with “happiness in his heart,” one of the few times in his story during which we see him express that emotion (619). Presumably, he is enthused at the prospect of the Water, which he has been told not only prevents death but also washes away sins – two pre-established needs for Sekandar. So Ferdowsi’s summary, that “There is nothing in the world so terrible and fearful as the fact that one comes like the wind and departs as a breath,” seems to hold up in analysis of Sekandar’s journeys (636). But I wager there is more to it.

We have already seen how central a role knowledge plays in the story – effectively, Sekandar’s journey is one of discovery, illumination, and revelation. And yet, if anything, Ferdowsi remembers the Greek king not for the knowledge he gained, but for the knowledge that eluded him. When he hears of the Speaking Tree – but before he has even reached it – one of his first questions is “When we go beyond the tree, what wonders are there on the other side?” (625). The consistent way of Sekandar in the Shahnameh is that he is always compelled to go one step further; the goal is always just over the horizon – and this in spite of the fact that everywhere he goes, wise friends advise him that he is seeking to gain something ungraspable. His adventures are riddled with language of the unknowable: an ocean is “boundless” (613), a host of inhabitants “beyond numbering” (614),  a city “limitless” (615), streets “innumerable” (617), and the town he stays in before seeking the Water of Life seems “to have no center or limit” (619-620). As for Sekandar, his own speculation is “endless” (620). Though by ground covered, sovereigns met, wonders witnessed, and knowledge gained, he certainly far surpasses any other king or hero in the Shahnameh, Sekandar is defined throughout by the answers that he does not have.

At the core of this characterization is another level of seeking in Sekandar. Wherever he travels, he asks about the ways of the people living there, about what lies beyond, about what he might gain. Though at times he seems to set clear objectives, such as finding the Water of Life or gaining tribute from Qaydafeh, he rarely states outright what it is that he wants. Therefore, it should be taken as a notable exception when he asks plainly of the Brahmins, “What is the reality of this thing that makes us weep with longing?” (612). In this episode, bridging his adventures in the known world of human realms and the unknown world of strange and otherworldly beings, Sekandar tells us what it is that he is looking for. And what is it? A “thing” that makes him “weep with longing.” A “thing.” He does not even know what it is that he is looking for – only that he is sick with yearning for it. And that sickness drives him forward unto death.

As Sekandar moves through the world, his encounters become stranger and stranger. It begins with his humbling by Qaydafeh, and by the latter episodes he is traveling from place to place in a state of bewilderment and fear. He is driven by his desperate need to find the object of his longing, and though he travels to the ends of the earth he does not find it. Sekandar is the king who sought to gain the secrets of fate and death, and instead tragically learned that the more you see of the world, the further you are from understanding its workings. You can gather all the knowledge of the earth, but you will be no closer to reaching the throne of the Lord.

The value of the Sekandar story is as a proof for the Shahnameh’s axiomatic assertions about the absolute inaccessibility of the unknown. In many other stories, we as an audience – experiencing the epic through its protagonists – are often ordered to desist from chasing the unknowable as a matter of mere practicality. The tales of Sekandar bring the matter much closer to home. We see, embodied in his emotionality, a fear of death, an anxiousness about the nature of the world, a longing for some reassuring and stable truth. In the end, what we learn is that the only stability is instability, and that any aspiration to certainty we may have in our lives or our deaths is sheer folly. In many ways, Sekandar – who we must recall is none other than the mighty Alexander of Macedon, an archetypal king and conqueror if there ever was one – is a failure through and through. His chapter in Ferdowsi’s epic is not the glorified tour of victory that we might expect, but rather an intimately personal, sympathetic portrait of a harrowed spiritual seeker who pursues meaning to a very bitter end – and to no avail. Thus the story is also an example of the way that Ferdowsi blurs lines between exemplary kings and humanity as a whole, between might and desperation, between hope and despair, leveling the gap between ancient rulers and modern readers to bare before his audience the certain doom of reaching out for that which is wholly beyond our grasp.




[1] Tr. Richard Newman.

[2] Darius III.

[3] Queen mother Kandake (Candace) of Kush, identified in the text as the ruler of Andalusia.

[4] An Indian king.

[5] A group of Indian ascetics visited by Sekandar.

[6] An angel in Islam who heralds the Day of Judgement.

[7] Aristotle.

[8] A kind of divine aura held by those who are kingly and/or worthy of the throne, a central concept in the Shahnameh.