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‘Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past’

During the eleven years he spent conquering the Achaemenid Persian empire, Alexander the Great took part in the rites of Babylonian Marduk and Egyptian Ammon, and reportedly sought enlightenment from the holy men of the Indus river valley. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, legends that formed around his life story showed him crossing even greater cultural boundaries—seeking to convert to Judaism, or to become a Hindu ascetic. In one of the manuscript illustrations in “Romance and Reason,” a small, intriguing exhibition at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in which he has a starring part, Iskandar—as Alexander came to be known in Arabic and Persian texts—can be seen visiting the holy Kaaba stone in Mecca, as though performing the hajj. That image foregrounds the show’s principal theme, the startling continuities between the ancient Greek world and medieval and early modern Islam.

Alexander’s journey from Macedonian monarch to pious Muslim sage can be traced in the larger of the show’s two rooms, where richly illustrated copies of the Koran and the Persian poems Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”) and Khamsa are displayed beside Greco-Roman statuettes of the conqueror himself. Many of the watercolors found in these manuscripts have a basis in historical fact: Tender scenes showing Iskandar tending the dying “Dara” are based on Alexander’s ouster of Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid Persian empire, in 331 BC. According to the legends these scenes depict, Dara died in Iskandar’s arms and, with his last breaths, bequeathed him his realm—an important moment in the eyes of later Persians, since it made Iskandar a legitimate ruler rather than a usurper. Other scenes shown in this gallery are more clearly fictional, even fantastic; Iskandar explores the gloomy Land of Darkness, converses with Socrates or with a king of China, and builds a mighty wall to keep the races of Gog and Magog—depicted in one illustration as bearded Neanderthals—from crossing his eastern borders.

A second room contains scientific, astrological, and medical treatises, illustrated in a wide variety of styles. Here, the influence on the medieval Islamic world of Greek thinkers like Dioscorides, Galen, and Ptolemy is on full display. Astronomical texts show Islamic thinkers reimagining the forms of the Greek gods and heroes who had given their names to the planets and constellations: Jupiter appears here as a black-skinned figure with seven arms, while a red-headed, sword-wielding Mars seems to evoke the Islamic experience of the Crusades. Loopily drawn anatomical figures from the fifteenth century, including a see-through woman with a fetus in her womb, reveal that the wisdom of ancient Greek doctors, sought by Persian kings as early as the sixth century BC, continued to inform eastern medical thought for more than two millennia.

At a time when the relationship between Islamic and Western thought is often described as one of tension and conflict, this gem-like exhibition offers a welcome reminder that the two have, in the past, fruitfully converged.

For more information, visit isaw.nyu.edu.

Category: Exhibition
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
15 East 84th Street,
New York, NY