Above, top: detail, Iskandar Builds the Iron Rampart. View full »
Above, bottom: detail, Iskandar at the Talking Tree. View full »
Iskandar (Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror) ushers in the quasi-historical section of the Shahnama. Firdawsi justifies Iskandar’s claim to the Persian throne by maintaining he was the son of Darab (Darius II), who married the daughter of Philip of Macedonia. When his half-brother Dara (Darius III) is murdered, Iskandar promises to protect and rule over Iran in his place.

Following his accession to the Persian throne, Iskandar sets out in search of knowledge and wisdom, a quest that takes him on fantastic adventures to known places and mythical lands. In his travels, Iskandar confronts and defeats his enemies, learns from different cultures, and dispenses justice, as he does with Taynush, the son of Qaydafa, the wise queen of Andalus. Seated beneath a blossoming tree and surrounded by his noblemen, Iskandar calmly addresses the impetuous Taynush, who agrees to abandon his plans to avenge the death of his father-in-law Fur, a ruler of India (whom Iskandar had killed). The king reassures Taynush that he is safe.

“I shall not break my word to Qaydafa—
My promise will be kept in every way:
There is no good in lying kings who make
Fair promises they then proceed to break.”

Next, Iskandar leads his army to the land of the Brahmans, where he hopes to learn their ancient practices. He “heard their chants, and saw them running with naked feet, bodies, and heads; he saw that their bodies were unprovided for but their souls were filled with the fruits of knowledge.” Iskandar questions the ascetics on life and death and their peace in the midst of war. They reply: “An ambitious man struggles to gain something that is not worth the effort he has put forth, and then he passes from the world while his gold and treasure and crown remain here. Only his good deeds will accompany him, and his head and glory will both return to dust.” They warn Iskandar of the dangers of greed and excessive pride in trying to conquer the world, and they also remind the conqueror of his mortality before he heads into unknown lands to the east.

At the end of the civilized world, Iskandar encounters the savages of the mountainous land of Gog and Magog. As a just and compassionate leader, he responds to the desperate pleas of the local population to protect them from the recurring invasions of these marauding people, whose “faces are that of camels, their tongues are black, and their eyes the color of blood.” Iskandar gathers masons, blacksmiths, and craftsmen from throughout the world and orders them to construct two massive walls to keep the evil creatures at bay. “The earth was once again a place of peace and pleasure: the famous barrier of Iskandar had delivered the world from strife.”

When Iskandar reaches the end of the world, he encounters a tree with two trunks. From one trunk sprout male heads that speak during the day in a voice that strikes terror, while the female heads of the other trunk talk sweetly at night. Loudly the male half warns Iskandar that he has already seen his share of blessings and “when he has reigned for fourteen years, he must quit the royal throne.” At midnight the female heads urge him not to give in to greed, which makes one “wander the wide world, harass mankind, and kill kings.” Lastly, they predict:

Neither your mother, nor your family,
Nor the veiled women of your land will see
Your face again. Death will come soon: you will die
In a strange land, with strangers standing by.

As the talking tree prophesied, Iskandar died in Babylon far from his home. His coffin, made of solid gold, was carried to Alexandria, Egypt, where it was placed in the midst of a wide plain and thousands of his followers came to mourn. “The philosopher Aristotle was there, his eyes filled with bitter tears; the world watched as he stretched out his hand to the coffin and said, ‘Where are your intelligence, knowledge, and foresight, now that a narrow coffin is your resting place?’ … And then his mother came running, and placed her face on this chest, and said,

“O noble king, world-conqueror, whose state
Was princely, and whose stars were fortunate,
You’re far away from me and seem so near,
Far from your kin, far from your soldiers here.”

To conclude the story of Iskandar, Firdawsi addresses the reader. “There is nothing in the world so terrible and fearful as the fact that one comes like the wind and departs as a breath. … Whether you are a king or a pauper you will discover no rhyme or reason to it. But one must act well, with valor and chivalry, and one must eat well and rejoice: I see no other fate for you, whether you are a subject or a prince.”