Iskandar Builds the Iron Rampart

Iran, Tabriz, Il-Khanid period, ca. 1330–36
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1986.104

This illustration depicts one of Iskandar’s best-known adventures at the end of the civilized world, where he encounters the savages of the mythical lands of Gog (Ujuj) and Magog (Majuj). As a just and compassionate leader, Iskandar responds to the desperate pleas of the local population to protect them from the recurring invasions of these marauding people. He gathers workers from all over the world and orders them to construct two walls made of iron, copper, and carbon to keep the evil creatures at bay. In the fourteenth-century illustration, the artist focuses on the active construction of the rampart while the inhabitants of Gog and Magog, whose “faces are that of camels, their tongues are black, and their eyes the color of blood,” watch from behind the hills. Curiously, in the sixteenth-century version of the same scene, which was originally part of Ismail II’s Shahnama, the demonlike creatures help build the very wall that is intended to imprison them.