Monday, October 14, 2013

Alexander Is Lowered Into The Sea: The Archaeology of Story

[Image & Artwork Copyright Held By The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Image Used Here For Purposes of Commentary Only, i.e., Within Fair Use; Museum Link Is Here]

The picture above spoke to me from across the room yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum, a small item amidst the panoply at the newly opened exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 .  See the exhibit if you can--it is the sort of bravura display that only the Met and a few others (the V & A, for instance) around the world can do, expertly melding history, anthropology, connoisseurship and aesthetics, and over-brimming the viewer's eye with one exquisite piece after another.   Enmesh your gaze in the glories of palempores on acres of bed-linens, of rinceaux patterns on bonnets and evening gowns, of pheasants and lions cavorting among the original paisley-fronds, of chintz before the word took on its present-day meaning.

The picture above the Met placed as a visual footnote or supplemental (having to do with the contrast between the Mughal headgear and the hats on the Portuguese sailors) yet I found myself more deeply drawn in the more I studied it.  "Alexander Is Lowered Into The Sea," it is titled, being a folio from a Khamsa (a quintet) by Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, with the painting itself attributed to Mukunda.  The Met tells us that, "while underwater, [Alexander] will receive a visit from an angel who will foretell his death."

I did not recall any such story attached to Alexander the Great when I stumbled through Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch (even in translation!) my freshman year of college.  How curious, this legendry revolving around a primitive but apparently functional diving bell.  Alexander--it turns out (but why was I surprised, since Aristotle was his tutor?)--had an interest in such things, if only to thwart any submarine defenses of the maritime cities he besieged.  Click here and here for more.

Alexander invaded Persia in 334 BCE, and India in 327.  Amir Khusrau  (1253-1325 CE) wrote the poem illustrated above some 1,600 years after Alexander's death, one flower in the great garden of verse planted and pruned during the Delhi Sultanate.  (For more on Amir Khusrau, one of the most influential and creative minds in medieval Eurasia, reputed to have invented--among other things--the sitar and the tabla, click here).  

Mukunda, or some other master-artist of Akbar the Great's court, painted the scene another three centuries after Khusrau wrote the poem.  One can imagine Akbar, with his syncretistic worldview and cosmopolitan sense of majesty, enjoying both poem and picture very much.

Four centuries after Akbar's time, we are admiring the painting and reading the story yet again-- and perhaps recollecting how much is shared across millennia and across seemingly disparate cultures.  Alexander founded cities as well as destroyed them, cities still important today.  While echoes of his battles at Gaugamela and on the banks of the Hydaspes live on in scenes such as those written by Tolkien for his men of the West confronting the elephants ridden by the Haradrim ("the men of the south"), we might also bring forth other bits of Alexandrine lore, those more tied to cross-cultural understanding and the pacific quest for revelation.

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