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Alexander and Marco Polo

Around 1300 AD the famous Italian merchant Marco Polo, together with the romancer Rustichello, wrote an account of his extensive 20 year long voyages through Asia. During his travels Polo encountered, and later recorded, four legends about Alexander the Great. Of course they are romanticised. What is amazing is that the memory of Alexander was obviously still very much alive 1600 years after his death.

The Dry Tree

Marco Polo records the existance of the Dry Tree, or the Solitary Tree, somewhere in the wastelands of northern Persia. According to Polo it is the only single tree within hundreds of miles of desert (although he admits that in one direction there were other trees nearby). The legend has it that the Dry Tree marks the exact spot of the great battle between Alexander and Darius.

It's not clear wether this 'great battle' refers to Issus or Gaugamela, or both. The location - somewhere in Chorasan, near the border with present day Turkmenistan - is also impossible. When Alexander reached these regions Darius was already assassinated. Polo describes the Dry Tree as of great size, with green leaves on one side and white leaves on the other.

Please note: a solitary dry tree is also very prominent in the famous Issus-mosaic from Pompei, pinning down the precise location where Alexander and Darius came face to face.

(Though the story is fiction, solitary trees are not. There has been a similar famous tree in the West-African state of Niger, serving both as a landmark and a national monument, until it was run over by a truck driver in 1973.)

Alexander's heirs

Marco Polo claims Balkh, in modern Afghanistan, is the city where Alexander married the daughter of King Darius. He continues his account with the description of the nearby kingdom of Badakshan. The rulers of Badakshan, Polo writes, are the direct descendants of Alexander and his Persian bride. In honour of their forefather these kings all bear the title of Zulkarnein, the Muslim name for Alexander.

Balkh is the ancient city of Bactra Zariaspa, the capital of Bactria. In this area - in Nautaca, not Bactra - Alexander in 327 BC married Roxane, daughter of the Sogdian nobleman Oxyartes. Roxane had absolutely nothing to do with the household of King Darius. But in many tales she replaces Stateira, the actual daughter of Darius (married to Alexander in 324 BC; she bore him no children). Roxane and her infant son did not survive the power struggles after Alexander's death.

The last unicorns

Marco Polo fuels the popular legend that Bucephalus, the majestic horse Alexander possessed since age 14, was actually a unicorn. So not only the conqueror wore horns, his horse did too.

According to Polo in Badakshan there lived a breed of horses which were the direct offspring of Bucephalus and local mares. All of them were born with a horn on their forehead, says Polo. This breed was the exclusive property of one single member of the Badakshan royal family. He stubbornly refused to grant the king ownership of some of these remarkable horses and was therefore executed. In revenge his infuriated wife decided to destroy the entire breed. Thus the race of unicorns became extinct.

Alexander's barrier

Of Georgia - the region of the former Sovjet republic in the Caucasus mountains - Polo writes that this was the country where Alexander's progress was halted because the road was too narrow and dangerous. Alexander had, according to Polo, the sea on one side, steep mountains on the other and impenetrable forests in front of him.

In Georgia Alexander decided to build a barrier across a narrow pass between two mountains. Alexander built towers and a fortress and thus cut off the malignant northern hordes from the civilised world. Polo says the barbarian tribes were often refered to as Tartars, but their correct name should be Comenians. Polo uses the name Iron Gates for the pass which was closed by Alexander.

Polo's account is fiction. Alexander never even ventured in these regions. But the legend about this ancient version of the 'iron curtain' or 'Berlin wall' closely resembles the myths concerning remnants of a great wall found on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, attributed to Alexander (though this wall was erected centruries later). There's also a striking resemblance to the passage about Gog and Magog in the Holy Koran. All of these stories echo episodes in Alexander's career when, for example, he led his troops against the Scythian nomads.

(Polo mentions Gog and Magog elsewhere in his work and locates it in northern China. Classic Arab geographers even linked the Great Wall of China with the Alexander story in the Koran. Another possible candidate for 'Alexander's wall' lies near Derbent in the Russian area of Dagestan.)

You might want to check: Legends (Gog & Magog).

Written by nick

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