Alexander and the Mongols

Miniature of Alexander the Great and his army make a sacrifice on the night before the Battle of Issus in Vasco da Lucena's French translation of Rufus's Historia Alexandri magni. Alexander and the Mongols

By John Andrew Boyle

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (1979)

Introduction: The association of Alexander the Great with the Mongols begins with the identification of the latter with the peoples of Gog and Magog. The evolution of this legend, which has its origin in the Book of Genesis, is curious in the extreme. In Genesis Magog is mentioned as one of the sons of Japhet, his name occurring between those of Corner and Madai. Since Madai is clearly intended as theeponym of the Medes and Corner has been located in Cappadocia and Phrygia it has been plausibly suggested that Magog at this stage corresponded to the terri tory in between, i.e. the region immediately south of the Caucasus in Eastern and Northern Armenia. In Ezekiel we hear for the first time of Gog “of the land of Magog”, who will come from his place out of the uttermost parts of the north, he and many peoples with him, “all of them riding on horses, a great company and a mighty army.” It will be seen that the “land of Magog” can no longer be located south of the Caucasus, and indeed EzekieFs prophecy of the invasion of Gog has been interpreted as an echo of the invasions of the Cimmerians, who came southwards from the steppes through the Darial pass towards the end of the eighth century B.C.; or more probably of the invasion of the Scythians which took place in the following century by way of Darband. Finally we are told in Revelation that “when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall come forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea”.

The legend of the enclosing of these peoples behind a wall of brass and iron from which they will break out at the end of the world has been traced back to two passages in Josephus, in one of which he equates the Scythians with Gog and Magog while in the other he speaks of a pass, apparently in the Caucasus area, which Alexander had shut up with iron gates. Of the legend itself there appear to have been two main versions: that in Pseudo-Methodius, from which it passed into Western recensions of the Alexander Romance: and that in the Christian Legend concerning Alexander, which was incorporated into the lost Arabic version of the Romance and which is preserved in its derivatives, with particular fidelity in the Ethiopic version. To Pseudo-Methodius we shall return. In the Christian Legend concerning Alexander, an apocalyptic work composed by an unknown author or authors in northern Mesopotamia at some time between A.D. 629 and 636, the story of the enclosing of the peoples of Gog and Magog (identified with the Huns) runs – somewhat abridged – as follows. After his journey to the Land of the Rising Sun (of which more anon) Alexander travels northwards through Armenia into the southern Caucasus. He asks the natives: “Who are the nations within this mountain upon which we are looking?” They reply that they are the Huns and that their kings are “Gog and Magog and Nawal the kings of the sons of Japhet…”. And upon hearing their description of these savage and cruel peoples and their repellent customs, he orders a great gate of brass and iron to be constructed to close the gap in the wall of mountains and confine the nations of Gog and Magog within them. Upon the gate he causes an inscription to be engraved in which he prophesies the future incursions of the Huns, one of which was to take place “at the conclusion of eight hundred and twenty-six years”.


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