Sunday’s column by Salman Rashid on Alexander as Zulqarnain/Cyrus has taught me a great deal as usual. But he has also triggered my own curiosity. Since this is a vague subject, I must assert that I do not claim to be right about anything.
We all believe that there was once a good king called Zulqarnain whom Allah made powerful on earth. The Holy Quran says (18:83-94) he travelled to where the sun set in a muddy well, after which he went east where the sun rises. He then went north where he built a wall to protect the world against Yajuj-Majuj or Gog-Magog.
Zulqarnain means man with two horns. Although an old tradition says Moses had two horns, Muslims have largely identified him with Alexander the Great. In Rome, the statue of Moses has two horns.
Firdausi in his Shahnama immortalised Zulqarnain as the just king and conqueror. He ‘owns’ him by making him the grandson of Darius.
Abul Kalam Azad thought Zulqarnain was Alexander. Alexander as Iskandar has always been a popular name. His wall is known as sadd-e-Iskandari. Almost all great Persian poets wrote at least one masnavi about him.
Cyrus was the great Persian king who rescued the Jews from their exile in Babylon. The king with two horns is mentioned by Prophet Daniel. He wore the two horns to indicate his control of two countries: Pars and Medea.
Zulqarnain is also a Muslim name because the Holy Quran speaks well of him. It comes from the root ‘qrn’ meaning horn/ head.
Arab ‘qrn’ appears in Greek as ‘kr’ and in Latin as ‘krn’. The origin of the word must be Syriac from where many words have radiated to the Semitic and Indo-European group of languages.
Greek ‘kr’ became ‘sr’ since Latin had no ‘k’ sound. So we have rhinoceros meaning horn on the nose. The mythical horse unicorn has one horn because corn here means horn. (Note the transformation of Latin corn into horn in English.)
In Persian and Urdu, ‘sar’ means head and in Urdu-Hindi, the same word is used to indicate top end (‘sira’). Our name for south Punjab, Seraiki, comes from Sindhi ‘siro’ meaning top end. In English, cranium for skull has the same root. Christian name Cornelius means crowned.
The musical instrument horn was first fashioned out of a horn. Another name for it is cornet. The word for head in Urdu is ‘sar’ but in Latin the word for head/brain is cerebrum in which the root is ‘cer’.
Alexander is also a curious word. The ander part in it means man and comes from ‘aner’ through a grammatical change andros. We know that ‘nar’ in Persian and Sanskrit means man.
From aner came andros. Name Andrew means manly. Alexander means he saves men. The saving sense is conveyed in alex, which is a negative of leg meaning to join. Root ‘lg’ appears in lex (law) and religion. Religion binds and the word ‘ligature’ means bound.
The ‘lg’ root is the same as in Urdu-Hindi ‘lag’ (join) and ‘alag’ (separate). Alexander separated men from harm and, therefore, was saviour of men. We believe that the Holy Quran, talking of a non-Muslim favourably, gave us the permission to admire all men of other creeds who are just and wise.
PS: The Greeks call themselves Hellenes. The eastern world knew them as Ionians — now in Turkey where Troy was located — and pronounced the word correctly as ‘Yunani’. Helen means Greek woman. In India, Greeks were called Yavan from Ionian and Jaunpur and Junagarh are named after them.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2012.
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