Alexander III of Macedon (356-323 bc), better known to history as ‘Alexander the Great’, spent several months in Egypt as part of his on-going campaign against the mighty Persian Empire of Darius III. After conquering Persia’s naval bases all along the coastline of Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine, Alexander marched south into Egypt where he remained for some six months. Although generally regarded as little more than an eccentric diversion, Alexander’s Egyptian sojourn was essential to his future plans. He needed a strong coastal base for both strategic and commercial purposes, from which he could not only communicate across the Mediterranean but which could also handle the highly lucrative sea-borne trade network he wanted to divert from Phoenicia. With naval reinforcements following his progress down the coast, his Macedonian army covered the hazardous 130 mile distance in only a week to reach the heavily fortified coastal town of Pelusium in late October 332 bc.
With his reputation going before him, Alexander was met by Egypt’s Persian governor Mazaces. With no armed forces and with no likelihood of any assistance following the defeated Darius’ swift departure back east to Persia, Mazaces simply handed over the treasury’s 800 talents and “all the royal furniture”. In return he was kept on as part of the new administration together with the new governor Cleomenes, who was made responsible for finance and created the royal mint around 331 bc. Cleomenes was a hard-headed, unscrupulous businessman who quickly amassed a personal fortune of 8,000 talents during his career as governor. Yet he remained loyal to Alexander with whom he kept up a regular correspondence, sending him such delicacies as smoked quail by the thousand. After installing a garrison at the key defensive site of Pelusium, Alexander then ordered his fleet to sail south up the Nile to the traditional capital Memphis (Ineb-hedj) at the apex of the Delta where he himself would arrive by land at the head of his troops. Passing by the ancient religious site of Heliopolis (Iunu) with its vast white temples and obelisks, Egypt made an enormous impression on both the Macedonian troops and their 24 year old leader. Brought up with his formidable mother Olympias’ tales of Egyptian gods, the religiously-minded Alexander must have been completely dumbstruck in a land so steeped in ritual, where priests held enormous power wielded inside temples not built to human scale. Passing by the great pyramids of Giza, still gleaming in their shining white limestone, he finally reached Memphis to a genuinely rapturous reception.
Greek travelers had actually been visiting Egypt for centuries, many of them setting up trading colonies or acting as mercenaries. Others such as the historian Herodotus and philosopher Plato came to study a culture they regarded with awe as the cradle of civilization, their knowledge almost certainly part of Alexander’s education. Yet for almost 200 years Egypt had been occupied by Persia who had incorporated it into the growing empire, and assuming the Egyptian crown by right of conquest the Persian king had ruled in absentia through a satrap, exploiting its vast grain reserves and taxing its people. The Persians showed relatively little respect for the ancient traditions and were deeply unpopular, and the Egyptians’ had rebelled so often parts of the country remained virtually independent.
Alexander was therefore hailed as Savior and Liberator, and as the people’s choice and legitimate heir he was offered the double crown of the Two Lands. Anointed as pharaoh in Memphis on 14 November 332 bc, the culmination of his coronation was the climactic moment when the high priest named him ‘son of the gods’ according to traditions dating back almost 3,000 years. This title deeply affected him, and Olympias’ references to him being the son of Zeus must have filled his mind; indeed, there were even scenes of the king of the gods Amun (‘Zeus’) impregnating selected queens with the heir to the throne! In a world where the gods were perceived as living entities and were considered a part of everyday life, Alexander must now have began to believe in his own divinity as a fact rather than a simple exercise of propaganda.
Always a devout man who began each day with sacrifices to the gods, Alexander had no difficulty worshipping the Egyptian deities. Equating their gods with his own, he worshipped the Egyptian Amun as a form of Zeus. At the Memphite necropolis of Sakkara the new pharaoh offered sacrifices to the Apis bull, cult animal of the creator god Ptah, followed by Greek-style games and literary contests in which performers from all over the Greek world took part in a multi-cultural extravaganza. These kind of events mark the beginnings of Hellenism in their blending of Greek practices and local traditions, and Egypt and Greece would successfully co-exist for the next 3 centuries.
Ever keen to discuss philosophy which the Greeks believed to have originated in Egypt, Alexander attended lectures given by the Egyptian philosopher Psammon. Wholeheartedly agreeing with his teaching that “all men are ruled by god, because in every case that element which imposes itself and achieves mastery is divine”, Alexander also drew on his own experiences when he added that whilst god is indeed the father of all mankind, “it is the noblest and best whom he makes his own” (Plutarch).
In the two months he resided as ‘living god’ in the royal palace at Memphis, studying Egyptian laws and customs at first hand, he gave orders for the restoration of the Egyptians’ religious centers, including the great southern temples of Luxor and Karnak, where he appears in the company of the Egyptian gods wearing traditional Egyptian regalia including the rams horns of Amun as worn by his pharaonic predecessors including Amenhotep III. Alexander’s image was replicated all over Egypt in both monumental statuary and delicate relief, together his with his Greek name translated into hieroglyphs enclosed by the royal cartouche:
“Horus, the strong ruler, he who seizes the lands of the foreigners, beloved of Amun and the chosen one of Ra – meryamun setepenra Aleksandros”.
He then left Memphis in January 331 bc and sailed down the western branch of the Nile to inspect the Greek trading colony of Naucratis. Its land-bound position offered no scope for development, so Alexander pressed on toward the coast to reach the Egyptian fort of Rhakotis.
referred to by both Herodotus and Thucydides, close to Lake Mareotis where a narrow ridge divides its waters from the sea. Consulting Homer he had arrived on the coast at a site mentioned in the Odyssey: “Out of the sea where it breaks on the shores of Egypt rises an island from the waters: the name men give it is Pharos” (Odyssey IV.354-355). Noting that Homer was a clever city planner as well as a great poet, Alexander observed the deep waters of its well-sheltered, natural harbor and an uncanny similarity to the impressive location of Tyre. As Arrian says “he was immediately struck by the excellence of the site, and convinced that if a city were built upon it, it would certainly prosper. Such was his enthusiasm that he could not wait to begin the work and himself designed the general layout of the town, indicating the position of the market place and the temples and which gods they should serve, the gods of Greece and Egypt, and the exact limits of the defenses”. Working with the architect Deinocrates of Rhodes, the stonemason Numenios and a technical adviser named Hyponomos, Alexander also planned the site of the royal palace and even worked out a complex system of underground drains and sewers.
In Alexander’s haste there were no immediate means of marking out the ground until it was suggested they use barley flour from the soldiers’ rations. This they sprinkled on the ground as the king led the way along his imagined roads and avenues, laid out in the form of a Macedonian military cloak (chlamys) as his architects trailed along behind. When a great flock of birds descended and ate all traces of his new city, Alexander’s initial fears were allayed by his soothsayer Aristander who pronounced that the city would flourish, producing abundant resources which would nourish its people.
Whilst planning his gateway into the Mediterranean, Alexander also received the welcome news that Cyprus, Rhodes and Phoenicia and the Aegean islands of Tenedos, Lesbos, Kos and Chios had all come over to his side. As their former pro-Persian leaders were delivered to him for judgement, Alexander dispatched them south to the Greek garrison at Aswan, accompanied by Callisthenes whom Alexander sent southward to investigate Aristotle’s theory that the annual Nile flood was a result of rains to the south.
Having selected the optimum location for Alexandria, the king then set out west along the coastal road to Paraetonium (Mersa Matruh) in late January 331 bc. Leaving the main body of the army in Egypt, his military escort included his friends and Companions together with local guides, and as they advanced 200 miles along the coast toward Libya they received envoys from the Greek colony of Cyrene offering their allegiance, together with lavish gifts including 300 horses and a golden crown.
Alexander then turned south to follow the ancient caravan route through the Northern Sahara, which connected the Mediterranean coastline to central Africa via the all-important network of oases. The major oasis at Siwa was also home to the world renowned Oracle of the god Amun (the Libyan form of Ammon) described in Herodotus’ Histories (II.31-32) which Alexander, like many other famous men before him, intended to consult.
After only a few days crossing the sands, the party ran out of water and were only saved by a sudden violent rainstorm, interpreted by the expedition historian Callisthenes as divine intervention. Their sojourn was then interrupted by one of the regular terrifying sandstorms sweeping up from the south to obliterate any recognizable landmarks, and with the track indistinguishable from desert and the landscape featureless as far as the eye could see, the guides employed for the journey were soon lost. Mindful that hostile Persian forces of Cambyses had been obliterated in exactly the same circumstances in their attempts to reach Siwa two centuries before, his companions had been unable to dissuade Alexander from undertaking the perilous journey. “Fortune, by giving in to him on every occasion, had made his resolve unshakable and so he was able to overcome not only his enemies, but even places and seasons of the year” says Plutarch. And indeed, disaster was once again averted when two black ravens miraculously appeared, Alexander exhorting his colleagues to follow them as they must have been sent by the gods to guide them. Callisthenes records that the ravens limited their flight to accommodate the party, even cawing loudly if their charges deviated from the correct path. Ptolemy says that their guides took the form of two snakes, and whilst unsure which, Arrian confesses that “I have no doubt whatever that he had divine assistance of some kind”.
And so the myth of Alexander had begun, and gained momentum as tales spread of his supernatural powers which could summon divine guardians at will. It was also becoming increasingly plausible to those around him that he might even be that he claimed to be, the son of god himself. His divinity would be confirmed once and for all by consulting the Oracle, his need for self-validation explaining the risks he had taken on the perilous desert march.
As the exhausted men entered Siwa, their eyes would have been filled with the beauty of its lush, fertile oasis. Shady groves of palms and fruit trees bordered waters which gushed forth in abundance from subterranean springs and here in the mystical surroundings of the Spring of the Sun they refreshed themselves. With no prior knowledge of their arrival, immense curiosity and excitement must have greeted the Greek soldiers emerging weary from the desert, at their head the first pharaoh ever to complete the dangerous journey.
Anxious to visit the Oracle as soon as possible, Alexander then went immediately to the temple of Amun, its location on the high rock outcrop of Aghurmi deeply impressing him. Plutarch says that according to his sources, Alexander was met by the Siwan high priest who greeted him with the words “O, paidion”, “Oh, my son”, but mispronounced the Greek as “O, pai dios” meaning “Oh, son of god”, much to Alexander’s delight and amazement.
The small number of his party waited in the temple forecourt, and after the high priest announced to all present that the god was content, they could proceed with their questions. One of the Macedonians asked the Oracle whether they might give their king divine honors, to which the reply came “This would please Ammon”. Then in his capacity as pharaoh and high priest of all the gods, Alexander was led into to the heavily-scented darkness of the inner sanctuary to put his questions personally to the god himself.
When he finally emerged into the daylight, he was met by his friends anxious to know exactly what had transpired. Alexander would only say he had been given ‘the answer his heart desired’. That the main subject discussed had been the nature of his divine paternity seems the most likely, since he was adamant that the only other person he would tell these ‘secret prophecies’ to would be his mother, and as he told Olympias in a letter this would only be face to face on his return to Macedonia. Plutarch states that Alexander also asked if his father Philip II’s murder had been avenged, whereupon “the high priest asked him to choose his words more carefully, for his father was not a mortal”. He may also have sought divine approval for his new Egyptian city, whose viability as a trading center would also have been confirmed by his checking the age-old caravan routes to the Mediterranean which passed through Siwa.
Whatever his questions had been, Alexander was sufficiently satisfied with the answers to present magnificent offerings to the Oracle, and over the remaining eight years of his life would send frequent gifts to its priests, together with more questions. Always eager to receive its answers, Alexander, with his unshakable faith in oracles, would also act on their advice, whether it suited his purpose or not.
According to his general and biographer Ptolemy, Alexander then returned to Memphis along the direct route via the Qattara Depression. On arrival he made sacrifices to Zeus-Amun, held a great parade of troops and received 500 Greek mercenaries and 400 Thessalian cavalry sent from his regent Antipater back in Macedonia.
He then made final arrangements for the governing of the Egypt in his absence. Arrian says that Alexander had been deeply impressed by Egypt “and the general strength of the country, but the fact this had been greater than he expected, induced him to divide the control of it between a number of his officers, as too unsafe to put it all in the hands of one man”. Following Aristotle’s advice that a king must hold an even balance between all parties he therefore appointed a combination of Egyptians, Macedonians and Persians to rule Egypt along traditional lines.
Alexander left Egypt in the spring (mid-April) of 331 bc a changed man. Although he would never return alive to see the city he had founded, it would eventually be his final resting place when his embalmed body was returned there for burial only 10 years later.
Article by Dr. Alan M. Fildes and Dr. Joann Fletcher