As I step into the narrow room, dimly lit by a shaft of light, my Egyptologist guide, Hanan Eldeeb, beckons me forward.
“Here, on this wall in hieroglyphics, is the story of Alexander the Great’s visit to Luxor.” She points out the ancient drawings on the wall. “Here he is dressed as a pharaoh making sacrifices to the gods Ammon Re and Ammon Min. And here is his cartouche.”
Cartouche showing Alexander’s name
I can hardly believe what I am looking at. After all my years of research and writing, I am finally in Egypt visiting some of the sites where Alexander once had been.
From the moment of his birth in 356 BC Alexander was connected in a mystical way to Egypt. At that time, Egypt was occupied by the Persians who had dealt a deadly blow to the Egyptian people in their religious life by inaugurating Persian rules and plundering their temples. The last pharaoh, Nectenabo II, had been expelled and had made his way to Macedonia where he appealed to King Philip to send aid to his besieged country.
At the time, Philip was newlywed to his fifth wife, a beautiful young Epirote princess, Olympias. She was a devoted Bacchant, a worshipper of Dionysos who kept a pet snake and indulged in cult practices. It was said that when Nectenabo went to Pella, he convinced Olympias that she would be visited by the ‘golden snake of Ammon’ and give birth to a remarkable son. Rumours abounded later that in fact he had persuaded Olympias to make love to him, impressing her with his skill of astrology, and disguising himself in the robes of Ammon so as to seem like Alexander’s divine father. The story goes that the night Alexander was born, the great temple of the goddess Artemis at Ephesus burned down. This was taken as an omen denoting the child’s divinity. Olympias brought Alexander up believing he was god-blessed and divine and this caused a rift between the boy and his father. Philip even stated once that Alexander was not his son. All his life Alexander clung to this mystic belief that he was the son of Zeus Ammon and dismissed Philip as merely his ‘earthly’ father.
Philip was assassinated in 336 BC just before he was to set off on a campaign to oust the Persians from Asia Minor. The young king, Alexander, took up his father’s quest a year later, at the age of 20. After crossing the Hellespont and routing the Persians from the Greek colonies in Asia Minor, he marched south and besieged the city of Tyre. Because the Persians occupied Egypt, he then marched south and met with resistance at the Philistine city of Gaza, the last great coastal town before the Egyptian frontier. Using heavy siege engines brought from Tyre, they took the city after a two month battle. Alexander was wounded in the shoulder during this time. The people of Gaza were killed or enslaved and the city was made into a Macedonian fortress.
From Gaza Alexander marched along the coast to the frontier of Egypt where his fleet waited. It was necessary to occupy Egypt before launching into his campaign to penetrate the interior of Asia because of hostile elements who were established there. Egypt fell without fighting. The Persian satrap, Mazaces surrendered at the citadel of Memphis and the Egyptian people welcomed Alexander with joy. Since their last pharaoh, Nectanabo, had been expelled, they had lived under the yoke of the Persians and they looked to Alexander as a redeemer from this oppression. Alexander had complete tolerance for their gods and for the Egyptian people. Greeks had always identified foreign divinities with their own gods. In Egypt in particular, the principal gods of the Greeks were equal: Ammon with Zeus, Osiris with Dionysus, Isis with Demeter, Horus with Apollo, so it was natural for Alexander to show his reverence to the Egyptian gods. His special obligation was to recognize the Egyptian priesthood and he offered royal sacrifices to their gods. At Memphis he was placed on the throne in the temple of Ptah and invested as pharaoh.
As the Egyptologist explained to me, these hieroglyphics carved on the wall at Luxor testify to the royal titles given to him: “Horus, the strong prince” and “the protector of Egypt.” As King of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt Alexander was called “beloved of Ammon” and finally “son of Ra”. To the Egyptians, Alexander became their special king. As part of his religious obligations, Alexander ordered the rebuilding of both the sanctuary in the Temple of Thothmes III at Karnak and the Temple of Amenhotep III at Luxor. From that time on, Alexander chose to adorn his helmet with the horns of Ammon.
Since the 7th century, Greeks had been enlisted as mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian rulers and some had settled in the country. There was a Greek polis, Naucrates, in the Nile Delta, a Greco-Egyptian trade centre. Even in Memphis there was a Greek community, Politeuma. While the Naucratites were legally barred from marrying native wives in order to keep their race pure, in Memphis mixed marriages existed. When Alexander entered their city, it marked a new era of Greek influence in Egypt.
There’s not much left of Memphis today but it was interesting to wander the avenue and imagine how it might have been back in the days of Egypt’s ancient glory when Alexander came to visit.
Statue of Alexander at Alexandria
Alexander never intended to change the Egyptian cultures, but introduced the culture of the Greeks in order to make a future home in Egypt. His greatest contribution was the founding of Alexandria. At the beginning of 331 BC Alexander started out from Memphis down the Nile and stopped on the strip of ground between Lake Mareotis and the island of Pharos where he laid out a city that to this day bears his name. Alexander meant it to be a trade centre and no better place could be found on the whole of the Mediterranean coast.
What a thrill it was for me to be allowed the privilege of a visit to this magnificent city! I spent two days there, shown around the sites by a knowledgeable young tourist guide, Sarah. Alexander is very much remembered in his city. As we drove in, I spotted a beautiful statue of him riding his famous horse, Bucephalus. And throughout the city there are posters and monuments in Alexander’s honour. It is easy to see, with its long vista of coastline, how Alexander was impressed with the site and made it an important port city.
My first visit was to the Roman theatre ruins. From there Sarah took me to see the site of where the famous lighthouse used to stand. Since the 1400 it has been an Arab fortress, but some of the original lighthouse bricks were said to have been used in its construction.
Arab fortress built on site of ancient lighthouse
On my second day there we visited the Museum and viewed many of the artifacts taken from the sea, relics of the original city and palaces. Then we visited the magnificent new library of Alexandria. In the courtyard there was a bust of Alexander, and just outside the entrance gate a mega statue of Ptolemy rescued from the ocean floor. It was Ptolemy, Alexander’s illegitimate half-brother and companion, who supervised the building of this great city after Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BC. He became the first Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt and his lineage carried on until the reign of Cleopatra.
While still on the coast Alexander had decided to consult the oracle in the oasis of Ammon at Siwa. This mysterious excursion was one of the most remarkable in his life. He made the pilgrimage because the oracle of Ammon was regarded as infallible in the Greek world. According to his court scribe Callisthenes, Alexander went to Ammon because he had an ambition to rival Perseus and Herakles who had also consulted the god. But it is also suggested he went there to consult the oracle about his birthright.
He marched along the coast then went south west on an old caravan road. A sand storm obliterated the road and for some time the party was lost in the desert until two ravens began to caw and fly overhead. Alexander was sure the god had sent them to lead the way. Ptolemy also reported that snakes had slithered ahead of them as guides. Finally they reached the oasis, lush with groves of date palms, olives and abundant springs and lakes of water.
Callisthenes described the visit which included ritual offerings and ceremonies. As pharaoh, Alexander was allowed to enter the temple where he was greeted as ‘son of Ammon”.
When asked by his friends what the oracle told him, he replied only that he would speak of it to his mother when he returned home. He kept the oracle to himself and treated it as a secret, but he wrote Olympias afterwards and told her that he had received secret details which he would impart to her when he returned to Macedon. This never happened. He took the secret with him to his grave.