Chapter 5

Pharaoh: Alexander and Egypt

Alexander entered Egypt late in 332, facing no opposition from the inhabitants or from the Persian satrap Mazaces, who had too few soldiers to attempt any resistance. This was the first of the major Near Eastern kingdoms to come under his control, with a system of government that had its roots in over two-and-a-half millennia of Pharaonic rule. The popular image of Egypt as an unchanging civilization should not, however, be exaggerated: the centuries before Alexander’s arrival had seen many changes of rule since the end of the imperial period of the Late Bronze Age New Kingdom. The end of the New Kingdom had been followed by four centuries of the ‘Third Intermediate Period’ (1069–664), when the kingdom had been disunited and ultimately conquered by the Assyrians. Following that, Dynasty XXVI (664–525) had ruled Egypt until the Persian invasion under Cambyses, which had led to 120 years of Achaemenid rule. Egypt broke away from the Persian empire in 404, but was reconquered sixty years later, only twelve years before Alexander’s arrival. The conflicts which led to these transfers of power left their mark on Egyptian society. Nonetheless rulers would adopt the practices and forms of representation used by their successful predecessors, as they attempted to confirm their authority, and so maintain the appearance of continuity.

For the surviving Alexander historians two events are of crucial importance in Alexander’s time in Egypt: the foundation of the city of Alexandria and the visit to the oracle of Amun at Siwa. Arrian introduces his accounts of both these episodes saying that Alexander was seized by pothos, that is, overwhelming desire: these are actions driven by his own personal emotions rather than from any practical considerations. This interpretation has been largely followed in recent scholarship. The ancient writers disagree about the relative chronology of the two events, and this may add to a suspicion that one of them, the story of the foundation of Alexandria, is not all that it seems.


In the period of the Roman empire Alexandria, on the Egyptian coast at the western edge of the Nile Delta, was one of the most important cities in the world. Already by the end of the 3rd century BCE it had grown through trade to become the largest city in the world, and in antiquity only Rome ever grew larger. It was a great centre of trade and a crucial point of contact between the Mediterranean world and the East. The Library at Alexandria gathered together all of Greek literature, and became a centre of science and scholarship. It was at Alexandria, about a century after the death of Alexander, that the first calculations of the circumference of the earth were made; the Jewish Bible was also translated into Greek there in the 3rd century, and it was mainly through this translation, known as the Septuagint, that the Hebrew biblical texts were known to early Christian writers.

All the ancient Alexander historians emphasize Alexander’s personal involvement in the construction of Alexandria, suggesting that he determined where it would be built (after receiving advice in a dream, according to Plutarch) and how the walls and the major public buildings would be laid out. They also all provide versions of a prophetic story about the foundation. They say that the outline of the city was marked out using barley grains (either because this was the normal Macedonian practice, or because no chalk was available); and then, according to some versions, birds flocked down and ate the barley. The use of barley was interpreted to mean that the city was destined to grow rich from the fruits of the earth, but in the versions involving the birds, their arrival was taken to predict the fact that people would come to Alexandria from far and wide to settle. How much, if anything, of these accounts can be trusted? The answer is that possibly none of it can be.

After Alexander’s death his body was sent west from Babylon for burial in Macedonia. En route it was captured by Ptolemy and brought to Egypt, where it was entombed in Memphis, not Alexandria. Memphis remained the administrative centre of Egypt under Ptolemy, who had taken control of Egypt as satrap on Alexander’s death, until at least 311. In a document he composed in that year, known as the ‘Satrap Stele’ written in Egyptian, Ptolemy states that he moved to ‘the Fortress of King Alexander, formerly known as Rakotis, on the shore of the Greek sea’. This event, 12 years after Alexander’s death, and 20 years after he left Egypt, may mark the real beginning of Alexandria. Ptolemy proclaimed himself king in 304, and it is probably only after that point that the city began to become a major cultural centre. Its most famous buildings, the library and museum, are usually associated with Ptolemy’s son and successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–246). It is not clear from the text of the Satrap Stele whether the site was named ‘the Fortress of King Alexander’ before Ptolemy I moved there or whether it still had the Egyptian name Rakotis. Archaeology has provided little information about the earliest history of the site, since the ancient city is buried beneath the modern city and the sea, although excavation is ongoing, and something may emerge in the future. At the moment there is little contemporary evidence to support the idea that Alexander himself was responsible for much of what was to become the most important city to bear his name.

As his campaign took him into eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and beyond, Alexander did start to create settlements, usually named Alexandria, including what is now Kandahar in Afghanistan. Plutarch, in his essay ‘On the Virtue and Fortune of Alexander the Great’, suggests that Alexander founded more than 70 cities, and claimed that his purpose in doing so was to spread Greek culture and learning among the ‘barbarians’. The number is probably an exaggeration, but at least 20 settlements named Alexandria are known from inscriptions and written accounts. Not all of these have been securely located, and some, like Alexandria Troas near Troy, previously named Antigonia Troas after its founder Antigonus the One-Eyed, were given their name by later rulers. Some were refoundations of previously existing settlements, and others were new creations. Excavations at Ai-Khanoum in northeastern Afghanistan, which is thought to be the site of Alexandria-on-the-Oxus, have revealed a Greek theatre and temples, built some decades after Alexander’s time, but Plutarch’s idea that his foundations were intended as cultural centres is unrealistic. These settlements were mostly little more than fortresses, occupied by veteran Macedonian soldiers prepared to start a new life in Asia, supported perhaps by local inhabitants brought in from surrounding villages. These were not intended to be major commercial centres but points of control in regions where there was a danger of insurrection. When compared with all the other Alexandrias, the idea of Alexander deliberately created a new commercial city in Egypt seems out of place. It is possible that he might have wanted to leave a garrison fort there, and that this is what Ptolemy is referring to in the Satrap Stele, but the site of Alexandria is not an obvious one for a military settlement.

The stories of the omens surrounding the foundation of the city are above all reflections of its future success: the greater the fortune of the city, the more incentive there was to associate it with Alexander himself. Three of the early histories of Alexander had their origins in the city: Ptolemy, whose history is the main source for Arrian, Cleitarchus, whose work lies behind Diodorus and Curtius, and the so-called Alexander Romance, the fanciful popularizing account of Alexander’s career that is known from versions from the 3rd century CE and afterwards, but which had its origins in the 3rd century BCE. Ptolemy in particular associated himself with Alexander, as we have seen, putting Alexander’s head on his coins, and to credit Alexander with the founding of his royal city would assist him in this. Other authors would have no reason not to promulgate a version of the facts that raised the status of their own city. Older Greek cities claimed mythical heroes as their founders, and Alexander the Great was a hero worth claiming as founder by the Alexandrians, but the stories that Alexander did personally found the city belong more to legend than to history.

The oracle of Amun

The Egyptian episode that receives the most attention in the surviving histories is Alexander’s visit to the temple of Amun in the Siwa oasis in the Libyan desert. In addition to the accounts in Diodorus, Curtius, Plutarch, Arrian, and Justin, we have much of what Alexander’s court historian Callisthenes wrote, as reported by the geographer Strabo, who wrote under the emperor Augustus, that is, a little later than Diodorus. Modern scholars have followed the ancient sources in seeing Alexander’s encounter with the oracle as a turning point in his understanding of himself. As with other cases of Alexander’s involvement with religion, however, the evidence is complex and confused.

The principal temple at Siwa was built in the reign of the pharaoh Amasis (570–526) for the god Amun, whose main centre of cult was at Thebes. At Thebes the oracle of Amun functioned in the traditional way of Egyptian oracles. At major festivals the image of the god would be carried in procession in his sacred boat, on the shoulders of eight priests. Those who wished to consult the god could ask their question as the god approached. If the god ‘nodded’ to them, that is if the cult image swayed towards them as it was being carried along, this would be taken as a positive answer, but if it swayed away from the enquirer it would indicate a negative response. Another method of questioning would be to place two alternative written statements along the path the god was travelling, and whichever of the two the god swayed towards would be taken to represent his decision. At Siwa the oracle operated in the same way. When Alexander visited the sanctuary the processional way led from the principal temple to a second smaller temple, built by Nectanebo II, and it was along this route that the cult image would have been carried. Since the oracle was in existence before the time of Nectanebo, his temple must have been constructed to increase the monumentality of the existing processional route.

From the time of the creation of the temple under Amasis, Siwa was visited by sacred ambassadors (theoroi) from the Greek city of Cyrene (near modern Benghazi), and Amun received cult in Cyrene under the name of Ammon or Zeus Ammon. He was depicted as a man with ram’s horns, reflecting the Egyptian practice of representing Amun with a ram’s head. Herodotus reports a consultation of the oracle by the Lydian king Croesus, which, if the report is accurate, would have taken place early in its history. Ammon was recognized in the Aegean in the 5th century, and in the early 4th century inscriptions indicate that the Athenians sent theoroi to the temple. But while the temple had some prestige in the Greek world, it was very much on the edge of Egyptian territory, and had far less prestige than Amun’s much older temples in upper Egypt. It is unlikely therefore that Alexander visited it to impress the Egyptians, and the ancient writers do not describe the visit in those terms. It would make more sense to link Alexander’s visit with his interest in establishing his authority over the Greek cities of Cyrenaica, which had come under Persian control in the time of Darius I, but had been left free from external control after the revolt of Egypt in 404.

Callisthenes claims that Alexander wanted to visit the oracle in emulation of his ancestors Perseus and Heracles, although there is no suggestion in earlier writers that these heroes did go to Siwa. Herodotus, who visited the oracle himself, and who tells stories ofHeracles’ adventures in Egypt, tells how the hero went to visit the temple of his father Zeus at Thebes, and how Zeus, in order to prevent Heracles from seeing him as he was, wore a ram’s head as disguise. But he says nothing about Heracles going to Siwa. Arrian, whose whole account appears based on Callisthenes (possibly by way of Ptolemy’s history), gives the same explanation, but adds that Alexander wanted to find out about his genesis, that is his birth or his origins. Neither Callisthenes nor Arrian says what it was that Alexander asked the god. Of the other narratives only Justin offers an explanation of why he wanted to consult the oracle, elaborating the story that he wanted to know about his birth, but all four other authors do give a fuller account of Alexander’s conversation with the priest—even if not a reliable one.

Ancient historians are often vague about the role of translators in encounters between foreigners. When Alexander visited Siwa it is unclear in what languages the various parties spoke. Plutarch, who several times in his Life of Alexander identifies linguistic jokes and puns, presents the Egyptian officials as speaking Greek, but doing so poorly: he suggests that the priest of Amun may accidentally have addressed Alexander as Pai Dios (Son of Zeus), because he was trying to say paidion (child). It would be, for Plutarch, a clever accidental omen, but none of the other writers describes the events in this way. They give the impression that all communication was direct, and could be interpreted in straightforward Greek terms. It is unlikely that Alexander understood Egyptian. It is possible that the priest of Amun understood Greek, since there was an established pattern of Greeks visiting the oracle. However, it is certain that Alexander will have been accompanied by interpreters, so that he will have known precisely what was being said. It is also likely that he will have been recognized as Pharaoh, or at least as the man soon to be crowned as Pharaoh, and therefore addressed with the formality that his office required.

This is significant because the ancient writers claim that when he first arrived at Siwa the priest of Amun addressed Alexander as son of the god (Diodorus), or specifically of Zeus (Callisthenes and Plutarch), Jupiter (Curtius), or Hammon (Justin). According to Diodorus, Curtius, and Justin, Alexander responded to this by saying that he would from this point on call himself by this title—suggesting that this was the beginning of a process that would end up by alienating Alexander from his men, because he was denying that Philip was his father. As we will see, however, Alexander’s titles in Egypt, following Egyptian tradition, included the name ‘Son of Re’; for him to be addressed as such by an Egyptian (or Libyan) priest will have been protocol, not revelation.

The more elaborate descriptions of Alexander’s visit are generally thought to derive from the work of Cleitarchus, who was not an eyewitness to the visit, but, writing in Egypt, did understand how Egyptian oracles functioned: we are given slightly confused, but essentially authentic, descriptions of the statue being carried in its boat on the shoulders of the priests. But stories about the consultation of oracles in ancient historical narratives tend to conform to certain patterns, and the readers of the Alexander historians will have expected a spoken exchange between enquirer and priest, as was the pattern at the most famous Greek oracle, Delphi (although Delphi was notorious for the obscurity of its responses). The consultation of an oracle that responded solely by the movements of a statue would have been less easy to dramatize. As a result we are given a story that is not compatible with what we know about how Egyptian oracles functioned. Some scholars, including the excavators at Siwa, have attempted to reconcile the accounts by postulating a separate ‘Royal Oracle’ that was closer to the Greek model, but this is not compelling, and it makes more sense to allow the historians some dramatic licence in their retelling. These writers claim that Alexander asked two questions: whether his father’s murderers had been punished and whether he would rule the world. The first of these seems designed in these accounts to reinforce the notion that Alexander had accepted divine paternity, as the oracle is said to have responded that his father could not be harmed by mortals (but that Philip’s killers had been avenged). The second question received a positive response, and we will consider the implications of this later.

Stories about the consultation of oracles are common in Greek literature. The oracle of Delphi plays a major role in Herodotus’ History, the first work of history to be written and one of the most influential. Oracular consultations feature prominently in many of Plutarch’s Lives, and he wrote a series of essays about Greek oracles. It is therefore not surprising that the expedition to the oracle at Siwa is given a lot of attention in the narratives of the Greek and Roman Alexander historians. It demonstrated the involvement of the gods in Alexander’s achievements, and revealed his greatness through the responses that the oracle gave. These confirmations of the nature of Alexander were important for the readers of those narratives, but the Egyptians themselves had other ways of making clear Alexander’s significance and his relationship with the gods, above all by recognizing him as Pharaoh.

Pharaoh Alexander

If we read the Greek and Roman histories with an understanding of what the Egyptians would have wanted from a new ruler, we can see that Alexander was able to live up to their expectations. Memphis, at the apex of the Nile Delta, the royal centre of Lower Egypt, was the administrative centre of Egypt in this period, and that is where Alexander went first. The normal rituals associated with the accession of a new pharaoh would start with the ceremonial proclamation of his royal names, and this would be followed by the pharaoh-to-be travelling to the major temples of the kingdom on a royal barge, a journey known as ‘The Creation of Order in all Provinces’. All the kingdom’s officials would be expected to renew their oaths of office, and foreign allies to renew their alliances at this time. The process ended with the coronation itself in Memphis, which would ideally take place at the time of the Egyptian New Year festival in June. None of the surviving authors actually describes Alexander’s coronation, but they do refer to the occasions when the various rituals would have taken place. Arrian mentions two festivals at Memphis, one on Alexander’s arrival and one shortly before his departure. Curtius says that from Memphis Alexander travelled up-river, presumably by boat, and he also reports a tragic incident when a young Macedonian noble drowned after the boat he was in capsized while it was attempting to catch up with Alexander. Arrian also describes Alexander receiving embassies and distributing offices while he was at Memphis before his departure.

The reluctance of the Greek and Roman authors to mention an actual coronation is significant. The same reluctance occurs in their accounts of Alexander’s time in Babylon, where it is certain that he was enthroned as king, and at Susa, where it is highly likely. In part this may be a result of the authors’ chosen narrative structure. They all, to a greater or lesser extent, present Alexander as being gradually corrupted by contact with the ‘East’: he is depicted as becoming increasingly interested in ‘barbarian’ practices and losing control over himself. This is a theme that we will consider elsewhere, but it is a storyline that would be weakened if Alexander were seen to be adopting the practices of the peoples he conquered too early in the journey.

Egypt had many temples, and work on restoring or extending them was one of the activities expected of a pharaoh. Two of the last native Egyptian rulers, Nectanebo I (380–362) and Nectanebo II (360–343), had been energetic in their building works, and it is likely that a number of works had been started by Nectanebo II but left unfinished when the Persians regained control of Egypt after its period of independence from them (404–343). Egyptian evidence indicates that Alexander was ready to follow in the tradition of temple-restoration.

At the great temple of Amun-Re at Luxor, near the ancient royal city of Upper Egypt, Thebes, Alexander is depicted on the walls of the ‘chapel of the barque’, which he is credited with restoring. In a sequence of reliefs in the traditional Egyptian style, Alexander is depicted dressed as pharaoh, facing the god Amun-Re. The accompanying texts identify him as ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Setepenre Meryamun (Beloved of Amun, Chosen of Re), son of Re, possessor of the crowns, Alexander’ (Figure 5). This is the standard form of address for a pharaoh, and the inscribed texts note that he has carried out the work for his father Amun-Re. The ‘chapel of the barque’ would have contained the cult image of the god, standing in a ceremonial boat. At major festivals the image would have been carried by the temple priests in procession in the boat. In the other great temple of Amun, nearby at Karnak, an inscription announces that Alexander had renovated the chapel of Tuthmosis III (Pharaoh 1475–1429) and once again Alexander is given his full pharaonic titles. Further downriver, at Hermopolis, inscriptions record further restoration work by Alexander. The picture we get from Egyptian monuments is of Alexander following in the footsteps of his predecessors, a picture significantly different, as we have seen, from that presented by the Greek and Roman accounts of his time in Egypt.


5. Alexander the Great (on the right) depicted as pharaoh in the temple of Amenhotep III at Luxor

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!