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Alexander the Great

Oracle in the Desert


Following Alexander's selection of a site for his Egyptian city (to be named Alexandria), he set out west along the coastal road to Paraetonium (Mersa Matruh) in late January 331 bce. 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 towards 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 (Libyan Ammon) described in Herodotus' Histories (11.31-32) 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 recognisable 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 which 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.

The Temple of the Oracle, Siwa
The Temple of the Oracle

Anxious to visit the Oracle as soon as possible, Alexander 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, "Oh, 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 honours, 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 the scented darkness of the inner sanctuary to put his questions personally to the god himself.

When he finally emerged into the daylight to be met by his friends asking 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 is 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'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 centre 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, he 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 unshakeable faith in oracles, (Delphi, Gordium) would also act on their advice, whether it suited his purpose or not.

According to Ptolemy, Alexander then returned to Memphis along the direct route via the Qattara Depression, where on arrival he made sacrifices to Zeus-Amun, held a great parade of troops and received 500 Greek mercenaries and 400 Thessalian cavalry sent by Antipater.

He then made arrangements for the governing of Egypt in his absence. Arrian says that Alexander had been deeply impressed by Egypt" and the general strength of the country, but the fact that 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". He therefore appointed a combination of Egyptians, Macedonians and Persians to rule Egypt along traditional lines.

He then left Egypt in the spring of 331 bce a changed man, and although he would never return alive to see the city he had founded, it would eventually be his final resting place.

The name of Alexander written in hieroglyphs


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