Alexander the Great had such astonishing success that he became a near-mythical figure in his own lifetime, while stories about his exploits went on to form a staple of regional literature and fable from Europe to the borders of China. By the age of just 33 he had conquered most of the known world and created an empire that would shape the cultures of the Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East for centuries to come. What motivated this prodigy? Where did he acquire the unshakeable self-belief that would propel him beyond the borders of the known and into the realm of legend? Perhaps the key moment in Alexander’s career, the crucial encounter that was to guide his destiny, was his visit to the Oracle of Ammon at the Siwa Oasis, deep in the North African desert. Although the story of this visit has become a legend, it remains shrouded in mystery.
In 332 BCE Alexander ‘invaded’ Egypt. In practice he had already defeated the forces of Darius III, king of Persia, in the Near East, and Darius had fled back to Persia. Egypt, which had never been a willing subject of the Persian king, was left essentially unguarded and welcomed the arrival of Alexander as a redeemer and liberator. He was to spend several months in the country, and given his otherwise relentless programme of conquest this period has often been seen as a sort of holiday, or at best an eccentric sideshow to his main pursuit.
Egypt was logistically important for Alexander, securing him a strong coastal base and strengthening his communications with Greece. It was key to his strategy of wresting control of the Mediterranean trade routes from the Phoenicians. But the country also held a deeper appeal for Alexander, raised on tales of the old gods by his mother, Olympia, and educated by his tutor, Aristotle, to believe that Egypt was the cradle of civilisation and the birthplace of philosophy. As he progressed down the Nile towards the ancient capital at Memphis, Egypt’s stunning temples, awesome pyramids and ancient religion exerted still greater fascination for him.
On 14 November 332 BCE, Alexander was crowned pharaoh and acclaimed as a living god. This was at odds with Greek tradition, which frowned on deification of the living, but might have chimed with Alexander’s growing conviction that he was marked by the gods or in some way chosen for greatness. Did he have a divine mission? Was he, even, divine himself? His line traced their ancestry back to Hercules, a demi-god and the son of Zeus. Perhaps Alexander already believed the connection might be more direct. The Egyptians had proclaimed him to be a son of the gods and the greatest of the Egyptian gods, Amun- Ra, was considered to be simply another name for Zeus. Over the next two months Alexander spent a great deal of money refurbishing Egyptian temples and doing honour to their divine patrons. He also studied Egyptian customs and tradition.
At the start of 331BCE Alexander left Memphis and travelled back north to the coast, where he founded Alexandria, strategically placing it to become a great trading centre. He then travelled east along the coast of what the ancients called Libya, receiving tributes, before turning south and, accompanied only by a small escort and some guides, striking deep into the hostile desert. His target was the Oasis of Siwa, home of the oracle of the god Ammon (the Libyan form of Amun-Ra). The journey was difficult and dangerous. Two centuries earlier the Persian king Cambyses had sent an army to conquer Siwa, but it vanished into the desert and was never heard of again. No pharaoh had ever been. Alexander’s companions tried to persuade him not to risk the journey, but he would not listen. He was a great fan of oracles and had absolute faith in their utterances. After his visit to Siwa, for instance, he would continue to consult the oracle for the rest of his life, sending questions back over vast distances from his camps in the heart of Asia.
As they struggled through the desert Alexander’s party were assailed by near disaster on more than one occasion. First they ran out of water, but were saved by a sudden rainstorm. Then they became lost in a massive sandstorm, but were apparently led out of trouble by a pair of ravens. Was Alexander’s divinity asserting itself?
Finally, exhausted and bedraggled, the party reached the Oasis at Siwa. Alexander did not wait to rest or recuperate, but immediately made his way to the temple of Ammon, the Ammoneion, home of the oracle. Here the high priest greeted him with the Greek words ‘O, pai dios’ – ‘Oh, son of god’ – exactly what the young conqueror wished to hear, although the Graeco-Roman historian Plutarch later suggested that the priest had actually mispronounced the phrase ‘O, paidion’ – ‘Oh, my son’.
Alexander was then accorded the rare honour of being invited into the adyton, the inner sanctum or holy-of-holies, to question the oracle. Exactly what was asked, and how it was answered, will never be known. On re-emerging into the temple forecourt Alexander would only tell his companions that he had received the answer he sought, and that he would only tell the ‘secret prophecies’ to his mother, and only face to face on his return to Macedon. However, it is generally assumed that Alexander asked about his paternity – specifically, whether or not he was of divine paternity. According to various ancient historians, Alexander first asked whether any of the assassins who had murdered his father, Philip, were still alive. Supposedly he was told to rephrase his question, because, in fact, his father was not mortal. He then asked a more direct question, and was told that yes, he was the son of Ammon (which, to Alexander, would have meant Zeus).
Let us assume that this is what really happened. Possibly Alexander was simply being told what he expected to hear by canny priests who wished to ensure the good will of a powerful patron (if so, it worked; Alexander made magnificent offerings to the oracle). Possibly it was a genuine revelation to him to learn that he was the son of a god, a semi-divine being fit for some awesome destiny.
Whatever he heard within the shady, incense-heavy inner sanctum of the ancient temple hidden deep within the desert, it had a profound effect on Alexander. Over the next eight years he was to drive his army across the empire of Persia and deep into uncharted territory, conquering nations to the borders of China and into India, crossing huge mountain ranges and ‘impassable’ deserts, overcoming all odds to become the richest man in the world and the greatest conqueror in history.
Only the mutiny of his army in the far eastern lands prevented him from going ever further. It is hard not to see these as the actions of one who believes he is something more than a man. Certainly in coins that were later minted bearing his likeness, he wears the horns of Zeus-Ammon, the mark of the god, while in his own lifetime he proclaimed his own divinity and ordered that he be worshipped as a god.
The conquests of Alexander created a vast Hellenic empire, which, although it broke up into smaller kingdoms shortly after his death, profoundly influenced the history and culture of the Near and Middle East for centuries to come. Was all this driven by the secret revelation vouchsafed in that mysterious temple? Alexander’s attraction to the Ammoneion transcended death, for he asked to be buried there. His body was brought back to Egypt, but his tomb has never been found. Most scholars expect to find it in Alexandria, but some believe that they have located it already, near Siwa. The desert sands hide many mysteries.