Egypte : Alexander and his Macedonian heirs

Alexander and his Macedonian heirs

He stayed only a few years in Egypt yet Alexander left a lasting legacy.

Jill Kamil looks into recent research

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Macedonian conquest of Egypt, its consequences and its reflection in literature and art were the subject of an international workshop at the University of Warsaw towards the end of 2011. Its aim was to explore the means by which Alexander's successors, the Ptolemies -- who successfully ruled Egypt for three centuries and made it once more a brilliant kingdom -- systematically elevated and propagated Alexander's memory by identifying themselves with the deceased hero and reusing his visual and literary heritage.


Watercolour by J.-C. Golvin showing Alexandria from Lake Maryut; Pink granite head of Alexander the Great (Graeco-Roman Museum, Alexandria)

The colourful personality of Alexander the Great has been memorialised in fiction, films and biographies. His death and multiple burials have long held fascination. Indeed, the search for his tomb continues. Seeking clues from material remains, today's scholars continue to unravel the compelling mysteries that surround his brief stay in Egypt.

Alexander, son of Philip II of Macedonia, had already made himself master of the disunited Greek world when, after defeating the Persians in the Levant, he marched on Egypt. The country was then under Persian rule and the Egyptians in a state of revolt against their overlords. It was not without enthusiasm, therefore, that they joined Alexander's march towards their capital Memphis where the Persian garrison was quickly discharged.

The local population forthwith called down blessing on Alexander as their liberator, and their welcome was genuine. Egyptians and Greeks not only shared a common enemy but a common culture. From the sixth century BC Greek traders and sailors had established colonies in Egypt, in the Delta, the Fayoum, Middle and Upper Egypt. Many Greeks had married Egyptians and had chosen either Egyptian or Greek names for their children. They shared the same gods (calling them either by their Egyptian or Greek names), and honoured the living pharaoh who was regarded as a god. What the Egyptians may have failed to realise, however, was that Alexander planned to join Egypt to his already widely extended empire, and that his arrival was to prove the beginning of the end of its identity as an independent nation.

Francisco Bosch-Punche's paper at the scholarly Warsaw gathering outlined a carefully planned operation in three different chronological stages. The first was Alexander's time in Egypt in the autumn and spring of 332/331, when he travelled around the country and he laid down the basic plans for its government. The second was when he held the throne until his death in Babylon in June 323. And the third was the period that continued beyond his death "when his body and his memory were 'instrumentalised' in order to legitimise the new established order".

Bosch-Punche pointed out that Egyptian documentation represented the main source of information, and that Alexander was acknowledged without difficulty as the legitimate ruler of the country by representing himself as a traditional leader in various ways. One was by adopting Alexander's many royal titles and their variants. Bosch-Punche described the symbolic meaning of each, and the strategies that lay behind the choice of each designation.

"Recycling Alexander" was the subject of the paper given by Heba Abdel-Gawad in which she traced the specific programme followed by the Ptolemies. It revealed how they identified themselves with their founder. She suggested that a precise plan was launched, the aim of which was to create a dynastic identity. They did this by various methods, the issuance of coin portraits wearing the elephant-skin cap and the lion-head helmet being obvious examples.

Alexander had already laid down the basic plans for his great city and seaport (so situated as to facilitate the flow of Egypt's surplus resources to the archipelago and also to intercept all trade with Africa and Asia) when he set off to capture the rest of the Persian empire and met his untimely death of a fever in Babylon. At the time, Egypt was held by General Ptolemy, who gradually took over leadership, first as satrap (provincial ruler), then as governor, and finally, in 305 BC, as king.

Gunnar Dumke outlined the immediate steps taken to legitimise Greek rule in the eyes of the indigenous population. Ptolemy I managed to get a hand on Alexander's corpse -- which had been embalmed in Babylon -- and have him buried in Memphis, the capital of Egypt for more than 1,000 years and an important religious centre and commercial hub throughout the years of Egypt's ancient history. Later, Ptolemy II moved the body to the newly completed Mediterranean city that took the great leader's name, and had him buried in a new tomb, the Sema, in Alexandria. Ptolemy explicitly associated himself with Alexander by means of his coronation as Egyptian pharaoh, and a realistic image began to appear on the coins he had minted. Thus was the charismatic figure of Alexander incorporated as the leading figure of the Ptolemaic dynastic cult. And from then onwards, Dumke pointed out, every Ptolemaic king who was traditionally crowned and carried out traditional Egyptian rituals, was buried in Alexander's mausoleum in the Mediterranean capital. He elaborated on the reasons for this twofold handling of the figure of Alexander.

The Mediterranean capital became culturally unrivalled when twin institutions were founded by Ptolemy II (285 Òê" 247): the Mouseion and Library. The greatest geographers, astronomers and scientists carried out research at the former, and the latter contained the largest collection of books in the ancient world. Ptolemy's chief librarian Callimachus, a Homeric scholar regarded as the greatest of the epic poets of antiquity, accumulated Greek literary heritage, including Aristotle's library. A reputed 490,000 original books, together wit the collection of 42,800 rolls of papyrus in the so-called 'sister' library in the Serapeum, have been lost. The former (according to Plutarch but inadvertently contradicted by Strabo) was destroyed during Caesar's presence in Alexandria; the latter probably when a wave of destruction swept the land when Theodosius launched his war against paganism towards the end of the fourth century.

A paper presented by Dan-Tudor Ionescu focused on a text that was developed over time between the third century BC to the second or third century AD. Largely surviving in illuminated mediaeval manuscripts and known as The Romance of Alexander, this group of adventures is an appealing tale, an admixture of Hellenistic and native Egyptian elements. In its early chapters, Pharaoh Nectanebo flees Egypt before the Persian invasion and, disguised as a priest and mathematician (i.e. astrologist), takes refuge in the Macedonian court in Pella. There, in the guise of the god Amun, he lies with Queen Olympias and sires Alexander. When, in manhood, Alexander arrives in Egypt he "discovers" a statue of Nectanebo inscribed with a prophecy announcing the old pharaoh's future return to Egypt in the guise of a younger king!

In its original form, the Romance was clearly a literary device used to promulgate and strengthen Greek domination over the Nile valley through describing Alexander as a half-blood Egyptian. The aim of Ionescu's presentation was to gauge whether the role of Nectanebo as the natural father of Alexander the Great in the Romance was merely an endorsement of the rights of the Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemies to the throne of Egypt as heirs of both Alexander and of the Egyptian pharaohs, or was a legitimating claim of the native Egyptian ³©lite (namely the indigenous Egyptian priesthood) to a sharing of power with the Hellenistic kings of Egypt.

Almost from the beginning of their rule the Macedonian conquest had an impact on the art of Egypt, particularly on royal representations. Elizabeth Brophy identified sites and discussed the contexts from which multiple forms of statuary came, with the aim of enhancing our understanding of both pharaonic and Greek traditions and, more importantly, demonstrating an understanding of their function and impact on the population. The heirs of Alexander, the Ptolemaic kings, developed the so-called Egyptian statues with Greek features, a new art form to portray an ideal Hellenistic king.

Agnieszka Fulinsha made reference to the ram horns, feathers and ivy wreaths in Alexander's Hellenistic iconography, and concluded that despite the importance of the conquest of Egypt and of the foundation of Alexandria, strictly Egyptian elements were barely present in Alexander's iconography throughout the Hellenistic age. She analysed the elements that could be interpreted as "Egyptian" within stylistically Greek portraiture, and presented how this complex iconography formed a coherent message that served the aims of the Ptolemies -- for whom Alexander was regarded as the divine founder and patron of their dynasty. Dionysiac associations may originate from and relate to the Macedonian Orphic tradition, but, as Fulinsha pointed out, they also fitted in very well with one of the most important Egyptian royal myths -- that of Osiris, whose living manifestation was the pharaoh.

The Ptolemaic kings played a subtle dual role in Egypt in order to launch their dynastic rule. It was done with insight and strategy. They conducted themselves as both Greeks and as pharaohs. As Greeks they resided in Alexandria, a predominantly Greek capital, where there was a Greek senate, gymnasium, amphitheatre, the Great Library, and the tomb of Alexander. And as "heirs" of the pharaohs they lavished revenues on some of the priesthoods for the upkeep of temples, or exempted them from taxes. There is no doubt that some of the most beautiful temples in the Nile valley date from the Ptolemaic period. Although the depiction of the Ptolemies in wall reliefs show them in pharaonic gear, that did not necessarily mean that the ceremonies were actually carried out. What they clearly reveal is the fulfilment of an ancient pharaonic tradition -- Ptolemaic kings driving out previous chaos and re-establishing order.

International and interdisciplinary scholarship is today casting new light on the post-Alexander era. The reputation of Egypt as a land of wonders was, of course, widespread on the Greek mainland long before the occupation, and the Greeks held the Egyptian culture in reverence. Traders from the Nile valley, Phoenicia and Asia had long talked of the strange gods and of the wonderful temples. And when Herodotus travelled to the Nile valley during the first Persian occupation in about 445 BC, he took back to Greece stories that made a lasting impression on the people. His tales of the will of the gods as prophesied in divine oracles and sacred mysteries (which were in fact traditional dramas) had greater appeal with the masses.

Phillipe Matthey made reference to Nectanebo II's famous sarcophagus, discovered in a mosque in Alexandria during Bonaparte's Egyptian Expedition and immediately identified by British archaeologists as Alexander's own. Later, after the decipherment of hieroglyphs, the sarcophagus was found to bear the name of Pharaoh Nectanebo, and Matthey summed up and clarified the main points concerning this important relic. First he described the Greek and Roman literary evidences related to Alexander's burial. And then, by quickly studying the accounts of modern travellers in Muslim Alexandria about a "holy" sarcophagus being secretly kept in a mosque, he discussed the circumstances under which the sarcophagus might later have been reused to hold Alexander the Great's body.

In concluding this article on Alexander, I make reference to Stefan Pfeiffer's paper at the workshop entitled "Pharaoh Alexander Òê" a scholarly myth revisited", in which he makes reference to Samuel Burstein's original study. Burstein argued that Alexander was not crowned Egyptian pharaoh at all, and even limited his participation in Egyptian religious affairs to the minimum. Pfeiffer for his part questioned how, and in what manner, Alexander tried to achieve legitimisation for his claim to power over Egypt.

To do this, he postulates, he carefully distinguished between the deeds of the historic Alexander on the one hand, and the Alexander of Greek literature and Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions on the other. He concluded firstly that Alexander tried to establish himself as a counter image of Cambyses the Persian hero, his antagonist. And second, to reinterpret the events in Siwa to show that there Alexander achieved the legitimisation for an Egyptian crowning ceremony, which resulted in there being no obstacle to his being crowned pharaoh in Memphis.

Finally, Nicholas Sekunda referred to the fact that considerable academic research had gone into Alexander's visit to the oracular shrine of Amun at Siwa in January or February 331, while other stages suffered from lack of attention. He for his part sought to unravel various stages in the process of the revelation to Alexander of his divine paternity. There is clearly more to learn.