I attended this very interesting lecture about Alexander the Great in Egypt. It was given by Prof. Olaf Kaper at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam. He had my undivided attention since he has been working on the site of Siwah for several years and he managed to give me information I wasn’t aware of before.
He started introducing Alexander the Great with his itinerary from Pella over the Hellespont, mentioning the battlefields of Granicus and Issus, and the siege of both Tyre and Gaza till he arrived in Pelusium, his first city in Egypt. From here he went to Memphis, the capital of Egypt in his days, where he received a delegation from Cyrene that brought him horses among their gifts. I remember when I was in Cyrene (now in Libya) how their horses in antiquity were praised for their stamina especially on a battlefield, so it felt like meeting up with old friends. The speaker speculated that this may have been an invitation for Alexander to visit Cyrene, a Greek colony at that time. In any case, it doesn’t seem too clear whether Alexander was heading for Cyrene or already for Siwah when he left Memphis for the northern coastline where he chose the location to build Alexandria. He must have traveled along the main stream of the Nile to Naucratis, another Greek city that lived off the commerce with the Egyptian hinterland, before turning westward.
The choice for the location of Alexandria is geographically speaking excellent with the natural outline of a harbor and an inland lake with fresh water. Strangely enough I heard in the meantime from Richard Miles on BBC that these waters were brackish, a huge mistake of Alexander. It would have been Ptolemy’s doing to build a 30 km long canal to the Nile and adequate underground cisterns to provide the necessary water for the city! I can’t believe Alexander would make such a mistake, for whoever in his right mind would found a city in place where there is no water? Certainly not Alexander! Besides, the cisterns shown in this documentary looked Roman to me. Back to the lecture though, we are shown a few pictures with temple remains of Paraetonium, another Greek colony on the Mediterranean, from where Alexander turns south towards Siwah – leaving Cyrene for what it was.
Olaf Kaper then draws a comparison and parallel between the Temple of Zeus-Ammon in Cyrene, built in Greek style (note that this temple in Cyrene is larger than the Parthenon in Athens!), and the Temple of Ammon-Zeus in Siwah, built in Egyptian style. Yet the temple of Siwah shows several Greek characteristics, like the intermittent use of large and small stones in the walls and the half-Doric columns at the entrance, for instance. He assumes that Greek architects from Cyrene were hired to build the Siwah temple. Then follow a couple of views of the empty desert landscape, a stretch of 300 kilometers which Alexander and his close companions covered on horseback in eight days, getting lost a couple of times, as we know… Then some great pictures of the Siwah oasis itself that turns out to be more than 60 km wide! I had no idea of the size!
We know that Alexander entered the Temple of Siwah alone, but now I’m told that the temple was used only to ask the question(s) to the god whereas the answer(s) was(were) given in the temple on the opposite hill! The announcements there were a public affair, so Alexander’s entourage must have heard the answers of the god although they may not have known the questions … There was a holy road connecting both hills of which little or nothing remains today. The temple remains on top of the hill across the temple of Siwah itself are almost entirely gone, except for a few low walls. They were rather complete till the end of the 19th century when the local governor decided to blow them up in order to use the stones for his own house. Yet, don’t know where that was or is …
And there is more interesting news, at least to me. When Alexander left Siwah, he traveled East towards the Nile along a known road which he was told was shorter. That road runs from one oasis to the next, of course, and in the second oasis after Siwah, archeologists have recently discovered a Greek Temple dedicated to Alexander with several inscriptions and pictures related to the great man! Unbelievable and unexpected.
My knowledgeable speaker also mentions Alexander’s instructions to rebuild the “bark” area of the temples of Karnak and Thebe, in fact the sacred inner area of the temple that held the bark in which the god was carried around on heydays. He also had beautiful photographs of some walls in Karnak where hieroglyphic inscriptions referred to King Philip Arrhideus. I have no idea why he is being mentioned here and I forgot to ask Olaf Kaper … sorry.
And as a matter of conclusion, Olaf Kaper warmly recommends the book Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher, a contemporary story that takes place in the oasis of Siwah and gives an excellent idea of the location. So more reading material to be put on my wish list!