The Allard Pierson Museum houses the Archeological Museum of the University of Amsterdam. It is located in the very heart of the city, within walking distance from the Hermitage Museum which is presently showing a unique collection from St Petersburg about The Immortal Alexander the Great. Parallel with this venue, Allard Pierson has organized an exhibition called Alexander’s Legacy – The Greeks in Egypt meant to illustrate Alexander’s influence in Egypt and in Alexandria in particular.
At the entrance you are being welcomed by Alexander in person, in the shape of a typical Roman bust, a copy from The Museo Capitolino in Rome dated 1st century BC.
The first room immediately draws your attention towards a big colored map covering the territories conquered by Alexander, with underneath a row of people who deeply influenced his life: Homer (Alexander slept with a copy of The Illiad under his pillow); Aristotle (the philosopher who taught the young prince so many useful skills); Philip II (Alexander’s father); Demosthenes (orator and politician who instigated the Athenians against Philip and against Alexander); and finally a head of a Persian soldier. A worthy welcoming committee I dare say, even if the busts are merely copies. Another remarkable statue is a copy of the so-called Azara Hermes of Alexander from the Louvre in Paris that was made by nobody less than the great Lysippos in 330 BC. Wonderful!
The museum’s itinerary then leads through a narrow corridor where pictures illustrate the places and landscapes which Alexander has crossed subtitled with the distance separating one photograph from the next. It turns out to be a very impressive way to illustrate his 22,000 miles long voyage.
In the next room, under the title From Prince to King, several small terracotta, bronze and silver statues aim to give an image of the things that surrounded Alexander and of the world, he must have known before he set out campaigning in Asia. These are not major works of art or delicate pieces, but they are very typical for the time period and very carefully chosen from the museum’s own collection.
The following room is entirely arranged to reflect the period From King to God, featuring Alexander’s arrival in Egypt where he was received as the son of Ammon-Zeus. Striking examples are the coins showing Alexander with the rams’ horns (the so-called Lysimachos coin) and the one representing Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander’s general who ruled over Egypt after his death. The collection holds quite a number of terracotta statuettes, a clear testimony of how Greek and Egyptian elements were being combined and melted together. Among the armory, you’ll notice a striking model of a limestone mold for a leather shield cover as made for Ptolemy’s soldiers containing typical Macedonian features: a central Medusa head surrounded by concentric circles holding the Macedonian star. The idea is that the leather was hammered into the depth of this carved pattern before it was stretched out over the actual shield (330 BC, Egypt). There are also several molds to make iron and bronze helmets of different kinds and styles. I honestly had no idea how these helmets or shields were ever made until now that is.
One of the showcases proudly exhibits the nearly two-inch high earthen head that is featured on the exhibition’s billboard, a striking resemblance to Alexander the Great, don’t you think so? In fact, this is supposed to represent Ptolemy in the shape of Dionysos, a straightforward link to Alexander’s godly forefather from the 3rd century BC.
This intimate exhibition ends with different aspects of Alexander’s heritage that are collected under the name From God to Legend. Alexander may have founded Alexandria but it was Ptolemy who actually built the city. He and his descendants put in much effort to integrate the Macedonians and Greeks with the local population but the process was extremely slow. It even was hard to melt the Egyptian gods together with known Greek counterparts, although some progress was made with deities like Serapis and Harpokrates as shown through several statuettes of both gods unearthed in Egypt. Personally, I think this is a decadent time where men-gods are generally pictured as rough compact figures, miles away from the elegant Hellenistic style.
Like always, there are some exceptions, of course. One such a remarkable piece is, for instance, this double seal ring from the 1st century BC where the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek Aphrodite are placed side by side. This is an indication that the owner could use either one to append his signature depending on the origin of his business partner. Quite an unusual idea!
Just as at the Hermitage Museum, this exhibition concludes with a reference to the stories that circulated about Alexander rather than historical facts. As early as the 3rd century BC the first version of the Alexander Romance was born, which over the centuries and especially in the Middle-Ages grew to be more fiction than reality. The Koran, but also Persian and Indian literature mention Alexander, either as a hero or as a merciless conqueror, depending on the authors’ fancy or prejudice.
It is a fact that Alexander the Great keeps triggering everybody’s imagination but whatever we may think, he is and will always remain the Immortal Alexander.
For those visitors who want to learn more about Greek and Roman antiquity, they can take the opportunity to visit the Allard Pierson’s own collection upstairs. They will find a very representative number of objects and statues, clearly set in their time-frame with decent explanation and careful presentation - definitely worth your time.