How Alexander the Great Became Pharaoh of Egypt | History Hit

How Alexander the Great Became Pharaoh of Egypt

Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot (1767) by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (right) / Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the Faun, Pompeii (left)
Image Credit: Jean-Simon Berthélemy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right) / Berthold Werner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left)

Alexander the Great ventured to Egypt in 332 BC, after he had defeated the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus and he had overwhelmed powerful cities – Tyre and Gaza – on the eastern Mediterranean shoreline. At that time, a prominent Persian satrap (governor) called Mazaces controlled Egypt. The Persians had been ruling Egypt since conquering the kingdom a decade earlier, in 343 BC. 

Nevertheless, despite being controlled by a Persian noble, Alexander did not face any resistance when he reached Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt from the east. Instead, according to Curtius, a huge crowd of Egyptians greeted Alexander and his army as they reached Pelusium – seeing the Macedonian king as their liberator from Persian overlordship. Opting not to resist the king and his battle-hardened army, Mazaces similarly welcomed Alexander. Egypt passed over into Macedonian hands without a fight.

Before long, Alexander the Great had founded a city there in his name – Alexandria – and had been proclaimed pharaoh by the people of Egypt.

Here’s the story of Alexander the Great’s invasion of ancient Egypt.

Alexander and Apis

Having reached Pelusium, Alexander and his army headed upriver towards Memphis, the satrapal seat of the Persian province of Egypt and a traditional capital for many native rulers who had ruled this ancient land in earlier centuries. Alexander was sure to celebrate his arrival at this historic city. He held markedly Hellenic athletic and musical contests, with the most celebrated practitioners from Greece venturing to Memphis for the events. This, however, was not all.

The Spinx of Memphis, between 1950 and 1977

Alongside the contests, Alexander also sacrificed to various Greek gods. But only sacrificed to one traditional Egyptian deity: Apis, the great bull deity. The cult of the Apis bull was especially strong at Memphis; its great cult centre was situated very close by, at the monumental Serapeum at Saqqara. Our sources don’t mention it, but Alexander’s peculiar interest in this particular Egyptian deity may have led him to pay a visit to this sacred sanctuary.

It does, however, beg the question: why? Why, of all the Egyptian gods, did Alexander decide to sacrifice to Apis? For the answer, you need to look at the actions of the preceding Persians in Egypt.

Undermining his predecessors

The Achaemenid Persian Empire invaded Egypt a couple of times in its history. In the late 6th century BC, for instance, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt. Almost 200 years later, King Artaxerxes III also successfully overwhelmed the ruling pharaoh and claimed Egypt for the Persian Empire once more. On both occasions, however, the Persian kings had shown complete contempt for the Apis Bull deity once they reached Memphis. In fact, both kings went so far as to have the sacred bull (the incarnation of Apis) slain. It was a gross sign of Persian contempt for Egyptian religion. And Alexander had read his history.

By sacrificing to the Apis Bull, Alexander was wanting to portray himself as the opposite of his Persian predecessors. It was a very cunning piece of ‘ancient PR’. Here was Alexander, in an act of deference to the Egyptian religion that completely contrasted him with previous Persian contempt towards it. Here was Alexander, the king who had liberated the Egyptians from Persian rule. A figure who was content to respect and honour local gods, albeit separately from Hellenic deities.

Pharaoh Alexander

During his stay in Egypt, Alexander was proclaimed the new pharaoh. He received historic titles associated with the position, such as ‘Son of Ra & Beloved of Amun’. Whether Alexander also received an elaborate coronation ceremony at Memphis, however, is debated. An elaborate crowning event feels unlikely; neither Arrian nor Curtius mention any such ceremony and the main source that does – the Alexander Romance – is a much later source, filled with many fantastical stories. 

Pharaoh statuette with the Apis bull

Image Credit: Jl FilpoC, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Elaborate crowning ceremony or not, Alexander was regardless honoured as pharaoh across Egypt. One striking depiction of Alexander in Egyptian guise survives to this day, inside Luxor Temple. There, in a temple constructed more than a millennia before Alexander’s time, Alexander is depicted alongside Amun as a traditional Egyptian pharaoh. It’s a testament to the great power and prestige of ancient Egyptian culture to the likes of Alexander, his contemporaries and ultimately his Ptolemaic successors.

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Founding Alexandria

Alexander did not stay in Memphis long. He soon left the city and headed north up the River Nile. At a place called Rhacotis, on the Canopic branch of the River Nile and next to the Mediterranean, Alexander founded a new city. That city would go on to be a great jewel of the ancient Mediterranean, a city that has endured to this day: Alexandria

From there Alexander headed west, along the coast to a settlement called Paraetonium, before he and his army headed inland across the desert to the Sanctuary of Ammon at Siwa in Libya. In the eyes of Alexander, the Libyan Ammon was the local manifestation of Zeus, and Alexander was therefore keen to visit the deity’s famous desert sanctuary. Having reached Siwa, Alexander was greeted as the son of Ammon and the king consulted the oracle alone in the central sanctuary. According to Arrian, Alexander was satisfied with the responses he received. 

His last living trip to Egypt

From Siwa, Alexander returned to Egypt and Memphis. The route he took back is debated. Ptolemy has Alexander take a direct route, across the desert, from Siwa to Memphis. More likely, Alexander returned via the route he had come by – via Paraetonium and Alexandria. Some believe that it was on Alexander’s return journey that he founded Alexandria. 

The death of Alexender in Shahnameh, painted in Tabriz around 1330 AD

Image Credit: Michel Bakni, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By the time Alexander returned to Memphis, it was spring 331 BC. He did not linger there long. At Memphis, Alexander gathered his troops and prepared to continue his campaign against Darius. In c. April 331 BC, Alexander and his army departed Memphis. The king would never visit the city, or Egypt more generally, again in his lifetime. But he would following his death. Alexander’s body would ultimately end up in Memphis in 320 BC, following one of the most bizarre heists in history. 

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Tristan Hughes

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