The Son of Ra: Alexander at Memphis

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Throughout history, the vast majority of monarchs have justified their position as being ordained by heaven, admitting their own mortality. However, a few have gone a step further: to declare themselves as heaven manifest. One such example was Alexander the Great, crowned first in 336 BC in Aegae as the mortal king of Macedon following his father’s assassination, and later crowned again in 332 BC in Memphis as the pharaoh of Egypt, the son of Ra, the beloved of Amun – a living god. 

Alexander’s first coronation was wracked with grief. In the summer of 336 BC, his father, Philip II of Macedon, the man who had united Greece for the first time, was publicly assassinated by the captain of his bodyguards, Pausanias of Orestis, while attending the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra. The 20 year-old Alexander, witnessing the brutal events first-hand, was proclaimed king by the Macedonian nobility and military on the spot. The immediacy with which the newly crowned king began to eliminate his potential rivals draws some suspicion to his involvement in the conspiracy of his father’s murder: Alexander’s cousin, Amyntas IV, was swiftly executed, in addition to two other Macedonian princes by charges of plotting Philip’s death.

After consolidating his rule over Greece, putting down revolts in Amphipolis, Thrace, Illyria and razing Thebes, Alexander marched against the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 334 BC with a combined force of 54,000 men. At the river Granicus, which guarded the mouth of Asia Minor, Alexander crushed the Persian forces, winning him his first major battle of many. The following year, having conquered most of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and attempting to capture all of the coastal settlements along the Levant, Alexander defeated the Persians once more at Issus, despite this time being personally led by Darius III himself.

Following the collapse of the Achaemenid army, and with Darius having fled the battle, Alexander now held hegemony over Asia and a significant portion of the crumbling Persian empire. Instead of marching east in pursuit of Darius and his remaining troops, Alexander went south, first consolidating his rule over Syria, the Levant and Egypt. To do so, he had to capture the resilient and fortified cities along the Mediterranean coast, which had built up considerable manpower and held formidable forces owing to their high valuation to the Persian satrapies as prosperous centres of trade.

In 332 BC, Alexander moved to besiege Tyre, the ancient stronghold and largest city-state of Phoenicia, whose citadel lay on an island a kilometre from the coast. The fortifications of the city meant that Alexander could not attack the island from the sea, but he was eventually able to take Tyre by building a causeway from the mainland, defended during its construction by large siege towers that were innovations upon his father’s designs. When the city finally fell to the incessant Macedonian barrage, it was destroyed, most of the men were killed, and the women and children were sold into slavery.

The news of Tyre’s fall led most of the towns en route to Egypt to surrender, fearing a similar fate. Gaza alone stood strong; however it too fell after an arduous siege, its men put to the sword and the women and children also sold into servitude. Following the fall of Gaza, the Persian satrap, Mazaces, surrendered his office without struggle, recognising both the strength and popularity of Alexander. Facing no resistance when he reached Pelusium, he was greeted at Memphis, the Egyptian capital, by a huge crowd celebrating his arrival as a liberator rather than a conqueror.

The reason for such popularity was Alexander’s astute awareness of Egyptian traditions and his reverence for their deities. Egypt had been conquered by the Achaemenid Persian Empire on a few occasions in history, first by Cambyses II in 525 BC and 200 years later by Artaxerxes III, who overthrew the Egyptian pharaoh to reinstall Persian control over the nation. On both occasions, the Persians behaved as oppressive conquerors. At Memphis, both Achaemenid kings showed contempt for Egyptian religion and disregard for the Apis Bull deity, whose cult was particularly strong there. To demonstrate Persian superiority, Cambyses and Artaxerxes had the sacred bull slain, an act viewed by the locals as essentially murdering their most sacred god incarnate. The latter only occurred a decade before Alexander’s arrival in Egypt, meaning that the traumatic memory was still fresh.

In utter contrast to his conquering predecessors, Alexander made the effort to sacrifice to Apis, painting himself as a deferent ruler who respected Egyptian customs and liberated the Egyptian people from the Persians who had previously scorned them. This act likely played a large part in their enthusiastic reception of the Macedonian king, which eventually culminated in his second coronation at Memphis in the temple of Ptah. Alexander was declared Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt, a living god. As Peter Green notes, “they placed the double crook and flail in his hands. He became simultaneously god and king, incarnation and son of Ra and Osiris; he was Horus the Golden One, the mighty prince, beloved of Amun.”

Though there is significant evidence that Alexander was hereafter honoured as pharaoh in Egypt, such as the famous depiction of him in royal Egyptian guise inside the Luxor Temple, there is notably less evidence that he had actually received an elaborate coronation ceremony. Neither Arrian of Nicomedia nor Quintus Curtius, our primary sources on Alexander’s life (though written centuries after his death), make any mention of a grandiose ceremony in Memphis. The only primary reference comes from Callisthenes’ Alexander Romance, who stated that the “Egyptians enthroned him as king of Egypt on the throne of Hephaistos.” However, the known unreliability and bias of this source, given that Callisthenes was a Macedonian who travelled with Alexander in his Asiatic conquest, somewhat invalidates this claim.

Regardless, the physical evidence points to a deification of Alexander in Egypt, something that no doubt pleased him greatly and fed into his Homeric fantasies. Tracing his ancestral roots to Heracles and Perseus, Alexander long desired to consolidate his kingly status by finding divinity in his lineage. His love of Homer was evident: after landing in Asia, he immediately travelled to Ilium (where Troy was believed to have been situated) to pay homage to the Homeric heroes, and after the fall of Gaza, he had tied the Persian governor Batis to his chariot and dragged him around the city – a clear emulation of Achilles’ desecration of the corpse of Hector in the Iliad. Proclaiming Zeus to be his father would grant Alexander direct relation to Heracles and Perseus, endowing him with the divine status that he so craved.

Therefore, the coronation of Alexander at Memphis was paramount to his identity and public perception. Ra was often associated with Zeus, since the Greek pantheon was considered interchangeable with the Egyptian pantheon due to a myth that spoke of the Greek gods fleeing to Egypt from Typhon’s attack on Mount Olympus, disguising themselves with animal heads (which would explain the Egyptian iconography). Thus, being declared the son of Ra effectively equated to Alexander being proclaimed the son of Zeus. So important was this proclamation that Alexander set out to the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan desert, intending to visit the famed oracle of Amun, held in equal repute to Delphi in the ancient world.

The journey through the desert was purportedly worth the onerous conditions. Upon arriving at Siwa, Alexander was greeted as the son of Amun, affirming his divine aspirations, and was alone welcomed into the inner sanctuary of the sacred temple. Arrian records that Alexander was satisfied with the responses he received from the oracle; according to legend, when asked if the conspirators of his father’s murderers had all been dealt with, the oracle rebuked Alexander for blasphemy, declaring that his father was Ra and thus immortal. Thereafter, he referred to Zeus-Amun as his true father.

The impact of this can be seen in Alexander’s shift in behaviour in later years. Rejecting the Hellenocentric doctrines of his tutor Aristotle, who taught that non-Greek barbarian cultures were inferior and to be scorned, Alexander gradually adopted increasingly more Asian customs, often to the objection of his Macedonian companions. When campaigning in central Asia, he attempted to make his Macedonian countrymen perform proskynesis – prostrating themselves before the king, a Persian practice – and was forced to back down owing to the resultant outrage, as the Greeks considered this act sacrilegious. At Opis, the army mutinied, partly out of anger for their prolonged military service but partly in protest to Alexander’s increasing adoption of Persian customs.

The coronation at Memphis played no small role in all of this: it allowed Alexander the Great to see the benefits of cultural appreciation, bolstering his ego as the proclaimed son of Ra but also teaching him a valuable lesson in empire-building. In arranging a mass wedding between his Macedonian officers and Persian noblewomen at Susa in 324 BC, he attempted both to merge the two cultures in his diverse empire and to consolidate his own legitimacy as the successor of the Achaemenid dynasty with relations to previous kings. This fragile assimilation was not to last. Just a year later, the youthful monarch died of unknown causes in Babylon – a great mortal king to his Macedonian subjects, a lauded and feared conqueror to the defeated Persians, and a god transcending mortality to the Egyptians. Though we know him today as a fearsome and near legendary conqueror, perhaps even emulating the greatness of Heracles and Perseus as a real Homeric hero, Alexander the Great had an even grander reputation in his life that only lives on now as depictions on the walls of the Luxor Temple.

Arrian of Nicomedia, The Anabasis of Alexander

Callisthenes, Alexander Romance

Green, P., 1970, Alexander of Macedon, Harmondsworth

Hogarth, D. G., 1915. “Alexander in Egypt and Some Consequences”, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 2, no. 2: 53-60

Burstein, S., 1991, “Pharaoh Alexander: A Scholarly Myth”, Ancient Society vol 22: 139-145